The Perfect Storm

You don’t get two scandals at once. It’s almost unheard of. A scandal in full tabloid overkill diminishes everything around it – including other scandals. Also, the law of short attention spans comes into play.

I’m not even sure anyone fully appreciates just how difficult it is to manufacture one great tabloid story – what social, dramatic, and media forces have to converge – much less two in a season.

Two is a minor media miracle. By comparing them – the facets and qualities that have turned Gary Condit and Lizzie Grubman, as opposed to other unsavory and narcissistic people, into media phenomena – we might well be able to isolate the chance components that create a perfect media storm.

Protagonists we love – or love to hate. From the start, I’ve been puzzled by the lesser-light quality of Grubman and Condit. Neither, until just recently, was all that notable. As downfalls go, Condit and Grubman did not drop from any great height.

Condit is a $145,000-a-year member of the House of Representatives. The House, if you think about it, is like a large sales organization. After the top executives and star performers, it’s a mass of regional salesmen, most of whom are chronic underperformers, working their remote territories. The media, grasping for celebrity bona fides, has repeatedly described Modesto, California, the community Gary Condit represents, as “Condit Country” – the implication being that he’s a local baron, the man in his town. This is surely stature inflation – few people anywhere can even name their congressman. (I’m struggling now to think of mine.) By any measure of fame and power in this money-media-celebrity age, Gary Condit, until his troubles began, was a basic nobody.

For her part, Lizzie Grubman’s primary claim to notoriety – before her “Fuck you, white trash!” smashup in a Hamptons parking lot – was a story that appeared in this magazine in 1998 by my colleague Vanessa Grigoriadis called “Power Girls.” It was a send-up. A wry, tongue-in-cheek tale of narcissism among a group of celebrity publicists (part of the point was that they were nobodies flying around town on celebrity coattails). The story was not about the women themselves so much as the subset, the demimonde, in which they thrived. It was a comic piece for which the movie rights were bought; in the prospective movie version, the names would surely have been changed – because they’re irrelevant. The power girls are generic models of graspy, vulgar, nineties-ish (or maybe eighties-ish) behavior.

The media, grasping for celebrity bona fides, has repeatedly described Modesto, California, as “Condit Country.” But this is surely stature inflation – few people anywhere can even name their congressman.

It’s true that Lizzie’s father, Allen Grubman, is often portrayed as a figure of wealth and renown, which would provide Lizzie with an inherited height from which to fall (the relatives of the rich and famous are an acceptable subset of the rich and famous). But there’s substantial inflation here as well. He appears from time to time in the party pictures and gossip columns, but only because he’s in proximity to celebrities. In actuality, he’s just a lawyer with a niche practice advising big-money talent. He’s a service provider, a string puller.

And yet, on further thought, it may be that the very lack of real presence, or uniqueness, or recognizability, has benefited these stories and is a secret part of their appeal. They’re a way to deal with our ambivalence about celebrities – hating but loving them (that’s why Puffy got acquitted). In this instance, focusing on two people who are just placeholders for celebrities, we can enjoy being righteous critics of our base, corrupt, and soulless world.

Condit and Grubman are abstractions. Symbols. It’s social realism.

Condit stands for the out-of-it-ness of Washington, the cluelessness of Congress, and the ultimate political hypocrisy: womanizing. What’s more, he’s linked to the powerfully incriminating words “Washington intern” (although Chandra Levy’s position at the Bureau of Prisons seems, frankly, like a step down from an actual Washington internship).

Grubman equals the Hamptons, publicity parties, rope lines, Sex and the City Manolo Blahnik stuff. Worse than being a meretricious celebrity herself, she’s a hanger-on to meretricious celebrities, a service person like her father. (There are all kinds of unexpected class issues here, including Lizzie’s being white trash herself on many hierarchies.) It’s the powerlessness of what she did at the Hamptons nightclub that, finally, defines her. She’s an impotent bully.

Condit and Grubman may be nobodies, but they’re nobodies made to order.

Perps who look the part. If Condit had been gray-suited and businesslike, instead of having a weakness for California casual wear and big-shoulder designer suits, and if Grubman were prettier, classier-looking, if her glare weren’t so eagle-eyed greedy (she’s looking for celebrities in the crowd), they would not be so comically appealing to the cameras.

We know right away who Gary Condit is – the picture is perfectly clear. I’m a phony, is the button he wears.

I am my hair.

Plus, speaking of white trash, there’s my brother.

Lizzie Grubman, who suffers from an overly literal name (her camp has worked to change the pronunciation of the name from Grubman to the almost French-sounding Groobman), is as cosmetically aware and as aggressively fashionable as any young woman can be. And yet it’s of strikingly little help – that’s how powerful her unloveliness is. And, again to her misfortune, this unloveliness does not manifest itself as vulnerability. It’s high-gloss glamour that doesn’t hide her take-no-prisoners ambition. (She bears a resemblance to Donatella Versace – the cosmetically impervious sister of Gianni Versace.)

You don’t need depth with surfaces this vivid.

Delicious irony. A scandal requires some poetic justice, some fundamental comeuppance.

The Condit and Grubman affairs are both tales of P.R. run amok, spinners being unspun, spinners unspinning spinners.

Grubman, of course, is an old-fashioned press agent, or new-style scenester (as a further class comment, her P.R. niche is far from the world of big-time public relations – it’s a penny-ante, low-margin part of the business). But Condit, too, spent a decade working P.R. for a health-care company.

Grubman, who has clients like Puffy and Britney Spears, is brought down by the gossip columnists who make up her primary relationships. It’s an insider thing. What’s more, Grubman works with Peggy Siegal, a famously difficult party thrower and celebrity handler – so it’s like getting two for one. Then, too, Grubman hired the ultimate New York P.R. fixer, Howard Rubenstein, to spin for her – so it’s open season on him as well. It’s a pile-on.

In Condit’s case, it’s bad P.R. versus good P.R. He delayed, stonewalled, blamed the victim. Where did he go to P.R. school? We hate politicians because they spin – and we bring them down when they don’t spin well.

His downfall, though, is not just the result of his own poor skills but of the Levy family’s magnificent operation. The family has a big, blue-chip firm on its side – Porter Novelli, the financial, packaged-goods, corporate P.R. giant, owned by Omnicom, the international marketing conglomerate. (Who is paying for this? Or is this pro bono? Which is a funny idea – pro bono P.R.)

It’s P.R. people unleashed on P.R. people, which, for the media, is a deeply satisfying spectacle.

And it probably means a whole new kind of P.R. practice. Don’t sue, publicize (or first you publicize and then you sue).

A merciless prosecutor. You can’t have a scandal unless someone says it’s a scandal.

The big piece of bad luck here for Condit and Grubman is that, along with the disappearance of Chandra Levy and the incident at Conscience Point, a new editor was starting at the New York Post. Rupert Murdoch, undoubtedly despairing of the paper’s continuing, possibly endemic, financial losses, brought in Col Allan, an Australian tabloid master, to engineer a turnaround. The stories have been shortened, and coverage is even more breathless. It’s become more a supermarket tabloid than a New York tabloid.

But most important, he’s given the full Murdoch tabloid treatment – the Clinton, O.J., Son-of-Sam (still the Post’s halcyon moment) treatment – to Condit and Grubman. He even made Dan Rather’s refusal to air the Condit story a sub-scandal.

What’s more, the Post is good at this – it has good police reporters (there are not too many left in the world). It’s been able to feed both stories with new tidbits (the absence of information will kill a scandal). But it isn’t just the Post’s ebullient shocked-shocked-ness and its dogged reporting that has moved the Condit and Grubman stories, but also the anomalous position of the paper. While it has only a modest readership, it’s the best-read paper by people in the media – it’s the gossip paper of record. This is what bookers on the cable-news shows call work: They read the Post.

An emotional payoff. A tabloid story has to get personal. The media has to put aside its objectivity and take a rooting interest. You want reporters to take up the fight of good against evil (O.J.-era Dominick Dunne comes to mind).

I’ve been catching my colleague Lisa DePaulo, who now writes for Talk magazine, on the various cable shows. In most of her work, and certainly at cocktail parties, she has always seemed to be a gossipy, no-nonsense, we-all-know-everybody-is-spinning-everything kind of reporter. But here, permitted some special access to the Levy family (undoubtedly by the family’s P.R. reps), Lisa has become a grim, teary, righteous spokeswoman for the relatives of the missing girl. Lisa represents Chandra.

As for my own objectivity, I find myself rooting for Lizzie Grubman to be run out of town.

Honestly, I may enter the Post’s contest for a Lizziemobile. This is way more fun than Wingo.


The Perfect Storm