The Breakfast Table

Steven Brill and Margaret Carlson

Dear Steve,

I save Sunday mornings, but ruin Mondays, by skimming the chat-show transcripts to see whether any one has moved the ball along. This enterprise usually bears little fruit, and this morning the transcripts were especially useless, since the chattering classes spent much of the weekend reaching deep inside itself to pronounce on the Meaning of Littleton. In the descending order of people with hearts, pundits would rate near the bottom, as most polls already indicate. Hollywood producers rank higher. So the blather, mine included, was particularly grating.

And the politicians truly reached the limits of their trade, particularly the Republicans who want to get government off our backs while busily inserting it into our souls. Most of their presidential candidates want to be tax-cutting, abortion-ending soul repairers. Dan Quayle proved once again why he’s so jokeworthy, joining with Charlton Heston and Gov. Jesse Ventura to suggest that if we were only all armed to the teeth, we’d be prepared to shoot it out with the bad guys. Let’s have an arms race and conceal the semiautomatics while we’re at it. Gun lobbyist Neal Knox complained to the Wall Street Journal that “fresh victims” always get the anti-gun groups going. These anti-gun nuts won a small victory: The concealed-weapon-ban bill in Colorado mercifully died. And the NRA celebration–like the NATO summit festivities–was toned down, since both groups are at war. But NATO is more likely to lose in Kosovo than the NRA is here in America. Once those fresh victims are buried, the gun lobby will continue to prevail. I wonder how you go to work knowing that your job is to make sure that guns that can mow down people (“as tough as your toughest customer,” the TEC-9 ad copy says. It can “spray fire from the hip,” is fingerprint resistant, and won’t burn your hands) are kept available under the guise that deer hunters and sport shooters would be otherwise inconvenienced.

The most interesting piece in the paper today was the incandescent Jane Smiley writing about writing. She doesn’t do it in isolation anymore, scribbling a whole book before showing it, a noisy party in her head for one guest. Now she reads the day’s work to her friend, Jack (no illuminating details but he is identified as her significant other in a piece she wrote last month in Civilization), each evening. I kept waiting for the “but” paragraph–that she was writing to amuse Jack rather than herself, that hearing her words aloud was drowning out her dreamy Muse. But there was no “but.” And you had to envy her being able nightly to make someone she loves laugh.

My “but” would have been that the great advantage of writing–as opposed to chin-wagging in free-associative chaos on TV–is that you get to keep it secret until it’s as perfect as you can make it. I would go to the printing plant in Greensboro with my column if Walter Isaacson would let me, fixing this phrase and that to say more precisely what I meant. And letting someone I love see it early–the reader who matters most–would be hardest of all.

So, you can see why this “Breakfast Table” business is hard for me. If Michael Kinsley hadn’t been one of my first editors ever (at the New Republic), and among the People I Love, instead of ad-libbing for Slate this morning I would still be wallowing in transcripts and wondering what makes any of us here in Washington think we have a clue about what makes a child go crazy.