The shameless jump off the ship

Bill Clinton looks just as he does on TV, except his thighs are thicker. He and Hillary, to their su

No one present is going to forget the occasion when Clive James - poor chap, hardly his fault - was compelled to interview the humorist P J O'Rourke a fortnight after 9/11. It was officially a book launch. In the event, it was more like a car crash. The comedians' union always claims funny is more profound than serious, but anyone who watched O'Rourke misjudge the moment with smirking platitudes knows there's nothing more gruesome than seeing the professionally facetious sink five fathoms out of their depth in response to suffering. All one can say of that event is that the death of 3,000 people turned out not to be natural blowhard territory.

Now platitudes are given a fresh sprinkling of glamour by Rupert Murdoch. A competition has been launched to see if anyone can cite him uttering anything but. His statements astonish by their banality: "Australians must reject the facile anti-Americanism which has gripped much of Europe." How can anyone be so clever and talk so stupid? Murdoch, with his basset-hound melancholy, reminds me of the question Maria Braun asks the prosperous capitalist in Fassbinder's great film: "Why are you so much more interesting than your opinions ?"

Lousy reasons

Most of my autumn was spent in the US, where the revulsion against the Iraq invasion grows more intense. To quote a line from another movie, this time Southern Comfort: "Comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what's right." Meanwhile, commentators shamelessly jump off the ship as if they had never stood at the captain's shoulder. Who remembers that the New Yorker backed the undertaking - and for a bunch of lousy reasons ?

When people read Thomas Friedman handing out weighty advice in the New York Times, does anyone recall that he wrote surely the most irresponsible sentence in recent US journalism: "Something in Mr Bush's audacious shake of the dice appeals to me"?

Critical thought

Those of us who work in what Ruth Kelly chillingly calls "the cultural industries" are used to the possibility that critics may think differently from other people. We have evidence for our point of view in the fact that four of the most significant plays of the mid-20th century - Look Back in Anger, Waiting for Godot, The Birthday Party and Saved - were reviled on their first appearance.

The hardest part of any critic's job is to assess new work. At the Lincoln Center last month, it was impossible to understand why Voyage, Tom Stoppard's magisterial survey of Russian 19th-century thinkers, had not been leapt on with excitement by every British reviewer on its first outing at the National Theatre. The American production, by Jack O'Brien, had the benefit of a superb performance by Billy Crudup as Belinsky, but even so.

It may, of course, reflect on my theory that the greater the critic, the worse their taste. Kenneth Tynan dismissed Fellini's as self-indulgent rubbish, and Pauline Kael sought to persuade readers that Brian de Palma was a genius. David Thomson, once brilliant, seems sunk in self-hatred for wasting his life watching films, and praises God knows what. Perhaps

the great critics are always advocates.

Only the mediocre ones are judges.

Late Bill

A highlight of being in New York was hearing Bill Clinton debate with Václav Havel. I was keen to see Clinton in the flesh. He looks just as he does on TV, except his thighs are thicker. He did once go to a play of mine at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Chelsea Clinton and Madeleine Albright got to their places on time, but Hillary and Bill arrived three-quarters of an hour late, pushing their way along. To their surprise, they were booed in the interval - whether for lateness or previous offences - goodness knows.

Next night I asked the actors what he had been like when he visited backstage. Judi Dench was enraptured. "He looks deep in your eyes, he seems only to be talking to you. You can't believe how sexy and charismatic he is." I then asked Maggie Smith what she thought. She hadn't met him. "David, do you really think I'm going to talk to somebody who arrives 45 minutes late for your play ?"

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