(CNN)It was in the final years of the 1990s that British columnist David Aaronovitch experienced that inevitable moment that befalls all parents of small children. Watching a news program on the unprecedented spectacle of an American president facing impeachment over his lies about liaisons with a White House intern, he heard the presenter utter the phrase, “oral sex in the vestibule.” Turning nervously to his adolescent daughter by his side, Aaronovitch felt an unexpected mixture of surprise and relief when he was met with the question, “Daddy, what’s a vestibule?”
Some years later, Dick Cheney faced critical comments from Sen. Patrick Leahy about his former company Halliburton’s involvement in Iraq’s reconstruction. “Go f— yourself,” the vice president told the Vermont Democrat, during a class photo session on the Senate floor. The imperative was printed unbowdlerized in several national outlets and Cheney later recalled it as “sort of the best thing I ever did” a judgment historians might actually find persuasive.
Last Thursday, incoming, and now outgoing, White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci suggested that, unlike one of his colleagues, he was not trying to fellate himself, an observation delivered in a colorful diatribe to the New Yorker in reaction to the steady trickle of rumors and innuendo emanating from the Trump aide. Scaramucci used a downtown phrase to describe an underground feat of dexterous self-pleasure, which has creatively taxed the translation teams of several foreign newspapers, cost him a 10 day-old job and made him even more of a punch line on social media platforms and late-night talk shows than he had been.
But it has also led to vaporous commentary about the supposed debasement of our political “discourse,” which wasn’t entirely lofty when Adams and Jefferson stalked the nation’s capital with their surrogates accusing each other of having ambiguous anatomy and pedigree much less so when LBJ and Nixon did.
When he was just a junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama described the man who would be his future White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, thus: “I think, as many of you were aware, he was working at a deli, [had an] accident with a meat slicing machine, he lost part of his middle finger, and as a result of this, this rendered him practically mute.”
Another way of stating the obvious would be to say that American politics has never enjoyed much civility, as much as we nostalgically like to pretend otherwise in these periodic moments of righteous pique.
Scaramucci fit in perfectly with the Trump ethos and might still be in a job if he hadn’t been declared FUBAR by John Kelly, a retired no-nonsense four-star Marine and now Trump’s chief of staff. The presumptuous Beltway outsider figured he could buck the rules of the Washington game, by stabbing his enemies in the front rather than in the back. And what’s wrong with that?
“I think a lot of people are clutching their pearls,” Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University, told the New York Daily News last Saturday. “One, because it is so vulgar. Two, because this is a person that is a representative of the President of the United States.”
Few American voters have got pearls to clutch or can profess themselves shocked to discover that a stubby Long Islander with big hair and ring jewelry really does sound like Joe Pesci in “Casino.” And raise your hand, please, if you thought that a President who boasts of his own familiarity with other people’s genitals and begs journalists to relate how intelligent and well-liked and financially savvy he is was likely to find such phone chatter anything other than absolutely disarming.
In fact, as The New York Times reported, Trump was initially delighted with Scaramucci’s put-downs of Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. He only soured on the denunciations, the Times noted, when he realized his newest hire’s outsize ego and press were beginning to eclipse his own.
New York’s outer borough poetry
One of the core ironies of the 2016 election is that the professional political observers who were an Uber ride away from JFK Airport were precisely the ones to miss the appeal of this type of New Yorker to middle America.
There is a kind of mournful, Freudian poetry to the patois of the outer boroughs, of which Scaramucci is now, for better or worse, the global embodiment. Even as on-paper specimens of the so-called “establishment,” they can never feel as if they’ve truly made it and so they behave as outcasts of the American dream rather than as realizations of it.
“Anyone who thinks money is ever just money, Dick, couldn’t have much of it,” Charles Van Doren tells Richard Goodwin, the special counsel to the House Legislative Oversight Committee who eventually unravels the racket that was “Twenty One” in the movie “Quiz Show.” And anyone who makes money after coming from nothing knows what it can never quite buy: the acceptance of the Sutton Place and Hyannis Port sets.
Scaramucci grew up the son of an Italian-American plumber but in Port Washington, the model upon which Fitzgerald based East Egg in “The Great Gatsby,” which is certainly one way to inculcate permanent class anxiety.
I spent the formative years of my life surrounded by people who talk exactly as the Mooch does, and overcompensate for modest beginnings in the same spirit of desperation and defiance. It’s difficult some days to tell where my aunt’s Thanksgiving dinners in Far Rockaway end and the leadership of the free world begins.
Bye bye, Mooch
Notice how Scaramucci name-checks Harvard Law School, an alma mater that evidently thought he was dead until recently, at the least relevant moments in news conferences and TV appearances. (If he were really to the manner born, he’d only ever say that he went to “school in Boston.”) By doing this, he isn’t reminding you of his legal erudition, which would be obnoxious enough, but of his worthiness to be talking to you in the first place. In literature, this is the stuff of pathos, not comedy.
Trump, too, weirdly suffers from the same pathology of self-perception, even though he has absolutely no reason to. He was born a millionaire scion of a real estate magnate granted, in Queens, not Manhattan. His boorishness is true-blue, but his autobiography of a self-made man is, unlike Scaramucci’s, completely invented.
Even still, it is remarkable how long Trump has carried this image of himself as a beggar at the feast, a working-class stiff gatecrashing the country club. In 1990, he was interviewed by Vanity Fair of all magazines and came away sounding more like a social conservative from the deep South distinguishing “real America” from the coastal Gomorrahs rather than the mogul whose extramarital affair made tabloid headlines. “There are two publics as far as I’m concerned,” Trump said. “The real public and then there’s the New York society horses—. The real public has always liked Donald Trump. The real public feels that Donald Trump is going through Trump-bashing. When I go out now, forget about it. I’m mobbed. It’s bedlam.”
Several bankruptcies, comebacks and an Electoral College vote later, and his tune hasn’t changed a note.
The Mooch, unlike his former boss, is the more genuine Everyman raging in his gilt tower.