Vast conspiracies, old and new

Part 1. Did anyone else see this piece in the NYRB a couple weeks ago? I thought it did a fantastic job parsing the Clintons’ double-tongued approach to Obama and race, the issue that more than anything has turned me from a one-time defender of the Clintons into someone who’d only be able to vote for her with the profoundest regrets. A friend in town from DC last weekend says the buzz in his circles is that Hillary’s aiming for what they call a “Tanya Harding”: if she can break Obama’s kneecaps now she might be able to win the presidency from McCain in 2012.

If I’m having a hard time remembering why the Clintons caused so much enthusiasm for people like me in the early 1990s, maybe it’s because Hillary’s been gobbled up by the very conspiracies she spent so much time unmasking at the end of the last century.

Like many erstwhile Clinton defenders, including Ari over at The Edge of the American West, my jaw hit the floor a couple weeks ago when Hillary showed up in Pittsburgh alongside the right-wing media mogul Richard Mellon Scaife, who’d bankrolled a chunk of the anti-Clinton campaigns of the 1990s. He was particularly big on the idea that Hillary had a secret hand in Vince Foster’s death. Yet suddenly we’re supposed to believe that Scaife — or Hillary, or both — had some sort of Road to Damascus moment and now he finds her worthy of endorsement. How she could sit there chatting with that slimeball is beyond my comprehension.

Worse, almost, than Hillary’s pandering to Scaife, this guy who’d spent millions defaming her and Bill, was the Onion , er, the Times story last Sunday, in which her camp tried to play the whole thing straight, as if the meeting with Scaife and his new admiration for her were as much a surprise to the Senator as they were to the rest of us. From the article: “I never thought I would utter these words, but I would like to shake his hands for keeping his mind open despite the predisposed prejudice toward her,” said Lanny Davis, a longtime Clinton supporter who served as President Clinton’s lawyer during the late 1990s. Are we supposed to take such feigned surprise seriously?

I first heard of Scaife slightly prior to Hillary’s identifying him as the nervecenter of the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get her and her husband. As an undergrad, I had started co-writing a book about academic freedom controversies at the private religious university I attended. By the time I wrapped up the manuscript in 1997 or so, I’d come to realize that the politics of the cases I was writing about — which ranged from an upsurge of anti-feminist sentiment among school administrators and trustees to the hounding of fiction writers whose stories were too unsettling for a conservative student body — were as much a part of the larger culture wars of the ’90s as they were local manifestations of religious authoritarianism. Digging around about the larger culture wars turned up what was, to me, a rather convincing account of how right-wing action groups, funded by people like Scaife, had orchestrated an attack on liberal higher education in the name of purging political correctness and its Marxist-feminist advocates from American universities. When Hillary called out Scaife a few years later for underwriting the campaign to put Bill out of office, some folks sneered at her paranoid flipcharts, but I knew she had the goods to back up her claims: there really was a funding chain linking the most insidious right-wing campaigns of the late twentieth century.

Which is precisely why, in my mind, Hillary has sunk to a new low. With people like Scaife praising her, the only thing left to believe is that she’s out-Republicaned the Republicans, or perhaps that she’s the neocons’ best hope of retaining the White House. Like many former Clinton enthusiasts, I’m burned out, more than disillusioned. Just plain sick to my stomach.

Part 2. What to do in such a moment, while we bite our nails and hope a) that the nomination race ends sooner than later, and b) that the Clintons — and their strange bedfellows — haven’t already too severely damaged Obama’s chances to win?

Let’s turn together to more hopeful conspiracies.

Right about the same time the Scaife story was breaking, I caught a live performance on WFMU of a group calling themselves A Conspiracy of Beards: an all-male amateur choir from San Francisco that performs nothing but the songs of Leonard Cohen. As their leader said on air, “We could sing other people’s songs, but why?” Their version of “Hallelujah” — one of the most written-about songs ever, someone once told me, and one that retains its force in spite of its ubiquity — stopped me in my tracks and sent me Googling to find out where and when they were performing. Stephanie and I caught them that night at the Bowery Poetry Club. Here they are a day later wrapping up their show at the Highline Ballroom:


The group formed, apparently, following a friend’s death, when his widow discovered a diary entry he’d written in which he’d recorded a dream about a men’s choir — including several people he knew — performing the songs of Leonard Cohen. She took the entry to some of the people mentioned and asked them to realize the dream. And so they have, using the name he’d dreamed up for them. In the diary entry they wore robes and flowing beards; in actuality they perform in suits, ties, hats — classic men’s attire, a la the master himself. They make the case that Leonard Cohen’s songs capture every possible human emotion and experience, and I’m inclined to believe they’re right. If Hillary has her way and successfully knee-caps Obama? It may get ugly, but we’ve got the music.

21 responses to “Vast conspiracies, old and new”

  1. Godfree says:

    …if she can break Obama’s kneecaps now she might be able to win the presidency from McCain in 2012.

    In my most sweat-ladened-cynic-ague I couldn’t have dreamed this one up. It’s great to know that I’ve retained some innocence of thought in the bare-knuckle brawl. As to concerns to whether or not H. is hurting O’s chances of winning the general, I think that she’s actually helping him at this point. It’s giving him plenty of PR, and frankly, if he can weather this storm, he will be just fine against anything the McCain camp has to offer. (I’m trying to be less of a Defeatocrat these days.)

    The Choir though, brilliant stuff.

  2. when i saw them, scotty, i liked to imagine that you would be a member if you still lived in SF. i know i would be!

  3. Dave says:

    Scotty, you are charmingly naive sometimes.

  4. Dave says:

    How can one be other than completely cynical when Social Text wants one to pay $15 to read a fifteen-year-old article purporting to engage in radical social critique?

  5. bw says:

    You might be able to find portions of the argument in the limited preview Google provides for this book, in which the piece is reprinted. Or you can order that book used from amazon starting at $1.50. It’s all old news by now, though.

    Damn, remember the culture wars?

    I wanted to throw a little more love Leonard’s way. Here’s a great clip of him performing “Famous Blue Raincoat,” the best epistolary pop song ever written, in 1979. And I only recently saw the very weird video for “First We Take Manhattan.” Guy is kind of creepy. Conspiracy of Beards sang both those songs, too.

  6. bw says:

    Mondays could start a lot worse than with a little Leonard Cohen.

  7. Tim says:

    In re: Part 1
    Andrew Sullivan had some interesting numbers to go along with Hillary’s scorched earth tactics. Not that I normally love Andrew Sullivan, but it’s sorta scary.

    In re: Part 2
    Wow! Also, Leonard Cohen once came into the bookstore where I used to work. He bought a collection of Bukowski’s poetry. His young female Asian companion bought . . . The Princess Diaries. I like to think it was for someone else, perhaps her niece.

  8. Scotty says:

    Black ‘n’ White, maybe we can do a duet next time we meet up.

  9. Which leads me to ask one of the questions I was tempted to ask in the post: What do you think is the #1 all time best L. Cohen song?

  10. LT says:


  11. Scotty says:

    Of my extremely limited knowledge of LC’s music, I sure like Tower of Song.

  12. LP says:

    I have to agree with LT here: Hallelujah. Although I do also really like So Long, Marianne and Sisters of Mercy. I don’t like his later stuff at all, though. Was excited to buy “I’m Your Man” when it came out, but then I never listened to it — I just couldn’t get into it at all.

  13. aw, shoot. i should have said #2 all time best anticipating that H would be #1. it is pretty much the perfect song. do you know the susanna and the magical orchestra version? i looked for it on youtube but couldn’t find it. also, the link above to the essay about hallelujah’s use in pop culture is pretty fantastic.

    my #2 would be split between “famous blue raincoat,” “chelsea hotel no. 2” and “avalanche.” as much as i love the nick cave version of the last one, it pales in comparison to the original. The youtube clip is to a 1988 performance with Spanish subtitles that make it extra fun. I went through a period a few years ago where I had to listen to that song 4 or 5 times a day.

    Here’s a great version of “Suzanne” from 1970.

  14. Although as for comment #8 above, I think we need to do “Bird on a wire,” Scott. That should be our themesong. I love CoB’s drunken sing-along rendition.

  15. S. Godfree says:

    II would be thrilled by any opportunity to have a drunken sing-along with you, Bee — especially while urinating out of doors.

  16. Let’s take it slow.

  17. lane says:

    Well . . . I shouldn’t really announce this, but no one is really listening anyway. But one of Hillary’s highest staffers is married to a man that is voting for Obama.

    So I guess she’s started to turn the stomachs of even the loyal core.

    For what that’s worth.

  18. bw says:

    okay — i’ve been in a conference all wkend and am onky now coming up for air. this morning is the first time i’ve looked at the paper in three days.

    does anyone have something to say about this “bitter” nonsense? i think it’s a perfect example of what Elizabeth Drew was calling “molehill politics” in the first article I linked to in this post.

    Can someone explain to me why Obama shouldn’t say, in addition to making whatever apologies he’s being forced to make, “This is a perfect example of how the other campaigns — and the media — can jump on a soundbite out of context and use it to raise a ruckus to distract us from the real issues — including the fact of economic depression in rural areas and former manufacturing centers? Let’s talk about some real issues and real solutions here!” Doesn’t it seem like playing their game, apologizing too much, begging forgiveness, only stokes the fire? When the RNC demands that Democrats in Congress publicly denounce the remarks, shouldn’t people just be saying, “Sure, if you denounce the Reagan Bush years that put us in this mess in the first place?” Or something like that?

  19. or is the reality that the only soundbite he can get into print in response is the apology, because on the attack and on the defensive are the only story lines big enough to hit the radar? nuanced thinking’s just too much for regular readers?

  20. Hi, me again.

    So I’m reading back through the old stories, looking at the soundbites. At first I thought maybe he had tried to do what I was suggesting above when he initially responded like this:

    “Here’s what’s rich,” Mr. Obama said. “Senator Clinton said, ‘Well I don’t think people are bitter in Pennsylvania. I think Barack is being condescending.’ John McCain said, ‘How could he say that? How could he say that people are bitter? He obviously is out of touch with people.’ Out of touch? Out of touch? John McCain — it took him three times to finally figure out that home foreclosure was a problem and to come up with a plan for it, and he’s saying I’m out of touch?”

    Which went over well with his primary audience:

    The audience, made up largely of Democratic voters, rose and applauded as Mr. Obama delivered his defense. Late Friday evening, the Clinton and McCain campaigns criticized Mr. Obama once again for failing to express regret for his remark.

    But then what follows shows how easy it is for the opponents to practically trademark a phrase and repeat it enough times until it’s believed. In this case, they’re obviously going to market the “out of touch” line until it sticks:

    “Instead of apologizing for offending small town America, Senator Obama chose to repeat and embrace the comments he made earlier this week,” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton. He added, “Americans are tired of a President who looks down on them, they want a President who will stand up for them for a change.”

    Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Mr. McCain, issued a similar response.

    “Instead of apologizing to small town Americans for dismissing their values, Barack Obama arrogantly tried to spin his way out of his outrageous San Francisco remarks,” Mr. Bounds said, adding: “You can’t be more out of touch than that.”

    I don’t have any solutions. This just kind of makes me sick. It feels like sinking John Kerry all over again, or watching Gore flounder. The apparent problem is that it’s dangerous for a smart person to open his mouth on the campaign trail unless he’s mouthing pre-scripted pablum. Or maybe he just has to be as slick as slick Willie. This is so depressing. Were they right about the Clintons all along or have they just been slimed by spending too many years defending themselves in this game?

  21. Dave says:

    It’s incredibly frustrating, but I’m not sure this is going to hurt Obama in the end. He had a really good counterattack, as you noted. And a lot of what he said is actually true, and will resonate as true with voters — the economy has been really bad to rural, working-class people for the past few decades, and there is a lot of bitterness about it, and it’s lead to a disenchantment with government (encouraged by Reagan/Gingrich/Bush, but not really opposed by Bill Clinton). The other part of what Obama said, the false-consciousness stuff, is also fairly true but is understandably offensive to the people being described. If Obama can keep the emphasis on the word “bitter,” which even Hillary’s campaign is doing, and not on “cling to religion,” he can come out of this ahead.