On Agee, Debates, & Douthat

James Agee was a fierce critic. His movie reviews for Time and The Nation, written in the 1940s and early ‘50s, are among the best—no, they are the best—in the annals of American film criticism. W.H. Auden admitted to reading his reviews to spare himself having to go to the movies.

Agee did not squander column space on productions he anticipated would be a waste of time. He knew the plot line, the habits of individual directors, the range of talent of the actors. That was occasionally enough, leading to some very terse reviews and to suspicions that he had skipped the movies he was scheduled to cover. His Nation review of Lloyd Bacon’s You Were Meant For Me (1948) was a gem of suggestive economy: “That’s what you think.”



Why am I mentioning Agee? It is the best way I can think of to answer those of you who wrote to ask if I had watched The Debate. No, I did not. Not the first between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and not the vice presidential one between Mike Pence and Hillary’s “right-hand person,” Tim Kaine. Neither will I sit down for any of the upcoming debates.

Why bother? As sportswriters say, you can smell a hockey locker before you even walk in the door.

I already know the cast of characters; I know everything about them that is relevant to the election. So do you. There is no need to repeat it all here. Much as I regret Trump’s having won the brass ring in the primary, now he is here. And he is all we have against a return of the Clintons to the White House. I am voting for Trump no matter his performance on stage.

I would vote for Homer Simpson before I would let this woman into the Oval Office. A vote for Clinton is a vote to roll belly up and let the bloody-handed avatar of a banana republic eat our entrails. To award the presidency to a squalid grifter—one with a treasonous slush fund called a foundation—would be a sin against the franchise.

It is as simple, and fundamental, as that.


A second, lesser reason for not watching was my distaste for the pre-game warm-ups on the networks. “This is the debate of the century!” burbled Rita Cosby every half hour on WABC. Emphasis was all on packaging—what impression the candidates might make, how they would present themselves. Never mind the critical issues at stake. Keep to the uncomplicated surface of things.

Will Hillary be able to appear likeable? Will she seem trustworthy? Will Trump come across as temperate and reasonable? Which one will sound presidential? Which one can connect better with the audience? It might as well have been a game show.

The tenor of so much gushing lead-up amounted to a network confession that spectators, not citizens, were the target audience for a counterfeit match. We were invited to entertain ourselves with image consumption and stagecraft. Why cooperate in our own subjection to the pornography of persuasion that celebrates personality—coached and air-brushed—over character?

Joseph Keppler. Uncle Sam’s Great Moral and Historical Show. Puck Magazine (November 1881).

Then there was Ross Douthat’s curious column in The New York Times on October 1st. Titled “Trump and the Intellectuals,” it was a broadside against an online petition “Writers and Scholars for America.” The petition comprised just one sentence: “Donald J. Trump is the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America.”

Scanning the list of signatories, I could not help but wonder to what extent that single statement was code for the candidate most likely to hinder the culture of abortion that Hillary Clinton passionately supports. Trump has, after all, announced support for the Hyde Amendment which Clinton abhors.  But let me stay with Douthat’s column.

Clearly, Douthat does not like Trump. That has been clear from the get-go. Less clear is why he pins the tail on Trump but bypasses Clinton on the same grounds: “low character, penchant for inflaming racial tensions, .  .  . personal corruptions.” Had he summoned up that fine old Irish curse, “Bad cess to both your houses,” his philippic would have made more sense. Instead, he indulged in a peculiar logic along the lines of: “Since I can’t have the gourmet meal I wanted, I’m going to swallow rat poison instead.”

In Douthat’s telling, Trump is Apocalypse Pending. The column vibrates with revulsion, the loathing rising to Shakespearean levels. Our columnist joins King John‘s Peter of Pomfret in prophecy:

The burden of the presidency will leave him permanently maddened, perpetually undone.

Douthat is an intelligent man, a careful and thoughtful writer. He counts himself an intellectual fully as much as those named in the petition. So why the unstrung tone of this? Perhaps there is a hint of a reason in his opening swipe at the mix of signers. Some are writers he admires; others are “hacks of the sort who inevitably flutter toward Trump’s flame.”

No hacks flutter to Hillary’s flame? And, please, who are these hacks? Are they the ones without two or three credit lines under their names? Ones who have never had an op-ed in the Gray Lady? Or just ones who show up in polyester suits? I wish he had named them, if only to clarify the battle lines.

In the end, I suspect that the true subject of this column was not Trump, not the election at all. It is Ross Douthat’s own position within the fraternity of “thinkers” who signed the petition. He is jockeying for place among them.


H.G. Jossot. Ceremony in a Freemason Lodge (1904). Inscribed: “Decorated with the apron of intellectual work, you hereby become a worker of intelligence.”