Sunday, April 02, 2006

On the Road With JK and the V.P.

By David Brooks
The New York Times
I'm afraid I've been unable to complete my foolproof plan for North Korean nuclear disarmament because I've been unable to rip my eyes away from the celebrity hotel and backstage requirement lists that have lately been posted on the Internet.

First came the leaked document from the vice president's office letting us know that when Dick Cheney has some downtime at a hotel, he likes nothing better than to crack open a diet caffeine-free Sprite in a well-lit 68-degree room and watch a television preset to "Hannity & Colmes." Then I saw the documents, also posted on, revealing that my idol Bruce Springsteen requires raw oats, whey powder and nonfat soy milk in his backstage dressing room, and that Mary J. Blige demands "No Dairy or Pork of Any Kind!!" for her preconcert meal, even though she doesn't look neocon.

Now there's a leaked memo from the John Kerry campaign to hotel managers, informing them that "JK hates celery" (too spicy, perhaps); that, ungratefully, he does not eat tomato-based products; and that his Cobb salads must have both balsamic vinaigrette and ranch dressing on the side (flip-flopper).

I've long argued that the first time you see the Kerrys you think he's normal and she's weird, but after you observe them for a while you realize that inwardly he's the weird one and she's normal. This is confirmed by Teresa Heinz Kerry's entirely sensible hotel requirements list: good air circulation, flax bread and chicken Caesar salad with lots of garlic. When I saw that Mrs. Heinz Kerry prefers Starwood Hotels' Heavenly Bed, I felt that surge of solidarity we all feel toward those whose hotel mattress tastes are identical to our own.

You may call this new passion of mine voyeuristic snooping, but I call it piercing sociological research, and I discern in these leaked memos highly significant historical trends, which of course is my job.

In the first place it's interesting to watch politicians and their staffs try to come up with lists of items intended to produce sensual pleasure. People who go into politics tend to be the sort of hyperambitious workaholics who have repressed the Dionysian side of their natures in order to become high school tools, college applicant all-stars and twenty-something mentor magnets, in pursuit of their dreams of someday becoming deputy under secretary of commerce. Then they flock to Washington, a city with an erogenous zone the size of a pea. These are not people with highly developed hedonism skills.

What they come up with, as they contemplate pleasure, is a sort of dweeb decadence. Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll are beyond them. Their fantasies run in the direction of really well-selected energy bars. Their memos call for an orgy of decaf, a Mardi Gras of bottled water, a Caligulan binge of chamomile tea. It's like watching the Taliban production of "Entourage."

The other thing these memos illustrate is the psychotic nature of the staff-boss relationship. Remember, it's overeager staffers who write the memos — supercompetent types who magnify their importance and indispensability by making arduous demands on behalf of their superiors.

The relationship between staffer and boss is marred by the Jeeves Principle, which holds that in most large organizations the really intelligent people end up as subordinates while the blandly charismatic, effortlessly slender, excessively well-groomed ones end up as top dogs.

Political and corporate aides have all the requisites for success except the most important one: a complete absence of self-irony. Intellectually superior but personally thwarted, the staffers respond to this disharmony in the cosmic order, first by mixing their affection for their bosses with rich veins of ridicule. (What else are we to make of the Kerry aide's assertion that hotel in-suite movies "make JK very happy"?)

Second, they exact psychic revenge on their bosses by reducing them to infantile dependence. Through flattery and by assuming responsibility for all the normal details of life, these master puppeteers turn their bosses into helpless Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, who require squads of eager, efficient young people to pull them along.

If we allowed the bosses to write their own hotel requirement memos, they wouldn't be filled with picayune bottled water specifications. They'd be more honest: "Please praise me from the moment I walk in the lobby to the moment I'm out your door. Please lose my schedule and misplace my ambition. Please supply me with comfy bathrobes and give me back my youth."

Photo credit: David Brooks (The New York Times)

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