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).
Then, going back a generation or so, there's Ezra Pound, who is considered the godfather of modernist poetry and who edited down a long manuscript by T.S. Eliot into what is probably the most famous and consequential poem of the twentieth century, The Waste Land. But the Idaho-born Pound was not only, in many people's eyes (again, not mine), a great poet; he was also a major-league anti-Semite (Eliot, in comparison, was a minor-league one) and big fan of Mussolini. He celebrated Il Duce in his poetry and, during the war, living in Italy, gave radio broadcasts in support of the Fascist regime. After the war Pound was taken into custody by the Allies, charged with treason, found insane, and placed in a mental hospital, St. Elizabeth's, in Washington, D.C. There, despite having given comfort to the enemy in wartime, he received friendly visits from fellow writers of every political stripe who treated him with respect and admiration. The single major literary controversy of the immediate postwar years concerned the presentation to Pound by the Library of Congress – at a time when he was under indictment by the Department of Justice! – of the first Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1948. The awards panel included such luminaries as T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, and Robert Lowell, all of whom recommended Pound for the honor; only two of the fourteen jurors voted against Pound. One of those two, Katherine Garrison Chapin, argued that “the traitor cannot be separated from the poet.” Obviously Eliot and company disagreed. Who was right? It could be argued that there were purely aesthetic questions involved. On the other hand, the work for which Pound won the award, the Pisan Cantos, was drenched in, and – yes – inseparable from, the same cockeyed (to put it kindly) ideas that had led him to cheer Mussolini.
Pound, of course, was a rare case in his day. Until the Sixties, it was the exception rather than the rule for the public to be aware of the political opinions of artists and celebrities. What were Cary Grant's politics? Since the Sixties revolution, however, we have been inundated by the political opinions of movie actors, rock stars, and TV hosts. Matt Damon has a lot to say about capitalism. Rosie O'Donnell is a Truther. Pam Anderson is a PETA fanatic. The Dixie Chicks caused an earthquake after 9/11 with their remarks about George W. Bush. Roseanne seems to spend all her time these days making major pronouncements about American policy on – well, just about everything. Make fun of Arianna Huffington if you will, but when she began to provide, in the Huffington Post, a trendy forum on which Hollywood stars are welcome to unburden their latest insights into world affairs, it was a stroke of genius. Nowadays, it seems, pretty much everybody seems to want to know what Julia Roberts thinks of offshore drilling or what some kid from Glee thinks we should do about Iraq.
Indeed, what was remarkable about Tony Bennett's remarks on Howard Stern was not how fatuous they were but the fact that they appear to have been coaxed out of him almost without him realizing it. Bennett is a dope, but he's also Old School; he's about the music, first and last. Unlike him, an extraordinary number of stars today lead with their politics, eager to prove that they are not just pretty faces or voices but that they have brains. Instead they usually succeed in demonstrating the opposite. Ultimately, of course, what's unsettling about all this is the concern that many young people who've never known any other order of things will grow up unaware that fame is not necessarily a guarantee of political insight. Indeed, in the present climate, when it can seem that every starlet is always stridently on message about something and proud of it, Tony Bennett's confused, befuddled reaction to the firestorm over his dimwitted, impromptu 9/11 remarks was almost charming – a throwback to simpler times, when stars didn't have political talking points and the music was the message.