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A couple of weeks back I was listening to Howard Stern’s morning radio show and enjoying his conversation with an improbable guest – not a stripper or porn star, but the great octogenarian singer Tony Bennett. They talked about Bennett’s colorful career, his friendships with people like Frank Sinatra (who called him the best singer of all), his secrets of longevity, his memories of childhood. Then, in inimitable Stern fashion, the host began asking Bennett about things hardly anybody has ever thought to ask him about. And the next thing you knew, a few million radio listeners were learning that the beloved crooner wasn’t sure who the bad guys were on 9/11. “Who are the terrorists,” he asked in that famous smoky voice, “us or them?” He described the attack on the Twin Towers as revenge – which he seemed to suggest was justifiable – for actions which the United States, in the past, had taken against “them.” To be sure, Bennett was vague about who “they” were.
The remarks made headlines, and suddenly Tony Bennett, of all people, was embroiled in political controversy. On Piers Morgan Live on CNN, he was given an opportunity to walk back his remarks. He didn’t really do that, though. Asked by Morgan whether it was right for the Allies to fight Hitler, he said the question was a difficult one. Instead of fighting one another, he said, “we should have a society of highly educated individuals who can think realistically about how to do things….We should realize what a gift it is to be alive.” Aware that his patriotism had been called into question, he insisted repeatedly on his love for America, which, he said, he loves above all other countries because “instead of one philosophy, it has many.”
I don’t think Tony Bennett is a bad guy. I do think, as Stern producer Gary Dell’Abate suggested on the air after the media firestorm broke, that he’s just not a very bright guy. On both the Stern and Morgan shows he seemed to have trouble expressing simple ideas, and it didn’t seem to be a matter of age. After over eight decades on the planet, his mind would appear to be crowded with two things – the lyrics to a few hundred tunes from the great American songbook and a grab-bag of inane bromides and mindless truisms about Life. He’s a textbook example of just how wrong it is to assume that because somebody is deservedly celebrated as an artist or entertainer, his political views are worth listening to.
The obvious conclusion is that it’s important to draw a line in the sand between the merit of an artist’s work and the value of his opinions. But it’s far easier to do this in some cases than in others. In the case of a Tony Bennett, whose art consists of singing lyrics to love songs written by people like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, there is little apparent connection between his art and his views; certainly his choice of material doesn’t seem remotely dictated by political motives. Yet other cases are more challenging. Some people (I am not one of them) greatly respected Norman Mailer as a novelist; yet his novels are driven by a philosophy of life that is breathtakingly jejune – a puerile “existentialism” which insisted upon the virtue of acting on even the darkest, stupidest, and most execrable of passions, as long as they were “manly” ones. And this philosophy was not just confined to the page: the ideas that animate Mailer’s work also animated his life. This is a man who (just to pick two examples at random) stabbed his wife and, because he liked a murderer’s writing, helped spring him from prison, enabling him to kill again (which he promptly did).
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