"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 11 May 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Short Shrift


[ever wonder how some people just seem 
showered with good fortune?

None dare call it news. Anybody

aware of the best-selling book,

the hit movie, the "Bababooey"

placements on countless Larry

King shows, already knows the

rule that Howard always wins.

Once Howard Stern decided to

enter his correspondent, Hank,

the Angry Drunken Dwarf, in

People magazine's


of-the-Year poll, the question

wasn't whether Hank would win,

but by how much.


If media events had gradations

between nano and giga, the King

of All Media's most recent

score would have raised about as

much attention as the imminent

(and long overdue) comeback of

Soupy Sales. But even after

decades of this stuff, there are

still obliging Colonel Klinks

willing to come through with the

quivering befuddlement this sort

of hi-jinks demands. (Sterniacs

still savor the way The New York

Times bestseller list fudged its

numbers in an effort to keep

Private Parts out of the

number-one position.) By

relegating Hank to the online

basement (People Online has

already asserted its right to

dismiss the vote, and the

Most-Beautiful-People issue

ignores the Dwarf entirely),

People was merely demonstrating

the proper way to play straight



This isn't about the fall of pop

culture but the rise of vote

nullification, America's

adoption of Algerian-style

balloting. Time Warner

established this principle when

it barred people's choice

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from its

pantheon of great leaders and

revolutionaries (an even more

egregious omission, since you

actually could make a case for

Ataturk over such dubious

achievers as Margaret Sanger,

Gorby, and the current pope).


[see i can do well at a roulette table and feel lucky
but when it comes to the important things, well that's not true either.
i DO wonder where mine is sometimes though.]

The heirs of cocksure, confident

Henry Luce have good reason to

treat medium-specific poll

results like so much olean

percolate. In 1936, Time smeared

golden egg on its own face with

a telephone poll predicting Alf

Landon would top Franklin

Roosevelt in the presidential

election, forgetting that the

millions of Americans who

couldn't afford phones were

almost unanimously behind

Roosevelt. More important,

popular outpourings clog the

arteries of the Great Man Theory

of History that built the Time

empire in the first place. Since

its inception as a "brief,

readable chronicle of

significant events," Time's

determination of what is a

"significant event" hasn't

flowed from historical

significance, or inside

information, or public acclaim,

but from the brute force of

self-appointed expertise, a

position of cultural arbitrage

you can only attain by believing

your own press releases.


But we're Americans, goddamnit.

We expect our vote to count for

something, especially when the

cultural arbiters are more often

right-headedly wrong than

wrong-mindedly right. It was,

after all, the Academy that

judged How Green Was My Valley a

better film than Citizen Kane.

The Nobel Prize literary

committee declined to give

awards to those notorious hacks

James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and

Leo Tolstoy. In 1973, the

Pulitzer Prize fiction committee

was so divided over Gravity's

Rainbow that they ended up not

giving any prize at all. Alfred

Hitchcock was never deemed equal

to a best director Oscar. Suck

has never won a Webby. And do

you really think the American

people, given the choice, would

vote to keep Pete Rose out of

the Baseball Hall of Fame?


Function: noun
1 a : a force that brings good fortune or adversity 
b : the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual
2 : favoring chance;

All of which would seem an

airtight argument for tearing

the cultural ayatollahs limb

from limb, until you look at

what happens when the vox

populi actually speaks up. For

some of us, the genius of the

American experiment is nowhere

better expressed than in the

People's Choice Awards. For

full-bore smarm and


encomiums to you, The People,

you just can't beat it. This

year, far from the gimlet eyes

of the cultural chaperones, The

People elected their own

champions, and the winner for

best picture was ... Titanic! In

fact, the positive correlation

between the yodeling

songstresses, bloated movies,

and buzzworthy TV shows that win

People's Choice Awards and those

that win the more uptown

committee-of-peers trinkets is

so high that the PC awards are a

leading indicator for Oscars

handicappers. In any awards

ceremony, ink in the papers

means steel on your mantelpiece.

If People had thrown a few bucks

into promoting its poll, the

Stern vote would have been

preempted, and the

Most-Beautiful award would have

been yanked from Hank's stubby

fingers and delivered to Leo DiCaprio's

closet, where it clearly

belongs, between his Playgirl

negatives and iron mask.


This dovetailing of Great

Unwashed desires and expert

opinion is more significant than

ballot initiative outliers like

medical marijuana and term

limits (both in the process of

being struck down by the gods),

or the surprising answers you

get when you ask poll takers,

"Is it impossible that

refutations of claims that the

Holocaust never happened are not

untrue?" This country gave up

the idea of direct democracy the

minute we chose elected

representatives over the

Hobbesian nightmare and handed

our direct vote to a Masonic

"college" of electors.


We've already had a physicist

prove with algebra that the

electoral system actually works

better than a direct vote. Now

there's a case against the

direct democracy of ballot

initiatives. While former

Sacramento Bee editor Peter

Schrag's new book, Paradise

Lost: California's Experience,

America's Future, claims

referendums have created a fiscal

mess, he might have added that

they make voting an exercise in

absurdity. By pitting

irresistible proposition titles

("paycheck protection act" vs.

"preservation of adorable

kittens initiative") with

counter-arguments that admonish

voters to "look at the fine

print," the political scenesters

turn what should be a simple

choice (yellow-dog democrat or

elephantine plutocrat? Nice tie

or exemplary coiffure?) into a

boring chore that should be left

to the professionals, and return

us to a once-removed version of

representative democracy. The

clear message: "You're too dumb

to understand this vote without

expert assistance." And for this

voter, at least, they're right.

Die oylem izt a goylem.


[though my horoscope seems to think i will
get lucky this week.

"I believe marriages would in

general be as happy," Samuel

Johnson said, "if they were all

made by the Lord Chancellor,

upon a due consideration of the

characters and circumstances,

without the parties having any

choice in the matter." This

applies to our brief, ridiculous

experiment in direct democracy,

where the pranks only justify

the prankees, and the choices

people actually make are

indistinguishable from the

choices the men in lab coats

make for them. Like spectators

at an Evel Knievel jump or an LA

freeway incident, we watch

popular votes in the hope that

something will go horribly

wrong. But while we're

entertained by the occasional

Bronx cheer - such as Cleveland

Indian Rico Carti's forgettable

write-in election to the

all-star team or the high-school

waggery that invariably gives

the yearbook's biggest-stud

award to the class toenail biter

- this is a system that works

best when it doesn't surprise us

at all, when it gives a

comforting reminder of what

Charles Foster Kane knew all

along: "People will believe what

I tell them to believe."

courtesy of Vicki Lester