Jose Antonio Valencia, a handsome, elegantly tailored fellow with wonderful manners, makes his living by pretending to be something he is not. A gate-crasher by profession, he goes to diplomatic receptions and funerals for fun and profit, and subsists almost entirely off of canapes and champagne. And it was in pursuit of his profession that he showed up early, the other day, for an especially swell fete, so as not to miss out on the best of the caviar. In fact, he was in the act of passing a delectable goody under the gate of his luxuriant, handsome mustache, when masked men with submachine guns burst into the Dominican Republic Embassy in Bogota, where he happened to be at the time, and made him a prisoner along with everybody else -- a condition he suffers under to this day, and one in which he has frequent occasion to remember that oldest of Latin American proverbs: "I don't want the cheese. I just want to get out of the trap."
Moreover, Mr. Valencia's story seems especially poignant, and almost a moral for our times, when one takes into account that thing he pretends to be, for he habitually comes on as a journalist -- editor of a magazine called Diplomatic World, which unfortunately doesn't exist. Even so, the thought is there, and one has a brotherly feeling toward him, and can almost imagine what he must be thinking now.
"All prisons," Jean Anouilh once wrote, "are brimming over with innocence," and Mr. Valencia, who cried crocodile tears at the funerals of strangers, and cries real tears now, undoubtedly feels that the innocence that gun-ringed embassy is currently brimming over with is his own. For he has not involved, or so he thought, with the coarse political affairs of the workaday world, but must have felt that his entrepreneurial hedonism elevated him to a higher, shinier world than that of mere "nationalism," where dolts live -- a world in which he could eat well, and drink well, and avoid all guilt of partisanship.
How appropriate, then, that he should have chosen to wear the mask of "journalist"! For the essential attributes of that profession, at least as it is being practiced here, are about the same as those of his own -- wherein cleverness, charm, glibness and a bit of scandalous gossip thrown in here and there are the things held most in value.
His situation seems similar to our own, for we real journalists, too, have made a good thing out of noninvolvement, which in our case has expressed itself, not in false tears and smiles, but in relentlessly seeking out and exposing all the (nonmedia) corruption we can find, and chronicling all the discontent and divisiveness that nimble energy can seek out or manufacture. This is what we have done, and, unfortunately perhaps, it is all we have done. For freedom of the press, to us, has been mostly an opportunity for fun, or at best the opportunity to manufacture, for a fee, national self-loathing and bad pornography. And to us, too, in the midst of the general wassail, something terrible has happened, for the no-exit America in which we are now all trapped together has been poisoned and left almost helpless by the self-contempt we journalists have engendered in it.
Like Mr. Valencia, we feel put upon, and, because we have been "objective," we have the feeling that an awful mistake has been made, that we shouldn't be caught in the horror -- daily psychic torture at the hands of Iranians, the Russian kill-machine everywhere advancing, inflation at 20 percent and threatening to run out of sight, war looming, an inept president convulsively clutching at the helm he steered us into these rapids with, and with Niagara's boom and mist just ahead. Why us? we ask. We didn't take sides, did we? God forbid.
Because we knew better than that and have maintained our stylish innocence all along. After all, to have written antyhing positive about our country -- its generosity, good humor, inventiveness, energy and essential lovableness -- would have made us seem naive. Only a crook, or Norman Rockwell, or some ignorant lout of a farmer would be so crude as to do a thing like that. And now, just look what's happened to us while we were having our harmless fun.
Now, a cocktail party, as Brooks Atkinson once suggested, is that which "has the form of friendship without the warmth and devotion." And we journalists might do well to ponder whether a nation, whose entire strength proceeds out of warmth and devotion, can be run according to the same ground rules. Is there really a side that consists in not taking sides? And is it really essential, in the name of truth, that we be superficial, and destructive, and bitchy-ironic, and morally superior, so long and so relentlessly? Is it possible that the archvillain's face that we've been seeking all along is just on the other side of the mist on the bathroom mirror? And is it possible, too, that Mr. Valencia's not the only one pretending to be a journalist?
I say these things as one who may be crazy. Because the country I see when I look up from newspapers and TV is still, in spite of it all, energetic, smart and tough, and has a powerful sense of inward unity. The country I see, if it could get over the induced idea that it's inherently evil, could do just about anything it pleased: defend itself, curb inflation, have a renaissance of good feeling. But the America the media show me is not at all that way; as the press party that passes for our public discourse giggles on toward the edge of doom; and as the bitchery and moanery keep coming as prodigiously as the delectables and champagne; and as the objectivity of my profession, taking it all in all, continues to be in no noticeable way different from that of lounge-lizards in Bogota.