In the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Part Three)

Death row and a brothel in Las Vegas; a pilot's lecture on creationism; genealogy and the Mormons; higher learning in Austin; a gun show in Fort Worth; and the rain-struck opening of the Clinton Library

And I confess, as an aside, that I didn't find the little dance organized by a few of these senior-citizen settlers at the Westerners Square Dance Club, in Sun City West, completely ridiculous. I confess to finding a certain charm in the spectacle of fifteen or twenty old ladies, dressed like Scarlett O'Hara in ruffled skirts and other alluring apparel, dancing to the point of breathlessness, whirling with Rhett Butlers the youngest of whom is eighty years old. The problem, obviously, is the rest. Everything else. The problem is all the black people you can't see here, and the Hispanics who, I am told, are here, but whose presence I am not aware of either. Poor people in general, a huge population left out of this suburban dream. The problem, in fact, is the feeling of having reached, with this tribe of the old, the very last stage of a process of social segregation a few premises of which I was able to observe in Los Angeles, and which, when all is said and done, manages neither to keep the poor in their ghettos nor to banish them to the city's outskirts. The problem, in short, is that all this implies a profound break with the very tradition of civic-mindedness and civility—I won't even say of compassion—that was responsible, and continues to be responsible, for this country's greatness. And this experiment in privatizing a public space at the expense of a community cannot fail to create a terrible precedent. Sun City seems like a little satellite freed from the laws of social and national gravity, from the "nation state," the "station," scorned by Emerson. And if we accept this, I say to one of my Scarletts, if we ratify the principle of this gilded ghetto, based on membership in a certain age and income bracket, then by what right can we tomorrow prevent the development of cities forbidden to the old? Or to gay men and women? Or to Jews? In whose name can we resist the definitive Balkanization of American space that could well result? But that's completely different, my indignant square dancer exclaims. You can't compare such horrific plans to an organization whose sole aim is to make life easier for old people who were suffocating in the big cities.

Maybe. I am in fact well aware of the little arrangements for everyday life in such old-age communities: electrical sockets that are higher up, so you don't have to bend down too far; carefully calibrated lighting, so as not to tire your eyes; golf courses; swimming pools heated both summer and winter; the alarm systems, connecting houses to hospitals, that save precious minutes in case of sickness, since delay is often fatal at this age; and so on. All that, obviously, is not trivial. But at the same time … this impression of dismal coldness … these artificial fires in the fireplaces, and these fake-looking lawns … this plastic-coated life … these dying people exuding health. This dead-end time, bereft of noteworthy events except dances and volunteer police rounds and, last but not least, the source of inexhaustible excitement: deaths and burials … I leave Sun City with a feeling of unease, no longer knowing if you come here to save or to damn yourself, to banish death or savor a foretaste of it. Back in Phoenix, I learn that Del Webb, the inventor of this frozen miracle, this paradise laden with all the attractions of purgatory, this kindergarten for senior citizens where life seems to have morphed into a pathology, learned his profession by building casinos, military installations, and internment camps for the Japanese.

A Frenchman in the Kerry Camp

I am having a fine time on a two-day trip with the press corps accompanying John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, but it almost ends badly.

The first night, for the Tempe—Las Vegas leg, right after Kerry's third debate with President Bush, they start by putting me in the second plane, the wrong one, the one without the candidate, the one carrying the luggage, the sound system, the staff.

Then, the next day, for the second leg—the one that, after a night in Vegas and a speech early the next morning to 10,000 AARP members, will take us to Des Moines, Iowa, for a big outdoor rally—I am invited to plane No. 1. But despite my entreaties, I still am not allowed to come near the candidate.

There are about fifteen of us from the press, actually. Twenty or so Secret Service agents; an equal number of PR assistants flitting from the main cabin to the front cabin, which has been fitted out for Kerry. The other reporters all get a one-on-one at some time or another. Depending on his degree of importance and that of his newspaper, each is entitled to have a press attaché either discreetly signal that his turn has come, or search him out in his seat to lead him by the hand into the holy of holies. But not I. Never. I am the only one, oddly, who upon asking whether the candidate is available yet is systematically answered with a vague and annoyed "In a little while." And each time I present myself, I get embarrassed but still negative replies. After a while they don't even bother to invent plausible excuses, and the automatic answer becomes "The candidate is sleeping … The candidate is still sleeping … It's still not the right time yet, because the candidate is tired and he's sleeping …"

"Don't you think that's a bit strange?" my seat neighbor, a journalist for a television network, who has been observing this treatment from the beginning without comment, asks me.

"Yes, I do. And I must say, I'm beginning to wonder …"

"And do you want an explanation—the real one, the one none of these bozos would ever dare tell you right out?"

"Yes, of course I do!"

Well, it's quite simple, he went on. It's like the story of the Hermès ties Kerry replaced with Vineyard Vines ties, made in the USA, out of fear that Bush's handlers would leap at the chance to support their "Kerry-as-agent-of-the-French" business. Or it's like the affair of the Evian bottle he had taken away in a hurry the other day from the Santa Monica hotel room where he was being interviewed by Matt Bai, of The New York Times Magazine. You're French. You're as French as a bottle of Evian or an Hermès tie. And their real fear, the real reason you're the only one of us not to have any contact with Kerry, is that a Frenchman might suddenly claim eight days before the election that the candidate picked him to confide his secrets to …

I am astonished, of course. Not just astonished—I feel slightly aggravated at the idea of this ludicrous misconception. And since, in any case, I've had enough by now, and thus have nothing to lose, I charge one last time toward the watchdog standing guard by the bar in the middle of the plane, and I say, "Listen, I get the picture. Let's make a deal: if I get to see the candidate and if he talks to me, I agree not to publish anything before the election or even till the summer of 2005, when one of my articles will appear. But I also swear that if you keep up your idiotic arrangement, and if your anti-French fixation keeps me from seeing him at all, then when the time comes you'll get a portrayal revealing that the ex-candidate, who could by then be the forty-fourth president of the United States, is a guy who spends most of his time … sleeping!"

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