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Will Lieberman Take on the Medicis? (Aug. 16, 2000)

LOS ANGELES — It's all working out well for the Democrats. Conventions, like all theatrical events, need dramatic tension before reaching the plateau of what Aristotle chastely called catharsis, otherwise known as having a drink after the show. And what better by way of dramatic tension than the eternal conflict between vice and virtue, between hedonism and penitence? Bill the sinner versus Al and Joe, the promoters of family values.

I hate to say it, but the Lieberman pick was a smart move. It's been hugely popular with the press, allowing the parlor moralists, like Howell Raines of the New York Times, to wallow in Bill's depravity one more delicious time, while simultaneously cheering Gore for selecting the righteous senator from Connecticut. Meanwhile critics of Lieberman have had to tread softly. Call Lieberman a whore for AIPAC and you get hit with charges of being a Holocaust denier. The Republicans had better be careful this fall. Already, as I predicted here last week, the Democrats are jeering at Bush and Cheney for being the tools of Big Oil. To make it all the more perfect, Dick Cheney is now having to explain why he concealed his $20 million retirement package from Halliburton.

“Satyrs with Enormous Cocks”

To prepare myself spiritually for Lieberman's speech, advertised as another attack on Hollywood's debasement of the higher values, I drove to the Getty Center, perched above Interstate 405, in search of cultural filth from earlier epochs. After all, if Gore and Lieberman are going to get serious about moral cleansing, why stop with South Park when the museums are filled with porn and violence? Sure enough, I was hardly inside the Getty Center's gallery of classical antiquities before I was confronted by an amphora depicting satyrs with enormous cocks all set to rape a passel of wood nymphs. I can't imagine Senator Lieberman approving that kind of thing, any more than a pretty explicit rendition of bestiality on an adjacent vase, with Leda making half-hearted efforts to repel the swan.

Aside from doing a pre-board for Liebermanism, I was excited to get to the new Getty Center designed by Richard Meier and now advertised as one of the glories of American architecture. One certainly couldn't hope for a more sensational site, perched up above the 405 interstate, with the San Gabriels to the north, Babylon/Hollywood away to the east and the Pacific the other way. Meier set off in the right direction, with some buildings faced with blocks of rough surfaced travertine limestone, designed to look like hill fortresses in Italy or North Africa. But this medieval look is shackled to banal modern surface textures, so you end up with an uninspiring blend of airport/Hyatt modernism, with the travertine blocks looking like a set left behind by Cecil B. DeMille. 

Such strictures notwithstanding, the public spaces are well organized, and you don't get the feeling, all too familiar in many museums these days, that their true function is as venues for banquets for the museum's big-time donors. Robert Irwin's Central Garden is an odd mix of ideas from Burle Marx (descendant of Karl, noted for his modernist Brazilian garden-scapes) and Gertrude Jekyll's herbaceous border. I liked Irwin's giant mushroom-like parasols of rebar, supporting bougainvillea vines. Resting under one of them I fell into conversation with two ample black ladies. I asked them if they were bothered by Bill's morals. They said it had been embarrassing to explain his conduct to foreign visitors. Besides, said Mary, who had been happily recounting her solo drive up the coast to Alaska twenty years ago to visit the pipeline then under construction, if you were going to have sex, why not have real sex?

I went back into the galleries, all rather dingily lit in the modern manner. Lieberman would have felt uncomfortable. Here was Jan Steen's “Bathsheeba After the Bath,” featuring a slutty girl with big breasts eagerly preparing for her first interview with King David. Here too Theodore Gericault's Three Lovers, an unabashed and altogether approving portrayal of two girls and a fellow in bed, blissfully ignorant of the Gore-Lieberman menace to their enjoyment only 180 years over the horizon. Even the 18th century English gallery contained intimations of immoral conduct, with Peter Lely's hot portrait of Louise de Keroualle, Duchess of Portsmouth and mistress to Charles II. Across the room is Gainsborough's amiable portrait of his friend James Christie, founder of the auction house. This was one of Getty's earlier purchases and also one of his best. How Christie would have laughed at all the fakes palmed off on Getty in the middle decades of this century.

Particularly in the Italian galleries Getty's credulity is pleasingly visible. The general aroma of duplicity is nicely summed up in the museum's solemn caption to Dosso Dossi's portrait of St. George: “Dosso focuses on the complex psychology of the saint as he emerges from his legendary battle with the dragon. The saint's furrowed brow, emotive eyes and open mouth suggest the toll of the fierce fight mixed with dawning sorrowful relief.”

In fact St. George was just the sort of man who would have slept in the Lincoln Bedroom and contributed handsomely to the Democratic National Committee, not to mention the campaign treasury of Joe Lieberman. He began his career as a defense contractor, owning the bacon franchise to the Roman army. Then he became a tax collector. As Gibbon remarks, “His trade was mean. He rendered it infamous.” Mired in scandal he announced he had been reborn and the church installed him as bishop of Alexandria where his peculations were so burdensome that the populace stoned him to death. The church promptly made him a saint.

The impresarios of both the Democratic and Republican National Committees would do well to visit the Getty Center and study how they stage-managed big events in the old days. Luca Carlevarijs did a couple of paintings of Venetian regattas, one of them with the doge marrying the city to the Adriatic. How nice it would have been to have had Bill landing in a Venetian barge at Santa Monica pier, marrying his party to Hollywood with Bill symbolically tossing into the polluted waters a copy of the Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996, etched in gold, before repairing to the lovely home of Barbra Streisand, he dressed as Belshazzar and she as Vashti who, you will recall, declined to attend Ahasuerus's revels, thus paving the way for Esther and, ultimately for Joe Lieberman.

I enjoyed Bill's farewell speech. Stuffed with fraudulent statistics, it's the sort of thing he does best. But do not bid adieu to the boy from Hope quite yet. His current plan is to enjoy the defeat of Al Gore in November, four years of economic depression under the supervision of George W. Bush, followed by Bill's triumphant return in 2004.

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