National Notes (January 17, 2001)

Bill on Al

Attending the annual Texas Monthly bash, George W. was asked what he and Bill Clinton had talked about in their White House photo op. George W. described how he had asked Clinton why Al Gore was taking his defeat with such poor grace. “It’s been eight years,” Clinton genially replied, “and we still haven’t figured out Al.” Then Bill added hastily, “But he’s been a great vice president.”

Westward Look, The Land is Dark!

The Age of Clinton signaled its passing in California with rolling blackouts, or at least the serious threat of them. It’s entirely appropriate. At the substantive level Clintonism was the economic program of the Democratic Leadership Council, preaching the glories of deregulation and an unfettered marketplace. Corporations would flourish and the public would bask in the beneficial consequences of corporate aggrandizement. Corporate shills like the Natural Resources Defense Council lent their weight to the push for deregulation.

Westward look, the land is dark! Californians are braced for utility bills two and three times what they were a year ago and two once mighty giants, Pacific Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison (or at least their carefully sculpted subsidiaries), teeter on the lip of bankruptcy. The price hikes for electricity and natural gas presently being touted will undoubtedly spawn a new populist movement, calls for public ownership of utilities and energies supplies. It’s hard to preach the virtues of an unregulated marketplace to small businesses bankrupted by their fuel bills and householders who can’t afford heat or air-conditioning.

More parables of deregulation: Amid the threat of blackouts in Humboldt county last Friday, I flew from Eureka to San Francisco and climbed on a TWA flight to New York. The Boeing 757 was about half full. After a couple of hours in the air the captain genially announced turbulence over Denver, adding that TWA had just been sold to American Airlines, but passengers shouldn’t be concerned “because those of you with TWA advantage miles will make out like gangbusters.”

The captain must have felt he was in line for a financial killing, because he was in a jaunty mood for the rest of the flight, alerting “passengers on the left hand side to a spectacular moon,” meanwhile consoling the starboard-side travelers with the news that “in a few minutes you will have an unusual view of Manhattan,” which turned out to be the same old flight across Central Park. The flight attendant gazed gloomily down at her beverage inventory, clearly seeing little in her future to cheer about.

Airline dereg, remember, was sold to us in 1978, back in the Carter era, as the promise of scores of new airlines battling to offer superior service and keen prices. Here we are in the dawn of 2001 and it looks as though we’ll be down to a couple of airlines by the end of the year. For people taller than about 5’6” a flight anywhere is a guarantee of physical constriction bordering on torture. Short and tall alike pick up colds or flu in the foul air and are spared food poisoning only because most airlines have given up serving food altogether in favor of pretzels. If the traveling distance is less than a thousand miles many now prefer to drive, particularly given the news of the soaring likelihood of runway collisions. Airports like San Francisco and LaGuardia are already operating well beyond rational capacity. There are bargains to be had, but regular ticket prices are mostly grotesquely high.

In the case of San Francisco at least, there’s one paradoxical consequence of its semi-paralysis. Enlightened planners have made the airport into an increasingly pleasant place to spend the day. With a couple of hours to waste between two flights I was able to take in no less than four exhibitions, three of them of the finest quality. Throughout the airport there were on that particular day no less than 22 exhibitions available for inspection.

On this occasion the United terminal had a very fine show of drums and other percussive instruments. South Terminal itself featured an interesting display of police hats, collected by patrolman Calvin Chow of the SFPD during his trips to Europe. (Chow’s webpage thanks Alexander Gultyaev of the Vladivostok PD for crucial help in designing the site.) The picks of the bunch were an astrakhan hat worn by Soviet police officers in the 1970s in the Caucasus, the cockaded ceremonial hat of the assistant commissioner of the London metropolitan police, the dashing plume of some Italian law enforcer of high rank in the early part of the century. There were many samples of service hats of Asian police officers, all of them banal.

Amy’s Anger

Having been deposited safely at JFK by the jaunty TWA captain I made my way a day later to one of my favorite restaurants in Manhattan, Cendrillon, on the west side of Mercer Street, in SoHo a couple of blocks north of Canal, where Romy Dorotan presides over an Asian fusion menu with Filipino roots. Romy once studied political science at the University of York in the UK, then at Temple, but sensibly laid aside the texts of Locke, Mill and the others in favor of cooking, the acme of the fine arts. It was Joseph Conrad, introducing a cookbook by his wife Jessie, who wrote that of all the books, only those on cookery are morally above suspicion. Their one aim, the author of The Heart of Darkness wrote, is “to increase the happiness of mankind, to add to the cheerfulness of nations.”

Romy’s redoubtable wife, Amy Besa, greeted me warmly. “Alexander! Only this morning I was cursing your name.” Then she hissed out the single word “Ashcroft,” thereby indicating that she held me personally responsible for the defeat of Al Gore and the success of the Bush putsch.

I teased Amy by suggesting that she was only opposed to Ashcroft because he anointed himself with Crisco and that if he’d performed the same religious rite with a first pressing of choice olive oil she would be cheering his nomination as attorney general. Amy denied this indignantly and continued to shower abuse.

Talk to any green veteran about James Watt and the more honest among them grow misty eyed at his awesome prowess as a fund raiser. Merely to put this simpleton’s mugshot on a flyer next to a picture of an oil-stained seagull was to elicit a flood of dollars, and now the greens have Gale Norton, who studied at Watt’s knee at the Mountain States Legal Center in Colorado.

But talk to warm-hearted liberals like Amy in this cynical fashion and they grow ever more furious, absolutely oblivious to reminders that at this stage in the game back in 1992 Reno was three months away from burning about 80 men, women and children to death outside Waco and on the edge of a career at the DOJ that included advocacy of two awful crime bills, the drug war, and many other awful things besides. The liberals point furiously to Ashcroft’s friendly relations with a militia-style outfit. This may be no bad thing, since most militia types I know spend most of their time denouncing excessive police power and abuses of privacy and the rights of free citizens.

Goodbye, Bill!

But is it really goodbye? Surely not. Clinton is part of the furniture of our lives and I don’t see him being carted off to oblivion by Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul. He’ll be with us always, whether as mayor of Hope, Arkansas, or as Secretary General of the UN. He gave us the Lewinsky affair and for that deed alone he lives warmly in my heart.

Less so his wife. A friend of mine was recently traveling in a limo from Baltimore to a town in West Virginia and fell into conversation with the driver, who related some of his ferryings to and fro of various bigwigs. One of these was Hillary Clinton. “An ornery woman,” the driver commented. “And what a mouth on her!”

The driver went on to describe an occasion on which he was driving the First Lady and a couple of her (female) friends through a poor area of Washington DC. They passed a beggar, and as they did so the First Lady expressed her disgust for the mendicant, adding “He wouldn’t be a bum if he had a piece of ass.” The driver was able to shed no light on how or why she had arrived at this conclusion, stunned as he was by the coarse nature of her observations. Then they passed two young black women with babies. “There go two welfare cases. They make me sick. They’re too lazy to work,” said Senator Clinton, champion of mothers and children everywhere.

So much for Clinton Time. Onward to the Age of W!

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