Programming note: Tonight, Monday, I'll be joining Tucker Carlson live across America at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific – with a rerun at 12 midnight Eastern. I hope you'll dial us up.
~John McCain exasperated conservatives, but he had his moments. I recounted one such during the 2008 campaign, when Hillary called for public funding for the Woodstock museum:
If you're under 70 and have no idea what "Woodstock" is or why it would require its own museum, ask your grandpa. But McCain began by saying he was sure Mrs. Clinton was right and that it was a major "cultural and pharmaceutical event."
Which is a cute line. And McCain wasn't done yet: "I wasn't there," he said of the 1969 music festival. "I was tied up at the time."
And the crowd roared its approval. It's not just a joke, though it's a pretty good one. It's not merely a way of reminding folks you've stood up to torture and you can shrug it off with almost 007-cool insouciance. But it also tells Republican voters that, when Sen. Clinton offers up some cobwebbed boomer piety, you know a piñata when you see one, and you're gonna clobber it.
And that's the music a lot of Republican voters want to hear. For a certain percentage of voters, McCain is tonally a conservative, and that trumps the fact that a lot of his policies are profoundly unconservative. He won New Hampshire because if you stuck him in plaid he'd be a passable Beltway impersonation of the crusty, cranky, ornery Granite Stater. The facts are secondary that, on campaign finance, illegal immigration, Big Pharma and global warming, the notorious "maverick's" mavericity (maverickiness? maverectomy?) always boils down to something indistinguishable from the Democrat position.
As it happens, on the Woodstock museum, McCain's absolutely right: If clapped-out boomer rock is no longer self-supporting and requires public subsidy, then capitalism is dead, and we might as well Sovietize the state. In a sense, it's the perfect reductio of geriatric hippie idealism: We've got to get back to the garden, but at taxpayer expense. A McCain presidency would offer many such moments. But, in between, he'd be "reaching across the aisle" to enact essentially Democrat legislation on climate change, illegal-immigration amnesty and almost everything else.
What differentiated McCain from your cookie-cutter RINO squish was the sheer brio of his viciousness. I mean that as a genuine compliment: without it, he'd have been Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe. In fact, he was pretty much reduced to that by the generally bland weekend obits: In their determination to show respect to a war hero who'd battled cruel illness, they generally dropped all mention of the stuff that made him fun and human. On air he bantered with a showbiz professionalism: When he and I appeared together on "The Dennis Miller Show", he said he had a real respect for me because that ridiculous accent was a lot harder to keep up for three hours than you'd think. Off-air it was more cutting, snide, vindictive, and extraordinarily petty. As I wrote during the 2000 campaign:
It turns out that, in an ideologically-riven Congress, John McCain is a truly bipartisan figure: both sides loathe him. There's a persistent rumour that the only reason his fellow Republican senator, Utah's Orrin Hatch, decided to get into the race for president last summer is that he can't stand McCain. Senator McCain concedes that he called another Republican, Iowa's Charles Grassley, a 'f**kin' jerk', but says that he and Chuck are now 'friends' ('friends' in the context of the US Senate means they have the warm, close, personal relationship of, say, Suha Arafat and the Israeli government). When he was a humble Congressman, the Atlantic Monthly reported McCain's altercation in the aisle of the House with Democrat Marty Russo: 'Seven-letter profanities escalated to 12- letter ones and then to pushes and shoves.' It takes a while to decipher this code but, reconstructing the incident, 'seven-letter' is a reference to 'a**hole' and '12-letter' to 'motherf**ker'. One mayor back in his home state says that he's not happy with the idea of McCain having his finger on the nuclear button.
So on Sunday the senator released 1,500 pages of medical records proving conclusively that he is not clinically insane - though for my own part I'd like to see what's in the handful of pages that were held back 'for personal reasons'. But, for the moment, we must accept the word of his doctors that John McCain is not, to use the medical term, stark staring nuts.
Nonetheless, in private many senators agree with that Arizona mayor... So, throughout New Hampshire, at one campaign stop after another, someone stands up and asks about the rumours that he's explosive and out of control. 'Boy,' says McCain with mock solemnity, 'that really makes me mad.' The crowd laughs. 'I was just exploding about that earlier this morning.' More laughs. 'Look, my friends, I get angry sometimes. I get angry when I see Congress wasting billions on weapons systems even the Pentagon doesn't want. I get angry when I see 12,000 of our brave fighting men and women living on food stamps. I get angry when I see the lobbyists and special interests in Washington corrupting our democracy. I get angry when I see gross injustices perpetrated.... ' Etc.
Actually, there's no evidence that John McCain has ever got angry over any 'gross injustice' or matter of public policy. Every incident recounted by Senate colleagues revolves around some piffling perceived slight; mention weapons systems and McCain is perfectly calm, but use the last piece of Senate toilet paper and he calls you a motherf**ker.
The real John McCain was far more interesting than the vapid obituarists would have.
~The "In Memoriam" columns can make for odd couples: Also taking his leave this weekend was Neil Simon, after a remorseless Alzheimer's fade-out. He hung on long enough for his passing to be greeted by The New York Times with identity-politics snippiness: "Neil Simon Drew Big Laughs, Then Came a Cultural Shift."
Oh, well. He had a grand run - indisputably Broadway's most successful comic playwright of the second half of the twentieth century. I wrote earlier this year about a favorite Simon moment from his biggest hit:
My favorite scene has always been the double-date Oscar arranges with the "cuckoo Pigeon sisters" from the flat upstairs, Cecily and Gwendolyn. If you know your Oscar Wilde, you'll recognize those names, although Simon has taken them down a socio-economic notch or two and made them emblematic of a certain type of English girl expat you'd have found larking about New York at that time - albeit in this case, one is a divorcée, and the other is, somewhat mysteriously, a widow. Cecily and Gwendolyn are brilliantly conjured by Monica Evans and Carole Shelley, who played the Misses Pigeon on stage, on the big screen, and later on television. Miss Shelley is still working on Broadway (she was in Wicked), but I don't believe I've ever seen Miss Evans in anything other than The Odd Couple, although I met her once in London when she was married to Capital Radio's legendary disc-jockey Dave Cash. But, if you only ever have one big movie scene, this one is pretty great: Simon, who's been criticized for sixty years as no more than an efficient gag machine, gets some of the biggest laughs of his career from a succession of excruciatingly painful non-jokes. The Pigeon sisters are well-named: They're fluttery, and literally cooing. Like Matthau's Oscar, they expect the evening to pan out, and they don't figure that's going to be too difficult. Everything Oscar says, they take as a double entendre and giggle naughtily. He laughs back. Three-quarters of the double-date have instantly hit that sweet spot in date-night banter where everything you say is funny and risqué and nudges the choo-choo a little further down the track to its intended destination.
Except for Jack Lemmon's Felix. His attempts at banter frosts up the joint, he can't get into it, he keeps derailing the train. His awkwardness is cringe-making, but there's no reason why it should be fatal to Oscar and the ladies. And then Matthau gets up and goes to mix the drinks, and when he returns...
It's a marvelous scene, one of Neil Simon's best, on stage or screen. And ever since I first saw the film, should I chance to come across it twenty or forty minutes in on Channel 57 or Channel 293, I always stick with it until the Pigeon sisters walk in for their all-time disastrous double-date.
Enjoy it while you can. The real "cultural shift" is to a laugh-free world.
~We had a busy weekend at SteynOnline, starting with Friday's toppling of Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. Our Saturday movie date looked at James Coburn's last great film role, and our Song of the Week celebrated the centenary of Alan Jay Lerner, author of An American in Paris, My Fair Lady, Gigi, Camelot and much more. If you were an Aussie cabinet minister too busy plotting how to stab the new guy this weekend, we hope you'll want to check out one or two of the foregoing as a new week begins.
~Tomorrow afternoon, Tuesday, we'll be attempting another one of our Clubland Q&As, in which I take questions from Mark Steyn Club members live around the planet. It kicks off at 4pm Eastern in North America. That's 5pm Tuesday in the Maritimes, 5.30pm in Newfoundland, 6pm in Bermuda - and, beyond the Americas, 9pm in the British Isles, 10pm in Western Europe, 11pm in the Middle East, midnight in Moscow, 1.30am on Wednesday in Delhi for all you Newfoundlanders who move to India for the half-hour time-zones, 4am in Singapore and Western Australia, a 6am daybreak breakfast in Sydney and Melbourne, alas, and a rather more civilized hour for the kedgeree and eggs Benedict in New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu et al. I do hope you'll join us.
Speaking of the The Mark Steyn Club, the inaugural Steyn cruise sets sail next month from Montreal to Boston. We hope you'll want to join me and Michele Bachmann, John O'Sullivan, Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, and special musical guest Tal Bachman, as we attempt some seaboard versions of The Mark Steyn Show, Tales for Our Time, our Sunday Poem and other favorite features. If you're thinking of joining us, don't leave it too late, as the price is more favorable the earlier you book.
Thank you so much for all the Steyn Club subscription renewals over these past few weeks. As our second year cranks into top gear, I know very well that I would not have survived the last hellish eighteen months without the support of our members around the world. For more information on The Mark Steyn Club, see here - and don't forget our limited-time Gift Membership.
Catch you on the telly tonight with Tucker live across America at 8pm Eastern/5pm Pacific.