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Bonfire of the Vanity Affairs

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.

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.")

 

Wait a second. Someone’s found the equivalent of plumbers breaking into the Watergate. A source from within the magazine breathlessly tells L.A. Weekly that "a Republican operative" was feeding Cieply. And as proof the insider quotes the GOP rabble-rouser as telling a Hollywood dinner party that "Cieply is going to bring down Graydon." See? See?

And the name of this Republican operative? "Tom Strickland," the source confides.

Hmmm, Tom Strickland, Tom Strickland . . . And he’s a Republican operative? . . . A Republican operative working Hollywood? . . . The only Tom Strickland I know of was a 2002 Democratic candidate for Senate in Colorado (who had Robert Redford campaign for him and still lost) . . . Wait a minute, you don’t mean Tom Strickler, do you? The brilliant literary agent at Endeavor?

Yeah, that’s the one, the source replied.

Huh? Strickler’s as much a Republican operative as Martin Sheen is the real president of the United States.

A rare type in Hollywood — the quintessential blond-haired, blue-eyed WASP, the Harvard-educated son of a Morgan Stanley investment banker father and commercial banker mother who possesses that upper-class self-confidence — Strickler if anything is a Republican with a small "r." After all, how Republican can you be when one of your partners and closest pals is Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm Emanuel, the Clinton White House adviser and now a Democratic congressman from Illinois who’s on the tube all the time promoting Kerry?

True, after being famously fired by CAA, Strickler went to New Hampshire to work for Bob Dole’s 1988 presidential primary campaign and now supports (but doesn’t campaign for) G.W. And he once hilariously told The New York Times, right after Hollywood-funded Al Gore chose Hollywood-hating Joe Lieberman, that "the Democrats could have selected Idi Amin as vice president and Hollywood would have welcomed him."

And also true that Strickler knows Cieply well, but that’s because Cieply spent years trying to be a Hollywood producer and did business with him.

Reached by L.A. Weekly on Tuesday, Strickler sounds mildly amused. No, he hadn’t a clue that he was being outed by Vanity Fair behind the scenes. "I guess all Republicans are operatives to them," the agent notes dryly. And, no, he doesn’t remember ever making those remarks at a dinner party. And as for harboring any animosity toward Carter, Strickler replies, "I’ve never met him. I didn’t know he was doing anti-Bush rhetoric because I don’t read his magazine."

After the articles about Carter were published, L.A. Weekly had more e-mails and phone calls from inside Vanity Fair claiming that Rove was behind Carter’s comedown.

Then, two weeks ago, came a supposedly new Condé Nast policy guideline which, besides spelling out matters of maternity leave and insurance forms, dealt with ethical behavior. This part in particular seemed pointed at Carter: The integrity of Condé Nast and its employees depends greatly on avoiding conflicts of interest or appearances of such in editorial and business conduct . . . For example, employees should not accept any favors, discounts, services, lodging, meals, travel, entertainment or gifts of more than a nominal value that could lead to such a sense of indebtedness.

Even V.F. insiders, while dismissing it as just another human-resources directive that had been in the works for some time and "had absolutely nothing to do with Graydon," acknowledged the timing was strange and that "one could make a leap." About whether accepting that cool hundred-grand finder’s fee and his propensity to pitch projects, and other journalism misdemeanors, made Carter indebted to Hollywood, V.F. sources made it clear that at Condé Nast the rules were made to be broken by the privileged few. "Then every single fashion writer at every single Condé Nast fashion magazine should resign if they read these rules," one insider blustered. However, fashion magazines rarely run investigative journalism.

As for the obvious fact that, ever since Carter got so cozy with Hollywood, his magazine stopped covering the industry in any serious way, V.F. spokeswoman Beth Kseniak responds about the entertainment business, "that’s being covered to death in the newspapers," and "Graydon has shifted his focus to politics."

"One could argue that what’s important now is Bush and Iraq and what’s happening in America. And you can tell that’s exactly [Carter’s] focus when you just look at the table of contents over the past year and a half," she states.

With the media still mulling the direction of Carter’s ethical compass, L.A. Weekly learned that Carter traveled to Washington Monday to meet with three high-profile journalists whom the right-wing would delightedly describe as card-carrying members of the anti-Bush cabal.

 

There was Maureen Dowd, the Pulitzer Prize–winning op-ed columnist for The New York Times, whose book Bushworld, described as "a powerful look at the current administration," will be published in August. There was her Washington bureau colleague Todd Purdum, one of the newspaper’s most insightful correspondents who used to cover the Clinton White House and then served as the paper’s Los Angeles bureau chief during which time he mixed easily with and occasionally reported on Hollywood. There was Purdum’s wife, Dee-Dee Myers, the Clinton flack who was the first woman and youngest person ever to serve as White House press secretary and is currently a contributing editor to Vanity Fair magazine and a consultant to the down-on-its-luck NBC drama The West Wing. And, accompanying Carter, there was his serious squeeze Anna Scott, the former Anna Bing, who was V.F.’s London PR woman.

Sources tell L.A. Weekly that Myers has been urging Carter to hire a crisis manager. Makes sense, since Vanity Fair was in full-stage red alert beginning last Friday after the LAT informed the magazine that they were publishing their "Get Carter: The Sequel" over the weekend. (It didn’t run until Wednesday.) According to V.F. sources, staffers like senior articles editor Doug Stumpf, for one, wanted permission to go on the record with the LAT to defend their boss’ honor.

Yet we’re supposed to believe that, on Monday night, the dinner at Café Milano was merely a social occasion ("like old home week") since Dowd and Carter have known each other dating back to their Time magazine days, Myers is a trusted confidante and Purdum her tag-along spouse. If Rove or Republicans were discussed, one insider claimed, "I couldn’t hear it. It was so noisy." Instead of the subject of politics punctuating a lot of glad-handing, a source painted an image of chitchat about the South Beach diet, the Cannes film festival "and the love life of Artie Shaw."

Nevertheless, just the subject of the get-together was touchy enough that when I phoned Purdum Tuesday to ask about his meeting with Carter, the NYT journalist heard only a few words of the first question, and shouted, "You’re just kind of a cunt," and hung up the phone.

A few minutes letter, Purdum sent an e-mail apologizing but still taking me to task for trying to ask questions about the evening.

Interestingly, that same day, in a sworn statement about alleged sexual harassment made public and carried by many media, University of Colorado’s president was quoted as defensively saying that the C word can be "used as a term of endearment" toward women.

Isn’t it nice to know so many people live such a rich fantasy life?

E-mail at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com.


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