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New books by Hollywood dealmaker Jerry Weintraub and Vermont environmental writer Bill McKibben have absolutely nothing in common, except that both were in my suitcase when I jetted off to Germany a few weeks ago for a quick reporting trip that, thanks to an Icelandic volcano, turned into an extended volcation.
In times of uncertainty (read: volcano-refugee status), a good book is, undoubtedly, a great distraction. While the prose in Weintraub’s When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead—polished up by Vanity Fair writer Rich Cohen—won’t win any literary awards, it is at least a comfort while you’re on hold for three hours trying to rebook a flight. (It’s a much better choice in such moments than, say, McKibben’s Eaarth, which is not so comforting, but I’ll get to that in a minute.)
When I Stop Talking is a frothy memoir of Weintraub’s benders with Frank Sinatra, his tennis matches with the elder president Bush, and his cinematic moments with his self-proclaimed protégé, George Clooney.
Hanging with Jerry seems like a good time. The book is almost that much fun, though Weintraub tries perhaps too hard not to offend his famous friends—at least the ones who are alive. Witness here the memoirist as a salesman: Weintraub has no intention of losing customers for whatever he ends up shilling next.
The book’s subtitle is “Useful stories from a persuasive man,” though don’t look for any big life lessons here. The advice he offers up tends toward the trite, never-give-up variety, though to his credit, he owns up to the bribing, lying, and bullshitting he’s committed to help himself along. His best advice speaks more to tone than content: “If you want to survive, if you want a long life and career, if you want to go wire to wire and have a decent time doing it,” he observes, “you need to have a deep strain of ‘Screw ’em.’”
To hear Weintraub tell it (and I mean hear, because his voice, right down to the De Niro patois, seems to ring from the binding), he had one of those idyllically hard-knock New York childhoods. The former chairman and chief executive of United Artists may have come a long way from New York City’s outer boroughs (he makes claims to both Brooklyn and the Bronx) but it’s his “Screw ’em” city-boy shtick that he wields like a sword, cutting a clear path up the ranks from talent agent to manager to Hollywood producer, right into UA’s boardroom. Apparently his late former client, John Denver, could’ve used a little more of this particular quality.
Bill McKibben doesn’t have a “Screw ’em” attitude, either, as far as I can tell.
You could say McKibben, along with 350.org, the grassroots group he launched a year or so ago, is trying to make sure none of us get screwed, so to speak, by climate change. The loose-knit organization has won accolades in the press but is struggling to be heard in an overheated public debate over whether climate change is real and, if it is, whether we need to worry about it.
McKibben’s message is a resounding one: Yes, climate change is real; in fact it’s already here. The title, Eaarth with an extra a, is meant to convey that the world we inhabit has already been irreversibly changed by man-made warming, and things are about to get much worse. Before detailing how we can still turn things around, he spends a couple of chapters explaining that we’ve already lost the climatological “sweet spot” that allowed us to evolve into the SUV-lovin’, McMansion-livin’ shopaholics we are today.
He drops alarming little bombshells. For instance, did you know there have been four times as many weather-related disasters in the last 30 years as there were in the first three-quarters of the 20th century combined? How about that the average California fire season runs 78 days longer than it did in the 1970s and 1980s because the snow pack is melting earlier? Perhaps its time to worry when the Arctic ice cap has lost an area 12 times the size of Great Britain, while more than a trillion tons of Greenland’s ice has also gone bye-bye?
Reading about these things while in a sort of refugee status imposed by a volcano under a faraway Icelandic glacier, admittedly, does give one pause.
I am not suggesting the eruption has anything to do with global warming. At least, I haven’t seen any credible reports linking the two, but the planet—which has not only erupted but has logged record-breaking earthquakes this year in Haiti and Chile—does seem to be having anger management issues. And, what about our unusually snowy winter here in the District? Again, not necessarily a sign of climate change (though Joseph Romm did take some of the wind out of Sen. Jim Inhofe’s igloo, arguing that, far from a sign of global cooling, the blizzard of 2010 was an example of extreme weather brought on by global warming.)
These ruminations bring me to a crazy idea that can perhaps only come to a person having her life interrupted by a natural disaster: Why doesn’t Weintraub represent McKibben and 350.org?
It seems a much better strategy than waiting for Congress and President Obama to come up with climate legislation. Sure, it could disrupt Weintraub’s tennis plans with H.W. It would mean a sort of career crossover, but what better challenge for the guy whose management credits range from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra to John Denver? Having already figured out how to woo such decidedly different audiences, how much harder could it be to sell the country on an idea as basic as its own survival?
Besides, there’s no doubt that the ever-so-earnest environmental movement could use an injection of Weintraub’s “Screw ’em” philosophy. cp