Post Cards from the Edge: A Las Vegas Vacation
By Robert Parry
LAS VEGAS, Nev. -- The words "Las Vegas" and "family vacation" might not sound as incongruous as they once did. Chevy Chase has turned the idea into a movie, after all. But for my wife, my two youngest children (18 and 8) and me, the experience over Easter break was still a touch strange.
Gaudy attractions -- from an exploding volcano to speaking Roman statues to a full-sized Sphinx to a block-long New York skyline -- pulled in an impressive number of visitors. They, in turn, poured millions of quarters into the brightly lit slot machines and left hundreds of thousands of dollars behind on the green-felt black-jack tables.
Yet, coming from Washington, D.C., there was something familiar about the extravagant Las Vegas mix of fantasy and money. Those are two of the principal fixtures of American society at the end of the 20th Century -- not just in Las Vegas. The rest of the country is not immune, especially not the nation's capital.
As architecture writer Ada Louise Huxtable noted in The New York Times [March 30, 1997], "I do not know just when we lost our sense of reality or our interest in it, but at some point it was decided that reality was not the only option. ...Surrogate experience and synthetic settings have become the preferred American way of life."
Huxtable found this devotion to the profitably unreal strongest in Las Vegas and, particularly, in the antiseptic recreation of New York City that can be found in the vast hotel-casino called "New York, New York." There you'll find the rusted-green Statue of Liberty (complete with stains on her robe), the boxy Empire State Building and the glittery Chrysler Building. Inside, past a vast expanse of flashing lights and slot machines, the food court is styled after a mini-Greenwich Village, down to the details of New York Times newspaper boxes coated with graffiti.
"The real fake reaches its apogee in places like Las Vegas, where it has been developed into an art form," Huxtable observed. "Continuous, competitive frontages of moving light and color and constantly accelerating novelty lead to the gaming tables and hotels. The purpose is clear and the solution is dazzling; the result is completely and sublimely itself. The outrageously fake fake has developed its own indigenous style and life style to become a real place."
But it's troubling that so many Americans seem so eager to give up on the hard work of reality, in favor of the lighter load of illusion. Some even forsake the notion that reality is a discoverable entity at all. Others find comfort in the romantic notion that life in the past was more meaningful -- or somehow will be in a sci-fi future. Thirty-nine monk-like computer specialists abandoning their "containers" for a ride to a "higher level" aboard a spaceship traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet are extreme examples. But they are not alone.
One might draw a comparison, too, to the Indian "ghost dancers" of a century ago, when the remnants of some tribes sadly sought contact with their relatives who had died confronting the expansion of white settlements. There's a bit of that in some of the popular shows in Las Vegas which pay homage to dead entertainers. One musical hit features entertainment "legends," including late Blues Brother John Belushi and, of course, The King, Elvis Presley. On the night we were there, the Elvis impersonator was briefly knocked off stride when a deep-voiced man in the audience plaintively called out, "I love you, man."
Similarly, many "gangsta rap" fans won't accept the death of Tupac Shakur, the charismatic rapper who was gunned down in a drive-by shooting after a Mike Tyson fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. On the Internet, rapper Chuck D has listed 18 reasons to suspect that Shakur is still alive, under the heading, "Tupac Shakur: Is he really dead?"
Some Las Vegas regulars lament the passing of the Mob's heyday. Those romantic notions of well-dressed gangsters and their beautiful women started a half century ago when Ben "Bugsy" Siegel founded the first of the glamorous "Strip" hotels, the Flamingo. Siegel's Las Vegas run was short-lived, however. In 1947, he died in a hail of gun fire while staying at his girl friend's home in Beverly Hills.
But Siegel's vision of a desert oasis for gambling, money-laundering and celebrity-and-politico hobnobbing proved remarkably prescient. Nevada's Sin City gave organized crime not only a lucrative way to skim off millions of hard-to-trace dollars. It gave the Mafia an opening to "respectability" through figures, such as lawyer Sidney Korshak who opened important connections to Washington and Hollywood, a bond that extends to this day although often through the complex interlocking of major corporations.
Yet, along "the Strip," much of what Siegel built at the Flamingo -- including his escape tunnels -- has been lost to 50 years of renovation and expansion. A gift-shop clerk told me the hotel stocked no "Bugsy" memorabilia, so as not to "play up the gangster image."
But the Flamingo still stands as a pink-lit Art Deco fixture on Las Vegas Boulevard. The casino -- now owned by the Hilton Corp. -- also has a "Bugsy" bar, a "Bugsy" theater and a sort of "Bugsy" shrine in the middle of a lagoon-and-flower-dotted courtyard, between the live flamingos and the hotel pool. More fittingly perhaps, the casino reproduced Siegel's mug shot on the $5 gambling chips for the Flamingo's 50th anniversary.
Still, Siegel would not recognize today's Las Vegas, the fastest growing city in America, which boasts of its status as a sign post for where the entertainment-driven country is heading. Like Las Vegas, the nation seems to be picking up speed in distancing itself from the real world.
Without doubt, reality has gotten harder to know as the means of popular manipulation have become more sophisticated. As we have reported previously in The Consortium, President Reagan and his White House team were masters in the early 1980s at replacing unpleasant facts with reassuring imagery. "Perception management," they called it. It was "morning again" in America. [For fuller treatment, see our new book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine & Other Crimes. ]
Over those 12 years of the Reagan-Bush era, the Washington news media pretty much let itself be managed. Violent policies in Central America, for instance, were spun successfully into rhetoric about heroic "freedom fighters." The less pleasant truths -- the massacres, tortures, drug trafficking, etc. -- were shunted off the front pages. Reporters got the message that "unpatriotic" facts were not welcomed by the American people who wanted to "feel good."
Perception vs. Reality
By the late 1980s, Washington pundits were spouting to each other that hip-cynical observation that in politics, "perception is reality." Picking up on the trend in 1988, Newsweek began a regular feature called the Conventional Wisdom Watch, which chronicled the up, down and sideways movement of how Washington insiders perceived various individuals and events. What mattered to the sassy column was not reality, but what the insiders thought was real. Was George Bush perceived to be "a wimp," not whether he really was? Was John Kerry thought to be a "randy conspiracy buff"?
Through such small devices, the Washington press corps gradually disengaged itself from the painstaking task of marshalling evidence and getting the stories straight. In this brave new world, the American people grew increasingly distrustful of a media that they came to regard as both petty and inaccurate. A recent poll found that a stunning 83 percent of the public doubts what journalists report.
This gap has widened with stark differences between the Washington establishment's view of what's good for the country and the opinion of average Americans. Speaking apparently to the interests of bankers, not regular readers, The Washington Post led its April 2, 1997, editions with the disturbing news that a strong economy was reducing the number of unemployed. The article's second paragraph read: "The surge in growth ... is strong enough that it could soon drive the nation's jobless rate below 5 percent for the first time in nearly a quarter century, the analysts warned." The analysts warned?
The Post took a similarly defensive tone in favor of the establishment last fall when it mocked the African-American community for suspecting that CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels had helped spark the "crack" epidemic in the early 1980s. The Post dismissed that notion, in part by arguing that one contra backer had smuggled "only" five tons of cocaine into the United States. [See The Consortium, Oct. 28, 1996, or the book, Lost History ]
With such "hard-headed realism," it should be no surprise that the American people might favor friendlier fantasies. Indeed, in the end, there might not be very much real difference between the fake facades of Las Vegas and the phony pretensions of Washington.
But take note: Las Vegas just might be more fun, the analysts warned.
(c) Copyright 1997
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