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Frankophilia

Dropping off my daughter and her friend at the Paul Frank store at Third and Crescent Heights for the in-store appearance of the world’s coolest designer, I expected to see a long line of 12-year-old girls. After all, Nola and Cleo and all of their friends have for the past few years been in a protracted war of acquisition, asking for and receiving Paul Frank this and Paul Frank that — wallets, bags, pajamas, T-shirts, flip-flops, jewelry — all, or mostly all, featuring the ubiquitous pie-face of the monkey called Julius. And then, of course, there was the reason for this particular event — the introduction of the Paul Frank Barbie.

A long line ran alongside the store, all right, but perhaps only a third of them were girls; the rest were a mix of ages, genders and races. One was a 42-year-old black man called Pabboo Redfeather. More on him later.

Frank arrived, just after 1 p.m., in the company’s Julius-emblazoned Winnebago. He stepped out wearing one of his John Deere caps, Barbie being just the latest in a series of astute collaborations between Frank and other artists and companies such as Shag, Mark Ryden, Hello Kitty, Elvis Presley, Bad Religion and Vans. Frank is a big guy with a large hooked nose meeting full, pushed-up lips — a sweet cartoon goombah of a face that might belong to, say, the aesthete son of Bronko Nagurski. In spite of this, he was accompanied by a bodyguard, and the two of them took up position at the rear of the store, where for the next two hours Frank signed posters and Barbies and other products, and gamely posed for photos with his fans.

The appeal of Frank’s designs, with their bright colors, simple, readable designs and sense of fun, is evident. And yet it doesn’t fully explain the growth from Huntington Beach guy making wallets for his friends to opening stores all over the world. I asked Nola and Cleo what the deal is. “I like the animals, and how they’re, like, alive,” said Nola. “Like they do human things.”

“You mean,” I said, “like a bear sitting on a toilet?”

She gave me a look that said, “You’re an idiot, but yeah.”

“It’s not, like, trying hard to be cute or fun,” said Cleo. “It just is.”

Lydia Chain, 19, said that the Frank clothes go with her other love, rock music — Fallout Boy, Less Than Jake, Rilo Kiley. Chain was buying a pair of brown Paul Frank ProKeds, while her father, who had driven her in from their home in Tarzana and bought her a Barbie, waited outside. She figured she has spent “maybe $2,000” in Paul Frank stores all over, including New York, which she just visited. “My goal is to go to every city with a Paul Frank store,” adding that she had bought all this stuff in New York and packed it in a box, but the airport staff must have stolen it because it never arrived. Included was a big-apple shirt with a worm coming out. “So cool,” she said sadly.

Pabboo Redfeather was here for the Barbies, which he collects. “I’m actually very well-known in the Barbie world,” he said. “I design gowns for them.” Redfeather, who runs the International Black Barbie Doll Collectors Club out of his home in Van Nuys, added that he has been collecting since he was 5 and now owns 15,000 dolls, 6,000 to 7,000 of which are Barbies. He pulled the Paul Frank doll out of his bag and explained that this is the Steffie face, one of the most popular faces in the Barbie collection. Redfeather said he’s looking forward to the next collaboration, which will feature Barbie in red Paul Frank pajamas. “I’m tempted to buy the pajamas myself.”

Lisa Barbosa is tempted to buy almost anything Paul Frank. In fact, Barbosa, 35, might have a bit of a Paul Frank problem. The new mother and her husband make a trip from their home in Reseda to the Frank store in West Hollywood every two to three months and spend $300 to $500. They also frequent the two Orange County stores, and they wanted to go to the recent opening of the Las Vegas store, but there was a wedding they had to attend. The Barbosas probably don’t need to go to another store: They already have a Paul Frank living room (bar stools, framed pictures), a Paul Frank bathroom (rugs, shower curtain, beach towels) and a Paul Frank closet (some 35 shirts between them, his shorts and all her underwear). And they just bought sheets. Today, Barbosa has brought her 6-month-old son with her, presumably to meet his Uncle Paul. The baby’s name? Julius.

“When I was pregnant, we discussed names, and we knew that if it was a boy, it would be Julius.” Baby Julius is wearing, of course, a Julius baby snap-on, one of five Barbosa had altered from T-shirts. She plans to continue buying Paul Frank things, especially now that she has her very own Julius. “I want him to know where his name came from.” For his part, baby Julius seems to like his namesake: “He just stares at the Juliuses in the living room,” Barbosa said. “It relaxes him.”

—Tom Christie

The Unguarded Kennedy

Here on a landscaped terrace overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains, a crowd gathers around a smiling Al Gore; Diane Keaton laughs in her trademark bowler, and everyone from actors to Sacramento lawyers are toasting Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new tougher vehicle-emission standards. For a moment, on this late afternoon in the coastal version of autumn, it’s possible to stand in the last shred of sun, sip white wine and imagine we are not living in a political culture sunk in deep and terminal denial about the quickening pace of environmental disaster.

It’s not always like this: With the media nearly silent on global warming even as four hurricanes hit Florida within six weeks and the Bush administration swiftly and unilaterally opening environmentally sensitive land to “resource extraction,” I often have the feeling at parties that we’re lifting our glasses on the Titanic without noticing the ship is sinking.

But tonight I’m not alone. “This administration,” the evening’s guest of honor told me in an interview before the party started, “it’s like a cult. They should all drink poisoned Kool-Aid and leave us alone to clean up their mess.”

That’s Robert F. Kennedy Jr., at the home of Norman and Lyn Lear, who are sharing hosting duties with Laurie and Larry David, on the occasion of the recent publication of a book by Kennedy, Crimes Against Nature: How George W. Bush and His Corporate Pals Are Plundering the Country and Hijacking Our Democracy. It’s a fluidly readable survey of a 30-year right-wing assault on our natural resources written by someone on the battle’s front lines: Kennedy is, among other things, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he uses litigation to check a regime hell-bent on poisoning the Earth in secret. Unlike so many political figures opposing the administration these days, he does not bother with euphemisms or diplomatic airs. He rails against corporate welfare (“Show me a polluter, I’ll show you a subsidy,” he writes in his book), defines the 15,000 poorly secured U.S. chemical-manufacturing facilities as domestic weapons of mass destruction and unapologetically likens the current system of government to fascism. Then there’s his earlier Kool-Aid suggestion.

But neither does Kennedy, once a Jesuit schoolboy, shy away from talk of God and country. He’s as likely to invoke Jesus and Teddy Roosevelt as he is to recite scientific evidence of climate change. If he sometimes lifts passages directly from his own prose in both speeches and interviews, he can be forgiven: Until you hear someone repeat six times that the Bush administration has simply declined to prosecute many of the country’s worst coal-burning polluters, that one out of six women of childbearing age has too much mercury in her blood to bear a healthy child, that the atmosphere’s sulfur dioxide (the main culprit in acid rain) has gone up 4 percent since 2001, you can’t quite get your head around the administration’s last four years of sneaky end-runs around environmental law — a little rollback here, lax enforcement there, happy Orwellian titles for devastating policies — stealth decisions that have made fighting for clean air and water as tricky as defusing car bombs in Fallouja.

“We’re living today in a science-fiction nightmare where the air is too dirty to breathe because somebody gave money to a politician,” Kennedy tells the party guests, “where that seminal childhood activity — catching fish with Dad and eating it when you get home — has become unsafe because somebody gave money to a politician. One-fifth of the lakes in the Adirondacks are sterile. And the only states that don’t report dangerously high levels of mercury in their fish are Wyoming and Alaska — because their Republican state governments don’t have policies in place to test the fish.” At the end of the speech, several people assembled in the Lears’ living room dab their eyes with tissue.

Earlier, I asked Kennedy why the Democrats haven’t used the Bush administration’s ravages to put the Republicans on the defensive this election season — according to a Yale University poll conducted last May, 84 percent of 1,000 respondents said the environment would be a factor in their November vote. And as Kennedy points out, the administration’s policies pose a more immediate threat to public health than any orange alert. “What would happen if terrorists had done this to our air and water? If they had poisoned the water so we couldn’t eat the fish, polluted the air so our children develop lung disease?” All three of Kennedy’s sons have developed asthma growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley; Kennedy’s own PCB levels are double the national average. So why, I wonder, has it not become a pressing campaign issue?

“What Kerry says to me is that these issues are not getting traction in the press,” Kennedy explains. “Not even the print media are willing to criticize the policy coming out of the White House. Reporters covering the White House have become stenographers.”

What, then, keeps him from giving up?

“This is a huge moral and spiritual duty,” he said of his activism. “You have to fight your hardest to do what’s right, know that you’re serving a higher good, and be ready to die with your boots on. And then you have to understand that it’s all out of your hands. After all,” he concluded, “the Spanish Armada was defeated by a bad wind.”

—Judith Lewis

Deep Water

John Dean stands next to a lectern in the auditorium at the Glendale Public Library, strangles the cord of the microphone, and tells the audience that it brings back memories of tiny listening devices. “If you’re over 45 years old, you know what I’m talking about.” The standing-room-only crowd erupts in laughter.

With a furled American flag hidden in the corner of the stage behind him, Dean is dressed crisply in a red tie and gray suit. He speaks calmly without prepared notes and without the self-righteousness of his fellow whistleblower, Richard Clarke. Other than his gray hair, Dean looks and sounds just as he did at the Watergate hearings 30 years ago.

Still possessing what he terms that “freakish memory for detail,” he recounts that the turning point of the Nixon administration occurred in June 1971, on a Sunday, the day after Nixon’s daughter Tricia had gotten married, the day that the Pentagon Papers story leaked to the press. What had been in his mind an “open administration” until then turned into a dirty-tricks, paranoid presidency, accountable to no one.

The Bush administration, by contrast, has from day one led a “path of concealment . . . of obsessive secrecy,” says this former golden-boy counsel to Nixon.

Dean, author of the recent best-seller Worse Than Watergate, announces that he is an independent, but adds, “All I can tell you is I hope I don’t have to write Volume 2 of this book.” According to Dean, the Bush administration has “dusted off the Nixon playbook . . . from a sub-basement of the White House.” He adds, “Having been in the belly of the beast of an imperial presidency, I can tell you it is a dangerous presidency.”

He remembers the name Karl Rove being mentioned by a Watergate task force investigating campaign illegalities. Even then Rove was “on their radar.” But he disputes that Rove is Bush’s brain. “Bush is no naif,” he says, pronouncing naif with a hard “a” and a silent “i.” He adds that Bush apparently is “a human encyclopedia on baseball. If someone had made him baseball commissioner, we wouldn’t have all the problems we have today.”

Now in his 60s, Dean is no Luddite. He embraces the Internet and cites the Web when he says that “information and truth has its own way of getting out.”

After speaking for 30 minutes, he fields questions. The most titillating inquiry is about Deep Throat. Dean, who has written a book on the subject, refers to Bob Woodward’s fabled source by the intimate “Throat” and says that over the years he has narrowed the possibilities down to three people.

Who? Who? They were all in the White House, he tells us, then throws out a long-forgotten name — Ray Price, one of Nixon’s speechwriters at the time. He adds that Price was a bachelor back then, although how that implicates him I don’t know.

The second name is juicier, Bill Safire, Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist for The New York Times, who was also one of Nixon’s speechwriters and, according to Dean, a unique kind of character.

Finally, the third man . . . Pat Buchanan, noted bulldog TV commentator and presidential candidate, also a Nixon speechwriter at the time. The crowd murmurs. Dean says he confronted Buchanan about this at one point. “I can’t tell you how slow he was to deny it,” says Dean. There is another peal of laughter.

—Robert David Jaffee