CONSPIRACY runs rampant. There is grumbling in the kitchen, muttering on the back porch, gibbering in the parlor. Back-stage phone-calls jerk marionettes out of their dangling sleep and send them prancing into places of power. Zombies lurch forward. Who is Nancy Reagan anyway? And what dark beast slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
[MORE], for one. Or less, for that matter. Conspiracy abounds. Takeover conspiracies. Undue influence conspiracies. Creamy peanut butter conspiracies. Extra. Read all about it. Discredited former vice-crook-president charges Jewishes with Zionist sympathies and media control. That's just the cover story. Inside, how (in not so many words) the re-accredited former seed salesman from Plains creamed his way into New York Times headlines, and Memphis-blues-cooed his wormy fishhook into the tangled pickle that is Hunter Thompson's heart.
And all over the magazine, a Triumph of Venality. An Apogee of Slickness. In the beginning, you see, or maybe not that early, was Clay Felker, he of New York magazine and The Village Voice. Felker tended to have this O.K. Corral effect on people--they would go in to talk to him and say, "New York isn't big enough for the both of us, so... I'll leave." Some with less amicability than others. And what could be more natural than a former political reporter with New York magazine, a book to his name and money in the family, buying a little freedom of the press. Hence, Michael Kramer, the new editor and publisher of [MORE]. And hence, just as every three-bit show biz con artist feels the urge to imprint their feet into the drip-dry cement outside Grumman's Chinese Theater, for posterity, that is, and the virtue of newness, Kramer's facelifting and wholesale suburban renewal of [MORE]. From tabloid to magazine, from just covering the print press to umbrella-ing anything that massages--T.V., advertising, publishing, film, and sundry offspring.
What's harder to figure are the people involved in the beauty treatment. For his executive editor, Kramer brought in Ron Rosenbaum, a contributor to Esquire and New Times who had once been a larynx at The Village Voice in the throaty pre-Felker days. He hadn't wanted to play Doc Holiday (hired dentist, that is) to Felker's Wyatt Earp, and got out to do eye, ear, nose and throat on his own. But it seems he's never made it past tonsillectomies--his major contribution to the inaugural issue is a light pan of soft-core pornographic advertising. No tough social criticism here: his oh-so-cynical ending is a quote from some Madison Avenue flunky, "It's that honest and sincere." No, Rosenbaum is a hard sell-out.
Even more puzzling, given Rosenbaum's known antipathies to Felkerism, is Kramer's choice of master cosmetician, or design director, as they are known in these circles. In charge of the new layout is Milton Glaser, about as close an associate as Felker has--design director for both The Voice and New York, as well as chairman and vice-chairman of various Felker publishing companies. Glaser's work is appropriately glossy--with the ever-legitimizing Marlboro Man on the back cover and an uninspired Spiro Agnew elongation on the front, plus a new logo without the brackets--since [MORE] is what reporters type at the bottom of pages in an unfinished story and thus is unsuited for a multi-media mag. Everything inside comes in boxes, sort of like a Kellogg's Snack Pack. Your eyes get stuck in these armored safes of print, where everything is lined off, column from column, picture from print, headline from subhead. Milton Glaser just wouldn't get along with Jerry Brown--you gotta flow, Miltie.
And while the whiff of conspiracy emanating from all these Felker connections may be only that, a whiff, the content of [MORE]'s new issue gives off such a stench of conspiracy that you'll forget mere takeover theories. Foremost on the list of subjects is Spiro Agnew, who would still be in prison were it not for plea-bargainers in the Justice Department like Elliot Richardson. Instead, Spiro the Kickbacker is on the bestseller list, with a novel charging, among other rantings and ravings, that a Jewish cabal controls the media and exerts extreme pro-Zionist influence on American foreign policy. Unfortunately, [MORE] chooses to take Agnew seriously, devoting six swampy pages to the various interminglings and more numerous splits among America's Jewish elite, concluding that, yes, there are a number of Jews in the media, but so what?
Other magazines have known how to deal with people of Agnew's ilk. Rolling Stone, for instance, accompanying Hunter Thompson's 1974 Watergate opus, "The Scum Also Rises," ran a Ralph Steadman cartoon depicting former Attorney-General John "this country is moving so far to the right you won't recognize it" Mitchell as a used condom in mid air, about to splash down. It could just as well have been Spiro; after all, he has as much credence as a year-old Samoa, you know, the kind that comes in five tropical colors. Agnew's been spouting off for two reasons, probably; he wants to sell his book and he wants business deals with the Arabs. [MORE]'s motives for running the article are simpler, one suspects--they just couldn't resist the headline "Jews in the News."
Scum, scum, ah, yes, we were talking about Hunter Thompson. The Mad Dog of modern journalism stunned the reading public when he made The Great Leap of Faith in print and endorsed Jimmy Carter two months ago in Rolling Stone. [MORE]'s piece on the Thompson conversion not only exposes Carter's conscious seduction process, but also happens to be the finest parody ever of the bent Thompson style.
Very.... strange. How did it happen, this most bizarre media event of the campaign? God, could it be the acid? Has it happened to Hunter, too, what happened to Rennie Davis and so many other twisted LSD casualties--The Dread Post-Acid Gurunoid Syndrome? Is Jimmy Carter his 14-year-old fat kid?
History will note that it was Hunter Thompson's viciousness that kept Hubert Humphrey out of the 1976 race--too many liberals out there had been rolling in the aisles for years over Thompson's description of Hubie as "writhing like three iguanas in a feeding frenzy" over the prospect of nomination. But Thompson was a sucker for Bob Dylan. Carter courted and Carter quoted--remember the acceptance speech: "I believe in the words of Bob Dylan, that our country can be busy being born, not busy dying." And Thompson joined the ranks of the born-again.
But Thompson is only the half of it. The complete Carter conspiracy, the Mein Kampf of 1976, comes clear in [MORE]'s interview with R.W. Apple Jr., The New York Times' national political correspondent. Apple filed the first "Carter is a serious candidate" story from Iowa in October 1975. Apple explains that he went to Iowa to see who was moving, who was organizing, and all his contacts from past campaigns kept saying "Carter, Carter, Carter...it was enough of a man-bites-dog story that (the Times) played it on page one." Pass the Windex, you say? Sure. All Carter had to do was find out whom Apple knew in Iowa, have volunteers knock on their doors every day for a month, give them importunate phone-calls, and Zap! Front page of the Times, a candidate is born, and the bandwagon starts tooting.
Conspiracy, conspiracy, all is conspiracy, it creeps in this petty pace, Aah. But there's more, a one-man conspiracy, in fact, devoted only to the propagation of "seamless" prose, effortless to read. His name is John McPhee, he is perhaps the finest non-fiction in America, and he writes on anything, from oranges to flying machines, from tennis to bark canoes. [MORE]'s profile is not so finely crafted, but McPhee's light has been so long under the bushel basket that even this brief uncovering is dazzling.
There is, in fact, only one article in this month's [MORE] that achieves what the magazine proposes to do: systematically criticize the media. There's this conspiracy, you see; the role of television in our society, according to John Leonard, The New York Times' roving cultural correspondent, is to "purvey legitimizing ceremonies." His wonderfully acerbic rundown of T.V.'s convention coverage ends thusly:
A nominating convention is sort of Ex-Lax for the body politic, a theater of ourselves, a legitimizing ceremony... We know that what we see is a 'media-event' and are smug in the knowledge. If Walter Cronkite takes it seriously, then we don't have to. His seriousness absolves us. There is a 'media-reality' for which we can disclaim responsibility, and a private reality, which is our watching of the magic show as if it had nothing to do with our lives.
And it doesn't. But it does. [MORE]'s subject is amorphous--all the more reason to be disappointed when they compartmentalize it, line it off in little boxes that defy comprehensiveness. [MORE]'s problem will always be that it is trudging along in the ranks of the Slick. Plumed cavaliers either joust each other or set up straw men, hollow men, graven images of themselves, to knock down. The magazine is covering a game of daggers sliding out of ruffled tuxedo sleeves, or a swift innuendo to the kidneys, or, at best, a Polaroid snapshot of stasis. They're all interesting, these conspiracies, but [MORE] has missed the Big One. There's no world-view here, and the rats are scuttling in the cellar and the ice cap melts. More is now less.