Bonfire of the Vanity Affairs 

WEB UPDATE: Graydon Carter targeted by Republican attack dogs . . . and other comedies

Thursday, Jun 17 2004

Let us set the fantasy sequence for you: Karl Rove is determined to destroy the reputation of an anti-Bush crusader who’s a high-profile Hollywood insider. The White House dispatches a Republican operative to disseminate dirt to the Los Angeles Times about the hero. Suddenly, there’s a media frenzy to "get" our guy. Alarmed, the Bush basher meets on Monday with three of the best media minds in the country, one of whom wants him to hire a crisis manager to repel Rove’s rapacious assault.

No, we’re not talking about Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 911 is creating quite the stir in W World. We’re talking about the paranoid musings surrounding the editor of Vanity Fair magazine. All that’s left, in V.F. minds, is to connect the dots between Paul O’Neill, Joseph Wilson, Richard Clarke and now Graydon Carter.

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Really, you couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried; yet it’s being slung as gospel around the offices at that oh-so-glossy magazine. And that’s not even considering Condé Nast’s just-released ethical-policy guide, the timing of which seemed a tad suspicious since it casts an unflattering light on, among other peccadilloes, the $100,000 Universal Pictures gave Carter some time after he first suggested to big-time producer Brian Grazer that the book A Beautiful Mind would make a decent motion picture.

Oh, and one thing more: Don’t ever, ever, try to ask about any of it. Or, if you’re a woman, you’ll be called a "cunt" by a powerful New York Times Washington reporter.

Since he became chum in a media feeding frenzy, Graydon rather startlingly has not strayed outwardly from being, well, Graydon. As is usual, he has been out of the magazine’s offices far more than he’s been in them: throwing parties at the Cannes film festival; tripping to London to publicize V.F. and work on his manuscript; overnighting to Chicago to host a Book Expo panel; dining in Washington, D.C., with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and its Washington correspondent, Todd Purdum; hanging in South Carolina with his new best friend John Mellencamp. Nor does he seem to have toned down his characteristic bravado. At the June 6 Book & Author Breakfast, before 600 bibliophiles in the Grand Ballroom of the McCormick Place Convention Center, Graydon shocked booksellers and fellow panel member Tom Wolfe by saying that, in a book, "What I’m looking for here is the fuck factor. I want them to stop every three or four lines and say, ‘Fuck!’"

Though Carter’s pals contend this continuing bad publicity is much ado about nothing, "Graydon knows it isn’t," says one intimate. And the only reason he’s not in total panic mode is because he believes he still has Condé Nast owner Si Newhouse’s backing despite the stink of scandal — even though, bizarrely, no Condé Nast mogul has gone on the record to try to stop Carter’s morphing from golden boy to damaged goods. "One has to understand the culture of Condé Nast," says a V.F. insider. "Si lets Graydon have this other world. In terms of what Graydon does or doesn’t do, Si doesn’t care as long as it doesn’t affect the integrity of the magazine."

Still more problematic for Carter than questions about his moneygrubbing is how long Si will finance Graydon’s too-obvious attempt to create an even higher-flying second career for himself.

As for Hollywood’s attitude toward Carter right now, it can be summed up by this bon mot from a studio head: "Of course he’s a pig. But he’s smarter than the other journalist pigs because he’s at least making money being one."

Let’s backtrack a little. Media bigwig and mogul intimate Carter is going along in fine fettle until the Los Angeles Times, led by well-sourced editor-writer Michael Cieply, begins investigating incidents from years back calling into question whether Carter was using his close ties to Hollywood to benefit financially. Not wanting to be beaten on a story in his own back yard by his multi-Pulitzer-winning rival John Carroll, New York Times editor Bill Keller orders a full-court press to match the LAT reporting. Then, on Wednesday, the LAT publishes a rambling, front-page second installment dryly portraying Carter as a striving sleazeball but failing to find a juicy smoking gun.

Meanwhile, before the stories are published, Carter and his staff ponder the meaning of it all. Why is he a target? And why now?

Conspiracy-filled e-mails start flooding the Vanity Fair offices, and suddenly dark mutterings are openly discussed. Is Carter in the crosshairs because of his yearlong editorials excoriating the Bush administration? Is the timing due to the approaching publication of his nonfiction book, What We’ve Lost, which, according to Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, is an "impassioned argument" that "addresses the fragile state of U.S. democracy with a critical review of the Bush administration?" (Publishing sources say Carter has missed several deadlines for the manuscript, even though he has six — count ’em — V.F. researchers busy helping him with his private work. V.F. spokeswoman Beth Kseniak explains, "They are paid appropriately for their work on the book.")

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