August 31, 2011


New York: What we were before; what we are now. (Peter W. Kaplan, Aug 27, 2011, New York)

[T]here was something entrancing about the End of History. You knew viscerally something was going to give. Things were cozy, quiet, luxe--and slightly fetid. It was impossible not to know.

New York had temporarily stopped, basking in itself, freeze-drying time. Irony was the voice of the city--a voice easily assigned to a town without heroes--smartness without wisdom. Seinfeld's epic whine was our "Leaves of Grass." Sincerity, purpose, emotion were déclassé. Incomes and real-estate prices climbed ceaselessly and so did exhibitionism, steeped in wealth, full of avarice without apology. Needless to say, it was also somewhat of a gas.

Of course part of it was the premillennial intake of breath. It caused a certain amount of anxiety, the shift from MCM to MM. And part of it was the Lamest Generation.

When the baby-boomers finally took the helm, what did they accomplish? Well, they could write a good joke. Or, in the case of our brilliant but priapic first baby-boomer president, could make one; how that happened none of us will ever know. John F. Kennedy called his presidency a long twilight struggle against our adversaries; Bill Clinton envied him his foreign crises--the only long twilight struggle he had was with Newt Gingrich. When George W. Bush was elected president, it seemed the greatest Age of Irony gag of them all--the spoiled, best-educated baby-boomers had elected our own Harding.

One afternoon, in the summer after George W. Bush's inauguration, a few of us were sitting in my little office at the Observer with another editor making up the usual front page and we stopped cold. There was no news left. The era had run cold. How could that be? There were the usual socialite gags and billionaires buying big apartments, there was Harvey Weinstein and Martha Stewart and the sporadic rages of the late days of the Giuliani mayoralty--Rudy was just angry all the time.

We stared at one another. The era had just played itself out. It seemed as though time had stopped cold. That was impossible, of course. Except it wasn't impossible. History was about to turn. You could almost hear the tire screech.

Here's what we put on the front page of the paper:

"Well, this fall already feels like a bracing cold shower. Rudy Giuliani isn't going to take care of us anymore; fashions have turned dark, bohemian, ugly; last year's toys seem malevolent (SUVs) ... The New York Post, often the guilty dessert of many a Manhattan sophisticate, has developed the loud, hacking cough of a barroom smoker. Silicon Alley is a punch line; Hillary and Bill have moved in like obstreperous big-eating out-of-town guests; those saucy, hard-core Bush Girls are in ascendance, while the Gore Girls' dad stumbles darkly around the country, looking like Raymond Burr with beard, plummy oratory and ballooning beer gut. And if there's a New Yorker who feels a drop of resonance with the man in the White House, we haven't met him or her."

The date on the paper was September 10, 2001.

I'll tell you quickly what happened to our news­paper on September 11. There's not a person reading this who doesn't have his or her own story. But the Observer was a sensibility newspaper, and when history changes, so does sensibility, right away.

That morning, the conductor on my train from Westchester told us he could not pull into Grand Central Terminal. There had been a federal emergency. I got off in the Bronx and looked south. There was a little finger of smoke in the air to the south. When I got to the Observer townhouse on 64th Street the reporters were dazed, adversaries were hugging, and the toughest guy in the newsroom was bent over his desk sobbing--he had received an early report of a missing friend.

It was a Tuesday and our top story was the mayoral primary, our cover illustration was to be Michael Jackson's birthday party. I called the artist Drew Friedman, and he faxed in a drawing of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in smoke, which we hand-tinted in the production department. We wrote this headline: ­september 11, 2001 INFAMY: ASSAULT, COLLAPSE AT TWIN TOWERS; CITY GIRDS. The insouciance that had been the Observer's attitude was put in cold storage. Our little insular life had been blown open.

History hadn't ended--as a matter of fact, prehistory had just begun. New York as we knew it had changed immediately that morning in many terrible ways but one thing that changed right away was its state of mind.

...they might notice that the main product of 9-11 was to hasten the End of History in the Arab World and that, providentially, we had the president in place who best grasped the inevitability of the End.

Posted by at August 31, 2011 6:45 AM

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