Twenty years beforeLittle Miss Sunshine, I watched former Miss America Debra Sue Maffett as she gave a modeling/flag-waving/victory-mongering seminar to Valley preteens with three names. I must have waited all my life to have the last word on a ritual like that, exactly why early Weekly assignments felt like justice on a horse.
I’d also been allowed to write features bemoaning things like vapid TV news shows (because the anchorwoman’s hair didn’t move when she blew it dry) and vapid plastic-surgery patients (the doctors confided they’d learned to keep the peace by adding one breast size to whatever the patient said she wanted), and cataloging unsung locations in L.A., where my version of meekness could assert its emotional rainbow (“Vainglory” was an 8-foot basketball hoop off Wilshire).
At this moment of cultural consensus, flunkiness has become virtue. I remember how much sense it made, on my first day at the Weekly in 1980, that I found my old junior high pal Robert Lloyd in the typesetting room — I hadn’t seen him since we’d drawn comic books together and forged pacts not to block each other in football.
One day, an angry intern told a group of us that we were only at the Weekly because we couldn’t cut it in the real world — and if I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many beautiful but vaguely unemployable people injured to the core.
Gradually, over the years, I found myself writing unpublishable self-examining articles about Christian marriage, fathers’ rights, and an incident involving a pacifist kid whose pacifist buddies had excommunicated him because he believed that abortion was violent. I now had the disease of seeing all sides. It wasn’t, frankly, until the Obama thing that both the vengeance and the mercy seemed to merge into a wish fulfilled — he offered a way to hate bullying but forgive the bullies.
After the Miss America event, I stood around talking with Gary Leonard, who’d photographed it and who saw much more beauty and goodness in the environment than I did. And then I got letters from attendees who’d been appalled by “the reporter in a battered tweed who looked like a refugee from a soup kitchen.”
I still love the writer the Weekly allowed me to be then. But, for better and worse, I could never just witchify Miss America today.