SCORPION TONGUES by Gail Collins

SCORPION TONGUES

Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics

KIRKUS REVIEW

If you think President Clinton is engulfed in rumor and innuendo, consider John Fremont. A presidential candidate in the early 19th century, he was rumored to be a cannibal and a Roman Catholic, the latter charge proving more damaging to his campaign. This is but one anecdote from Collins’s fascinating, hilarious, and at times insightful study of the role of rumor in US politics. Gossip about politicians is as old as the nation itself, the content of such gossip can tell us much about our anxieties, our hatreds as a nation. Race and sexual malfeasance have been constants, yet have resonated more strongly at different times. Hamilton defended himself against charges of corruption by proving he was an adulterer—not a tactic likely To work today. Fremont was undone by a strong anti-Irish sentiment in an era of rapidly escalating immigration. Newspapers in the 19th century, less concerned with respectability than with pleasing a politicized readership and perhaps gaining political favor, could and would print anything about a politician. As newspapers became more respectable in the 20th century, they also became more circumspect in their reporting. The private lives of politicians tended to remain private and became idealized by the public (as with FDR and JFK). This changed in the 1970s. Outlets for gossip began to proliferate’supermarket tabloids, cable TV, the Internet, talk radio. At the same time, politicians increasingly sold themselves as personalities, inviting speculation and investigation into their private lives. The idealized became tarnished. Yet the sheer amount of gossip (and real transgressions of politicians) have left us so cynical as to be surprised or outraged by very little. To thrive, gossip must have rules of behavior to be broken. Such rules are now missing or unclear, and this may prove to be the demise of political gossip. The book does go on (25 pages on Grover Cleveland is quite enough), but Collins, a veteran political observer and a member of the New York Times editorial board, offers a good read that puts present political scandals into historical perspective.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-688-14914-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1998




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