Esquire and Spy give the past year its due ridicule


Should auld acquaintance be forgot? Heck, no. Not when we can greet the new year by skewering the worst of the old, with the help of two magazines that never have any trouble finding the jugular: Spy and Esquire.

With its usual boundless appetite for spite, the February Spy roughs up the "100 Worst People, Places & Things of 1995" -- a year the magazine describes as "perhaps the most annoying, alarming and appalling year in history." As proof, with a cry of "Dear God, He's Back!" Spy notes the return to the limelight of its favorite short-fingered vulgarian: Donald Trump.

But plenty of other celebs were there to annoy, alarm and appallus in '95, and Spy doesn't miss one: Demi Moore, Peter McNeeley, Rikki Lake, Newt Gingrich, Cindy Crawford, the inexplicably celebrated auteur-poseur whom Spy dubs Cretin Tarantino, Michael Jackson, Boris Yeltsin ("Atomic Drunk"), the Clintons, Barbra Streisand, Ralph Reed, Mike Ovitz, "Gramps" Jagger. . ..

O. J. Simpson is deliberately left off the list, but he is the standard for judging the others, Spy explains: "Inherent loathsomeness for '95 is determined on a scale of 1 to 100, with 1 being dental plaque and 100 being O. J. Simpson."

Though less lethal than Spy's, Esquire's own brand of merry malice flavors its "Dubious Achievements of 1995" roundup. Mr. Simpson is on the cover, as he becomes the first person to cop the title of Dubious Man of the Year for two years in a row. My favorites: spoofs of Johnnie Cochran advertising that famous woolen hat ("Beat the Rap in a Cochran Cap!"), sleaze-meister Joe Eszterhas, and Hugh Grant with his half-hour inamorata, Divine Brown.

Also worth reading in Esquire: a profile of Bob Kerrey by Martha Sherrill that confirms my sense that Mr. Kerrey is too complex and interesting ever to get elected president, and a piece on Oliver Stone's "Nixon" by Garry Wills in which a pseudo-historian gets his head handed to him by a real one.

Kinetic creator

This month's Smithsonian magazine has an intriguing piece by David Sims on MIT machine-sculptor Arthur Ganson, whose kinetic creations are moving in both senses of the word.

Also, by no means should you miss Jack Hope's story on the daffy new uses being found for the ancient practice of dowsing. Historically employed to locate water in rural areas, dowsing is now being used by New Age types to select videos, buy stock and choose mates. By the end of the piece you are convinced that most of the water is in their heads.

Smilin' Jack smirks

One celebrity never wears out his welcome, and the January GQ has him smirking on its cover above a one-word headline: "Jack." Yep, it's Smilin' Jack Nicholson, owner of the most antic eyebrows since Groucho Marx and the best track record of any actor under 60 in the world.

Here's Jack on what causes the battle of the sexes: "Women find men boring, and men have no morality."

Jack on the trouble with Hollywood: "It's nine months making a deal and three weeks writing a script."

Jack on O. J.: "Juicy? I've always liked Juicy. He's a sweet man when you're around him." OK, so he's no judge of character.

In quest of character

Speaking of character, the Atlantic Monthly gives over much of its January issue to the question of what constitutes that hard-to-define (and harder-to-find) quality.

In the cover story on George Washington, Richard Brookhiser blends human portrait and historical essay to describe how Washington painstakingly constructed a moral code that governed his actions as the nation's first commander-in-chief and president.

Mr. Brookhiser persuades us that Washington's courage in battle, his self-willed control of his Vesuvian temper, a decency and civility that went beyond mere etiquette, and his determination to avoid any stain on his reputation added up to a distinction between right and wrong that defined true character.

"We have now a national character to establish," Washington wrote near the end of the Revolutionary War, "and it is of the utmost import to stamp favorable impressions upon it."

Washington himself had so much to do with those early impressions, by consistently "accepting honor only with reluctance and modesty," that at the crucial moment in our young nation's history, Mr. Brookhiser writes, he was able to "say his countrymen 'we,' and to command a response."

And there's nothing dubious about that achievement.

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