I spent some time in New York last week. Manhattan is fantastic for underground bars and seedy places that still mix Negronis. But above ground it was stifling hot, with a watery jungle heat that turned every afternoon into a warm bath. My friend, El, lives in a decayed old block in the West Village with marble floors and peeling paint. She described coming home one night to find a water beetle the size of her fist asleep on the bathroom floor. She was too drunk to be frightened, so she gently cupped it in her hands and slipped it back down the plug hole. We spent hours sitting by the air conditioning; watched a few South Parks, had a few laughs.
I was lucky to break out for an afternoon to interview the actor Robert Vaughn at his house in Connecticut. Get out of New York and you are suddenly in New England proper. The temperature dropped, the grey asphalt gave way to green woodland. For miles and miles my train chugged through tiny villages called Hobart’s Corner or Widdlefield St. Martin. I had to get out at something unpronounceable beginning with “K” and take a cab another thirty minutes into the woods. How wonderful it was to see landscape that was made green by God rather than by the Los Angeles Municipal Sprinkler System! How nice to smell something other than petrol and weed!
I arrived early and strolled up the drive in a pale blue jacket and bowtie. Mrs. Robert Vaughn spotted me from the kitchen window and thought I was a salesman. She sent her husband out to accost me.
“Can I help you?” he asked from the porch. He couldn’t hear my reply and shouted back, “We don’t want anything today thank you.”
“I’m here to interview you,” I said. “I’m early.” He smiled and clasped my hand and led me into the house.
His wife’s voice echoed from the kitchen: “Why have you let him in, Robert? We don’t want to buy anything.”
“He’s my guest, honey,” said Robert.
“Is he religious? Is he a Mormon?” she replied, apparently too deaf to understand.
“No, it’s my guest,” Robert repeated, a little louder this time.
“Why do you let these people in? Can’t you tell him you’re a Presbyterian?”
“Please excuse me,” said Robert, and he disappeared into the kitchen.
That left me to do what I always do when alone in famous people’s houses: I ran round the room checking out every book, antique, and photo possible. A couple of surprises on the bookshelves, including a book by Glen Beck. But it was the photos that really caught my eye.
These past few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time discussing great, dead men. Many of them were framed on Robert Vaughn’s wall, shaking the actor’s hand and looking just as star-struck as he. Their politics is immaterial; their character is what still leaps off the wall forty years hence. Their names have come up time and time again in interviews, usually as sources of inspiration. And I wondered, as I later nursed my coke and listened to Robert Vaughn expound upon the origins of the Vietnam War, where have all the good men gone?
This week has been an uninspiring one for politics junkies. Newt Gingrich’s campaign collapsed under the weight of his own impossibility. Anthony Weiner admitted to sending women pictures of his genitalia. Sarah Palin couldn’t identify who Paul Revere was. The Republican field looks wide open only because the current options are so poor. “Why don’t you write something positive about Ron Paul?” a friend asked today. The answer: because he can’t and won’t win, and my editor would rightly be angry if I wasted copy pushing an unsellable product. The good guys are all at 2 percent, the frontrunners are largely goof-offs. Barack Obama is no better. He’s worse than awful because he once looked quite good. Now he’s little more than the Bore-in-Chief. [O how my toes curl whenever he opens his mouth! I have been insulted by professionals in my time as a student and an academic. I am trained to spot the scornful look of a “superior intellect” as it spies a lesser being handing his essay in late. It’s the same look Obama gets when someone tells him he might be wrong about something. The man is the barbed boredom of the academy personified.]
Cast your imagination back to 1968 and survey the talent on display on Robert Vaughn’s walls: Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Gene McCarthy, Ted Kennedy, George Romney, and Ronald Reagan. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down in a hotel in Memphis; Bobby Kennedy was murdered in a parlor in LA. William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal debated police violence during the Chicago convention. Norman Mailer and Pat Buchanan watched the chaos from a hotel balcony. The politicians of that age were flawed men, no doubt. But they had eloquence and wit that is sorely lacking today. They had an aura of the epic – like they carried the weight of history on their shoulders. All of these men damn-well knew who Paul Revere was. Presumably, none of them mailed photographs of their wieners to young ladies they had never even met.
Perhaps interesting times produced interesting leaders. But today is interesting too. Indeed many of the issues of ’68 are germane – an unpopular war, a poor economy, a sense of decline. Perhaps those men were moral weaklings and the sympathies of the establishment press only made them look good. There’s something to that argument, after all biographers have alleged that even Martin Luther King Jr. was unfaithful to his wife. But I could take Bobby Kennedy’s dirty tricks and wandering eye in exchange for a little of his compassion for the poor and his ability to silence a crowd of thousands with a few word of Aeschylus.
Last month was the centenary of Hubert Humphrey’s birth. Humphrey was ridiculed by many formidable people during his lifetime. He often seemed like the weakest of the men I listed above. The right thought he was a spokesman for outdated ideas, the left saw him as a shallow careerist. To Hunter S. Thompson he was the Great Windbag – “Martin Bormann in Drag”. Had I lived in 1968, I might have hated him for his refusal to oppose Johnson’s policy in Vietnam. Now, we can look back on Hube and sigh wistfully for a “better-man-than-I”. It was Humphrey who pushed through the Civil Rights plank at the 1948 Democratic Convention, who kept up the momentum for the Great Society in the 1960s, and who tried to commit the Democratic Party to a full employment economy in the 1970s. He was a real person – gabbing on in his endless, joyful way about peace and jobs and a chicken-in-every-pot. In the black-and-white photos on the wall, you can smell the cigarettes of the union label heavies standing behind him and feel the sweat of the crowds of poor-folk crowded round to hear Hube’s gibble-gabble about ideas and ideals that seem hopeless dreams now.
Robert Vaughn gave me a ride back to the station in his black limousine. “You may recognize the car,” he said. “It’s the exact same model that President Kennedy was shot in.” I trembled appreciatively. “Of course, it’s too expensive to park. So you’ll have to jump out when I shout.” He swerved into the station beginning with “K” and I leapt onto the train and hurtled back home to the hot, grey world of the here and now.