It's All Relative It is not often that I respond to readers' mail, but some of last week's were a gem. One by Kevin Beary I found particularly intelligent. Needless to say (we all have a bit of Clinton in us) it had to do with the attack on my person in Central Park. Fear not, dear readers, I will not rehash it yet again; but I will repeat what Beary wrote: "Let's say that a well-known black homosexual journalist who writes on social and homosexual matters is walking in Central Park with his black partner. A white man in his late 20s spits in the journalist's partner's black face, then punches the journalist three times, drawing blood. I dare say this story would have been replayed on NY1 for days... Pledging to civilize the Empire State if elected, Hillary Clinton would have denounced the violence that intolerance breeds. And there would have been a civil rights march through Central Park, which President Clinton himself might have attended, vowing to make the park safe for people 'who are different from us.'"
All I can say is Hooray for Kevin Beary! Civil rights laws nowadays do not seem to cover white, heterosexual, Christian, law-abiding people. In fact, we are the "different" people. And woe to those who put themselves in a position to be judged. Take for example Officer Volpe, the cop who pleaded guilty of having shoved a stick up Abner Louima's rectum. Now turn the story around. A black 25-year-old police officer with little experience is punched in the face and, after arresting a drunken white man loitering in front of a nightclub, proceeds to beat him up and sodomize him with a stick. Now let's play it fair and square. How many of you would go marching down to the police station to protest? Would the moronic Susan Sarandon take the time to do it? And, most important by far, would the prosecutor, one Vinegrad (obviously hoping some shyster legal firm will pick him for future litigation against tobacco), demand life in jail without parole?
What, in God's name, is happening here? Is this Moscow circa 1936? Officer Volpe should go to jail, but not for life and certainly not without the possibility of parole. There are murderers freed on technicalities every day?Precious Bedell being the latest example?but just because Glenn Close and Sarandon are not in his corner does not mean Volpe has no civil rights. Let's face it. Racism has a lot to do with this case. A black cop who did a Volpe would, in my not so humble opinion, get three to four, maybe five to seven years in the pokey, perhaps 10. He'd walk in three. Vinegrad should be ashamed of himself, and when I say this, I am not in any way trying to diminish what Abner Louima went through. But justice should be blind and, alas, no longer is. (Thank your lucky stars for that, OJ.)
Antibias crimes laws are a pathetic political gesture to appease various special interest groups, no ifs or buts about it. The Clintons revel in antibias crime legislation; it's the oxygen that fuels their popularity with those extremely vocal special interests. All crimes are hateful, and the thoughts behind the act do not change the result. Having said this, it's a sad day in America when two more of our readers' letters were published but their names withheld by request. Both dealt with anti-Semitism?mind you, not the usual kind:
"Norman Podhoretz...is not alone in smearing Pat Buchanan with the charge of anti-Semitism. William Safire...also accused him of it (a fatal charge in this Holocaust-whipped country) because Buchanan suspects some Jews to have 'dual loyalties,' to both Israel and the U.S. Now it's no secret...that Safire and...Rosenthal have been trying to silence and destroy Buchanan ever since he alone...had the guts to say...[that] the Israeli lobby has way too much power in Congress, the White House and the media."
I happen to agree; Safire, Podhoretz and Rosenthal have tried?and partially succeeded?in destroying Buchanan, but only because Pat is a conservative (yes, yes, I know, he's now a Reformist allied with Fulani). If Pat had been an extreme leftist, a Nixon-hater, a blame-America-firster, his alleged anti-Semitism would have never been raised. Pat never called New York Hymietown, and never said the Jews are evil people, yet some of those who have are invited to the White House to counsel the Clintons before the Draft Dodger perjures himself in front of the whole country.
Again, what is going on here? The other unsigned letter was even more to the point. It warns against anti-Semitism being stoked by the acts of various powerful Jewish organizations, starting with Hollywood's disregard of the Christian sensibilities?"the annual Miramax anti-Christian agit-prop"?and the blasphemous "art" show in Brooklyn.
Well, all I can say is I get their point. About nine years ago, as a columnist for the New York Observer, I made fun of Abe Rosenthal's hysterics in his column in the Times. (Having said this, let me add that of course Abe was treated disrespectfully and disgracefully by the Times, but then it's par for the course. Next week I will have my say about Junior Sulzberger.) What I wrote was the following: "If Abie baby makes love the way he writes, I feel very sorry for his wife." A month later I was invited to Norman Mailer's house in Brooklyn for dinner. It was a rather grand affair in honor of the Austrian ambassador, with lotsa big names present. (When Norman and Norris Mailer get on the blower, few biggies refuse.) Just before we sat down I noticed place cards being changed around and a bit of a hubbub.
After everyone left I sat with Norman and Norris chatting. I asked them what the brouhaha before dinner was about. "It was about you," said Norris. "Shirley Lord [Abe's little woman] refused to sit next to you and called you an anti-Semite." I said something about her not having manners?after all, one does not embarrass or inconvenience one's host in order to score brownie points; but then, how could the English-born Shirley know??and laughed about it.
Couple of weeks later, at Elaine's, Sidney Zion clued me in. "It's because you called him Abie," said my friend Sidney. Putting on my best Jackie Mason accent I asked Zion: "And that makes me an anti-Semite?" Go figure, as they say. And it was just as well. During dinner I was one chair away from Norman, and the subject of my growing up under the German occupation came up. Someone asked me how horrible the German officers billeted in our house were. When I answered that the only horrible thing they did was to save my brother's life by giving him aspirin for his high fever, jaws dropped. But then Norman came to my rescue and dinner finished on a high note.
Toby Young ARRIVISTE
My Model Roommate I don't know how to put this so it won't sound like bragging, so I'm just going to come right out and say it: I'm living with a supermodel. Admittedly, it's not Amber Valletta or Bridget Hall. It's the British supermodel Sophie Dahl. I should also state straight away that I'm not sleeping with her, either. We're just good friends, unfortunately. But I still get to see her naked.
I have to say, though, it isn't working out as I'd hoped. In fact, it's not working out at all. What should have been every guy's dream has turned into every guy's nightmare.
I think the worst thing about living with a supermodel are the phone calls. From the moment she moved in, the phone hasn't stopped ringing. Ninety-nine percent of the callers are men?and none of them wants to speak to me. On those rare occasions when it's someone I know, we have one of those awkward, embarrassing conversations in which they feel obliged to talk to me for a suitable period of time before they can politely ask to speak to Sophie. A typical conversation goes something like this:
Gentleman Caller (surprised): Oh. Hello Toby. How are you?
Me: Fine. How the hell are you? I haven't heard from you in ages.
GC: Yeah, you know how it is. So, er, how are things?
Me: Oh God, where to begin? Well, I'm still writing for New York Press?
GC (interrupting): Sorry, I'm in a bit of a rush. Is Sophie there by any chance?
Me: Oh. Yeah. Hold on. I'll pass you to her. (to Sophie): It's my father...
I first met Sophie in November 1996 when I was working on a "Cool Brittania" story for Vanity Fair. She was only 19 at the time, but with her sunny, up-for-anything personality and voluptuous, Coca Cola bottle figure, she seemed to embody the spirit of Swinging London Mark II. I developed a massive dirty-old-man crush on her?she's 14 years my junior?but I was no match for London's boy-band heartthrobs. By the time the Vanity Fair story came out, Sophie was Britain's number one It Girl. I started calling her whenever I was in London and she would take me to fashion parties, fighting off the paparazzi with one hand and dragging me along behind her with the other.
When she announced she was coming to New York to pursue an acting career I invited her to move into my spare room and, to my astonishment, she accepted. Needless to say, this wasn't an act of charity on my part. In my mind's eye I pictured my apartment becoming a giant changing room for the world's most sought-after models as they darted around New York between fashion shoots. It has, too. The trouble is, they're all men.
Living with a supermodel is enough to convince even the most popular young man that his life is drab and uninteresting in comparison. Since I'm neither young nor popular I didn't take much convincing, but I could have done without the constant reminders. In New York there isn't a party worth going to that Sophie isn't invited to. Before she moved in, whenever the doorbell rang in the middle of the day it was nothing more glamorous than a delivery from Amazon.com. Now it's an endless stream of invitations. If I want to find out what she was doing the night before I only have to read "Page Six."
There are compensations, though. Every evening I'm treated to my own private fashion show as Sophie models the various outfits she's thinking of wearing. As far as I can tell she gets all her clothes for free. She returns from fashion shoots with carrier bags full of cashmere sweaters, designer dresses and pony skin jackets, all given to her by ambitious young stylists eager to win her favor. I'm trying to persuade her to have a sample sale in the apartment. At least that way I might get to meet some of her female friends.
I suppose it was naive of me to think that Sophie would invite me to accompany her on her nightly rounds of the New York party circuit. From her point of view it would be like taking her dad along. Indeed, now that she's living with me, I'm beginning to think of Sophie less as a friend and more as a daughter. In all sorts of ways, I'm getting a real taste of what it's like to be a parent.
For instance, should I warn her against the various sleazy fortysomething men that have already begun to circle her like crows hunting for fresh meat? Or will that only serve to make them more intriguing? As an adolescent, I always did precisely the opposite of what my parents told me and I suspect Sophie may be the same. Perhaps I should try some reverse psychology and urge her to go out with these lecherous old goats.
On the other hand, before I get too censorious I ought to make sure I'm not just becoming an envious, embittered old man. Is there some part of me that can't bear to see a beautiful young girl enjoying herself? When I warn her to be more wary and suspicious of people, I tell myself it's just because I want to protect her; it's for her own good, damnit! But if she was any less reckless she wouldn't have so much fun. I want her to grow up and yet I can't be sure it's not because I'm jealous of her youth. I imagine this perpetual scrutiny of one's motives is typical of what a parent goes through.
In truth, I love living with Sophie. You'd think that with all the attention she receives she'd be a celebrity monster by now but she's actually extremely good-hearted and kind. She's also much more intelligent than most of the people I went to Oxford with. The reason she's so vulnerable is that she hasn't developed that jaded crust so many of her peers have; she's like a child wandering around a wood full of bears, carrying a honeycomb. I hope she wises up, but I hope she doesn't lose her sweetness in the process.
George Szamuely THE BUNKER
Selling Snake Oil "It is a strategic agreement that advances America's national interest." When you hear such words coming from the mouth of a government official?particularly one as sleazy as Energy Secretary Bill Richardson (he of Monica Lewinsky job offer fame)?you can be pretty sure the "agreement" has nothing whatever to do with the "national interest" and everything to do with politicians having their snouts in the trough. Only bribes could ever have got off the ground an idea as silly as building a 1000-mile pipeline from the Azerbaijan capital of Baku on the Caspian Sea to Ceyhan, a Turkish port in the Mediterranean.
The idea is to make sure that Iran and Russia are cut out of the oil and gas riches of the Caspian Sea. Since these two countries are also the two biggest powers in the region and have historic claims on the Caspian, U.S. policy is reckless to say the least.And for no reason. Oil prices are low. There is no shortage of oil in the world.
Recent drilling results have raised suspicions that the Caspian reserves may not be as large as originally thought. The pipeline will cost something like $3.7 billion to build. To justify such expenditure, a minimum of 1 million barrels of oil a day would need to go through the pipeline. Since Azerbaijan cannot guarantee that amount of oil, countries on the other side of the Caspian will be forced to make use of this pipeline. This in turn will mean building yet another pipeline under the sea.
So why is the United States pushing this nonsense? Several years ago the oil companies got terribly excited by the vast oil and gas reserves that supposedly lie in the Caspian Sea. Some estimates suggested that there might be 200 billion barrels of oil there as well as 100 billion barrels of gas. But nobody really knew. The wonderful thing about the Central Asians was that, unlike the Arabs, they were more than happy to have foreigners come in and get the oil out. This naturally made the sinister former Soviet leaders who were in charge very appealing to Westerners.
However, as is the way with greedy corporations, they threw away billions of dollars before they realized that their investment made no sense. The Caspian Sea is landlocked. How were they going to get the oil out? The existing pipelines went through lands that were run by bandits, warlords, terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, ethnic separatists and drug traffickers. So they turned to Washington for help.
Here they came up against a problem. Thanks to the power of the Armenian lobby, their client state, Azerbaijan, was out of favor. Article 907 of the 1992 Freedom Support Act barred the U.S. government from assisting the government of Azerbaijan as long as it maintained the embargo against the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The oil companies did what everyone does in Washington. They hired a lot of out-of-work politicians and third-rate habitues of NewsHour and lobbied like mad to get this legislation repealed.
Former Secretary of State James Baker was on board. His law firm represents the Azerbaijani International Operating Corporation (AIOC)?a $7.5 billion oil consortium consisting of twelve shareholder companies including Pennzoil, Exxon and BP Amoco. Former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was also on hand. He is chairman and chief executive officer of Halliburton Co., the world's largest oil-field services company. Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft was not to be left out either. He picks up a cool $130,000 as adviser to Pennzoil. John Sununu also took part. His management consulting firm, JHS Associates, has been very active in Azerbaijan. Lloyd Bentsen, never one to go without, is a shareholder in Frontera Resources, an oil services company working in Azerbaijan. Frontera's chairman is William H. White, a former Clinton deputy secretary of energy. Then there is our old friend Zbigniew Brzezinski. He is a consultant to BP Amoco.
With so many palms being greased, it was not surprising that payday soon came around. In 1997, with enormous fanfare, Clinton received the repulsive Azerbaijani dictator Heydar Aliyev at the White House. There Chevron, Exxon and Mobil signed contracts with the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR). But greed got in the way. Bill Clinton's greed, that is. Remember Roger Tamraz? He was a frequent guest at the White House. He liked to sit down to coffee with Clinton and have barbecues and movie dinners. Tamraz also contributed about $300,000 to the Democratic Party during the 1996 campaign. He planned to contribute a lot more.
Tamraz and Clinton got on well together. They had a lot in common. In 1989 an international warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of embezzling $200 million from a Lebanese bank. In 1992, a Jordanian court convicted him in absentia on these charges and sentenced him to two years in prison. In addition, a French court has ordered him to turn over $56 million in connection with a financial dispute. It was Tamraz who suggested to Clinton that the U.S. government help build a Central Asian pipeline that would bypass Russia. Clinton, panting as ever for more money, got on the phone to his Chief of Staff, Mack McLarty. He told him to meet Tamraz and then to pressure the Energy Department into taking up Tamraz's pipeline idea. From then, the U.S. government became obsessed with the Baku-Ceyhan project.
However, this was not what the oil companies had in mind. They thought the Baku-Ceyhan route was ridiculous. Modernizing the existing pipelines from Baku to the Black Sea port of Supsa in Georgia or the port of Novorossisk in Russia would cost less than half as much. Their real preference was to transport the oil from Baku through Iran to the Kharg Island terminal on the Persian Gulf.
Such a notion would cause Administration officials, not to mention the Bill Kristols and John Podhoretzes, to chew the rug. Yet pipelines across Iran make a lot more sense than pipelines anywhere else. Georgia scarcely exists as a country any longer as it falls apart into innumerable secessionist wars. There have been innumerable assassination attempts on its President, Eduard Shevardnadze. Azerbaijan could renew its war against Armenia at any time. There have been at least two coup attempts against Aliyev in the last few years. Turkey's war against the Kurds appears to be ending, though it could start up again.
These then are America's friends and allies. Compared to them, Iran is a model of political stability. Yet logic never enters into the calculations of our demented leaders. Recently the loathsome Strobe Talbott warned the "nations throughout the [Caucasus] region about the development of close relations with Iran. As a state-sponsor of terrorism and a nation bent on the development of weapons of mass destruction, Iran still poses a threat to all its neighbors? We will continue to work with all the states of the Caucasus to thwart the growth of Iran's influence in the region."
Happy days are here again! Iran is forever the Iran of 1979. Russia is forever ruled by Stalin. And anyone who lived under Soviet rule is forever a freedom fighter. Today's heroes are Azerbaijan's Heydar Aliyev and Georgia's Eduard Shevardnadze. Through its Partnership for Peace program, NATO established the Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion, or CENTBAT. One of the first exercises involved 500 members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division being parachuted into Kazakhstan following a 23-hour flight from Ft. Bragg. Shevardnadze regularly demands that Georgia be admitted into NATO. As in the Cold War, absurd dictators are hailed in Washington as forces for "stability." In other words, they can be relied on to protect American investments. This time America may not get off so easily. One of these tin-pot Central Asian dictators will get himself involved in a fight with Russia. Then we will see how feeble the "new NATO" really is.
Sam Schulman HAMLET
Love One Another Don't let soreheads and sourpusses gassing on about the battle of the Brooklyn Museum tell you that we Americans are neopuritans and antisex. In fact, when the chips are down, when values clash, when the lifeboats are launched, when life-and-death decisions have to be made, there is no doubt what our great-and-good put first. It's unfettered male sexual self-expression, then everything else?well, if there's room.
This glorification of sex is vividly and surprisingly on view in, of all places, the affair of U.S. late payments to the United Nations. The editorial page of The New York Times has scolded the U.S. regularly about this. Our shameful and embarrassing behavior over these dues will have the most dreadful effects. Unless we pay up, we will be relegated to a mere onlooker on the great affairs of the world. We may become a minor power that nobody respects or looks to for leadership, and that other nations will despise and regard as isolationist. At the next human-rights carpet-bombing ball, our B-52s will be wallflowers.
Well, thank goodness for our poor reputation: the UN dues matter is settled?with one footnote. U.S. funds won't go to organizations that include the provision of abortions as part of family planning?a matter of a few millions. It will be a nuisance. A few men in India who want to terminate their wives' pregnancies because they are carrying a baby girl will have to dig into their own pockets. Municipal authorities in China who enforce the one-baby rule will have to pay for their coercive abortions in other ways, perhaps through road-repair funds. A few more potholes, a few more little girls, but the world will go on.
You wouldn't think so from the outcry. The New York Times' editorial page has actually gone so far as to "bemoan" this outrage. Al Gore and Bill Bradley have left off wringing each other's necks to wring their hands over it. But what about the claims that have been made for UN membership? Without the UN, genocide would spread over the Earth. (In fact, the UN likes to look the other way, as it did on the spot in Rwanda, or prevent those who try to oppose it, as it did in Bosnia during the Boutros-Ghali regime, or promote brutal ethnic cleansing, as it did in the Krajina, and is now doing in Kosovo.) Only the UN stands between the U.S. and nuclear holocaust. (Actually, what stopped that threat was deployment of Pershing missiles and the development of "Star Wars.") Only the UN can prevent global environmental catastrophe. (It can't, which is okay because there is no global environmental catastrophe.) You'd think that if any set of issues would top the wish lists of the Gore and Bradley campaigns, and of The New York Times' editorial board, it would be those. And you'd think that arming ourselves against global warming, genocide and all the ills the flesh is heir to would outweigh having to shift how abortions are paid for on the other side of the Earth.
But you'd be wrong. Suddenly an asterisk in population policy becomes more important than the world not blowing into smithereens or melting into the warming oceans. Doesn't it seem extraordinary to you? If you had to choose between the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, on the one hand, and making it a bit more of a nuisance to cull girl fetuses, wouldn't you plump for the big picture?
There are only two possible explanations, the first of which can be discarded out of hand: that the UN's defenders are utterly insincere in their claims for it. That simply cannot be true. No, I think that the fact is that Gore, Bradley and the rest of the establishment enjoy sexual intercourse a lot more than they look like they do. And they'll defend to our death the right of the most irresponsible to enjoy it. Any limitation, for any reason, anywhere, on what enables male sexual pleasure to take place without biological consequences is unthinkable.
If FDR had to rewrite the "Four Freedoms" for today's world, they couldn't be printed in "Taki's Top Drawer."
This isn't the first time that our establishment has shown its hairy hand in this way. The same extraordinary valuation was placed on male sexual pleasure during the AIDS epidemic among male homosexuals during the 1980s. It was precisely those whose lives were most at risk who acted. They insisted that ordinary public-health measures against infectious diseases?infection-tracing and asking carriers to disclose their disease to their sexual partners?must be forbidden. As a result, HIV spread faster and more widely than it would have, and more gay men sickened and died. The AIDS establishment and its civil-rights cheerleaders were willing to accept this result, because the alternative was unthinkable: putting some?any?theoretical limitation on sexual pleasure. Again, our society places its values in a stringent order of importance. First comes sexual gratification. A distant second? Saving lives and preventing a deadly illness from striking the young and healthy.
Please don't tell anyone we don't, as a nation of rugged individualists, care about the pleasures of the flesh. And whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of abortion, Roe v. Wade has been a blast for U.S. men. One day, I hope, I'll be able to sit in my rocking chair and tell my disbelieving grandsons about the bad old days, which by then will have acquired a certain tawdry glamour?like the Wild West.
"Puffy, my lad," I'll say, "when I was a boy, if you can believe it, we lived in a coercive society. In fact, a young man like you couldn't look a strong, independent, beautiful woman in the eyes, take her hand in yours and say, on the basis of perfect sexual equality, 'What are you bothering me for, bitch? Get rid of it!'"
Jim Holt THE TIRED HEDONIST
Dumpster Of History It was bound to happen, but I did not think it would happen so suddenly. The Jefferson Theater, the very jewel of New York's vaudeville era, has been pulled down. My sentimental attachment to the Jefferson, which until a couple of weeks ago stood in a state of lovely but melancholy decrepitude on the south side of 14th St. between 2nd and 3rd Aves., has nothing to do with nostalgia for vaudeville. I am not affected by that. Yes, I would have liked to have gone to the Jefferson in the 1920s, vaudeville's heyday, to see such acts as the Marx Brothers, Mae West and Jack Benny; but I was not around then. In the 1930s New York's vaudeville culture was done in by the growing popularity of motion pictures, and the Jefferson became a movie house. I never saw a movie there either, because it closed its doors in the 60s.
My first acquaintance with the Jefferson was not made until 1981. It was a gloomy time for cafe society in Manhattan. The club scene both uptown and downtown had become very tired. But word was out that a new after-hours club had opened in a defunct theater on E. 14th. When I made my way to the unfamiliar address and entered through the crumbling lobby, I discovered that the club was actually in the loft above the theater, where a nightlife impresario resided along with his family and dogs. The bar was in their living room, which was done up retro-style in plastic and leopardette. David Bowie was there that night?or was it Billy Idol??and so were Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, who had just got out of prison and were living in a halfway house.
The Jefferson club was quite fabulous and completely illegal?no permits, no liquor license. Police raids were frequent. After a few brilliant months of existence, the club was busted for good by Public Morals. Once again the old vaudeville theater lapsed into desuetude.
Over the intervening years, all of the familiar landmarks around the Jefferson on E. 14th St. have been demolished. The latest to go were the ornate little building that once contained the legendary restaurant Luchow's?swept away in the mid-90s following a blaze that the fire department directly across the street somehow failed to extinguish?and the Academy of Music (known more recently as the Palladium nightclub), leveled to make way for another one of those huge, bland NYU dormitories, now under construction.
The Jefferson Theater, Luchow's, the Academy of Music: these were the last vestiges of a glorious era when E. 14th St. was the musical and theatrical heart of New York. The Academy of Music, which opened in 1854, was the operatic bastion of Gotham's old guard. Hard by was the imposing Tammany Hall, headquarters of the all-powerful political machine ruled by "Boss" Tweed. A block west stood Steinway Hall, which for a quarter century was the classical music center of the country, not to mention the headquarters for Steinway pianos. In the 1880s the stretch of 14th St. just opposite Union Square was known as the Slave Market because of the hundreds of actors milling around looking for engagements at the abundant number of theaters in the area.
Well before the turn of the century, though, the highbrow and middlebrow stuff started to move uptown. In 1883 the nouveaux riches who could not get opera boxes at the Academy of Music started the Metropolitan Opera. By the 1890s the theatrical world had migrated up to Herald Square. Still, E. 14th St. retained a score of popular attractions, like its vaudeville houses and its nickelodeons (the precursors of movie theaters). And it remained a street of rich character and festively ornamental architecture.
With the pulling down of the Jefferson Theater, the physical destruction of E. 14th St. is virtually complete. What has replaced the old streetscape is badly scaled, institutional in appearance and utterly lacking in vitality. (The Con Ed building at 14th and Irving Pl. has a clock tower that is prettily illumined at night, but it is the dullest work of the architect who also designed the Dakota and the Plaza.) The only sign that the street did not recently spring into existence is the odd tenement surviving here and there.
New York City has never had any formal or obvious beauty, except when seen from far away or high above. At the street level it is incomparably uglier than Paris or London. But it has always possessed areas that have a queer sort of grandeur and romance. With the destruction of an old vaudeville house on E. 14th St., one of those areas has vanished for good. With the seemingly imminent demolition of the building at 295 Bowery, once the site of the infamous saloon known as McGurk's Suicide Hall, another is about to disappear.
Is that worth lamenting? Well, there is always the meatpacking district if you want a little historical patina, or certain intact parts of the Lower East Side, or of Harlem or Tribeca, or even of Greenwich Village insofar as it has not been devoured by NYU. But even with the historic preservation lobby, New York is still a bit more like Atlanta than like Barcelona. Atlantans, who gleefully raze all buildings of any historical interest every couple of generations or so, were shocked to discover during the 1996 Olympics, which they hosted, that the international press found their city to be unattractive and devoid of charm. Poor Atlanta. The previous Olympics had been held in Barcelona.
Charles Glass THE LONDON DESK
Labor & Lies God, this is a great town. We don't even have a mayor yet, and the place is falling apart. Back Stateside, we usually let our mayors into office before sending them to prison. I think of Marion Barry, whom the FBI generously allowed to become mayor of Washington before filming him smoking crack with the sexy number they sent him. Poor Jeffrey Archer, the Conservatives' nominee, has just been thrown out of the Conservative Party, is being sued for more than £1 million and may face criminal charges. And the election is months away.
Let me back up to explain. We haven't had a city government in London since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher took it away. Why? Because the people kept electing a left-wing council headed by a Labor politician named Ken Livingstone. New Labor is, in one of the rare instances of its reversing one of Margaret's policies, installing a new city government. It would install the mayor, too, if it could.
Margaret hated Ken Livingstone, but Tony Blair hates him more. Blair would rather pick a name from the telephone book to run as Labor's nominee. Looking at the people he's persuaded to stand against Livingstone, I think he did pick them from a phone directory. Their names will mean nothing to you in New York. They don't mean much here, although a few people remember Glenda Jackson from the movies and her commercials pitching for Hanson.
Labor made its candidates appear before a politburo, I mean selection committee, that demanded everything but loyalty oaths. Livingstone wrote in the New Statesman that the committee wanted him to "sign up in advance to the manifesto, irrespective of what it might contain. My protestations that we haven't actually got a manifesto yet were brushed aside." Stalin, I mean Blair, said whoever ran for Labor had to endorse the manifesto. He's asking Livingstone to sign a check for Blair to fill in later. Counted into the final sum will be the partial privatization of London's public transport system. Livingstone, unlike Blair, knows the public does not want to hand the tube over to a private company?especially to Railtrack, after the last few fatal train crashes on its privatized lines. If Blair blocks Ken's nomination, he cannot stop him running and winning as an independent. It should be a nonpartisan office anyway, although that would deprive both Labor and the Conservatives of the opportunity to discredit themselves.
Labor's internal hemorrhage provided mirth to the Conservatives, who have not had much to laugh about since the voters threw them out of office on May Day 1997. Their momentary giggling ended when their nominee, Jeffrey Archer, the novelist and Conservative life peer, abruptly withdrew from public life. Archer had been touting himself for the mayor's job for years, popping up on television more often than the BBC logo. At last October's Conservative Party Conference, the party's leader, young William Hague, anointed Archer with the words: "This candidate is a candidate of probity and integrity. I am going to back him to the full." Forgotten, or at least set aside, was Archer's past: allegations of insider share deals, rumors that he had perjured himself in his libel suit against a newspaper that accused him of engaging a prostitute.
It all stemmed from a dinner Archer said he had with a television producer named Ted Francis at the Sambuca Italian restaurant, which was then just off Sloane Square, in September 1986. Ted swore in court that he and Jeff downed pasta and vino rosso at the Sambuca, when other people were accusing him of spending the night with one Monica "Debbie" Coghlan, a woman of the night. (At that time, Miss Coghlan informed a friend of mine, to whom she was providing her apparently splendid services, that nice Mr. Archer had been in her bed a short time before. I think my friend blames his subsequent case of herpes on Archer, but that may be a calumny.)
Anyway, Archer won his libel suit against the tabloid Daily Star and collected £500,000 plus his legal costs.
That was then, this is then again. Ted Francis has just told a newspaper that Archer persuaded him to provide a false alibi in court. I'm not sure why Francis suddenly acquired a conscience, but I hope Rupert Murdoch pays for his lawyers if someone decides to enforce the laws against perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Those are the charges for which the former defense minister, Jonathan Aitken, is now wallowing in prison. Will Archer, too, go down for perjury? The words of the great Bard of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken, I believe it was, come to mind: "There are two impossible things in life: one drink and an honest politician."
Archer's disappearance has left the Conservatives rooting around for even lesser known nonentities to run against Livingstone than Blair has turned up. Steven Norris? David Mellor? Both men are best remembered for, well, the sort of things Archer was getting up to. Norris, at least, didn't appear to pay for it. The only safe bet for the Tories would be Ted Heath, the ex-prime minister and oldest nearly living member of Parliament. He, at least, has never been in a sex scandal. I won't say why.
Livingstone may or may not be honest, but he is popular. His Greater London Council did some nutty things, like spending taxpayers' money on every gay and free-love fringe group that put out its open hand. But he improved services and reduced the fares on London Transport so people would use it. He's the only politician I know of who leaves dinner parties early to catch the last tube train home. He's a left-winger who counts among his friends the right-wing casino owner, John Aspinall. When he visited Aspinall down at his zoo outside London, Livingstone put out his hand and said, "Trot meets fascist." I wouldn't trust him any more than other politicians, but he will make life in this town more fun.
The best thing is that he'll annoy the hell out of Blair. To New Labor, Livingstone is the peasant cousin who comes up from the country and eats peas with his knife to remind his parvenu relatives that they were not to the manor born.
Livingstone is also a restaurant critic. This town has some great restaurants, lively gathering places that Dr. Johnson, Addison and Steele, Swift and Hogarth would recognize. I wonder if Livingstone has reviewed the Sambuca, which moved recently to Lower Sloane St. It's the trattoria that time forgot, its hallmark a 1960s "sweet trolley" of sherry trifle, fruit salad, Black Forest gateau and creme brulee. If Archer had said he and Ted had dinner at the Ivy or Simpson's, people would be understanding. But the Sambuca? There are better places, despite London's undeserved reputation for bad food.
I went to a display the other night at the Museum of London called 'London Eats Out,' a 400-year history of restaurants here. Wonderful stuff. When I got home, I looked this up in James Boswell's diary for 14 December 1762: "A beefsteak house is a most excellent place to dine at. You come in there to a warm, comfortable, large room, where a number of people are sitting at table. You take whatever place you find empty; call for what you like, which you get well and cleverly dressed. You may either chat or not as you like. Nobody minds you, and you pay very reasonably." Well, nobody minds you even now, but what you pay for a steak in London would buy the same weight in caviar in New York.
The museum exhibit is interesting, despite the fact they let Terence Conran design it to portray the fiction that all generations of restaurants were but stages on the evolutionary road to his own assembly-line food factories. Product placement at its most egregious, but I like the history and the book. Londoners have been getting out of their houses to enjoy food and drink in one another's company since the 16th century.
When I first moved here in 1976, Bianchi's in Soho served indifferent pasta upstairs in a room where a plaque said the television was invented. Elena Salvoni, who ran the place, looked on indulgently with her husband Aldo at the till, while Colin Smith of The Observer and I drank cognac illegally after hours out of teacups. Bianchi's closed, but Elena opened her own place, Elena's L'Etoile, in Charlotte St. We've all moved on to better places, to the Ivy, Caprice, Christopher's, Kensington Place, San Lorenzo... It's a long list.
Last Sunday, I had a classic London lunch?roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, overcooked vegetables, inedible roast potatoes?at 192 in Notting Hill. Sophie Dundas, an old friend and great beauty, kept me company, and we knocked back bottles of Chianti classico. I told her how I'd been wandering around London for the past week feeling worse than Jeffrey Archer. Self-pity over traumas with my True Love. Bill Witners singing "Ain't no sunshine when she's gone" ran through my head while I, like Hugh Grant in the movie Notting Hill, trudged through Portobello Market waiting for TL, far more beautiful than Julia Roberts, to return or not. A woman at the next table was listening to my inchoate ramblings.
"Are you eavesdropping?" I asked her. She was silent with embarrassment. I said, "I don't mind. I eavesdrop all the time. What do you think?" I don't usually solicit the opinions of strangers, but when you're down, you'll listen to anybody.
"I think," she said, carefully deliberating as she spoke, "that you should come and see me."
"I'm a psychiatrist."
That tribute alone may qualify me to be London's next mayor.
John O'Sullivan TRAVELING LIGHT
Third Rail Way In the England in which I grew up, there was an old joke that regularly served as a dismissive comment on some piece of pretentious thinking. Accompanied by a raised eyebrow, it went simply: "Elle a des idees au dessous de sa gare." Borrowed from Terence Rattigan's 1930's farce French Without Tears, it was an idle Englishmen's attempt to translate the sentence "She has ideas above her station," which came out as the French equivalent of "She has ideas suspended above her railway station"?a line that had apparently brought the house down on opening night and thereafter passed smoothly into middle-class conversation.
Watching the assembled leaders of the world's respectable Left meeting last week in Florence to discuss the progress of their Third Way politics, one could almost see the railway station suspended above their smug countenances. The more they talked, the less they said?until it became clear that the Third Way was the Rorchach Test of progressive politics. Each of them meant something different by it?sometimes a horrible obscenity, sometimes an idealistic dream?but none of them could persuade the others that their meaning was a correct or even plausible one.
There has always been a good deal of shifty mythmaking about the phrase. Blairite advocates of Third Way politics explain it as the Middle Way between the financial profligacy and total state control of Old Labor and the 19th-century laissez-faire of Thatcherite conservatism. But since the Thatcher government bequeathed its successors an extensive welfare state, and since the last Old Labor Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, introduced monetarist financial policies and nationalized nothing, that kind of definition was merely the old self-serving game of define the extremes and get the middle you want. It bears no relationship to the political reality, which is altogether more prosaic?namely, that ambitious politicians like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair realized that the voters didn't want high taxes or runaway welfare spending and that the markets would not tolerate deficit spending or barriers to trade and investment. So they had better abandon them.
But the Left cannot do anything, however obvious, without inventing a theory to portray it as an historically inevitable development. Thus Anthony Giddens of the London School of Economics wrote a book to expound the Third Way's deeper meanings. And seminars were held in New York and in Downing Street at which Clinton and Blair explained at length how they had revolutionized the future of the Left. The Third Way, ran the theory, was activist government to promote the flexible institutions and self-starting institutions that were needed in a post-socialist globalized economy.
Again, much of this was mere wordplay. Giddens makes much, for instance, of the notion of "social inclusion" as a new way of dealing with "marginalized groups." But this is just a different way of saying that we want better "welfare" to help "the poor" while avoiding the electorally off-putting word "welfare." Similarly, the Clinton-Blair push for "international labor and environmental regulation" to be part of the World Trade Organization's mandate is merely a ploy for keeping out cheap Third World imports while still paying lip service to free trade and free capital movements.
Admittedly there was something in all this?revealed in the distinction between the UK and America, where Reagan and Thatcher had already reformed their economies and public finances along competitive free-market lines, and continental Europe, which had economies in which state direction and capitalist cartels were still the dominant features. The Third Way was how socialists and social democrats adapted to the new reality of economies that had already undergone the revolutions of deregulation and openness to free trade. As Gerhard Schroder complained, he had to be both his own Blair and his own Thatcher.
Well, at least Schroder?with his campaign for a "New Middle"?seemed to want to be a post-Thatcher Blairite figure. Lionel Jospin, the French socialist Prime Minister, had won power on a paleo-socialist program of maintaining the regulatory welfare state in all its over-extended glory?and, indeed, extending it further with a work-sharing program for a 35-hour week. He and Scandinavian socialists denounced the Third Way as an antisocialist heresy and, worse, an Anglo-Saxon one.
At Florence, however, these simple lines were very heavily blurred. Mr. Jospin continued to denounce the Third Way. But hardheaded investors are looking more favorably on the French economy at present because they notice that Mr. Jospin's government has privatized more state industries than the cozy corporatist conservatives ever managed to do. As for the 35-hour week, the legislation introducing it also allows employers to bring in more flexible working hours against the wishes of trade unions. So the French economy is being modernized by stealth.
At the same time a report from the OECD revealed that Mr. Blair's new moderate government is raising taxes at a more rapid rate than any other country in Europe?but raising them in ways that most people don't notice. So the British economy is being burdened by stealth.
And Mr. Schroder had a row with Mr. Blair at Florence because, despite all his "New Middle" talk about giving shareholders more power and forcing corporations to respond to market forces, he is seeking to prevent a British company succeeding in its hostile takeover of a leading German telecommunications corporation. That is not how we do things in Germany, he says?which is true enough: this would be the very first hostile takeover of a German firm ever, if it succeeds. So the German economy is remaining as it comfortably is by stealth.
Fifty years ago, Herbert Morrison, a right-wing Old Labor stalwart in the Atlee government, got irritated with a left-winger who was lecturing him about how he had betrayed socialism. "Socialism," said Morrison, "is whatever the Labor government does." I have a feeling that Peter Mandelson, Blair's closest political confidante?the inventor of the Third Way and Morrison's grandson?would probably want to amend it only slightly: The Third Way is whatever the New Labor government does.