Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about Aaron Schock’s resignation and Elton John’s Dolce & Gabbana boycott.
With some questionable travel reimbursements at taxpayers’ expense adding to Aaron Schock’s $40,000 Downton Abbey–inspired office redecoration, the 33-year-old Illinois congressman announced his abrupt resignation. Do Schock’s transgressions tell us anything about what’s wrong with Washington?
Surely nothing new. This political boy wonder’s main transgressions seem to be these: using public money for touristy travel, perks, and partying; having spectacularly bad taste; and accomplishing nothing whatsoever in Congress. (In three-plus terms he never sponsored a bill that became a law.) Given that Schock served in a Congress mainly known for gridlock, dysfunction, and its fealty to lobbyists — and belonged to a Republican caucus that could barely get its act together to fund a government function as basic as Homeland Security — he is hardly an anomaly. And unlike most of his peers he was unfailingly entertaining. Aaron Schock is not your father’s Beltway hack.
What made him entertaining, of course, was his insistence in thrusting his face, his gym routine, his provocatively clad (or scantily clad) body, and his B-list celebrity selfies (Trump, Steven Tyler) into social media (particularly his notorious Instagram feed). He exposed his abs on the cover of Men’s Health and did a Richard Simmons–esque fitness demonstration on Morning Joe. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post has called Schock “a new kind of showhorse” for Washington — a legislator with no interest in legislation, policy, or even politics “but rather someone who views the office as a platform to gain wider celebrity in the popular culture.” Well, mission accomplished! Schock even came with his own continuing soap-opera subplot: Constantly rumored to be gay, he denied it repeatedly, had a consistent record of voting against gay civil rights, and identified the salaried male companion who accompanied him on some of his storied jaunts as his personal photographer. Not everyone was convinced. Barney Frank observed this week that if the rumors about Schock being gay are “not true,” then “he spent entirely too much time in a gym for a straight man.”
Whatever. Back in the day, Groucho Marx used to ask if a vaudeville act “will play in Peoria?” — the theory being that Peoria was the ultimate barometer of mass Middle American taste. Schock, as it happens, represented Peoria, a bedrock conservative district, and there is little evidence to suggest that his hijinks, transgressions, and ambiguous sexuality offended his constituents whatsoever. In other words, he played big time in Peoria. So give this guy a show on Bravo right now. He has one of the most sizzling audition tapes reality television has seen in years. As his father said of his son in an interview this week, “Two years from now he will be successful if he’s not in jail.”
But first Aaron Schock must apologize to Julian Fellowes and the production team at Downton Abbey. That notorious Capitol Hill office — created by an Illinois decorating firm appropriately named Euro Trash — didn’t remotely evoke Edwardian England. With its blood-red walls and busts of Republican presidents, it was nothing if not a Warren Harding–era bordello out of Boardwalk Empire.
The campaigns of both Scott Walker and Ben Carson are coming under fire for hiring advisers with Twitter accounts that are, shall we say, not befitting the office of the president. Are you surprised that neither candidate thought to do due social-media vigilance when vetting advisers? Are Walker and Carson fundamentally sloppy candidates?
Let’s start by stipulating, as I wrote in a piece last month, that Dr. Carson is not a real presidential contender. Like Alan Keyes and Herman Cain before him, he is seeking the top job without ever previously been elected to any public office, not even dog catcher in Peoria. He is merely the latest beneficiary of an elite conservative affirmative-action program that fast-tracks the White House aspirations of any African-American who announces he wants to seek the presidency as a Republican. Walker is an actual top-tier candidate, but his hiring and almost immediate firing of an underling because of an inflammatory Twitter feed makes him no different from Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush, both of whom had to fire aides because of their embarrassing posts on social media. (So, for that matter, did Aaron Schock, who only a few weeks ago canned a senior adviser after it was discovered that he had published Facebook ruminations comparing blacks to animals at the National Zoo.)
Walker’s fired communications consultant, Liz Mair, had previously worked for three other GOP presidential aspirants — Rand Paul, Rick Perry, and Carly Fiorina — without arousing any ire. And unlike the fired Jeb Bush chief technology officer (whose tweets repeatedly portrayed women as “sluts”) and the fired Carson operative (who tweeted that Mitch McConnell should be “shoving his fist up Obama’s ass”), she did not engage in sexual or racial slurs. Indeed, her main sin seemed to be that she told the truth, tweeting that Ted Cruz was an “idiot” and that “the sooner we remove Iowa’s frontrunning status, the better off American politics and policy will be.”
That said, it seems that Anthony Weiner’s self-immolation by social media has taught no one in politics anything, and that Twitter in the hands of Washington types is tantamount to turning over firearms to 5-year-olds. Lindsey Graham, another Republican presidential contender, was ridiculed when he revealed this month that he doesn’t use email, but this in itself may make him one of the GOP’s safer bets for 2016.
Courtney Love, Victoria Beckham, Ryan Murphy, and Ricky Martin have joined Elton John’s boycott of Dolce & Gabbana products, which the singer announced on Instagram after the designers disparaged same-sex couples’ IVF-spawned children as “synthetic.” One skeptical reporter noted that there has been so much social-media activism that John’s protest fell between #boycottclippers and #boycottisraelapartheid on Twitter’s list of trending topics. Is this an effective way for John to bring attention to the issue?
Presumably it is, given all the attention this fracas is getting, though some in the fashion business doubt that the protest will have any effect on the designers’ bottom line. But we do need a reality check here: Protesting the asinine and ignorant public statements of high-end fashion designers by refusing to go shopping for their products is not exactly like, say, a hunger strike to protest apartheid.
And let us not forget that Elton John was the paid entertainer at Rush Limbaugh’s fourth wedding, at the Breakers in Palm Beach in 2010. Limbaugh has said gay marriage can lead to “marry[ing] your dog.” Among the guests at that blowout was Clarence Thomas, who in 2003 was one of the three Supreme Court justices who refused to join the majority in decriminalizing gay sex (in Lawrence v. Texas) and is a likely Supreme Court vote against the legalization of same-sex marriage this year. Why Elton John would lead the charge against Italian fashion designers but sing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” to a powerful cohort who has opposed gay civil rights at every turn is the real question raised by this chapter in celebrity political activism.