The current occupant of the White House inspired this cover on Newsweek

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Not on National Lampoon or Mad magazine or even Rolling Stone in the great satirical heyday of Ralph Steadman. And based on the reporting that accompanies it, the headline Lazy Boy could not be more apt.

This happened. In America. We need our nation’s alleged conservatives to develop a conscience … and my home boys and girls in the middle of the country to turn off Fox Entertainment … so we can have all hands on deck to legally correct this monumental mistake.

And it needs to be corrected soon.

Biff! Bam!? POW!!! Tom Wolfe***!

Thomas KennerlyTomWolfe, Jr. (born March 2, 1931)

I think it was 2004 (when he was in  Los Angeles promoting the novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) that I saw Tom Wolfe in Skylight Books. He was seated alone at a small table in the back of the store (where the staff sets up microphones and chairs for writers who are having readings) and he was signing copy after copy of his book for the store. Tom Wolfe was wearing his trademark white suit, which looked immaculate, and his hair was dyed more or less blond. He looked healthy, but his hands shook as he wrote.

Tom Wolfe was one of a relatively small group of mostly magazine writers (mostly based in New York) who were credited in the 1960s and 1970s with creating something  called the “New Journalism,” which in its broadest sense was defined as the practice of applying fictional techniques to nonfiction reportage. Wolfe was foremost among New Journalists (i.e., the first to achieve fame and make serious money at it) and some of his better fellow practitioners included Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Jimmy Breslin, David Halberstam, Dan Wakefield, Gail Sheehy, and Hunter S Thompson. Established novelists such as Truman Capote and Norman Mailer also jumped on the New Journalism train.

Never mind that nearly all of the genre’s so-called innovations (including said use of fiction-style storytelling and immersion in the subject matter) had been around since at least Charles Dickens and Sketches by Boz (1836), which also included another New Journalism staple: trippy illustrations by an avant-garde (for his day) illustrator. Every generation has to pretend they are tearing down the opera houses and beginning anew. And every generation of publishers knows a good advertising gimmick when they see it.

What Wolfe and Talese and Didion and Thompson were doing did at least FEEL new and provided the impetus for some extraordinary books and possibly the most exciting period in magazine history. I can’t tell you the thrill I felt – from the late Sixties until whatever date we decide to pinpoint as the End of Print – when I’d open a new edition of Esquire, New York, Ramparts, Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone. You never knew what you’d find but you knew a lot of it would be good and there would be something you didn’t know, something you’d never thought of in that way, something that changed your mind, and occasionally something that ripped your head off. Oh, and you could count the misspellings and typos on the fingers of one hand.

Tom Wolfe (depending on your view of his work, including the later novels such as the Dickens-style serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities) is either a jumped-up reporter and fortunate beneficiary of a certain zeitgeist or a great American writer. I’d say he’s both and I’d make that assessment solely on his New Journalism period. Those early books – from the collections of magazine pieces such as Radical Chic through the two book-length excursions, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and The Right Stuff (1979), were among the best books of their day and have already stood the test of time.

Wolfe is also a good example of a writer that I mostly disagree with and still mostly admire. (Celine would be an extreme example.) Born in Virginia, he was a bit of a dandy and a Southern gentleman … if that’s not being redundant … and his pronouncements on social and artistic matters tend toward the conservative. Even, at times, the social conservative. I like a lot of 20th century architecture and design, but Wolfe doesn’t and I still enjoyed From Bauhaus to Your House. I love modern art and still (almost) love The Painted Word. And posterity is tremendously blessed that there was one person with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters who was “on the bus” to write and only to write.

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Tom Wolfe seemed happy as he signed his books. I got the feeling – based on nothing other than a feeling – that he enjoys writing and likes being Tom Wolfe. A Southern gentleman in a white suit with impeccable manners who has written books that ripped my head off. I decided not to ask for his autograph. That would have felt redundant.

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A Combover in the Crowd

combover in the crowd

Fear and Loathing on the Trump Trail, Part I

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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow… Chick, Chick, Chick!… Somewhere Around Barstow… A Rose Is a Rose… A Guest Star Better Late Than Never… Barstow Redux… A Face in the Crowd?… It Can’t Happen Here!… And Now a Word from Our Sponsor….

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You have to look at it, you can’t help yourself; but you mustn’t look too long or too hard.  Bad things can happen if you do. Right now – in the moment of which I write – I’m focused on the fluffy front part of Trump’s hair (he’s facing the camera on a show called CBS This Morning) observing how a spun-sugar wave of it drifts down over his upper forehead and how it resembles nothing so much as baby chick feathers. It’s not just the consistency that invites this comparison, it’s also the color: a soft, seemingly back-lit hue of yellow-white that appears nowhere in Nature except on two-day-old chickens and the head of Donald J. Trump. It should also be noted that his front hair appears glued together to form a sort of uni-bang. If you lift up one part of the bang, the rest will follow.

I realize I’ve been staring when I begin to see stars and hear odd mechanical clicking sounds that drown out what the group of actors around Trump is saying. The cast of the TV show – two attractive women with good hair and an older man – are seated with The Donald around a glass table that has a stencil of the CBS trademark eye painted on it. I know I should know all the people around Trump – they’re important – but the only one I recognize (and it takes me awhile) is the man, whose name is Charlie Rose and who used to have his own show where he interviewed people for very low ratings very late at night.

Charlie Rose might still have his own show. I’ve fallen behind – in recent years – on my TV viewing, a failing which I hope to rectify this season. So far I’ve only missed the Election Show segments in Iowa and New Hampshire (where Trump finished third and first in the ratings) and it’s clear that Charlie and the other regulars on CBS This Morning are very excited to have him on as a guest star.  One of the female regulars (sorry, I didn’t catch her name, but she’s black, very pretty, and was costumed for this episode in an expensive belted dress) remarked, “Finally, live and in color.” The other woman (white, pretty as well, with long hair and a blue dress) indicated she was delighted and, although Charlie didn’t say anything just then, he nodded happily when the first woman quoted him as having remarked upon Trump’s arrival: “What took you so long?” Trump was gracious in response, congratulating everyone on their show and saying that he watched it. I think he lied, though: Trump is all about “winners” and the morning show on CBS is a loser. It only has an average 3.85 million viewers and trails the morning shows on ABC and NBC. But it was nice of Trump to say he tuned in and you could see how it gave the whole cast a lift.

 

snapshot cbsI’m trying really hard to focus on what everyone’s saying  – it’s important, for God’s sake, and I’m a professional! – but I’ve gotten caught up again in examining The Donald’s hair: there’s a different camera angle now and you see it in profile, the left side profile, and you can actually pinpoint the place where the part begins. Oooph! Suddenly, I can’t hear the voices on the TV over the noises in my head and I’m once more seeing stars, but – before it gets really bad – CBS switches to a different camera (without Trump in the foreground) and I’m able to shift my own focus to Charlie Rose. Rose used to favor red ties but he goes in now for light purple – almost a lavender – and his face now is the tired, slightly hangdog visage of the aging philanderer. Rose’s receding gray hair is slicked back and held tightly in place, as if his mother had wet it with spit and smoothed it down right before the show. But as I study his hair – and mentally contrast it with Trump’s – Charlie is stating that people are saying “Donald Trump has changed American politics” in New Hampshire, where he captured a 35 share using his own money and without having to thank a single sponsor. The camera guys switch back to a closeup on Trump and I quickly press pause.

FaceInCrowdOne reason I pause the podcast is because that thing is happening again … the optic flashes and the clicks, which are becoming more frequent and starting to overlap into a droning buzz … but also because something Charlie has just said to Trump reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies, A Face in the Crowd (1957). It stars Andy Griffith as an American TV personality named Lonesome Rhodes, who acquires political influence as his popularity with the viewing public grows.

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In the film – set during 1950s America – everything gets jumbled up: celebrity, power, business, sex, advertising, violence, politics, an ignorant poor populace, a rich ruling elite, all of it sprayed with a thin but scary varnish of latent fascism. As I’m writing this, I’m getting embarrassed: A Face in the Crowd has nothing to do with Donald Trump’s run for the Presidency and I can’t imagine why I thought it did in the first place. But memory is weird that way and the sequence that popped into my mind is the one after Lonesome Rhodes gets his first TV show, sponsored by a local mattress company who wants him to read their ad copy straight. Rhodes refuses – he makes fun of the Mattress Guy on air – and gets fired. His refusal to kowtow to his sponsor makes Lonesome Rhodes even more popular with the people, however. His fans break windows at the mattress company, burn mattresses in the street, and vow to follow Rhodes to bigger and better things.

Like I said, it’s an old movie that can’t happen now and certainly not here. And I was stupid for thinking there was any sort of connection.  A Face in the Crowd is fiction, the Trump Show reality-based. The movie’s hero started out broke and in jail; our hero got $200,000 straight out of college and as much as $200 million more when his father died. Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes is preserved on celluloid and in black-and-white. Donald “The Donald” Trump is live and in color.

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Coming Soon: Things get scary – in Fear and Loathing on the Trump Trail, Part II – and Randall Smoot has to go for a walk.