Wednesday, September 09, 2009

In the Penny Press! Laugher and Loss in Vanity Fair!

We go from the ridiculous to the sublime in the October issue of Vanity Fair, and if the word 'ridiculous' has appeared, surely the words 'Sarah Palin' can't be far behind?

In this issue we're told that Levi Johnston, the meh-looking aspiring model former boyfriend of the former John McCain vice presidential Hail Mary pass, really wants to "tell his story" and so has consented to have his first-hand gossip of life with the Palins in Wasilla ghost-written by VF. Poor preoccupied Levi has no doubt forgotten that he's already told his story a few times (we've covered the, um, highlights here), but no matter: good gossip is good gossip, and besides, anything, no matter how silly or ambiguous, that helps to keep Sarah Palin away from national politics is worth reading.

So Levi tells the story of what it was like to be called by his then-girlfriend, the daughter of the Alaska governor, and told to be ready: her mom's gone national, and she's taking them with her! One can only feel sympathy for the image-masters and meat-handlers on the McCain staff when they first confronted the, shall we say unrefined piece of Alaskan manhood that Levi represented and (charmingly?) continues to represent: unshaven, unapologetically mulletted, cheek bulging with chaw, posture better suited for blasting black bears with automatic weapons from miles away than for walking on stage with America's most certifiably insane former POW. Those handlers did the best they could, with the boy and the governor, and the nation teetered as close as it's come to a full-blown Oval Office nightmare since a certain admiral forgot to turn on his hearing aid during a nationally televised debate.

The piece is full of backstairs gossip about what Sarah Palin was like at home in Wasilla, and none of it comes as a real surprise - she was narcissistic, whining, and phony (Levi's outrage when he comments that her stance as a huntswoman was purely for the cameras is palpable - he tells us in disgust that as far as he knows, she's never killed an innocent animal with automatic weapons fire from miles away). That she could also be crass (you'll have to read the piece yourselves to learn the exact context of the line "No, I don't want the retarded baby - give me the normal baby!" - but honestly, can such a line ever be saved by context?) also comes as no surprise, and the greed isn't a shocker either (Levi isn't 100% sure the Palins gave back all the neat stuff the McCain campaign gave them to spruce up their image).

(No, once again all the surprises are about Levi himself, who despite what could only be called a broad array of personal shortcomings, still comes across as a decent, likable young man - a devoted father and fairly unassuming guy. If he had an ounce of sense, he'd parlay his brush with near-fame into the very modest, low-key kind of dividends that can pay off handsomely for a lifetime - find a sports magazine and write a 'Hunting Life' column every month for the next forty years, or do the video equivalent for the Hunting Network - but alas, according to this and every other article about him, it appears Levi has delivered himself into the hands of handlers, and such creatures always dream of world conquest ... a hardcover memoir, a 'reality' TV show, followed almost immediately by the burnout of the public's always-minimal interest, after which a hapless and overweight Levi finds himself on the fifth season of Celebrity Organ Donations - Live! wondering what happened).

No, the saddest thing about the sordid revelations in this piece is that they probably won't make any difference to the large number of voting Americans who've embraced the whole concept of Sarah Palin. They swallowed the package presented to them by the unmitigatedly evil McCain campaign - of a 'hockey mom,' and average-jane who's sicka them professional slicker politicians in Washington an' wants to show 'em how normal, honest, hard-working people do things. Ten years ago, I would have looked at the shallowness of that package and said there's no way the American voting public could put that package in the Oval Office. But then again, ten years ago I was reading a Barbara Bush interview in which she looked out at her gathered family and said, "That boy has got himself a shit-covered view of the world," and I chuckled, because a mother always knows. Guess who she was talking about?

The primacy of the public image carries over to the other article of interest in this Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner's piece on the ordeal William Manchester went through writing The Death of a President and then vetting it past various ranks of Kennedy family members and retainers. Kashner does a fantastic job, and the piece is gripping reading (a little too VF-ish at times, true, but you can't expect him to take their money without goosing up the prose at least a little! Still, you can take it from me: the familiar Hollywood scene in which Jackie the impeccable hostess, in the middle of hugging one guest, leans close to another and coldly whispers, "I'm going to ruin you"? That never happened, thank goodness).

The main impression it conveys isn't of an author fighting valiantly against the black forces of censorship, though - it's the impression of a whole bunch of stunned, shocked, grieving people reacting in the weird, intense, often prolonged spasm-patterns that unexpected grief often imposes. So Bobby Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy only grant Manchester permission to write his book if they get final say as to what it says; so Manchester works on it for fifteen hours a day, day after day, until his fingers literally bleed; so Jackie and her defenders reflexively fight the finished product, even though virtually everybody in the publishing world who saw the manuscript reacted the same way, calling it a monumental masterpiece, something that would only do the dead president credit - indeed, though nobody said it, exactly the kind of detail-heavy work of history the JFK himself liked to read.

The whole story sputters sadly to a kind of odd non-finish: Death of a President is out of print, and the manuscript sits in the Kennedy Library. Bobby is gone, Manchester is gone, Jackie is gone, now even Ted Kennedy is gone, and the pages and pages of written objections Kashner faithfully documents - and Manchester's sometimes deferential, sometimes contentious responses - all seem like so much minor quibbling now.

I can attest to those of you who might be curious that Death of a President is a huge, incredible book, one of the greatest and saddest of the massive works that were born in the first massive convulsion of Kennedy-grief. My copy has many, many underlined passages of really quite lovely prose (and of course I'd be happy to obtain copies of it for any of you who might want to read it - Penguin did a very sturdy trade paperback decades ago), and my hope is that this article will reach the right people, open the right minds, and get that volume brought back into print.

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