Hot Mood 2

journalism

ROLLING STONE – May 17, 1990

Hot Mood

Welcome to the Decade of the Moment

THE MEASURE OF A DECADE used to be taken only after it was well underway, or nearly finished, or – how quaint! – over. The Sixties did not become the Sixties until 1968; although Tom Wolfe called them the Me Decade in 1976, the Seventies had no discernible taste until the following decade, when in hindsight they came to seem just that – tasteless. Even the easy-to-understand Eighties were not universally caricatured as a black-tie greedfest until around 1985, after more than two years of a Wall Street bull market and a full term of Ronald Reagan.

The tone and temper of the Nineties, on the other hand, were officially declared last year, even before the previous decade was over and certainly before any shift in national mood had registered. But a tidy consensus formed anyway: The Nineties will be everything the Eighties
were not. The Eighties were a frenzy of deal making and conspicuous consumption, so the Nineties will be about sharing, helping and small-is-beautiful humility; the Eighties were tough and glamorous, so the Nineties will be sweet and cozy; the Eighties were Nancy Reagan, the Nineties are Barbara Bush. It’s neat as can be, a pop-sociological no-brainer.

Would that the Nineties were to live up to the early line, but kinder-and-gentler is less a real prediction than a wishful, self-flattering national mantra, a collective New Year’s resolution that seems certain to wind up like most New Year’s resolutions.

Are we genuinely disgusted with wastefulness and indiscriminate yearning? Have we really determined to live more simply and decently? The putative new mood smacks of deathbed conversion. With the easy-money Zeitgeist evaporating quickly, stylish and ambitious Eighties
alumni now have two choices: radically reform their greed-driven values or, considerably easier, pretend to do so.

Hopefulness is great, the will to improve oneself all-American. The problem comes when we really don’t believe all the supemice thoughts but keep saying them anyway. This is at the heart of the true early-Nineties mood: fake earnestness, make-believe innocence, pro fonna
sanctimony. It’s not always overt hypocrisy, asserting one thing and doing the opposite, but a more subtle and common cousin: gratuitous goody-goodyism, paying lip service to virtue simply because it makes you or your listeners feel better.

Television writers have a cynical technical term for the point in the script when Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable speechifIes about coming to grips with his son’s dyslexia, when the swingle fathers on My Two Dads discuss the very important lesson they’ve learned about role modeling, when
Doogie Howser concocts the wistful moral to wrap up every episode. It is what they call the Moment of Slit. “The Moment of Shit,’ explains Earl Pomeranrz, who writes Major Dad and has written for The Cosby Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi, “is when it’s time to get serious and say, Don’t do that to your dog,’ or ‘Lying is wrong.’ They have a lesson to teach near the end of the show.” At Major Dad, Pomerantz says, “we try to spread the shit around, so it’s not located in one place.” The Moment of Shit, adds Diane English, creator of Murphy Brown, is “where you start to hear the violins play.” The device is more than just a permissible shortcut for hacks to wrap up a script; it is a way to reduce ambiguous and complicated ideas to uncontroversial ideals (Reading is important! The rain forests must be saved! The homeless are people, too!).

Implausibly happy endings, obligatory moral uplift the Moment of Shit is nothing new (Dickens was among its greatest, most shameless practitioners), but it seems suddenly more prevalent, in real life as well as in the last acts of situation comedies.

Official corporate Moments, because they are nearly always the work of cynical apparatchiks, are especially obvious. Last year, when the top executives of Time, Inc. were publicly arguing for their merger with Warner Communications and against Paramount’s purchase of Time, they did not mention the job security and personal enrichment that a TimeWarner deal would bring to them. No, said Time’s Dick Munro and Nick Nicholas, the Warner deal would safeguard the journalistic independence of the company’s magazines. Never mind that the two men had spent the last few years diminishing the independence and clout of the magazines within Time’s own corporate hierarchy.

Or take the recent Andy Rooney affair, marked from beginning to end by Moments. On February 8th, after Rooney had made an impolitic remark on TV about AIDS and then (it was reported) made an even more impolitic remark about blacks, CBS News president David Burke suspended him without pay for three months. “Mr. Rooney has expressed his dismay that the values of CBS News have been called into question,” Btirke said, “and offers his deepest apologies to any in our society who were given offense.” But then, over the next three weeks, 60 Minutes lost twenty percent of its audience; the values of CBS News are one thing, but now big money was at stake. On March 1st, Burke reinstated Rooney, effectively repudiating the Moment of Slat he had delivered just twentyone days before and, naturally, squeezing out a whole new revisionist Moment as he did so. “I am concerned that the balance between the needs of a news organization to maintain its reputation for fairness… and the ability of commentators to speak without undue constraint be maintained,” Burke said. “I believe that balance has been maintained.” Even 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt felt obliged to throw in his fulsome platitude upon Rooney’s return. “I think we’re very lucks” Hewitt said, “to have as the head of CBS News someone with a real sense of the difference between what’s right and what’s expedient.” Not just a worldclass Moment, but a metaMoment, for what drives Burke and his ilk is in fact pure expedience it’s just that sometimes, as in sacking Rooney, it is expedient to take actions that look “tight.”

Most of us know a Moment when we see one. When Rob Lowe and his squad of young celebrities appeared at the last Democratic National Convention rhapsodizing about issues, was anyone including them persuaded? Are abusers ever moved to quit drugs because they’ve seen a rock star’s straightfaced, thirtysecond antidrug commercial? (In Eric Bogosian’s latest oneman show, he portrays a rock star on a talk show. “I had a lot of adventures on drugs,” the character says. “Many songs of mine have been inspired by drugs.” Pause. “But that doesn’t mean you have to do them.”) At what point in the Academy Awards ceremony is it customary to call your mom, go to the john, order the pizza, get another beer? Why, during the presentation of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy’s board of governors, of course the Oscars’ inevitable (but by no means only) Moment

Nowadays no one is too compromised to strike a pose of treacly concern. Now that he’s been thrown on the defensive, even Donald Trump whose single virtue was always his bluntness has resorted to some egregious Moments. Why did he so resist sharing his fortune with his exwifetobe? Because, Trump explained, his thousands of employees might suffer if Ivana’s settlement reached the hundreds of millions.

The anchorwoman for the Trump divorce, gossip columnist Liz Smith, provides amazing Moments almost daily. Smith can be a venomous cynic, suspicious and grasping, but when it serves her needs, she can go over the top masquerading as a good ol’ cheerleader, as humble and nice as nice can be: After breaking the news of the Trumps’ separation and then bragging about her scoop every day for a week, Smith started saying she deeply, deeply regretted her role in the whole sorry, sorry mess but continued to send in dispatches from the front nevertheless.

Like the old Trump, Richard Nixon had a flair for consistency that commanded a certain chilly respect: He was almost never sentimental, sincerely or insincerely. One of his most memorable early public appearances was also his most ludicrous Moment of Slat: Accused in 1952 of benefiting from a secret slush fund, he went on TV to say that he had only accepted the family dog, Checkers, from some rich men, and by golly, he wasn’t giving him back.

If Nixon found it temperamentally difficult to pull off Moments, and if Reagan could do almost nothing else (A crippled little girl wrote me and asked, Mr. President. . .”), George Bush is somewhere uncomfortably in between. In lieu of providing a convincing vision of what the US. should seek to become, he awkwardly utters Moments of Slat, vowing to be the kinder and gentler president, the education president, the environmental president He is the lipservice president.

Not that either party has a monopoly on Moments. Faux heartfelt platitudes thrive in politics. But these days as never before, perpetual candidates find it too dangerous to do anything except recite formula Moments. And so the marketplace of ideas becomes pure pageant As the communist world plunges into a future without the comforting shackles of unexamined dogma, we seem to be picking up their discarded bad habits. America’s commitment to senior citizens is sacred, which means that even tinkering with Social Security is politically unthinkable; our freeenteipnse system is d nation’s cornerstone, and global competmveness is paramount, which means that aggressive antitrust enforcement is simply off the table; and America is committed to winning the war on drugs, which means that those few brave public officials who dare to broach the idea of legalization are instantly dismissed as callous and irresponsible.

In this, the Disingenuous Decade, we may see a new kind of demagogue: the politician who doesn’t pander to citizen anger and resentment but to the enervated, haveaniceday status quo. Look for more antihomelessness dialogue in the final five minutes of sitcoms. Look for the word BIODEGRADABLE to appear on every grocery package imaginable. And look for the homeless to remain wretched, the environment to remain imperiled. We are in danger of becoming a nation of Eddie Haskells. If we can muster the will to remake ourselves into altruists and ascetics, fine. But let’s not fake it.