Tom Wolfe Had The Right Stuff

I was deeply saddened to see that Tom Wolfe, one of the greatest writers in recent American history, died on Monday after being admitted to a New York hospital with an infection.  Wolfe was 88.

tom-wolfe-died-rolling-stone-writer-died-c0167ef2-8238-4428-a97e-eb7634d56326Tom Wolfe was an acclaimed novelist, but I will always remember him as one of the pillars of “New Journalism” in the ’60s and ’70s.  It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Tom Wolfe and the other colossal journalistic figure, Hunter S. Thompson, had on aspiring journalists in the Watergate and post-Watergate era.  Although their styles were very different, their writing had such flair and power.  Wolfe, in particular, showed enormous skill in picking and presenting topics that allowed him to skewer conventional wisdom and conventional norms and highlight some of the phoniness in modern society.  Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers, published in 1970, is a classic of the “New Journalism” genre.

And then came The Right Stuff, published in 1979 just as my tenure at the Ohio State University School of Journalism was ending.  A new non-fiction book by Tom Wolfe was eagerly anticipated, so I bought the book as soon as it came out, began reading it, and just couldn’t put it down.  It’s awesome from cover to cover, and includes everything that made Wolfe great — brilliant descriptive passages, a kind of novelistic pacing, bright, laugh out loud humor, his ability to ferret out small details that communicate a lot, and the unmatched ability to step back from something, view it from a new perspective, and then present it in a way that left you nodding your head and wondering why everybody didn’t recognize that perspective in the first place.

Wolfe’s treatment of the test pilot community, the ziggurat of achievement where a pilot could wash out at any step, and then how the American obsession with the “space race” and the Mercury astronaut program upended the order and added a new, top step to the ziggurat is just fantastic.  The book shows a writer at the absolute pinnacle of his powers; in effect, Wolfe had climbed to the peak of the ziggurat of journalism and non-fiction.  I’ve read the book countless times, and it never fails to grip me even though I know exactly what is coming.  I consider The Right Stuff to be one of the great books of the 20th century, and definitely in my top 5 list.  If you haven’t read it, you owe it to yourself to get it from the library and give yourself a treat.

Because Wolfe’s non-fiction books read like novels, thanks to his incredible creativity and skill, it was natural that he would pivot to fiction and write a series of best sellers that also captured the silly side of modern society.  His novels were good, but I always thought The Right Stuff was his greatest triumph.  In honor of the passing of this enormous talent, it’s time for me to read it again.

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The Proper Victorian Gent And The Donald

In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe depicted the news media as a kind of prissy, proper Victorian gent, applying notions of marriage and conduct to the Mercury astronauts and their families that were outmoded even back in the early ’60s.  As a result, to win the public relations battle, the astronauts and their wives had to relentlessly portray themselves as examples of prim domestic perfection.

victorian-vest-1I thought of Wolfe’s notion of the press as the proper Victorian gent recently as I was reading coverage of the Republican presidential campaign.  The media pundits were reacting with horror at the tone of the Republican candidates, accusing them of falling to the level of schoolyard taunting and insults and — amazingly — being more critical of Marco Rubio than of Donald Trump, whose insults and willing embrace of crassness started the candidates down that road in the first place.  It is as if the press expects, tolerates, and perhaps even celebrates that kind of behavior from Trump — boy, he sure is a rebel who is breaking all of the rules for presidential candidates, isn’t he? — but can’t abide it when other candidates meet fire with fire.  Those other candidates are presented as somehow having lost their cool or taken the campaign to the gutter.

Of course, the press is really the reason why the other candidates have resorted to mocking Trump and trying to do so in ways that will attract media attention. The media is so infatuated with Trump, and the coverage is so lopsided, that the other candidates are starved for attention.  On the night Chris Christie endorsed Trump, I turned on CNN and it was carrying a Trump rally, live, as he sprayed water from a water bottle while belittling Rubio.  Other campaigns need to buy air time to get their message out to that kind of audience, but because of Trump’s antics he gets that kind of publicity for free.  Can anyone legitimately blame the other candidates if they try to respond in kind in hopes of attracting a bit more coverage?  In Marco Rubio’s case, his willingness to hurl a few insults back at Trump seems to have worked and attracted more press attention.  And while Trump won the lion’s share of contests yesterday, his opponents won some, too, and it looks like races were closer because the other candidates finally may be starting to break through the media wall around the Donald.

Of course, I would prefer that political candidates maintain a civil discourse and engage in a spirited, but elevated, discussion of the issues.  With Trump in the race, though, such hopes have long since been dashed, and it is senseless to try to hold other candidates to lofty standards when Trump is breaking all the rules and being effectively rewarded for it.  With the media perfectly willing to cover every outrageous incident of Trumpish behavior, rather than digging into and exposing Trump’s past, the only hope for voters who want to learn about Trump’s record will be the other Republican candidates — and if they need to throw in a regrettable bit of coarseness to get the media’s attention while they do so, I’m not going to wring my hands and bemoan the lack of propriety.  This is a case where the proper Victorian gents of the news media have only themselves to blame.

The Law Enforcement Nod

If you’ve publicly encountered anyone involved in law enforcement or security lately — whether it be police officer, Highway Patrolman, or black-shirted rent-a-cop security officer — you’ve probably received what I’ve come to think of as the “law enforcement nod.”

The encounter begins as you approach the law enforcement person, who undoubtedly is wearing mirrored sunglasses and a wholly deadpan expression.  They give you an obvious head-to-toe visual inspection, apparently checking to see if you are armed or whether your guilt about some recent criminal wrongdoing will cause you to begin sprinting away in mad panic.  If you continue on your path, smiling pleasantly and up to no apparent mischief, you are likely to receive “the nod” — a barely discernible head movement signalling that you have passed muster.  And then, after you have passed by, you breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s amazing how uniform and widespread “the nod” is.  I’ve received it in every corner of the country and from every imaginable person charged with maintaining order.  It’s pervasiveness reminds me of the anecdote at the beginning of The Right Stuff, where Tom Wolfe observes that every airline pilot curiously seems to speak with the same chuckling West Virginia drawl, mimicking the patois of Chuck Yeager, the pilot who broke the sound barrier.  Somewhere, I wonder, was there a trend-setting police officer who first decided that the best approach to interaction with the law-abiding members of the general public was a slight yet unmistakably judgmental nod of acknowledgement that has since been copied by law enforcement personnel throughout the land?

It didn’t always used to be this way, I think.  In days gone by, when cops walked regular beats and got to know the residents along the way, conversations and other more normal forms of human interaction were routine.  But now our encounters with police officers tends to be much less frequent and much more impersonal — how often do you meet a patrolman on the street, as opposed to seeing one zooming by in a cruiser? — and police officers and citizenry both seem to be constantly on guard.  And, with the shootings of police officers that we have seen, I can’t really blame law enforcement officers for being focused more on scrutinizing everyone they encounter as an act of self-preservation.

Hence, “the nod.”  I understand it, but I think the old ways are better.

The Budding Power Of New Journalism

Back in the 1970s, when I was a student at the Ohio State University School of Journalism, there was a lot of talk about the “new journalism.” At that time, “new journalism” referred to writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson who wrote from uniquely personal perspectives and, in the case of Dr. Gonzo, was an integral actor in his articles. Their pieces were characterized by strong, colorful language, ample irony and humor, and a willingness to express their own opinions about what they were experiencing. Two of my favorite books ever — The Right Stuff and Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 — were written by these larger than life personalities.

In the past 10 days we have seen a confirmation of the extraordinary power of the newest form of “new journalism,” through the hidden camera videos exposing the rank practices and activities of ACORN employees in offices across the country. As new, ever more shocking videos are posted to websites, we have seen the Census Bureau cut its ties to ACORN and, today, the House of Representatives vote to cut off all federal funding for ACORN.

What is amazing about this story is that two young people — aged 25 and 20 — armed only with a hidden camera, an idea, and a willingness to take a few risks — have brought low a well-funded organization that was strongly supported by many politicians. Their videos were posted on a few websites and went “viral.” No established news media outlets were involved; indeed, the networks and large newspapers largely were oblivious to the story. Average Americans, however, were not oblivious. They saw the videos on the internet and were stunned by them.  Their disgust was quickly communicated to their elected representatives, who did not even attempt to defend ACORN or slow efforts to strip ACORN of government funding. It is an amazing example of how, in some ways at least, the internet has changed the world.

What does it mean? It means Americans no longer are solely dependent on established members of the news media for information. It means that individuals are far more empowered than they were before the internet made it possible for an average citizen to communicate to millions of total strangers with a few strokes of a keyboard. And finally, it means that organizations like ACORN will have to be mindful the next time a self-proclaimed pimp and prostitute walk into their offices seeking aid and advice.