A Small Circle of Friends

Describing the parties and salons of Westside liberals has become a minor genre of satire whose tropes are the gatherings’ inescapable whiteness, the finger food and Chablis, but above all, the arthritic earnestness that shapes these events. There may well be a certain easy truth in such observed details, but there was also an undeniable poignancy about the appearance of John Dean last week as he shared the rostrum with Gore Vidal on the tented back lawn of a home in Beverly Hills.

“I was surprised to learn how many people you can reach through the Internet!” Dean marveled in a grandfatherly way.

Thirty-two years after Watergate, America’s political fault lines have shifted to the point where Dean — once Richard Nixon’s White House counsel — can comfortably share affectionate stories about Barry Goldwater with Vidal, that avatar of the aristocratic left, and 60 people in baseball caps or T-shirts with “Peace” written on them, all brought together by the Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles.

Of course, in this crowd, it helps that Dean is now a self-proclaimed independent whose last book was Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, and whose newest, Conservatives Without Conscience, examines a body of research linking the authoritarian personality with conservative political impulses. He believes that all Republican presidents after Eisenhower have shown authoritarian tendencies.

Dean came to the event prepared with zingers: “Nixon was terrible at small talk, but Bush is good with it — it’s the big talk he has trouble with.” Meanwhile, Vidal upped the paranoia level: “We’re in the hands now of totalitarians, not authoritarians.”

The audience loved it in the beginning, but as dusk darkened, crickets chirped and the jasmine bloomed, the Q&A revealed the political anger and despair that are seeping into even the affluent enclaves of California.

“Aren’t we moving into fascism?” a man asked.

“It’s definitely protofascism,” Dean allowed. “I don’t think we’re on the road to fascism. If you don’t get to vote this November, you’ll know we’re on the road to fascism!”

The crowd, perhaps hearing the sound of hairs being split, groaned. They had already become a little unruly when Dean demurred about totally banning nuclear weapons on the grounds that somewhere down the road, “America might face being overrun” by a future enemy.

“Why haven’t we seen anything in the media on the Nazi background of our governor?” one man wanted to know.

“Why haven’t we taken this to the streets?” one woman asked even more urgently.

“Have you read The Creature From Jekyll Island?” asked another. “It tells how those bankers got together to create the Federal Reserve. How do the Federal Reserve and corporations fit into this?”

“Only for the worse, I suspect,” sighed Vidal, a master of crowd control.

Then the people in peace caps sitting on folding chairs stopped asking questions altogether and switched to the manic karaoke that has replaced political discourse since 9/11.

Byron De Lear, a Green Party candidate for Congress, made a stump speech against Howard Berman. “He needs to be exited!” De Lear exhorted.

“We have proof now that those buildings were destroyed by demolition,” claimed Andrew Moriarty of the Progressive Democrats of the Santa Monica Mountains, about the World Trade Center. “The biggest terrorists were Bush and Cheney for attacking our own buildings!”

“Googling ‘miserable failure’ will get you to ‘George Bush,’ ” pointed out a woman near the speakers.

“The Internet has tremendous potential,” Dean admitted, perhaps hoping to re-establish his bond with the Googling woman and the audience in general.

The intensity and occasional narrowness of his listeners’ rhetoric reminded one of a Phil Ochs song and its refrain, “And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.” The outrage of that night’s small circle continued until the mikes were finally shut off and Dean moved into the kitchen to sell and autograph copies of his book. He was no longer the tanned and joking 30-something I’d seen speak on a college campus after he was released from federal detention. In Beverly Hills, the crickets chirped and the jasmine bloomed as always, but the country John Dean, Gore Vidal and their listeners had grown up in was now something quite unrecognizable.

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