Political Life: Shopping for a Hero
"Unbelievable! Unbelievable!" The man in the gray suit stood on a chair, waving his hands in the air to get the attention of the crowd in the overpacked living room. "If we were all 16 years old, this would be everybody's worst nightmare."
Former five-term Vermont governor and current Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean, 54 years old, looked as amazed as everyone else in the room that this Thursday-night gathering, what should have been another sedate Westside fund-raiser, had suddenly taken on the rambunctious energy of an Animal House toga party.
"I'm tired of being beat up for sympathizing with human rights!" Dean shouted as the crowd warmed to him. "I'm tired of getting beaten up for supporting equal rights! Tired of being beat up by right-wing talk-show hosts! Time to stand up and take America back!"
The former stockbroker and doctor has set off a loud buzz within Democratic ranks by taking an unwavering stand against the war in Iraq and by repeating over and over again the old Paul Wellstone line that he now "represents the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Which explains why more than twice the 150 people who called in RSVPs to attend the reception ($100 a head, minimum) now were jamming into composer Mark Snow's Santa Monica living room, hallways and kitchen, all desperate to catch a glimpse of Dean. The sea of Swedish cars flooding north of Montana and frenetically searching for parking made it seem that every Volvo Democrat west of La Cienega was on hand.
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More important, several powerful Hollywood liberals were on hand to check out Dean. An excitedly sputtering Rob Reiner, who co-chaired the gathering and is an early endorser of Dean, made a plea for those who liked what they heard to come up with a check for the full legal hard-money contribution of $2,000. It's impossible to know who did. But there were plenty of celebs in the crowd who, if they wished, could give Dean's campaign a PR boost. Actor/activist Mike Farrell was on hand, as was Blythe Danner, screenwriter Naomi Foner and world-class vegan Dennis Weaver. Of course, a lot of those present were still shopping for a candidate to back. Hollywood liberals are sizing up not only Dean a relative newcomer to Left Coast politics but old favorites Dennis Kucinich, who's also running, and Gary Hart, who might be running (and who recently made a campaignlike flyby through Los Angeles).
"It's too early to commit yet," said lefty producer/director Robert Greenwald, Farrell's partner in organizing the celebrity-led Win Without War outfit. "It's more important right now to build up a movement from the grassroots rather than jump right away on some candidate's bandwagon."
Meanwhile, Dean thrilled and chilled the assembled People in Black all seemingly at wits' end to find some hero, any hero, to challenge Dubya by blasting Bush and chiding fellow Democrats for not being confrontational enough with the White House.
Although the former governor sounds like a Hoover Republican when it comes to taxes, on most other issues he is positioning himself decidedly to the left of most of the Democratic field. He touts his Vermont program of providing health care to all children, as well as his signing of a bill legalizing gay and lesbian civil unions. Dean also calls for a reversal of the Bush tax cut, a position way beyond the Democratic mainstream.
For some odd reason, Dean made no mention of Iraq in his 20-minute presentation. "He probably just forgot about it in all the excitement," said writer Jeff Kaufman, who organized the event. But Dean did take the issue head-on during the Q&A session. And he showed some authentic political courage by putting the emphasis on solving the Palestinian side of the equation when asked about his views on the Middle East. I can't remember the last time I heard a presidential candidate answer that question without a preamble invocation of endless devotion to Israel's position in the conflict. Or maybe he just forgot that too.
Poor Jimmy Kimmel. It's tough being a talk-show host when you have no opening monologue, scarcely any jokes, and your celebrity guests are called Jeffrey Ross and Eugene Levy. But if Kimmel was unfortunate in his material, he was lucky in his audience. The crowd filing into the El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard to watch Jimmy Kimmel Live was young, loud and willing to laugh at just about anything.
A few minutes before filming began at 9:05 p.m. local time on Tuesday, March 11, Kimmel stepped onto the stage, sat down at his desk and picked up the phone. He was going to make a prank call, a feat he performs regularly for Crank Yankers, a puppet show on Comedy Central, and which he also does as an exclusive treat for the studio audience just before the taping of his own show. Tonight's victim was a guy who placed an ad in the Recycler offering to sell 10 pairs of a woman's used underpants he claimed to have found in a car.
The phone rang, a man picked up. "I'm calling about the underpants for sale," Kimmel said, but as it turned out, he called too late. The man had already taken the panties to a thrift store because he wasn't getting any calls. "Did you keep a couple of pairs for yourself?" Kimmel asked. The man said he hadn't. "Tell me about those things. Did they still have any smell in 'em?" Kimmel demanded. No answer. "Did you sniff 'em?" Kimmel pressed on. "Uh, no, I didn't," the man replied.
The conversation meandered on uselessly until, realizing that he was starting to look foolish before his show had even started, Kimmel put down the phone. "He put the ad in the paper and I'm the weirdo," he said in disgust, and walked offstage.
There are a lot of ads in the Recycler, but it was no surprise that Kimmel, who made his name on The Man Show, would have chosen this particular one to entertain the studio audience. America is drowning, if that's the word, in toilet humor. During the one-hour pre-show, a member of the audience was invited onstage to ask "Uncle Frank," a security guard Kimmel has turned into a recurrent character on his program, a question about etiquette. The audience member was a portly Latino in his 30s, and he was dressed in shapeless, baggy clothes that might have been designed for an extremely large baby. "What's the proper etiquette when you see someone coming out of a bathroom and they've got toilet paper hanging out of their ass?" the man asked Uncle Frank.
Don, the in-house comedian who warms up the crowd before airtime, had set the tone early. Sticking a tissue down the front of his pants, he presented a heckler with a "balls-wipe napkin" five minutes after taking the stage. "I don't want to see this on eBay," he joked. And when a girl came up on the stage, he said, "Annie, I don't know if you know this, but you have large breasts."
But the audience gave as good as it got. One row in front of me, a girl kept yelling that she wanted a dildo. (Don had one up onstage, along with some free CDs and hockey tickets.) Later, a fresh-faced and attractive newlywed stood up and compared the size of the dildo to her husband's member. Even Don seemed surprised by her boldness. "I love this crowd," he said on more than one occasion, gazing out at the massed youthful faces with something like wonder. "You have no values."
Well, that may have been true of the extroverts in the audience. We introverts didn't do nothin', however.
I heard President Bush talking about how Iraqis will soon be grateful to us (and mad at France) when they are living in a thriving free-market democracy. On the off chance that the president picks up the L.A. Weekly in the next few days, I respectfully offer the following cautionary message: Political and economic reform rarely goes in a straight line from worse to better.
Take, for instance, Nadim Khoury. Khoury is a Palestinian guy who spent half his life in the U.S. and, after brewing his own beer for years as a hobby, got a brew master's degree from the University of California at Davis and started the first and only brewery in the occupied territories. The beer, Taybeh (which in Arabic means delicious or good), is so delicious and good that five of us squeezed into a car last weekend to drive to the brewery.
Taybeh is also the name of the village where Khoury grew up. It's a 20-minute drive from Jerusalem, but the direct road is blocked by the Israeli army, so we took the long way around. We didn't mind. The rocky, green hills were beautiful, it was a perfect spring day, and somehow listening to Barbra Streisand in the car was also perfect, so it was okay that it took us an hour and a half to find the brewery.
Khoury, a small man in his 40s with a mustache and a round belly, was excited ä to have visitors. He took us into the brewery and began describing how he makes his beer, going into the kind of detail people reserve for things they've been loving for a long time. Taybeh is made, he said, according to the German Purity Law of 1516 (you may know it as the Reinheitsgebot), which states that the only acceptable ingredients for brewing are barley, hops and water.
Khoury lets his beer ferment naturally, over a month, without adding corn or other ingredients to speed up the process. Corn is insidious, apparently. According to Khoury: "That's what gives you the belly and the bad breath and a hangover." He uses special hops ("Bavaria and Czech Republic are the best") and says Taybeh needs to be refrigerated, because it has no preservatives. He filled glasses for us from one of two spotless steel vats.
"We had trouble here, making beer in a Muslim country," Khoury told us. He's Christian, like all the Palestinians in Taybeh. "You cannot advertise alcohol in newspapers or on radio or TV." Also, Palestinian banks wouldn't lend him money because they were afraid Hamas would burn the place to the ground. But Khoury built a strong business through word of mouth and funded it by borrowing money from every relative he had. He showed us, on the side of one of the vats, the glowing articles written about him when the brewery opened in the mid-1990s, all with the same gist: Palestinian guy takes the know-how he gleaned from 23 years in America back to the little village he grew up in and creates a booming business.
Eight years later, his brewery is in deep trouble. Since the start of the second intifada, in the fall of 2000, business has plummeted, he said. He's had to let most of his employees go. He used to sell to 73 hotels in Jerusalem; now he sells to six. He used to do almost three-quarters of his business with Israelis even settlers would buy beer from him, so he brought in a rabbi to certify that the beer was kosher. But the settlers stopped coming and he hasn't bothered to renew his kosher license. The few Israeli businesses that do still buy his beer make him cover the name on the kegs with black tape, so their customers won't know they're drinking Palestinian beer.
Khoury did everything right. He's the kind of guy President Bush would put in the audience during his State of the Union speech to make a point about what can happen when a person has the freedom and gumption to make their dream happen. But the political reform that was supposed to free him stalled, which led to violence, which killed tourism both in Israel and in the territories and that, combined with 24-hour curfews, roadblocks, and an exponential rise in ill will between Israelis and Palestinians, is strangling his business.
"We thought we came to the right place at the right time," Khoury said.
"Until we came crashing to earth."
Khoury, meanwhile, is better off than most Palestinians: He's not part of the 60 percent the World Bank now estimates are living on less than $2 a day. Note to future Iraqis: good luck.
LOOKING BACK AT 25 YEARS
OF L.A. WEEKLY
Many who are "against" a war can also be possessed by the war energy. It can be very exciting, having a war to protest. Your small personal life takes on cosmic historical significance. It feels like you're gaining stature, but actually you're at risk of losing your identity. As a protester, you, like the soldier, are not quite yourself. You are yourself plus the war. If you lean too heavily on that role of protester, when your movement has no more war to protest, you too will feel diminished, lost, less. War is dangerous to everyone, on all sides of the issues. Being against a war doesn't insulate you from its demonic properties.
from "Letters to the War," January 18, 1991
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