Twenty years ago, I wrote an article for Music Connection, a Los Angeles-based consumer and trade pub for young rock and rollers, on "How to Get a Record Deal." I interviewed an old college friend, Bob Merlis, who was vice president of West Coast promotions for Warner Brothers Records.
"We can all name people in this business who aren't very good," Bob said, "who just got where they are through an iron will to get across."
That quote neatly summarizes a culture that increasingly began to dominate show business and eventually to dominate the culture at large. Aggression works better than competence. And, like bad money driving good money out of an economy, aggression eventually drove competence to the margins of the culture market, if not entirely out of it.
Bill Clinton did it, importing that ethos whole from Hollywood to Washington. "We'll just have to win, then," he famously told Dick Morris as the Monica scandal broke and his polls worsened. "This is waw!" declared James Carville, and let slip the dogs.
The prize in Hollywood is fame, increasingly the same as the prize anywhere else, notably politics and the media. Fame dictates a pecking order. Those below you, you may vilify, mock, dismiss, or otherwise hamstring. To those above, you must display lickspittle adoration. Once in a while, of course, one of the groundlings breaks through with some kind of smash hit. The corps switches instantly from kick-butt to kiss-ass, with no remorse and no sense of contradiction.
This postmodern phenomenon famously befuddles conservatives, who constantly mistake real achievement and real content for -- well, for anything at all. "But Clinton was a terrible president!" a conservative will wail, ticking off Clinton's disregard of terrorism, his sellouts to the Chinese, his executive orders, his disastrous cabinet appointments, and all the rest. Of course he was. But that didn't matter then, and doesn't matter now. He was the most famous man in the world, and he knew how to stay that way. His bafflingly high approval numbers didn't really mean approval of his policies or his conduct. Those were his Nielson ratings.
TWO WEEKS AGO, conservatives got a treat. We saw the whole fame culture contraption turned on its head by Ronald Reagan's death, memorials, and funeral. As usual, most conservatives mistook it for a kind of restoration: of patriotism, of American values. For us, it was. For the media machine, it was a whomping big, unstoppable, untoppable great show.
(Now, don't take that wrong. Shallowness cuts both ways. Ask yourself: Which is more important, Bill Clinton's new book or Bill Clinton's book tour?)
Most Americans get their national and international news from the 60-second slot at the top and bottom of the hour on news, talk or music radio, as they drive to work, to lunch, to school with the kids, or around town on errands. That 60-second hole, ordinarily slapped full of the biggest headline of the day from the New York Times ("More Violence in Fallujah…," "The 9/11 Commission…") was, instead, all Reagan all the time. For a week.
Consternation and confusion reigned in the command bunkers of the hype battalions -- for about 24 hours. Then the celebrity makers shook their heads and realized what was going on. They recognized that this old fellow who had disappeared for the past decade was (it was hardly believable) more famous than Jennifer Anniston or J-Lo or even Bill and Hill or Oprah or even Katie Couric.
So they sucked it up. And they sucked up. For a week.
Don't. worry. They'll get over it.
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