Mr. Chatterbox’s Neighborhood

The weather was really nice in Washington yesterday, so everyone was out of doors during lunchtime. Chatterbox himself ate lunch out on the sidewalk of 17th Street with Thomas E. Ricks, Pentagon reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and encountered John Wilke, also of the Wall Street Journal, who is covering Microsoft’s antitrust trial. Chatterbox told Wilke that he is now working, after a fashion, for Microsoft (as a regular contributor to Chatterbox). Ricks pointed out that his wife, Mary Kay Ricks, who conducts historic tours of Georgetown, is writing pretty frequently for Wilke observed that Bill Gates was rumored to want to buy the Wall Street Journal. We all sat silently for a moment and contemplated a future in which everyone we know will be working for Microsoft. (If that happens, Wilke is screwed, because his coverage of Microsoft has been very tough and good.) Then James Bennett, Flytrap reporter for the New York Times, joined our table. The conversation turned, inevitably, to Flytrap. Nobody had any bright ideas about where that’s headed. Chatterbox asked Bennett if he’s writing a Flytrap book. Bennett said no, he doesn’t think the Starr report can be improved on. Chatterbox agreed.

Chatterbox proceeded to Slate’s offices just up the street, where he stopped to use the phone. Seth Stevenson, whose pile of toothpaste samples for his seminal toothpaste evaluation has yet to be put away, offered Chatterbox some. Chatterbox, who found the Slate offices depressing on such a sunny day, moved on. On the way out Chatterbox encountered financial columnist James Glassman, who was once Chatterbox’s publisher at the New Republic, and whose office is in the same building as Slate’s. We chatted pleasantly for a moment. Chatterbox observed silently that Glassman’s hair is now completely white, which makes him look very distinguished. Chatterbox himself is turning gray at a pretty rapid pace, and wondered if he’ll look this distinguished in seven or eight years when he’s Glassman’s age. Back out on the street, Chatterbox bumped into Carol Horner, formerly Chatterbox’s high-spirited editor at the Wall Street Journal. Chatterbox learned for the first time, as an offshoot of their conversation about something else entirely, that Horner used to date Richard Ben Cramer, Bob Dole-ologist and author of What It Takes.

Next, Chatterbox spotted Bill Kristol, the TV pundit and Weekly Standard editor, at a sidewalk cafe. He asked Kristol if he had any apercus to share with Chatterbox. Kristol said he was amused to see the New York Times had run an op-ed by Arthur “Crucible” Miller about the witch hunt aspect of Flytrap. Kristol feels the witch hunt metaphor has been overused. Chatterbox offered that Philip Roth’s new book, I Married a Communist (which, despite the mixed reviews, Chatterbox rather liked), has a riff by Roth’s fictional alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman, about a very earnest-sounding novel Miller wrote in 1945 called Focus, a sort of Gentleman’s Agreement-like parable about anti-Semitism. Here’s a bit of it:

The book tells of the harshly ironic fate of a Mr. Newman, a personnel officer for a big NewYork corporation, a cautious, anxiety-ridden conformist in his forties–too cautious to become actively the racial and religious bigot he is secretly in his heart. After Mr. Newman is fitted for his first pair of glasses, he discovers that they set off “the Semitic prominence of his nose” and make him dangerously resemble a Jew. And not just to himself. When his crippled old mother sees her son in his new glasses, she laughs and says, “Why, you almost look like a Jew.” When he turns up at work in the glasses, the response to his transformation is not so benign: he is abruptly demoted from his visible position in personnel to a lowly job as a clerk, a job from which Mr. Newman resigns in humiliation. From that moment on, he who himself despises Jews for their looks, their odors, their meanness, their avarice, their bad manners, even for “their sensuous lust for women,” is marked as a Jew everywhere he goes.

Chatterbox was sure this book was a Roth invention, but it isn’t.

Chatterbox then headed reluctantly for the subway, but first encountered Dana Milbank, White House Watcher for the New Republic. Like many people who write deftly and amusingly, Milbank has a very dour demeanor. Chatterbox didn’t ask, but assumes Milbank isn’t writing a Flytrap book either. We exchanged pleasantries and moved on. Then Chatterbox went home.

Timothy Noah