“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

“A few years ago, a coalition of 60 corporations -- including Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard and Altria -- made an expensive wager. They spent $1.6 million in lobbying fees -- a hefty amount even by recent K Street standards -- to persuade Congress to create a special low tax rate that they could apply to earnings from their foreign operations for one year.
The effort faltered at first, but eventually the bet paid off big. In late 2004, President Bush signed into law a bill that reduced the rate to 5 percent, 30 percentage points below the existing levy. More than $300 billion in foreign earnings has since poured into the United States, saving the companies roughly $100 billion in taxes.”
-- Client’s Rewards Keep K Street Lobbyists Thriving, Jeff Birnbaum, Washington Post

Manners are a political thing. The manners of the Americans in the early part of the nineteenth century were much discussed. Stendhal, in the Red and the Black somewhere, makes a casual remark about the barbarization of the people brought about by Democracy in America. And of course we have the indefatigable Fanny Trollope, who catalogued a veritable Niagara of tobacco juice spitting on her own journey to these States in The Domestic Manners of the Americans. This is her account of a typical American get together:

“The gentlemen spit, talk of elections and the price of produce, and spit again. The ladies look at each other's dresses till they know every pin by heart; talk of Parson Somebody's last sermon on the day of judgment, on Dr. T'otherbody's new pills for dyspepsia, till the "tea" is announced, when they all console themselves together for whatever they may have suffered in keeping awake, by taking more tea, coffee, hot cake and custard, hoe cake, johnny cake, waffle cake, and dodger cake, pickled peaches, and preserved cucumbers, ham, turkey, hung beef, apple sauce, and pickled oysters, than ever were prepared in any other coun- try of the known world. After this massive meal is over, they return to the drawing-room, and it always appeared to me that they remained together as long as they could bear it, and then they rise en masse, cloak, bonnet, shawl, and exit.”

And here is Ms. Trollope on a celebration that has fallen into desuetude:

“In noting the various brilliant events which diversified our residence in the western metropolis, I have omitted to mention the Birthday Ball, as it is called, a festivity which, I believe, has place on the 22nd of February, in every town and city throughout the Union. It is the anniversary of the birth of General Washington, and well deserves to be marked by the Americans as a day of jubilee.
I was really astonished at the coup d’oeil on entering, for I saw a large room filled with extremely well-dressed company, among whom were many very beautiful girls. The gentlemen also were exceedingly smart, but I had not yet been long enough in Western America not to feel startled at recognising in almost every full-dressed beau that passed me, the master or shopman that I had been used to see behind the counter, or lolling at the door of every shop in the city. The fairest and finest belles smiled and smirked on them with as much zeal and satisfaction as I ever saw bestowed on an eldest son, and I therefore could feel no doubt of their being considered as of the highest rank. Yet it must not be supposed that there is no distinction of classes: at this same ball I was looking among the many very beautiful girls I saw there for one more beautiful still, with whose lovely face I had been particularly struck at the school examination I have mentioned. I could not find her, and asked a gentleman why the beautiful Miss C. was not there.

“You do not yet understand our aristocracy,” he replied, “the family of Miss C. are mechanics.”

“But the young lady has been educated at the same school as these, whom I see here, and I know her brother has a shop in the town, quite as large, and apparently as prosperous, as those belonging to any of these young men. What is the difference?”
“He is a mechanic; he assists in making the articles he sells; the others call themselves merchants.’”

These travelers, and the Americans themselves, knew that the political system pervades the system of manners – the cultural system.

And so, as democracy has been replaced by plutarchy in the U.S., manners change accordingly. Cheney’s hunting accident on Ms. Armstrong’s ranch was interesting, beyond its humorous aspect, for the door it opens to the aura of entitlement that Cheney and Bush bring not just to the operations of the executive branch, but to their domestic life, as it were, their ecological, stock option padded niche. The same entitlement that would manage, in broad daylight, the theft of one hundred billion dollars (to be paid for by cutting the amount this republic is going to put out for today’s descendents of Trollope’s mechanics), demands every servility in the private sphere from their lessers – the waiters at the restaurants, the factotums that run their errands, the drivers and maids and police, the latter in the cleaning business too -- cleaning up embarrassing messes. Happy to talk to aides sent out to lay down the real law. Plutarchy requires that the plebes take pride in obeying, in eating the VP's shit, in being told at a time and place of Cheney’s convenience what happened to Whittington, as if it was their business; immediately, of course, ending any investigation and going home with that touched by greatness glow. The servility from the press is in line with the usual servility they get from the press.

I was interested, though, in Katharine Armstrong. The woman who owned the ranch.
According to the invaluable Whitehouseforsale site, Armstrong’s parents are deeply connected to the Republican establishment in Texas. Her father, Tobin, is one of the owner’s of the King Ranch (and an ancestor of his captured John Wesley Hardin). Her mother, Anne:

“… served as: a close advisor to President Nixon; President Ford’s British Ambassador; and approved covert actions on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under Reagan. A veteran of blue-chip corporate boards, Anne Armstrong was a Halliburton director when that corporation hired Cheney. She is Kay Bailey Hutchison’s best friend, having helped launch the senator’s career as Republican National Committee co-chair in 1971.”

The site’s bio of Katherine is instructive:

“Warren Idsal and Katharine Armstrong both worked for major investment firms at the time of their 1982 wedding, with the Paine Webber (see Joseph Grano) groom marrying a Smith Barney bride. During the 2000 Bush campaign the then-married couple still romantically shared a common Pioneer tracking number. Katharine is the daughter of Pioneer Tobin Armstrong, an heir to the fabled Armstrong and King Ranch fortunes. Her mother, Anne Armstrong, who is Kay Bailey Hutchison’s best friend, helped launch the senator’s career as Republican National Committee co-chair in 1971. As Texas Treasurer in the early 1990s, Kay Bailey Hutchison returned the favor by hiring Armstrong’s son-in-law, Warren Idsal, as a top aide. But Hutchison fired him after a short tenure. Warren Idsal also was an executive at health and life insurer United Insurance Companies (UICI) for several years in the late 1990s. Then-Governor George W. Bush appointed Katharine Idsal to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission in 1999. The Idsals divorced and Katharine reclaimed her maiden name after Bush’s gubernatorial successor appointed Katharine chair of the commission. This heir apparent to the Armstrong Ranch resigned her state post in 2003, citing her need to make a living for her three children. Armstrong cited lobbying as one possible career move.”

And there is her by now famous account of the accident:

“Armstrong said she was sitting in a vehicle and watched as Cheney, Whittington and another hunter spotted a covey of quails. Whittington shot a bird and left to look for it as Cheney and the other hunter located a second covey and walked ahead of Whittington to take their shots.

At that point, Whittington "came up from behind the vice president and the other hunter and didn't signal them or indicate to them or announce himself," Armstrong told Associated Press in an interview.

"The vice president didn't see him," she said. "The covey flushed and the vice president picked out a bird and was following it and shot. And by God, Harry was in the line of fire and got peppered pretty good."”

This bio makes me dream of the domestic manners of the rich. In particular, Armstrong reminds me of Alysse, the monster in Susanna Moore’s wonderful novel, The Whiteness of Bones. The heroine in that novel, Mamie, who has been raised in an upper class but eccentric Hawaiian family, flees her last semester of college to go to stay with her aunt Alysse, who she barely knows, in New York. Of Alysse one of the first things we are told is “you might have the saturation bombing of small, neutral countries or made your fortune selling missiles to an African government or, on a less dramatic level, you might enjoy having sexual congress with persons no longer living, but if you could hold your own at one of Alysse’s dinners, and by that is not meant anything so elementary as knowing what fork to use, you became a dear friend.” Mamie becomes a dear niece, and is instructed in the arts of being a rich wife, ex-wife, socialite when Alysse has time and is tipsy enough. The world of the book is the seventies, when Babe Paley was still queen.

There are some nice lunches. Alysse, of course, adores lunches, and at one of them Mamie catches the way Alysse and one of friends (the heiress to all the high heels in Brazil) look around one of their restaurants after a lunch in which the friend had explained all about being raped by her guides in Morocco (“I wasn’t able to screw for weeks afterwards”) and Allyse had explained about Lady Studd, a skinny woman who is eating up her companion’s lunch at a table near them (“Oh, she’ll be home in an hour vomiting”):

“… the two older women, pleased with the world, gazed contentedly around the room. They did everything but lick their paws and velvet muzzles. People were finishing lunch and standing to say goodbye, and there were blown kisses and pantomimed promises to telephone and soon meet. The women held their eyes open very, very wide, which gave them a startled, slightly insane expression, as if they were feigning extreme interest in something that bored them very much, and the men had a benign, sated look, as they took out their cigars for a quiet smoke on the drive downtown, more than delighted to leave all the fuss and exaggeration and exclamation to the animated women. The men were there as angels, as theatrical investors: the show that day simply being “lunch.””

This society crowned itself when Reagan became president – or, as I like to think of it, when the locust became king. Not that I would put Katharine Armstrong entirely in Alysse’s category: Texas wealth, especially old Texas ranch wealth, is a distinct culture. It might love Cheney, but he is not of them. And of course there is his wife.

ps - after I wrote this, it occured to me that I was not applying the simplest rule in journalism. When a politician does something weird in his private life, cherchez la femme. Surely some inquisitive reporter should check the guest list -- and, if he can find them, the licence plates -- of Armstrong's little party. There's a great chance of extracting our Elmer Fudd's sugarplum. Not that any paper would publish that.


Patrick J. Mullins said...

Roger--you saw this part of her tale, too, but these were the words where I thought she was watching her back with fear and her own violence, wagging her finger at the lower-down. )So now there's a 'minor heart attack' that isn't really a 'heart attack' or something):

"He didn't do what he was supposed to do," she added, referring to Mr. Whittington. "So when a bird flushed and the vice president swung in to shoot it, Harry was where the bird was."

I remember, but not exactly, there was something in that case against Hutchison in the early 90's, something about the way they figured out how to dismiss it. Scary people, including their language.

roger said...

Okay, Patrick, I can't figure it out -- who is Hutchinson?

Hey, I envy you seeing the Ballet Russes -- although maybe it will come to Austin. We get a surprising amount of good cinema. So many old dancers -- definitely a theme for a poem Yeats didn't write. You can tell the dancer from the dance in that the dance doesn't age.

roger said...

Sorry, I blanked -- you mean Kay Bailey. Oh, she abuses her staff -- like throws things at them. I think there was a lawsuit once.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

Roger--yes, always thought Kay Bailey just oozed pettiness and corruption, almost seems textbook example of syrupy insincerity.

I hope 'Ballet Russes' comes to Austin. It's the post-Diaghilev Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, which itself then split into 2 companies led by Massine and DeBasil. Only dancer still alive in the 5 years of interviews they did who had also had been a Diaghilev star was Markova, who died last year. At the heart of the film is a 2000 reunion after 40 years of the living BR dancers in New Orleans. These people are holy, just holy.

I shouldn't have been so selfish about the snow--even though it inconvenienced me personally and gave me a big foot blister due to shoe rubbers, happening on Sunday made it so most people could really enjoy it, and celebrate a true kind of accidental civic holiday.