The Breakfast Table

Get Out of Town!

Hi Erik,

We were talking yesterday about how before Christmas during the whole impeachment hearings it was as though the city had been hit with a giant dose of sarin nerve gas. Actually it was more like anthrax (I had dinner last night with an expert on chemical warfare), which is bacterial. In fact we even have an expression for how this whole issue has affected Washington. It’s called Clinton poisoning.

To give you an example both James Carville and Bill Bennett have severe cases of Clinton poisoning. Since the city has been infected there is no one who has escaped but certainly there are those who have milder cases. The antidote is to get out of town. This is why after Christmas the town seems to have changed. It’s because so many people went away and were able to get disinfected and those who stayed weren’t exposed to much of it because so many were not here. So now everyone’s feeling a little healthier and more optimistic that someday all of this will be over. If you’ll forgive a few clichés, the boil has been lanced, the fever has broken. People are no longer delirious with rage or frustration. However there is a sense of exhaustion that pervades the city. Emotional, psychological, even physical exhaustion. After a severe illness you are left with no energy. People just don’t have the energy to be hysterical. Some have even gone into a sort of zen mode. A just-let-it-happen attitude seems to be the prevailing one. I think part of the reason is that Clinton himself is so tenacious, so persistent, so resilient that he enervates everyone else, his supporters and detractors alike. (We’ll discuss his supporters later.) When everyone else ends up in the infirmary he will be virtually the last man standing.

This is not to say that it won’t become virulent again. With Clinton we have seen that everything is cyclical. Just when you think you can’t stand another minute of the scandal it dissipates and things go back to normal for a while until some other atrocity pops up and it starts all over again. The other thing about it is the loss of a sense of reality. When the now debunked story broke last week about the 13-year-old boy whose mother was claiming he was Clinton’s son, I kept thinking I had already heard it before. There’s nothing about Clinton that you can tell people that will shock them because it all gets mixed up in this giant vat of molasses. Our mutual friend Richard Cohen said to me yesterday that if somebody told him that Clinton had been driving Princess Diana’s car at the time of the accident he would say, “Yeah, didn’t I know that already?”

Now enough about Washington . I insist we talk about you and Michi Kakutani’s rave review of your book, Face-Time in today’s New York Times (below the fold on the front page of the Arts section page B1 for anyone who cares to read it.) She really put her finger on it when she wrote that “the sex-and-power equation reigns supreme in Washington trumping both love-and-death and eros-and-lucre.” I was also happy to see the rave review Carolyn See gave you in the Washington Post and the rave review (is this getting boring?) that Margaret Carlson gave you in Time. Sounds like some kind of conspiracy to me. I hesitate to bring up the nice mentions that you got from Maureen Dowd and Bill Safire in their respective columns in the New York Times. Margaret sums up what the book is about very nicely when she says, “What makes the novel riveting is its almost anthropological description of the ebb and flow of power and status in official Washington, where the ultimate currency is access to the president, or “face time.”

Erik, could I ask you a favor? Now that you’ve been back in California for two years, do you think you could write your next book about someplace else besides Washington? You’re stealing our thunder, pal. You come in here, hang around for a few years, go to a few dinner parties, have a few lunches, hit the White House screening room a few times, steal all our good lines and observations, and then leave and write “the definitive Washington novel.” Not that I’m not totally thrilled for you. You’re a wonderful person, a good friend, and a cogent, facile, and astute observer. But do those of us whose life oeuvre is writing about Washington a favor. How about some nice inside look at New York or L.A? Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine. We’ll surely be able to make do with your leftover “sharply observed little vignettes, comic cameos or even a political agenda,” as Michi Kakutani points out.

O.K. Enough about you. Tomorrow let’s talk about Clinton’s supporters … and detractors. Why not? I still didn’t answer your question or observation that we need a new infusion of excitement. That’s what I’m hoping our little breakfast table conversation will bring tomorrow. Is that what you call triumph of hope over experience?