Capital Letters: Road Trip
In which our man in Washington lights out for the territories to explore culture and find the people behind the polls
Date: Wed, December 30, 1998
Subj: Cultural Studies
REASON infiltrated the leftist preserve of literary studies on Monday, when Senior Editors Chuck Freund and Nick Gillespie and Contributing Editor Deirdre McCloskey brought the good news of consumer culture and free minds and free markets to the Modern Language Association's annual meeting in San Francisco.
My lovely wife, an aspiring English professor herself, is attending the convention in hopes of securing employment. Being a supportive husband, I decided to spend a week in San Francisco with her. So I was on hand to cover the event.
The panel, titled "The Economics of Culture: Non-Marxist Materialist Approaches to Literary and Cultural Studies" was scheduled for 1:45 p.m., which is exactly when I managed to arrive. Opening the door, I thought at first that I must be in the wrong place. The room was packed; at a planning lunch just two hours prior, Messrs. Freund and Gillespie had speculated that there wouldn't be much of a crowd.
As I wiggled into a back row seat and pulled out my tape recorder and pad, Nick appeared at the podium to introduce the panel. This is when they'll leave, I thought. They probably have this panel confused with the cash bar sponsored by the MLA's Marxist Literary Group. But as Nick introduced the topic, everyone stayed put.
Ms. McCloskey was the first up. The microphone wasn't working, which immediately presented a problem. To solve it, Deirdre held forth from the center of the room. "I've been many things in my life," McCloskey opened in a hoarse and hushed tone, which had everyone sitting on the edge of their seats. "A man, for example, and a Marxist."
Slam dunk lead, in a room filled with Marxist symps who no doubt admire anyone who would make the ultimate demographic transition. She would later provoke laughter by asking, "Do I look like a conservative?" A question that answers itself.
McCloskey's point was simple, and seemingly well taken. "Despite what you have heard in these halls," she said at one point, "capitalism and markets are emancipatory, not enslaving." This rather bold statement not only induced no boos, groans, or hisses; it prompted no exits either. As McCloskey finished, there were five people sitting on the floor, as by now the seats were all taken. And even though the room was cramped, a bit hot, and plenty stuffy, only two people left when McCloskey was done. Perhaps, I thought to myself, we're on to something with, in Chuck's coinage, this "New Materialist Project."
Chuck was up next, no doubt feeling pressure to top his gut-busting performance at Reason Weekend 1998 in Texas. He may have.
Chuck led with, "Let's go shopping with the Virgin Mary," as a famous Renaissance picture–made more famous as last June's REASON cover art–appeared on a projection screen just behind his head. He remarked that although today we celebrate such art as high expression grounded in deep faith, it is easier to find the peacock in the picture than the Holy Ghost. [See "Buying Into Culture," June 1998.] Chuck wove an impressive list of scholars, painters, and periods together to make the point that for art, cultural production, and what Chuck might call "individuation," the free market is an enabler, not a shackler.
Academic audiences are a bit stiff, perhaps because, in the politically correct world they inhabit, the funnier something actually is, the less freedom they have to laugh at it. After a while, these folks just forget how to laugh, and their faces freeze up in a pious pucker that gives testimony to their recognition of the constant injustices of the world.
Chuck, however, made these people laugh. And so, come to think of it, did Deirdre and Nick. While Chuck reached as far back as the Renaissance to make his point, Nick, in his words, "limned" the past 30 years of cultural explosion. From the moment he appeared at the podium proffering words such as limned, it was clear that Nick was in his element. Comfortable and confident, he employed his deadpan wit to show the audience the profusion of cultural production and outlets for such production due to the market.
He quoted not only the literary elite but the libertarian elite as well, invoking Nobel laureate James Buchanan not once but twice. All the while, people kept coming in the door and filling up the side aisle, as if word that there was actually a panel where people weren't reading mind-numbing papers was spreading.
At approximately 2:50 p.m., Nick finished up and opened the floor to questions, of which there was only one–a Marxist inquiry about the use value vs. the exchange value of art and how this had something to do with something else.
But the lack of official questions shouldn't be confused with a lack of interest. Most of the audience members left with a look of shell shock on their faces, as if a truth bomb had just exploded before their eyes. They are, no doubt, rethinking their American Express Card leftism, converting to American Express Card moderates, as they shop guilt-free for the first time in the plenitude of San Francisco's Union Square.
Others rushed the panel for individual attention. At one point, Chuck had a line three deep seeking his wise counsel. I could barely see Nick, surrounded as he was by admirers hungry for more wisdom. And it was more than a few minutes before McCloskey was free to pick up her pooch-toting pouch and come over and talk with your humble correspondent. Inspired, Nick and Chuck headed into S.F.'s Tenderloin for a drink, as the next panel finally seized control of the room.
Date: Thurs, January 7, 1999
Subj: The Greyhound Diary
I had such a great time in California that I didn't want to return to Washington. I forgot how easy it is to ignore the pettiness of our national politics in the Golden State. I never once hit the Washington Post Web site, nor did I ever feel any the worse for not doing so. The USA Today delivered at the Hilton sufficed to keep me conversant, not that politics came up much.
The thought of returning to a town filled with the bickering of the impeachment process–who was going to testify, if anyone, whether there would be a pre-vote vote, and so on–filled me with unhappiness. So I came up with a plan. Why not delay the trip back by trading in my plane ticket for a bus ticket? My uncle had recently done so and claimed to enjoy the trip. Along the way, I could interview people about impeachment, the government, etc. How are Washingtonians different from those who travel by bus? What do bus riders think of Washington? Virginia gave it the go-ahead.
Since I already had a plane ticket that took me through Dallas, I decided to cut out halfway and take the bus in from Dallas. It couldn't have worked out better. When traveling coast to coast, I try to book American through Dallas for one simple reason: Hundreds of other people do so as well. The result is overbooked flights. I volunteer to get off those flights, get rebooked on a later flight (often in first class), and get handed a $300 voucher for use at a later date on American Airlines. So I was pleased, but not surprised, when American paid me 300 bucks not to get on its airplane Sunday. "Book me any time you like," I told the desk attendant, "I'm taking the bus."
Voucher in hand, I headed for a cab to take me to the Dallas Greyhound station, where a bus heading to D.C. was scheduled to leave in two hours. I got to work right away, asking the taxicab attendant, Alexander Moreno, what he thought of the president's predicament. "Degrading to the office," Moreno replied in an accented tongue and saddened voice that echoed the sentiments of Washington's elite. On November 2, the day before the election, The Washington Post's Sally Quinn wrote an article based on more than 100 interviews with the cream of Washington's political establishment. Washington's elite "feel Washington has been brought into disrepute by the actions of the President," Quinn reported. "He came in here and trashed the place," Washington Post writer David Broder told Quinn. "And it's not his place."
It certainly isn't, judging from the sections of Hope, Hot Springs, and Little Rock I saw from the bus window. The White House, after all, has a foundation, wasn't manufactured, and doesn't have any cars rusting in front.
Like many bus stations, Dallas' isn't in the best part of town. This neighborhood can be quite dangerous. JFK was shot just around the corner. I bought my ticket–the first time I can remember that I've had to show ID to use a credit card–and had two hours before boarding. I went to put my bag in a locker and head out into the cold in search of the book depository. Unfortunately, the only empty lockers were broken (three youths in gangster chic beat me to the last working one), so I was forced to tote both my bags down the street and through the museum. I did the JFK museum, hit a McDonald's, and was back with a half-hour to spare.
While waiting, I decided to get some opinions. Behind me was a woman with a tattoo on her left breast, something I have yet to see on the business-suit-filled Metro ride between Arlington, Virginia, and my downtown office. Knowing I'd probably be trying to read her tattoo's cursive letters, interrupting my note taking if not offending her (although people who tattoo words on their tits and then expose the prose to the public can't complain about avid readers), I approached two men I took to be in their 20s.
"My opinion is simply that everything sucks," said Derek Pierce, a counseling student at Texas A&M who was returning from a holiday in San Antonio. (This is a thought that may have crossed Trent Lott's mind in recent weeks.)
The Republicans have it in for Clinton because he's like other "minorities or underachievers," offered Kenneth Snow, a fighter who had just finished training in Houston and was on his way to West Virginia to pick up his car and drive back to Las Vegas, which he now calls home. Snow, of course, was echoing the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who wrote something similar in some tony publication, although I am not accusing Snow of stealing the idea from her.
Snow then proceeded to articulate the White House spin to the letter. "They've been after him since the beginning," he said. "It's a private thing."
I rode the bus for 35 hours, traveling through Texas, Hope, Little Rock, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Richmond, and a zillion small towns. It's an experience that, well, I'm glad I experienced once. It's nice, for example, to see a mother clutching her baby close to her chest, with a lit cigarette dangling over the baby's head. And if such recklessness isn't heartwarming enough, you'll be happy to know that this smoke-filled scene occurred indoors. A lot of smoking occurred indoors, in fact, as outside of California it appears to still be legal. Not on the bus, because federal law prohibits that. But smoke breaks were taken at every possible chance, as most of the passengers and drivers were smokers.
"It's good to get a driver who smokes," Amber Goldston, a 22-year-old air conditioner assembler from Clarksville, Tennessee, told me, as we rolled on into the Texas night. Amber doesn't smoke–a good thing too, she noted, since at $3 a pack she'd have to quit anyway. But as a veteran bus rider, she likes drivers who smoke because they stop at regular intervals, letting passengers off at convenience stores, where even nonsmokers can grab a Coke or a healthy snack, like a bag of Fritos.
Amber and I shared a seat through Texas, engaging in enjoyable conversation. An Army brat, she has a year of college under her belt and would like to return for a degree in computer science but can't afford the tuition. She plans to look into the Army as an education ticket. She's bright and certainly recognizes Clinton's crimes: "He lied under oath, that's the main thing." But she is willing to forgive: "Everyone after him probably lied as well."
Lying in Washington? That's just the sort of impression that worries Sally Quinn's pals. "Washingtonians can't abide it that the rest of the country might think everyone here cheats and lies and abuses his subordinates in the way the President has," says Quinn.
But Amber was pretty typical. During my 35 hours, I interviewed just about two dozen people from disparate professions and trades–a newly minted truck driver, a retired railroad man, an ex-speed freak, U.S. Marines, an Army man, a retired schoolteacher, a factory worker, students, carnival hands, a just-released convict, and more. With two exceptions–a Marine who felt that the commander-in-chief shouldn't get away with adultery and a conservative Nashville-based songwriter–every single person sided with Clinton.
It didn't matter if I talked to them at 3 a.m. in a crowded, loud, and smelly Memphis bus station or at 8 a.m. in Nashville. It didn't matter if they were male or female, black or white. Clinton has the Greyhound vote wrapped up–which is another way of saying that the Greyhound sentiment is, judging from the polls, more representative of the American sentiment than those who are well paid to shape it in Washington.
These folks don't just like him–many of them love and even admire the man. "To me, Clinton is like The Man. He's The Man," enthused Kenneth the fighter. "I ain't never seen a president trying to bring such unity."
It's always good to see the country from the ground. On the way west, the Lovely Wife and I had gotten stuck in Dallas due to the ice storm. I grumbled for two days about how this illustrated 1) why it is called fly-over country and 2) why fly-over country ought to be flown over. I was wrong. It should be driven through. Preferably on a bus.
The people are great. Sure, flying first class from Dallas into Reagan I have been fortunate enough to sit next to Jim Woodall, the man who runs "Concerned Women for America." He reflected well the conservative consternation with Clinton, relaying stories about how debauched the White House has become under Clinton as we ordered our free drinks from a stewardess with whom Woodall was on a first-name basis from frequent flights. On the bus, we had to get our own drinks from the 7-Eleven, and no one cared about the depths to which Clinton has brought the White House–mostly because they don't care much about the White House or Washington.
Take George Ferris, the retired railroad man I met. Traveling from his home in Pratt, Kansas, to North Carolina to see his "sweetheart," he told me railroad stories. Like Bob Dole, who likes to talk about himself in the third person, George referred to himself as "Bear" on a couple of occasions, as in: "My buddy said, `Bear, he was just scared,'" referring to an incident when a drunk driver was strangling Bear and yelling, "Keep your hands off my wife." At the time, Bear was trying to pull the guy's pregnant wife from the car Bear's train had just smashed. (Bear experienced 57 accidents during his 29 years on the Midwest's rails. Don't, I repeat, don't try to outrun a train. It takes them 1.5 miles to stop, with all systems locked up.)
Bear's view on Clinton is close to that of James Carville and Larry Flynt. "I think they should investigate the whole damn bunch of 'em," he harrumphed. "The House, the Senate, all those boys who want to hang Clinton. Let's see how much rope they can take."
Bus riding is a great way not only to meet interesting people but to bone up on the ins and outs of the American economy–to fill in the details that think-tank wonks lose in their aggregates. For instance, I've always wanted to know more about carnies, the hands who work the summer fairs. So I was pleased to run into Mike Burns, a self-described "carnival man" who sported a blue stocking hat and a full white goatee that had turned yellow around the mouth, probably from his enthusiasm for cigarettes.
"I don't think the president should have been caught playing his 'monica," he said with a smile, glossing over the fact that "Hands-Off" Bill's story is that Monica was the only musician blowing anything. But I didn't want to get hung up on the particulars of Zippergate. I wanted to know about the carnival trade from a man who's spent 20 years working it.
What does it take to get a job? I asked. "Show up," he advised. "They don't ask any questions and don't take any paper." Just stay away from the" pig iron," which is carny slang for the rides. The hands working the rides make only $250 for a seven-day, 15-hour-a-day week. The rides are dangerous and, after the party is over in one town, the pig iron attendants have to break down and deliver the rides to the next stop.
Burns is a game man, making his pay on a cut of the day's take. Why would anyone choose pig iron over the games, I asked? They get an ego boost out of it, letting girls ride for free, he explained, adding, "They get a lot of dates."
Traveling by bus, I confirmed another long-held economic hunch: No one should spend seven years in graduate school mastering the refinements of the humanities, at least if they want to eat. They should spend one month learning to drive a truck.
Rick Meyers, a pony-tailed man I would put in his 50s, sat in front of me on the journey's first leg. He had just finished a month of truck driver training and was taking the bus to Texarkana to pick up a rig for his first run. He had three job offers before he even had a license and expects to make between $700 and $1,000 a week driving long haul for Deboer Inc., which pays 24 cents a mile. Of course, he'll be home only two days every two weeks. But after 27 years of marriage, he isn't too concerned about that. He said something about looking forward to the loneliness.
As I listened to Meyers tell tales of already-employed drivers getting bonuses of up to $2,500 to switch companies, I thought of the Modern Language Association conference I had just been privy to in San Francisco. After years of intense schooling, only one in three English Ph.D.s can expect a tenure-track position immediately after they take their degree. That is pretty miserable in an economy where truckers are getting four-figure signing bonuses. Of course, truckers have some skills. How else would those university bookstores get their books?
Rick's attitude toward the scandal seems quite typical outside of the Beltway. "It's a private thing and ought to stay a private thing," he said, later adding, "Clinton's no better or no worse than any other."
This, of course, is exactly the sentiment that has Sally Quinn's pals so upset. Says former Clinton adviser Bill Galston, "To concede that this is normal and that everybody does it is to undermine a lifetime commitment to honorable public service." ABC's Cokie Roberts adds, "It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile pursuit. We think being a worthwhile public servant or journalist matters."
Clinton, you see, stained not only Monica's dress but Washington's pretensions that being a bureaucrat or well-paid journalist is noble "public service," while spending a lifetime on the railroad, in a truck, or bouncing from carnival to carnival is a selfish pursuit fueled by avarice. On an icy freeway, however, being a skilled truck driver may be a bit more important, a thought Amber kept expressing, worried that somehow Rick's month of training wasn't quite enough.
Washington is right to worry. Rick, who "keeps his head down and follows the rules," says, "As far as the government is concerned, they can shove it up their ass." Keep on trucking, brother.
And then there are just characters you wouldn't want to go through life without meeting. D.S. from Louisville, Kentucky, is one such person. D.S. is an older black woman, with crossed eyes and a brilliant white afro that, from a distance, resembles a late-stage dandelion. As we talked, I didn't quite know where to focus, or even if she could see, her eyes were so at odds with each other. She spoke furtively and wouldn't give her full name, offering such nuggets as: "He wasn't the first and he won't be the last. They should not have gotten Nixon either. It was Monica's fault if you ask me."
Later, as I passed into the Texarkana bus station, D.S. stood outside smoking an unfiltered cigarette. She told me she had something else for me but was worried that I was like Linda Tripp and taping her. I assured her I wasn't taping and, besides, she wouldn't give me her name. Still, I never got her last insight.
D.S.'s complex politics–likes both Nixon and Clinton–were reflected in others as well. In Washington, you're either on Team A or Team B. On the bus, people pick and choose. The tobacco-chewing Shane Makome, a recent Army recruit from Nashville, comes to mind. "To hell with Republicans," he said, after telling me I wouldn't want to hear what he had to say. "President Clinton has done more for this country than President Reagan or Bush ever did."
It's not that Makome agrees with everything Clinton does. "He's too liberal," says Makome. But he's willing to put Bill's problems in context. "Big deal, he made a mistake," he said. "We all do. The Kennedys were the world's worst. A bunch of bastards."
Can you see why I enjoyed this trip? I heard such disparaging remarks about the Kennedys more than once. And they certainly seem appropriate. I wasn't around at the time, but didn't big boy Ted drown a woman while drunk one night, his car careening off some bridge into some body of water? I guess drown would be too strong a verb. His actions, if I recall from my American politics classes that never addressed them, were more Clintonian. Kennedy, I believe, ran for cover, saving his own butt, while the woman, who was probably from a less distinguished and therefore far less important family, just went away one gasp of air at a time until there was none left to capture.
Last night I was on a Boston-based talk radio show where caller after caller expressed outrage that the American people, including those I talked to on the bus, were not sufficiently upset with Clinton and even approved of his job. When I mentioned Pvt. Makome's thoughts on Kennedy, however, they had no response.
As we approached Johnson City, Tennessee, Hazel Rice, a retired high school science teacher returning from a bowl game, wanted in on the action. "Are you doing a survey or something?" she asked. I pulled out the pad and headed down the aisle.
"They got a whole lot of pots calling the kettle black," she said. A great cliché, I responded, which simply egged her on. "A lot of people who live in glass houses are throwing stones," she continued, as an "oh yes" erupted from Ann, who wouldn't divulge her last name and who had earlier told me, "It's a farce from beginning to end. A waste of my money. They have been after him from the beginning. So he's a liar." (Ann, with whom I shared my entire ride, is an interesting woman. She loves Clinton and hates Lott, Armey, Gingrich, DeLay, Hyde, etc. Yet when I showed her my January Capital Letters column, she exclaimed, "I like Armstrong Williams," the conservative talk show host.)
As enjoyable as the trip was, I felt relief when it ended at 3:30 a.m. in icy Washington. Bus seats are like coach airplane seats without the padding and tray table. My back ached and, on the last leg, a two-hour express bus from Richmond, two drunken men kept the entire bus awake with their loud talk. At one point, they got to discussing Monica, which was helpful. Both turned out to be enthusiastic supporters of the president. But they spent a good deal of time lobbing racist jabs at the Asian driver followed by loud laughs. "North, we must go North, like North Korea," one would say in a faux accent, the other emitting a deep and hoarse belly laugh. I staggered off the bus, grabbed a cab, and was home in bed by 4 a.m.