I’m reading David Remnick’s book of profiles he wrote for The New Yorker, called The Devil Problem, and the first piece is about a politician I’d never heard of named Gary Hart, a senator from Colorado, who, in the late 1980s, was running for president and appeared to have a good shot at winning. Then, aboard a ship called “Monkey Business,” he had an affair. The press found out about it, made a show, and Hart’s career in politics was over. Fell from grace overnight.
What’s said of Hart in the profile is that he seemed to take for granted that the press of the 1980s was the same press that had known about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mistress, and said nothing, that knew of John F. Kennedy’s homoerotic assignations and constant infidelities, and said nothing.
He expected the press to respect certain aspects of his private life.
What somebody else then mentions in the piece, though, is that the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s, where major news outlets were doing some aggressively top-notch investigative journalism (and unraveling the Nixon administration), created a new, strange, adversarial relationship between politicians and the media.
There’s a vibe of heartbreak among the people who knew Hart, who felt he was a good man and would have made a good politician, and who came to realize that his role in American political history was to play the martyr: the man whose reputation had to be crucified to mark the beginning of a new era of media-political relations.
Remnick then lavishes some attention on Bill and Hillary Clinton taking up their roles in the White House a few years later. How they went on 60 Minutes and spoke with what appeared to be great candor about some of the earlier troubles in their marriage, things that were painful and less than glamorous but that they’d managed to work through. (Remnick excerpts a chunk of the transcript: they’re not actually saying anything.)
It was unprecedented that a presidential candidate and his spouse would go on TV and discuss the travails of their marriage. Even if they weren’t actually saying much at all, it was a loud gesture of transparency. The Clintons were confirming that they were not the immaculate, benighted couple that the country had previously been trained to think the First Family was.
It was an illusion that the country, disenchanted by the horrors of the past two decades, had grown out of.
I’m thinking about what I’ve picked up about American history and pop-culture through Thousand Movie Project and it makes sense that reporters who came up during the 1960s and ‘70s would have been seeing the movies of that era, would have been watching the news of that era, and that, as a result, they’d have had plenty of reason to become pretty disenchanted with, and distrustful of, The Establishment that their parents’ generation had venerated, propagated, empowered. It’s what Bret Easton Ellis refers to as “Empire” America. The America that gave us a sparkling, young, handsome president, and big spectacular movies like Guys and Dolls and Gone with the Wind—stuff that reinforced values of an earlier time.
Then that sparkling young president gets his head blown off on live TV.
The big Hollywood spectacle gives way to grainy, subversive, cheap movies by auteurs. People start saying “fuck” on the big screen and we’re seeing breasts and gore. The Beats are talking openly about sex and psychedelics and monks are setting themselves on fire to protest a senseless war in Vietnam that was founded on a bullshit premise and that was Hoovering up the lives of tens of thousands of young American men, and there was footage of what some of those young men were doing to the civilians in Vietnam.
Right now, with the essays, I’m reaching the end of 1955. The 1980s seems like an eternity away. But this profile I just read about Hart, and how he was undone by a generation of reporters who were probably children in the 1950s (if indeed they were even alive yet), is making me think about how the milieu I’m seeing in the 1950s isn’t just a reflection of the fears, the dreams, the interests of its adult artists, its writers and filmmakers; it’s a portrait of the world in which the next generation grew up.
Filmmakers of the 1950s, obsessively paranoid, were made that way, in part, by their experiences in the 1940s. The War. Which was itself a product of things that had been happening in the 1930s (I do kinda believe that FDR was motivated to get involved in WWII because he knew it would lift us out of The Great Depression).
A new way I’ve gotta start looking at things, as they unfold: how is this gonna shape the people who are experiencing it at a young, anonymous, formative age?