It's official: As of last night, it is once again the '80s. Barbara Walters' heavily hyped year-end special, The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2004, was an unrepentant throwback to that decade of guiltless consumerism and craven celebrity worship. Three of the choices from Walters' list —Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, and Mel Gibson—have been around since the '80s; Walters even showed clips of herself interviewing the latter two in their big-haired heyday. (Disturbingly, both Walters and Winfrey now look younger—much younger—than they did in 1988.) By the end of the hour, I could feel myself sprouting shoulder pads and a fuchsia pouf skirt.
Barbara Walters summarized the moral vision behind the special in her homily to Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ: "Although some of us believe in the Bible and some of us don't, as Americans, we have our own faith. We believe in risk and personal vision, especially when they are crowned by success. And in that way, this year, Mel Gibson made true believers of us all." Translation: Americans like money and success even more than God, though it's nice to have both, of course. In fact, having enough money can transform you into a kind of god, a sentiment voiced by Melania Knauss, Donald Trump's eerily feline fiancee, when she defined her betrothed as "an amazing man" who "should live forever." Trump, pondering the prospect of future procreation with Melania, waxed philosophical: "You know, children, if you have money, what's the big deal? I love the idea of more children. I've never been a father who says, let's go out to Central Park and have a catch. It's not my thing; it's just not my thing. But I've been a good father." I wasn't aware that bucketloads of cash excuse you from spending time with your children. But if Trump wants a lesson in the possible downside of this parenting strategy, he need look no further than Paris Hilton, Barbara Walters' second-most fascinating person of the year.
When the list was announced, there was a media outcry at Walters' choice of the hotel heiress and reality-TV star, fresh from receiving her VH1 award for "Catchphrase of the Year": "That's hot." (Here's my new "catchphrase" for '05: "Good morning.") In fact, though, the choice of Paris makes a lot of sense, given the show's philosophy and retro-'80s feel; Paris, after all, looks like the long-lost love child of a character from Dynasty. In order to find entertainment in the Paris persona, one must simply accept that materialism, greed, and a naked desire for fame are highly valued attributes in our culture. After plugging her new perfume (is there really anyone out there who wants to smell like Paris Hilton?) and her soon-to-be-released album, Screwed (is there anyone out there who wants to listen to Paris Hilton?), Hilton characterized herself as the misunderstood girl-next-door, who plans to settle down and have children in the next two years. ("Is there a guy?" asks Barbara. "I'll find one," vows Hilton.) Perhaps her current reading, a chick-lit novel called Maneater, will be of some assistance.
Who could possibly be more riveting than a soulless, dead-eyed 23-year-old party girl, dancing on a bar in an acid-green micromini? Only the year's most fascinating person, Karl Rove, or, as he tells us President Bush likes to call him in their private moments, "Turd Blossom." Barbara Walters lingered almost lovingly over W.'s nickname for his master strategist, as my viewing companions and I conjectured about his other unprintable monikers for Cabinet members. As Rove explained it, "Turd Blossom" originated on the West Texas plains, where animal droppings often give rise to beautiful wildflowers. (But wait: If Rove is the fertilizer that gave rise to the flower of Bush's second term, doesn't that make him just a plain old turd?)
Walters' interview with Rove, like all the rest, was about as hard-hitting as the warm-up questions asked before a polygraph test: "Are you Karl Rove?" "Yes." "Correct!" But it nonetheless gave the viewer some glimpse of what drives the notoriously ruthless Republican strategist. He describes his childhood as a miniature policy wonk, chuckling, "I was a very weird child ... I mean, talk about a sad little guy." Rove campaigned for Richard Nixon at the age of 8 and wrote fifth-grade research papers about "dialectical materialism." (Read: Young Karl was writing anti-Communist screeds, yet another throwback to the '80s.)
With the exception of a few humbler nominees (like Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling or Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings), the overall tone of last night's celebration of venality could be summed up in Michael Douglas' mantra from the '80s epic Wall Street: "Greed is good." If we've really come full circle, maybe that can be next year's catchphrase.