Like millions of other Americans, I could not help myself and watched all 27 minutes of Anderson Cooper's interviews with Stormy Daniels, the pornographic actress with whom President Trump has been accused of having a brief affair in 2006.
It was a fascinating piece of television and not, except very briefly, obscene. Nor were the handful of pornographic asides the most interesting aspects of their conversation. (Though how fitting is it that our tangerine-toned CEO-in-chief should, like so many sordid and powerful narcissists before him, apparently find the prospect of being flogged by a woman intoxicating?) More compelling was her claim that before she agreed to sign a nondisclosure agreement she was harassed by unnamed thugs working in some vaguely defined capacity for Trump. If this is true, then those of us who have suggested that the Trump-Cohen-Daniels saga is far more dangerous for the president than the Russia nonsense are looking more right all the time.
Far and away the most striking thing about the interview, though, was Daniels herself. It is worth acknowledging from the outset that, like everything on television, especially those programs that go out of the way to advertise themselves as "real," her appearance on 60 Minutes was a performance. But performances cannot be credible without having some basis in the character of the actor or actress. And in this case I am persuaded to accept the fact that, like Trump himself, Daniels really is more or less the character she played on CBS, if not in Operation: Desert Stormy (Wicked Pictures, 2007).
This character is a child of the Real America, a Southerner, a no-nonsense blue-collar professional with a mordant wit. She is someone who tells it like it is and isn't in it for the money either, though she of course likes money as much as the next person. ("I don't have a million dollars," she told Cooper, laughing. "You didn't even buy me breakfast.") She does not feel sorry for herself and refuses to consider herself a "victim," though she certainly is one, even if the crime is not sexual assault.
She is also, like millions of us, rich or poor, conservative or liberal, pious or unchurched, in New York or an unincorporated community of less than a thousand people, a parent. When one of Trump's goons is said to have threatened Daniels, she was attempting that most ordinary and democratic of parental tasks: the removal of an infant from a car seat while balancing a diaper bag and the hundred other random accoutrements of modern childrearing. "That's a beautiful little girl," the man is said to have remarked. "It'd be a shame if something happened to her mom."
Indeed it would, and not only for the daughter. I cannot help thinking that a memoir by Daniels, addressing not only her brief, bored dalliance with the host of The Apprentice but the whole of her life from childhood to the present, told in her own words or something like them rather than bland ghostwriter-ese, would be a minor classic of American literature, a kind of 21st century Roxana. Scolds, it seems to me, have always missed the point of Defoe's two great novels about women of ill repute, accusing the great pamphleteer of appending cheap morality to hundreds of pages of prurience. What he was really doing was exposing the far baser morality of pretending that any discussion of the lives of women who are driven by poverty into prostitution is more obscene than the fact of their quietly tolerated exploitation.
We have our own version of this hypocrisy in 2018. It extends much further than the absurd pseudo-zealotry of evangelical hucksters defending the president while claiming that Daniels has no right to offend the sensibilities of the American people by giving her account of their relationship. Porn is not a red or a blue state phenomenon. It is a big business; in internet terms, arguably the biggest business. Daniels herself expressed this perfectly when she acknowledged that by speaking about her alleged affair with the president, "I could automatically be alienating half of my fan base right at this very moment."
She is probably right about this. And there is something viscerally disgusting about the fact that a woman who does something we consider disgraceful while almost universally accepting it as an unremarkable concomitant of modern life could inspire outrage for speaking candidly about our nation's foremost exponent of pornographic values, just as there is something almost unspeakably vicious about the everyday reality in this country in which thousands of women in Daniels' position find themselves the victims of discrimination when they apply for entry-level service jobs. The same waddling CVS regional managers who will happily sit doubled over their own flying fists in front of nude images or videos of their preferred starlets evidently feel uncomfortable allowing the same women to remind customers of the existence of the Coupon Center next to Aisle 3 when they are fully clothed.
But enough for now about the incalculable evil of Daniels' profession. Our concern for once can afford to be with the woman herself. It is a remarkable and very amusing thing that a working-class girl from Baton Rouge, a child of divorced parents, a veteran — like Mary Anne and Wanda in that modern classic of murder balladry "Goodbye Earl" — of her high-school's 4-H Club, and onetime aspiring journalist, should one day outsmart a Manhattan billionaire and his army of sleazy lawyers. This is something that America's most eminent law enforcement officials have spent more than a year and millions of dollars attempting with nothing to show for it. It speaks, among other things, I like to think, to the relative virtues and capabilities of any number of anonymous Americans from flyover country in proportion to their more educated and vastly better remunerated coastal peers.
Stormy Daniels has virtues of a kind that probably should not be emulated. Indeed, they are almost by definition impossible to emulate. She is not a saint. But the saint is a universal rather than a national type. Daniels is that other, newer, doubtless less valuable but hardly worthless thing: Like Davy Crockett or Calamity Jane or Jimmy McMillan, she is an American hero.