“Past is fucking prologue,” Roger Stone likes to say, but this isn’t a story about him.
It’s a story about Joe Lieberman, and why—to the best of my recollection—Martha Stewart elbowed me to defend his honor. Thanks for nothing, Bette Midler.
So, 2000, the year we got a taste of what could happen when a Democrat wins the popular vote but not the presidency. Al Gore tapped Lieberman, a certified scold from the Tipper Gore school, as his running mate in no small part to signify that with this ticket there’d be no White House sexcapades or other such naughtiness.
Show business, of course, nonetheless lined up with the Democrats. So, a day after Lieberman testified before a Senate committee led by his pal John McCain about how either Hollywood and the video-game industry would stop peddling violence and sex to minors or Washington might do it for them, there was “The Concert,” the Woodstock of DNC fundraisers at Radio City Music Hall.
As it happens, a cousin of mine was helping to design Martha’s Kmart line, this well before her post-lockup reinvention as the weed-carrier for Snoop Dogg (who at least beat his case). And my cousin had an extra ticket, which somehow ended up with 22-year-old me getting the dead-fish shake from Stewart on arrival in my best bar mitzvah suit and cleanest dress shirt out of the laundry bag.
Then trapped, and maybe just a little stoned, in the middle of a row with Stewart two seats two to my right as first the pols prattled on (with Lieberman “joking” about how he never dreamed he’d make it so big as to open for Midler) and then celebs (Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, and Julia Roberts) giving canned intros to the the rock dinosaurs—Jimmy Buffett updating “Margaritaville” to diss Bush and Cheney, Lenny Kravitz asking “Are You Going to Go Al Gore’s Way,” and some lousy old Eagles once again freezing hell over to sing lousy old Eagles songs.
I’m doing my best to keep up appearances and just look ahead and let this all pass, like on any bad trip where you’d like to walk around or smoke or just leave, but there’s Martha Stewart keeping an eye on you and too many people between you and the aisle to even consider escape. And then out came John Leguizamo, abandoning his DNC-vetted script seconds into his act to praise Gore for picking Lieberman “under a very old, wise principle that New York women have known for years: It takes a Jew to lick bush.”
I cracked up, as did a lot of people, the laughs met by about as many hisses and hushes, including from my seatmates. Leguizamo shot back: “Oh, come on—you’re acting like Republicans.”
After that, he “proceeded to make sexually explicit jokes about public figures,” as The New York Times primly put it the next day, while the crowd hissed and glowered at him.
Feeling Martha’s eye on me, I managed to stifle my laughs even when Leguizamo said that coming up after him would be a woman “who has appeared in more bathhouses than Ed Koch.”
And then off he went and on shimmied Bette Midler, singing “The Rose.” The tension started to lift out of the room. I no longer felt Stewart’s suspicious eye on me, and Midler was really wailing. I took a deep breath—we’re gonna make it after all.
I felt the eye on me again when she interrupted the next tune, “He’s a Rebel,” to tell dirty jokes as the big screen in the theater showed Tipper looking really unhappy. I made it through the first one without laughing; I knew the punchline when Midler set it up with the guy complaining to the hundred-dollar hooker about how the Dutch only paid $24 for Manhattan.
“But honey, Manhattan just lies there.”
But then she was talking about asking the the bag boy at the grocery to carry her bags to her car, and telling him when they got to the parking lot about her “itchy booty.”
“I’m sorry, lady. I don’t know one Japanese car from another.”
I laughed, a lot. Only stopped when I got wacked in the ribs, hard. So this is a long time ago, and I was a lot weirded out at this point, so it’s hard to say for sure, but it was someone a couple seats to my right. Martha!
It turned out after the show that the Democratic powers-that-were-about-to-be told various reporters that Midler was OK, that she’d toed the line (and they said Tipper had loved it despite the face she was caught making on the video screen), while Leguizamo had crossed it. But inside Radio City as Midler was going, no one knew what was acceptable to laugh at and Stewart—or someone—had struck me to defend the honor of the ticket.
That was back in 2000, a simpler time before then-Southern District U.S. Attorney Jim Comey sent Stewart to prison (not for insider trading—she beat that case—but for lying to the feds about it). Before Lieberman left the Democratic Party. Before Martha Stewart replaced Donald Trump on The Apprentice and he wrote an “open letter” calling her a boring failure and insulting her daughter. Before Al Gore grew a beard, won an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Nobel Prize, made a fortune selling his cable network to the Qataris, and, amid accusations of inappropriate massages, ended his 40-year marriage.
And long before the American people elected Trump president and he fired Comey as FBI director and said he was thisclose to nominating Lieberman, of all people, as his new g-man before changing his mind this week. Take that, Roger.