At the Barcelona airport a few days ago, I overheard a young American businessman extolling the Catalan capital’s virtues to his newly arrived pals:
“This is the best fuckin‘ party city in the world. You get home at 4:30 — in the afternoon — and the women are unbelievably sexy. But you gotta watch out for this Bush thing. Last week, I met this Swedish chick, unbelievably beautiful, and she started talking about how if Bush was there she’d, like, kill him. Which is bullshit.” He paused. “Me, I like the guy. But if you want to get laid here, bro‘, you gotta say you voted against him.”
The same is true, in various senses, all over Europe. In Edinburgh, my request for not too much milk in a cappuccino prompted the barrista to snap, “At least, we don’t attack countries for no reason.” In Germany, where 250,000 people last year turned up at the Brandenburg Gate to show solidarity with the U.S. after 911, floundering Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder retained office by using anti-American rhetoric as a distraction from Germany‘s economic woes (call him the anti-war alter ego of Bush). And in London last weekend, 150,000 anti-war protesters (largely ignored by the U.S. media) marched through Parliament Square, where a couple of days earlier I’d seen traffic stalled by an enormous rubber effigy of Bush wielding six-shooters and perched atop a rubber tank, like a bizarre Thanksgiving float.
Although Tony Blair is Bush‘s partner (his only one) in the proposed ousting of Saddam Hussein, the British media elite has its doubts. The blimpish Daily Telegraph thinks Blair’s much-touted dossier on Iraq proved virtually nothing, and right-wing magazines such as The Spectator speculate on how an invasion might serve U.S. oil interests. On the left, The Guardian assails the Bush-Blair hard line with its trademark mixture of political principle and anti-American condescension. Reading science professor Richard Dawkins‘ reflexively snotty remarks about the “illiterate, uncouth, unelected cowboy in the White House” — so it’s back to the Couth Standard, is it? — I suddenly got in touch with my inner Archie Bunker. It‘s not that Dawkins was altogether wrong, but his tone made me want to smack the smugness off his pallid Oxonian face. The fear of Washington’s power, as The Guardian‘s Timothy Garton Ash wrote, has become so pervasive that Europeans (and, I would add, our homegrown left) are losing the ability to tell good causes from bad when America’s involved.
Then again, nothing fuels such fear more than the terrifying certainty of Bush and his chickenhawks, who treat our European allies‘ disapproval as proof that the administration’s doing the right thing — after all, those guys are “appeasers.” I‘m no fan of Al Gore, but last week’s much-maligned recent speech hit on an obvious truth: The Bush administration‘s bullying unilateralism has moved the U.S. from near-universal support for its policies to almost universal disapproval. It’s lousy PR to say out loud that other countries don‘t really matter — incredibly, a recent cover of The Weekly Standard proclaimed “We Are the World” — and the right’s star-spangled hubris seems an odd way to woo other countries to help battle an Islamic fascism that‘s far from vanquished.
The gleeful eagerness with which Donald Rumsfeld talks about “regime change” — Hot damn, I-raq! — reminds us that he’s far scarier than inept, constipated John Ashcroft. Isn‘t war supposed to be the last resort? As Rummy grins and wisecracks about actions that can only lead to killing many thousands of people, you see why even America’s close allies are losing faith in the U.S. government‘s good sense.
Perhaps the only group doing a worse PR job on Iraq is the official American left, which is mired in its usual name-calling, fecklessness and spineless gray Daschle-ism. Last week, The Nation’s endlessly self-Orwellizing writer Christopher Hitchens gave up his “Minority Report” column after 20 years, saying he felt false appearing in a magazine that “is the voice and echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” Although such hawkishness is not an indefensible left-wing position, Hitchens‘ longtime Nation colleague Alexander Cockburn (The Dread) predictably rose to the occasion by slurring his old friend in the Washington Post: “Hitch is no longer the beautiful slender young man of the Left. Now he’s just another middle-aged porker of the Right.” As Kurt Vonnegut used to say, so it goes . . .
Still, the most pathetic spectacle came on ABC News‘ This Week, which interviewed two liberal Democrats, Representatives David Bonior and Jim McDermott, who were in Baghdad checking things out for themselves. It was bad that the pair stood before the cameras, sweating profusely and looking amiably befuddled, like trusting small-town ministers about to be swindled in the souk. It was worse that they kept saying the Iraqis assured them that U.N. inspectors could go wherever they wanted — even as the Iraqi government was announcing that they couldn’t. But things bottomed out when McDermott suggested that Bush might “mislead the American people” to get them into war. This was an idiotic thing to say, not because it‘s untrue — Bush, like all presidents, is capable of it — but because he said it on the streets of Baghdad while implying that he trusted the Iraqis. He obviously had no clue how badly this would come across in America.
George Will did and promptly seized the advantage, calling it the most disgraceful performance by Americans on foreign soil since Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. He issued this verdict with such offended rectitude that one might be pardoned for momentarily forgetting that it was dovish Jane, not hawkish George, who was actually correct about the destructive folly of the war in Vietnam.
In his 1976 book The Tourist, a Rosetta stone of the alienated modern psyche, Dean MacCannell described our culture’s accelerating desire to be taken ever further behind the scenes to a “back region” where we get to see the real thing — the food being cooked, the big decisions being made. Such longing leads to what he termed “staged authenticity,” situations and events created to give the illusion that we‘re being plugged into what’s really going on.
Which brings me to The New Yorker‘s recent, much-discussed profile of Bumble Ward, the L.A. film publicist who represents such hip directors as Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. Ward did what publicists, almost by definition, don’t do. She let readers see how she manipulates the media — spinning, planting feature ideas with editors (who use them), teaching her clients how to play reporters. Ward even named a few names. Although her revelations are old hat to those in the entertainment biz, writer Tad Friend won admiration for getting a publicist to spill tradecraft on the record.
It was only a matter of time. Thanks in part to publicists like Ward herself, we live in an era when apparatchiks who used to be invisible — PR people, pollsters, political consultants and fixit men — are no longer content to remain in the shadows. Anonymity brings no glory. They want credit. These days, being an eminence grise is satisfying only if there‘s a high-profile profile explaining that you’re actually the power behind the throne, the real brains of the operation. This craving for pub has become so all-devouring that I find myself respecting the likes of silky Vernon Jordan and basilisk-eyed Pat Kingsley — at least, they don‘t try to steal the limelight.
I’ve heard it hypothesized that Ward‘s decision to talk to The New Yorker was the deliberate career suicide of a woman who openly professes that she’s sick of her job (and who never stops implying that such work is beneath her). More likely, though, she was simply practicing a sly piece of meta-PR that let her push her most important clients (copious genuflections to Daddy Warbucks Tarantino) while promoting herself as a newfangled kind of publicist, cooler, smarter and less servile than her predecessors. Where‘s the risk? Ward deals with cocksure male directors (Michael Bay!) who like her to portray them as cocksure male directors. For all the “dangerous” revelations that supposedly pepper the piece, it’s notable that the most potentially damaging anecdote about a client (he keeps shrieking, “Am I a piece of shit?”) never reveals his name. Those of us who‘ve dealt with Ward professionally know her as a tricky piece of work, but Friend’s profile takes her account of herself at face value — precisely as she‘d wish. In the end, he doesn’t so much expose the secrets of a high-powered publicist as become just another one of her outlets.