Liz Smith

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In the 1990 wake of Donald Trump’s scandalous divorce and financial cratering, Liz Smith, who used the hideous hotelier for cheap, titillating content long before cable news did, wrote off his lifelong dream of acquiring the White House: “It appears Donald Trump will never be President. He can be a lot of other important things, but not the chief executive of the U.S., unless, of course, the next few generations of Americans produced are mutants with very brief memories.”

Judge for yourself if nearly 63 million of your fellow citizens fall into that unfortunate category, but Trump achieved his goal, even if it was a hostile takeover, with not only Russian interference and FBI incompetence aiding our fall from grace and into the gutter, but seismic changes in technology, media, politics and entertainment enabling the whole sordid mess.

Before a Trump presidency could became a reality, the scenario of a deeply bigoted, braggadocious, misogynistic, ignorant, money-laundering sociopath and low-brow entertainer ascending to the highest office in the land had to seem possible. That it did to so many speaks to the crumbling of our norms. 

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In “Why There Won’t Be a German Trump,” a Spiegel essay by Dirk Kurbjuweit, the writer argues that his country’s different mindset and its rigid party control over candidates negates the political “freak factor,” making it almost impossible for a lone wolf who’s crazy as a loon to succeed at the highest level. That’s likely true for now, though given enough time, anything is possible. An excerpt:

Politics emerges in the “realm of possiblity” that societies construct for themselves. What do people imagine? What kinds of leaders do they think are possible? The realm of possibility is a product of real experiences as well as that of visions, fantasies, stories and dreams. What’s crucial is the height of the wall separating reality and dreams. If it is high, the potential space is small — and vice versa.

An American film called Miss Sloane, a portrait of an ice-cold lobbyist in Washington, is currently showing in German theaters. It’s a powerful movie that will leave viewers with the impression that its depiction is, in principle, an accurate one. That the fight for majorities is carried out ruthlessly, often with lies used as weapons. The reality under Trump is being compared to “House of Cards,” a series about a brutal politician who manipulates his way into the White House.

Ronald Reagan was an actor before he became a politician. Jesse Ventura was a professional wrestler, which is to say a showbiz star, before he became the governor of Minnesota. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an actor before he became the governor of California and now he is once again an actor. Donald Trump was the lead character in a reality show before he became president. These men moved from a pseudo reality into a political reality. The American wall is low, if it exists at all — the worlds of reality and dreams flow into one another. The Hollywood dream factory is part of the truth, but it is an invented one. President Trump is the product of an enormous realm of possibility.•

There are also political lies in Germany, but not such an intense interdependence between fictional narratives and reality. Here, realism is a long-scorned and underdeveloped art form. Politics is considered too boring to produce grand narratives, a fact that keeps Germany’s realm of possibility relatively small. Someone like Trump isn’t imaginable because we haven’t seen anything like him in a movie or on a TV screen. And then there’s the fact that grand narratives, whether real or not, arise out of megalomania — something that has been viewed with intense skepticism in Germany since 1945, with good reason.

Germany has a different concept of reality than the U.S., a clear separation between the spheres of dreams and politics, a high wall that makes political reality a bit more reliable and more serious.•

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Liz Smith was at the center of the culture, when the culture still had a center. Then the long tail of the Internet snapped her from the spotlight, as almost everyone became a celebrity and countless outlets allowed gossip to achieve ubiquity. The louche location of a newspaper no longer needed a name reporter anymore than most blockbusters required a particular star. The pictures didn’t get smaller, but the people in them did. Like Walter Winchell, she outlived her fame.

No one deserved a steep decline more than Winchell, who Smith grew up listening to on radio when she was a girl in Texas in the Thirties. A figure of immense power in his heyday, Winchell was vicious and vindictive, often feared and seldom loved, the inspiration for the seedy and cynical J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. 

By the time journalism matured in the 1960s and college-educated industry professionals began saying “ellipsis” rather than “dot dot dot,” Winchell had no power left, and people were finally able to turn away from him–and turn they did. The former media massacrist was almost literally kicked to the curb, as Larry King recalled seeing the aged reporter standing on Los Angeles street corners handing out mimeographed copies of his no-longer-syndicated column. By the time he died in 1972, he was all but already buried, and his daughter was the lone mourner in attendance.

Smith was of a later generation, and unlike Winchell or Hedda Hopper, she usually served her information with a spoon rather than a knife–the scribe loved celebrity and access and privilege so much–though she occasionally eviscerated someone who behaved badly. Frank Sinatra was her most famous foe, and you had to respect her for not pulling punches based on the size of her opponent. In the 1980s, she was a major player. A decade later, as we entered the Internet Age and Reality TV era, her empire began to crumble. Now, at 94, she wonders where it all went.

In one sense, Smith is like a lot of retirees pushed from a powerful perch. In another, because she worked in the media in a disruptive age, she has embedded in her the slings and arrows of a technological revolution that turned the page with no regard for the boldness of the bylines.

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From John Leland’s excellent NYT feature “The Rise and Fall of Liz Smith, Celebrity Accomplice“:

So when J-Lo sneezes, it is now up to someone else to make sure the public gets sick.

Facebook, maybe?

“I don’t think my name could sell anything now,” Ms. Smith said in the apartment where she moved after her stroke in January, from her longtime digs above a Tex-Mex restaurant in Murray Hill. She wore a white cable-knit sweater and bright orange lipstick.

“It used to mean — bylines used to mean something in journalism,” she said, her Texas accent still unbowed. But with the internet and social media, she said, “most people have forgotten about so-called powerful people like me; we served our time.”

Which put Ms. Smith at an existential crossroads: If a gossip columnist dishes in the forest and no one repeats it, does it make a sound? In a celebrity landscape that considers contestants on “The Bachelorette” to be celebrities, how does a star-chaser regain her star?

“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she said softly, musing at the thought. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.

“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”•

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