New Republic raises a Germaine issue dTC


"Though feminism is often said to have changed the world, it is still true at the end of the millennium that the surest strategy for a woman who is seriously interested in executive political power is to marry a man who either is or is going to be the president of the United States."

With that bracing sentence, Germaine Greer begins her New Republic cover story (June 26) arguing for abolition of the office of first lady.

First lady isn't an office, of course, but it might as well be, so far as Ms. Greer's concerned.

Much of her argument focuses on the broad global acceptance of the American cultural model: not just McDonald's and MTV but our political forms, too.

That acceptance is driven by mass media, and it's a lot easier for someone abroad watching CNN to make sense of Hillary Clinton and what she does than, say, the Supreme Court and what it does. Personality is destiny in a media age -- worse, celebrity is destiny -- and the American example of national leader flanked by loving helpmate is becoming the norm elsewhere, too.

"The First Lady is the archetypal lipstick-skirt-high-heels beside the archetypal suit. She is the heroine of the most glamorous of the soap operas, watched and admired by prostitutes and peasant laborers in every hovel on the planet." All this rankles Ms. Greer for two primary reasons: This "decorative servitude" mischannels female energies and provides disastrous paradigms for the pursuit of power.

Much of what Ms. Greer says is provocative and revealing (American politics needs more 6-foot-tall Australian feminists writing about it -- they see things that all the white guys in suits don't), but not a little elicits hey-wait-a-minutes. Ms. Greer can bend interpretations to suit her polemical needs ("Jackie Kennedy was not a great success as a First Lady"?), and there's her ignoring the simple fact that the complexities of spousal power did not spring overnight from Martha Washington's wedding band, as such names as Lady Macbeth and Catherine de Medici suggest.

Above all, Ms. Greer remains oblivious to the dynamic of fame that fuels the phenomenon of first ladydom. Governance is almost an afterthought to what's really going on in the lionization -- lionessization? -- of these women, but politics (sexual and otherwise) is what Ms. Greer concentrates on. Still, there's no gainsaying her fundamental point: Uneasy lies the hairdo beside a crown.

Direct from Paris

The Paris Review is now being distributed by Random House. This means you can get it in some bookstores -- which is only fitting, as the review is a worthier addition to a library than most books are.

It's probably our most distinguished literary quarterly -- certainly, it's the most consistently interesting. In addition to poetry by Frank Bidart, A. R. Ammons, Rachel Hadas and Carolyn Kizer, the spring issue has Eudora Welty recalling a visit from Henry Miller (he was on his best behavior, alas) and M. F. K. Fisher meditating on suicide.

As it happens, suicide figures in both the "Writers at Work" interviews, with Ted Hughes and Primo Levi.

Mr. Hughes' first wife, Sylvia Plath, famously took her own life, and Levi committed suicide in 1987, two years after giving the interview printed here. The manner of his death makes it all the more striking when Levi remarks of the suicide of the writer Cesare Pavese, whom he knew slightly, that Pavese killed himself "for mysterious reasons -- but then every suicide is mysterious."

In a further autobiographical echo, Levi's references to growing up in Italy under Fascism refract Umberto Eco's quite vivid reminiscences of same in the New York Review of Books (June 22).

Photographic reasons

Anyone wondering why Edgar Bronfman Jr., the head of the Seagram Co., chose to make the rather questionable business decision of selling off the firm's $9 billion stake in DuPont to finance its acquisition of MCA, the entertainment conglomerate, need only look to Vanity Fair (July). Annie Liebovitz does not make a habit of photographing distillery executives, no matter how wealthy they are. You can't just buy your way before her camera; you have to buy your way the right way. Hooray for Hollywood, indeed.

On the other hand, you can also marry your way before Ms. Liebovitz's camera -- or, as is the case with Nicole Kidman, before Herb Ritts'. Ms. Kidman's on a roll. The actress, who is given to over-the-top statements about her relationship with husband Tom Cruise ("I'm addicted to Tom. He's my drug. I adore him."), was just on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. Now it's the cover of VF she decorates -- a mere three months after being only one of nearly a dozen lissome lovelies on the cover of its Hollywood issue. Talk about upward mobility. Yet she's never had a hit movie or won critical acclaim and is only fourth billed in her latest release, "Batman Forever."

Connoisseurs of addiction/adoration pairs should cruise past the Cruises and turn to VF's excerpt from Patricia Morrisroe's biography of Robert Mapplethorpe, which recounts the photographer's highly charged relationship with rock singer Patti Smith. Between them, there was enough mutual need and merging of identities (sex was the least of it) to write a novel called "Wuthering Depths." What happens when Cathy and Heathcliff decide to be Sid and Nancy? A pretty picture it's not.

A good cry

This week's most sensitive and caring Sylvester Stallone fan: Entertainment Weekly (June 16) reports the results of a survey of the opening-night audience at a Chicago theater showing "The Bridges of Madison County." Yes, there were tears, and a man "who admitted he dried his eyes with a used popcorn napkin" during the film, confessed, "I'm so embarrassed. This got to me even more than 'Rocky III.' "

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