[Paleopsych] Guardian: (Tom Wolfe) 'The liberal elite hasn't got a clue'

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'The liberal elite hasn't got a clue'

As a member of the Manhattan intelligentsia, novelist Tom Wolfe seems a 
lonely defender of George Bush's conservative values. But, he tells Ed 
Vulliamy, he's bewildered by a sex-mad society and tired of being lectured 
to at dinner parties. So is he voting for Dubya tomorrow? He's not quite 

Ed Vulliamy
Monday November 01 2004
The Guardian

Tom Wolfe casts his gaze across America at this election time, with eyes 
that change mood in a nanosecond, with a flicker. For the most part, they 
exude an amused elegance befitting the hallmark white suit and dandy-ish 
two-tone brogues. But then the look suddenly changes, to become 
scalpel-sharp, mischievous, seizing upon some detail. It is a 
metamorphosis which begins to explain, perhaps, how this softly-spoken, 
immaculately-mannered gentleman journalist from the South can write with 
such voracity about the grime and sediment which inhabits American society 
and the human soul.

Certainly the view is stirring from the place to which he retreats to 
write, and where we meet: his outrageously beautiful Manhattan apartment 
taking up the 14th floor of a block on the Upper East Side, with sweeping 
views over a Central Park drenched in autumnal sunshine. A grand piano 
sits in the corner, painted in what Wolfe calls "cocktail lounge navy 
blue". Shelves are stacked with books on 19th-century, modern and Dutch 
art. In what he calls his office, next to the sitting room, is a huge, 
handsome and ornate bureau on which sits handwriting instruments and two 
panama hats.

>From this desk, and the pen of arguably America's greatest current writer 
>- author of the 1987 epic Bonfire of the Vanities and much more besides - 
>there now comes a third major novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, to be 
>published next week, on the other side of election day. Wolfe set out, 
>for the first time, to write the book on a computer, but gave up in 
>favour of his usual typewriter. "Then I jammed my finger badly," he says, 
>"and took up pen and paper. This may turn out to be the last book ever 
>written that way."

A new Tom Wolfe novel is always a literary event: where will he go next? 
The answer this time is an elite, imaginary Ivy League university, Dupont 
College, for a book about libido off the leash, and about the cult of what 
Wolfe calls "the bad comedy" of college sports - athletes taken on by 
centres of academic excellence for their bodies, not their brains.

The novel - researched, as usual, down to the last expletive - concerns a 
young world speaking "fuck patois", loaded with creatine and cocaine, 
numbed by PlayStation 3, and charged by alcohol, the "vile spleen" of rap 
and, above all, ubiquitous sex between the heirs and heiresses to 
privilege in America. Most intriguingly, in this week of all weeks in 
American history, the book affords a gateway towards explaining Wolfe's 
boldly delivered, tantalising, remark: "I have sympathy with what George 
Bush is trying to do, although obviously the excursion [into Iraq] is not 
going well."

Four years ago, Wolfe wrote an essay to mark the millennium called Hooking 
Up, about what he called "feverish emphasis on sex and sexiness". In a 
way, the new novel is a literary fruition of the essay. The excess and 
decadence at Dupont College are seen through the eyes of his heroine, 
Charlotte Simmons, who arrives a diligent virgin from the hills of North 
Carolina, on a full scholarship. She is initially intimidated and 
appalled, but eventually conquers her fear to partake, indeed to star, in 
the jock beanfeast.

"I personally would be shocked out of my pants if I was at college now," 
confides Wolfe, who spent four years trawling the campuses for raw 
material. The book, he says, is "about sex as it interacts with social 
status. And I have tried to make the sex un-erotic. I will have failed if 
anyone gets the least bit excited. So much of modern sex is un-erotic, if 
erotic means flight of fancy or romantic build-up. Sex now is so easy to 
consummate - it is a pressure that affects everybody, girls more than 
boys, I think."

As he notes, the America which votes tomorrow is a country riven over 
morality like never before. On the flip side of the culture of ubiquitous 
sex is that of puritan Christianity, as harnessed in no small part by 
Bush. "Yes, there is this puritanism," says Wolfe, "and I suppose we are 
talking here about what you might call the religious right. But I don't 
think these people are left or right, they are just religious, and if you 
are religious, you observe certain strictures on sexual activity - you are 
against the mainstream, morally speaking. And I do have sympathy with 
them, yes, though I am not religious. I am simply in awe of it all; the 
openness of sex. In the 60s they talked about a sexual revolution, but it 
has become a sexual carnival."

No writer has chronicled the full American curve over four decades quite 
like Wolfe. He has been at this, unswervingly, since 1965, when he 
published a curio about pop culture called The Kandy-Kolored 
Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. His breakthrough came in 1968 with The 
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, his chronicle of Ken Kesey's LSD-gobbling 
Merry Pranksters. "If I have been judged to be right wing," he says, "I 
think this is because of the things I have mocked. It started with Radical 
Chic [published in 1970, about a fundraising party for the Black 
Panthers organised by Leonard Bernstein]. I was denounced because 
people thought I had jeopardised all progressive causes. But my impulse 
was not political, it was simply the absurdity of the occasion. Then I 
wrote The Painted Word, about modern art, and was denounced as 
reactionary. In fact, it is just a history, although a rather loaded one. 
Then came The Right Stuff [his account of America's first 
astronauts], after which my relative enthusiasm for Nasa was another 
sign of perfidy."

He is "proud", he says, "that I do not think any political motivation can 
be detected in my long books. My idol is Emile Zola. He was a man of the 
left, so people expected of him a kind of Les Miserables, in which the 
underdogs are always noble people. But he went out, and found a lot of 
ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could 
not - and was not interested in - telling a lie. You can call it honesty, 
or you can call it ego, but there it is. There is no motivation higher 
than being a good writer."

In his manifesto of 1973 on The New Journalism, Wolfe advocated a 
"journalistic or perhaps documentary novel". He re-invoked the idea four 
years ago by way of retort to a fusillade of criticism - an exchange which 
scandalised New York society - levelled against his last novel, A Man In 
Full, from no less than Norman Mailer, John Updike and John Irving. The 
new book is in itself a counter to that outburst.

Wolfe's lambent success in documenting ambition, drunkenness, sloth and 
meanness in his own country has taken him from his native Virginia to New 
York which he wrote about in Bonfire of the Vanities, pitching the 
super-rich "Masters of the Universe" in high finance against the real 
world of the Bronx. But even as the author of the quintessential New York 
novel, Wolfe feels estranged in the city, as he surveys America during the 
final days of the election campaign. Estranged not from the subjects of 
his scrutiny, the "Masters of the Universe", but rather from the liberal 

"Here is an example of the situation in America," he says: "Tina Brown 
wrote in her column that she was at a dinner where a group of media 
heavyweights were discussing, during dessert, what they could do to stop 
Bush. Then a waiter announces that he is from the suburbs, and will vote 
for Bush. And ... Tina's reaction is: 'How can we persuade these people 
not to vote for Bush?' I draw the opposite lesson: that Tina and her 
circle in the media do not have a clue about the rest of the United 
States. You are considered twisted and retarded if you support Bush in 
this election. I have never come across a candidate who is so reviled. 
Reagan was sniggered it, but this is personal, real hatred.

"Indeed, I was at a similar dinner, listening to the same conversation, 
and said: 'If all else fails, you can vote for Bush.' People looked at me 
as if I had just said: 'Oh, I forgot to tell you, I am a child molester.' 
I would vote for Bush if for no other reason than to be at the airport 
waving off all the people who say they are going to London if he wins 
again. Someone has got to stay behind."

Where does it come from, this endorsement of the most conservative 
administration within living memory? Of this president who champions the 
right and the rich, who has taken America into the mire of war, and seeks 
re-election tomorrow? Wolfe's eyes resume the expression of detached 
Southern elegance.

"I think support for Bush is about not wanting to be led by East-coast 
pretensions. It is about not wanting to be led by people who are forever 
trying to force their twisted sense of morality onto us, which is a 
non-morality. That is constantly done, and there is real resentment. 
Support for Bush is about resentment in the so-called 'red states' - a 
confusing term to Guardian readers, I agree - which here means, literally, 
middle America. I come from one of those states myself, Virginia. It's the 
same resentment, indeed, as that against your own newspaper when it sent 
emails targeting individuals in an American county." Wolfe laughs as he 
chastises. "No one cares to have outsiders or foreigners butting into 
their affairs. I'm sure that even many of those Iraqis who were cheering 
the fall of Saddam now object to our being there. As I said, I do not 
think the excursion is going well."

And John Kerry? "He is a man no one should worry about, because he has no 
beliefs at all. He is not going to introduce some manic radical plan, 
because he is poll-driven, and it is therefore impossible to know where or 
for what he stands."

As far as Wolfe is concerned, "the great changes in America came with the 
second world war, since which time I have not seen much shift in what 
Americans fundamentally believe. Apart from the fact that as recently as 
the 1970s, Nelson Rockefeller shocked people by leaving his wife of 30 
years, while now celebrities routinely have children outside marriage, the 
mayor of New York leaves his wife for his lover and no one blinks. But a 
large number of people have remained religious, and it is a divided 
country - do not forget that Al Gore nearly won the last election. The 
country is split right along party lines."

And there has been a complete climate change in the nation which elected 
Bill Clinton twice, to that which may confer the same honour on George 
Bush tomorrow. This, says Wolfe, began not with the election of Bush, but 
on the morning of September 11 2001.

None of us who were in New York that day will ever forget it, and Wolfe is 
no exception. "I was sitting in my office when someone called to tell me 
two light planes had collided with the World Trade Centre. I turned on my 
television, before long there was this procession of people of all kinds, 
walking up the street. What I remember most was the silence of that crowd; 
there was no sound.

"That day told us that here was a different kind of enemy. I honestly 
think that America and the Bush administration felt that something extreme 
had to be done. But I do not think that the Americans have become a 
warlike people; it is rare in American history to set about 
empire-building - acquiring territory and slaves. I've never met an 
American who wanted to build an empire. And while the invasion of 
Afghanistan was something that had to be done, I am stunned that Iraq was 

Wolfe is by no means afraid to offend the political right - "I'm gratified 
if you find me to be hard on them too," he says. He also anticipates that 
"conservatives will not like this new novel because I refuse to take the 
impact of political correctness seriously - I think PC has probably had a 
good effect because it is now bad manners to use racial epithets."

So what is it about his liberal neighbours and fellow diners in his 
adoptive New York that Wolfe cannot abide? "I cannot stand the lock-step 
among everyone in my particular world. They all do the same thing, without 
variation. It gets so boring. There is something in me that particularly 
wants it registered that I am not one of them."

Parting cordially, it seems strange that such an effervescent maverick, 
such a jester at the court of all power - all vanity, indeed - should so 
wholeheartedly endorse the power machine behind George Bush. And so an 
obvious thought occurs: perhaps Wolfe is jester at the court of New York 
too. Would he really be happier away from New York, out on the plains, in 
the "red states" where everyone at dinner parties votes for Bush? Wolfe's 
eyes revert to that mischievous glint, and he allows himself a smile. "I 
do think," he admits, apparently speaking for himself, his country and his 
president, "that if you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are 
not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning."

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