For the media class, the debut of Tina Brown's newspaper column was like the alarm clock ringing in the dream. Exhausted by war, recession, and all the other grim story lines of the moment, we'd drifted off at our desks, dead to the world. Then along comes Tina, riffing in the clear, cold, vampish voice that is hers alone, and suddenly we're awake again, wiping the drool from our chins and, in spite of everything, smiling.
I exaggerate, but only slightly. Within hours of its appearance last week, Brown's first weekly column for The Times of London had been picked up by various American Web sites, and the word was flying around the media schoolyard: Hey, gang, Tina's back! Here's the link. Not to be missed.
Ever since the demise of her never-quite-there magazine, Talk, the pendent question about Brown was whether she still had it. "It" being her unmatched ability to draw attention to herself, a charisma rooted in the tension between sophistication and vulgarity, art and trash, high and low. As editor of Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, she swung constantly between these poles, like some exotic hybrid daughter of Walter Winchell, Max Perkins, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Whether or not you enjoyed her act—and on balance, I think most people did—she was impossible to ignore. Then Talk, the magazine she created from scratch, came along and turned out to be oddly, emphatically ignorable. Was the magic gone?
The first line of her first Times column is all the answer you need: "AT LUNCH WITH STEVE FLORIO, the president of US Conde Nast, in the Grill Room of the Four Seasons Restaurant just off Park Avenue, I contemplate the dwindling band of CEOs still in a position to get a table." There are several interesting moves here, among them the deft use of the present tense, as if we're entering her brain in real time. Though she seldom gets credit for it, Brown has a natural genius for language.
But more astonishing is the baldness of her purpose. Unlike those pathetic, fallen CEOs, Tina Brown still rates a table, and she wants us to know it. Not only that, but she is still chummy with her former employer, the head of the company that owns both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. Thus, with a single sentence she dispatches any notion that her own personal currency has been devalued post-Talk, while dangling the idea that Conde Nast might just be courting her again. For sheer media spectating, it is a glorious little moment.
And she's just revving up. The rest of the column is a savage meditation on the diminished CEOs of the lede, the "lunch partners" who had shared "this minimalist power chamber" with her in the past. She says half of them are now "doing, in handcuffs, the perp walk, filing for bankruptcy, or 'exploring new opportunities' and 'spending more time with their families,' i.e. 'getting fired." She not only names names—Sam Waksal, Ken Lipper, Jack Welch, Martha Stewart, Thomas Middelhoff, etc.—but discusses these disgraced former Grill Room habitues as if they were literally dead, which to her they seem to be. The one scandalized figure who manages to sneak in, former Time-Warner CEO Gerald Levin, she describes as a "wraith" and marvels that he still walks the Earth: "It is startling to behold this mild, hamsterish figure in the flesh after all that has passed." She then quotes from a bizarre e-mail that Time art critic Robert Hughes recently sent to Levin, suggesting the latter go out and hang himself.
Winchell once said, "The way to become famous fast is to throw a brick at someone who is famous." Brown is an old pro at this, and she's still got a great arm, though it's always easier to hit your targets when they're lying facedown in the gutter. Media types were appalled, yet delighted. "Give that gal a pair of hobnail boots and watch her kick 'em while they're down," wrote one journalist friend of mine in an e-mail.
In this week's column, she pines for a new White House sex scandal: "When I channel-surf between the Peter Sellers clip of Saddam in his pork pie hat waving that rifle and the angryfoetus features of James Carville on CNN's Crossfire, I long for the irresponsible days of Monica and Bill."
One reason Brown is so transfixing, and so good to have back, is that she is really just an extreme version of the rest of us. Like every journalist, she loves high-end writing, and she has ushered a ton of it into print. At the same time, she has an unquenchable penchant for power, celebrity, and scandal. In the '80s and '90s, when slavering after famous people became the national pastime, Brown was the slaverer in chief, first at Vanity Fair and then at The New Yorker. And let's face it, we lapped it up. Most people, including most media people, share her fascination with the famous and powerful. We just keep it under wraps and make a point now and then of tut-tutting that this celebrity/scandal thing has gone too far. Has it really, now? Then why don't we turn off the spigot?
Tina Brown is the media's id, stripped naked and running around the Grill Room, showing the world what we really care about. And now that all those famous people have been ruined, she's doing what journalists have always done when the mighty have fallen: dancing on their graves, and making sure we still get a table.