Richard Reeves

The Uses of Controversy

NEW YORK -- The New York Times last Thursday:

Page 1: "Brooklyn Museum Accused of Trying to Spur Art Value -- A Conspiracy With Christie's Charged" ... "The Real Reagan? Invention and Reality Emerge in Unorthodox Biography by Edmund Morris" ... "Buchanan and Perot Denounced by Bush."

Page 24: "Buchanan Acting in Vendetta"

Page 29: "William Safire -- Brooklyn Museum ... Virgin Mary ... Mayor Giuliani ... Hillary Clinton ... the Buchanan campaign."

Page E1: "On Page 1 of Edmund Morris' ..."

Page E10: "The contents of this exhibition may cause shock, vomiting ... Brooklyn Museum of Art"

Page E12: "Available Now! ... Edmund Morris"

There is more in the same paper (and most others), but you get the picture. Controversy is its own reward. At least the folks named above, the controversialists of the moment, all think so. Controversy sells. It sells, in order, art exhibits, books, newspaper columnists. And politicians -- three, count 'em, three! Buchanan, Giuliani, H. Clinton. You've seen the controversy, now judge for yourself -- by buying the ticket, book, candidate.

Attention is what the information society is about. We have thousands of channels, millions of Web sites and billions of potential consumers. But those consumers of attention still have only 24 hours a day, so the competition to catch the eye or a few brain cells is fiercer and fiercer. There are examples beyond number, though my favorite for years now has been London taxicabs painted as moving newspapers -- a technique quickly applied to the painting of New York buses as billboards.

Controversy is what journalism is about, thrust and counterthrust. Of course most of the thrusts end up as one hand clapping or trees falling in the forest. We are dealing here with stars shooting across a crowded sky -- look at that one!

There is no one stupid in the listings above. Each of them is capitalizing on his or her own strengths (or weaknesses) to promote personal agendas, which are often no more complicated than promoting their own prosperity.

So Pat Buchanan, aligning now with Ross Perot and the Reform Party, was lost in the presidential shuffle, a great disappointment after shooting across the skies of Iowa and New Hampshire four years ago. He writes a book saying maybe Hitler was not such a problem. Poor Dan Quayle never thought of that.

Rudy Giuliani, the mayor of this great city, whose cultural views are very similar to Buchanan's, hears that the Brooklyn Museum, a worthy institution, is going to display art some consider blasphemous and many consider vulgar. The city gives the institution a subsidy to bring aspects of the world to the provinces, so the mayor has a chance to play to the masses, who are too busy to go look at pictures anyway. Miss Hillary, who may face Mayor Rudy in a Senate race, was persuaded or compelled to take the other side, which helps her fund-raising if nothing else because the people who support museums, educated and often wealthy, are generally inclined to subsidize freedom-of-speech Democrats.

And then there is Edmund Morris' authorized biography of Ronald Reagan, which may or may not ignore the fact that, whatever his oddities, the man changed the world, riding or guiding the white charger of free-market capitalism to global domination. I have not read much of "Dutch" yet, because the publisher, Random House, wanted me to sign a paper promising not to talk about it to anyone, including my family, until Newsweek published exclusive and expensive excerpts. Loving my family and not being employed by either Random House or Newsweek, I refused to sign.

That does not mean I do not have an opinion. Opinions, in fact. Whether he knew what he was doing or not (and of course he did), Ronald Reagan was one of the most important presidents of the century -- which century I leave to readers' choice. Edmund Morris is a wonderful writer, but what he did was wrong. I am flabbergasted by learned folk who say that historians can use their imaginations (without revealing that license) as long as they write well.

I say that without knowing enough of the work to truly judge it, even if some of it is true. I am a man of my times. I know you must have an opinion on current controversy or stay indoors until the tempests pass.

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