Gossip: a strip search in prose

Neal Gabler

April 29, 1991|By Neal Gabler

THREE WEEKS ago it was the Kennedys' alleged bacchanal in Palm Beach. Then it was Nancy Reagan trysting with Frank Sinatra, recycling Christmas presents and feuding with her children.

And this week? We all wait for the next revelation in what seems to be an epidemic of gossip for a nation of voyeurs.

Contempt for this sort of cattiness comes almost as easily as interest in it.

But as John Kennedy once declared, "All history is gossip." What Kennedy meant, I think, is that events and personalities pass from "news" into the collective consciousness where they get transformed to serve our needs and desires.

We embellish, distort, rearrange until what emerges is a kind of modern folklore -- the equivalent of the myths the Greeks devised to appropriate their world, except here each of us gets to play Homer.

What the Reagans' defenders don't seem to understand as they indignantly wag their fingers and insist all the nasty anecdotes about Nancy are untrue is that truth isn't a defense against gossip any more than it would be against Greek myths.

Truth isn't the issue. What is at issue is something like art.

If gossip was once dispensed as epigrammatic morsels in the columns of Walter Winchell, Louella Parsons and others, gossip today converts lives into long-running parables.

Gossip takes the famous, and in a weave of fact, half-truth, innuendo and projection gives us sagas that can reify our fears, vent our prejudices, satisfy our envies and express our values.

Gossip is our reckoning with our cultural gods. By savaging Nancy Reagan for her alleged meanness we are demonstrating the wages of her sins and also expunging our guilt over the avaricious 1980s. We are making her into a mythic fall guy for our transgressions.

And by chuckling or tut-tutting over the escapades of the Kennedys, our very own mischievous and wayward gods, we prove they are scarcely better than we are and, in most cases, worse.

Gossip, preoccupied with destruction or rehabilitation, is an exercise in idol smashing, which is one reason why the new biographical watchwords have become: "If you can't say anything nice about someone . . . then say it."

Gossip's defenders claim this is salubrious for a democracy.

Information makes us better citizens, and this is precisely the cause Kitty Kelley has invoked in defending her gossography. By knowing the Reagans better, so the argument goes, we will better understand the policies of the Reagan administration.

It may be hard to see how knowing that Nancy swooned over Sinatra will make us shrewder political analysts (Did Poindexter and North go around humming "My Way?"), but that's only because gossip is less concerned with knowledge than with knowingness, less concerned with dominating the mysteries of existence than with plugging us all into an information loop where we can crack the little mysteries of Nancy's personality.

Indeed, so far as gossip is concerned, the more trivial the fact one knows, the more knowing one is. Everybody knows the big stuff.

By collecting gossipy anecdotes we invade the celebrity's world. By shaping narratives around their peccadilloes we assert our priority over them. It's the prose version of the strip search.

Kelley may be right when she claims to have been performing a public service. In a democratic society, what may seem like voyeurism may actually be a healthy activity not only because it provides us with a means of framing our values but because it channels our vengeance against the prevailing elites and knocks them down to size. Exposing the celebrated brings us closer to Olympus, closer to the knowledge of the gods themselves.

In our Olympus we may still be at the mercy of the gods, but, as Kelley has demonstrated, they are also at the mercy of us and the collective myths we spin around their lives.

Henceforth, Teddy will always be fooling around and Nancy will always be primping for Sinatra. That should be a comfort to us.

Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of Walter Winchell.

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