The pop life, one vast theater of the irate, a glorified children's playground where the battles for popularity assume loathsome proportions. Adults, lacking the good sense of children, remaining incapable of taking turns and sharing stardom, forever unwilling to graciously accept the stature of anyone for very long. And so it's a constant scramble up the food chain of imagined glory, everyone losing in one way or another: the doomed bottom-feeders nauseous with envy and longing; the midrange hustlers stewing over slights, obsessed as mobsters over matters of disrespect; the top dogs numb and sickened by the struggle, hard-won glittering prizes turning sour in their clutches. Everyone up and down the ladder either pissed off, gloating in an uncharitable way, or running scared, ever mindful of the most pernicious human fear A the specter of some other undeserving person getting ahead faster than you are.

The carousel can be cruel, but then, most people do eventually get a chance to play, the American arena sometimes granting the blessings of meteoric advancement. The promoter Robert Levy re-entering our life and springing back in a big way from his last venture, a spectacularly unsuccessful club benefit with Victoria Jackson. The politically minded Levy mobilizing for the Democratic National Committee presidential dinner at the Sheraton Bal Harbour, featuring an appearance by Bill Clinton and better yet, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a first lady with true star potential. Our beloved brother in glamour working the phones, vainly trying to sell enough $1500 tickets to secure his own complimentary dinner, his immediate circle incapable of spending money for the second coming of Christ. Levy switching tracks like a pro, stepping in during a crisis over the White House requirement for name entertainment at official fundraisers. The dinner unfortunately falling on the same night as the Oscars, a major scheduling conflict for Clinton's Hollywood supporters, the president's team scouring for available talent. Gloria Estefan, a certifiable star and Miami resident, studiously nonpartisan in her public appearances. Jon Secada lacking sufficient punch, and Harry Wayne Casey, K.C. of the Sunshine Band, looking a lot like Uncle Fester lately and evidencing even less appeal. Batter-up time for Levy, stepping into the breach with welcome news gleaned from a New Times calender listing: The acceptable Chuck Mangione would be in town for a concert at Gusman. A few calls to Chuck's people and suddenly our boy miraculously becoming a go project, green-lighted to the stratosphere, an entertainment producer for an epic presidential dinner.

Over the next several days our life evolving into one long vexing nightmare, a distant witness to the downscaled chic of the new Camelot, the Beverly Hillbillies taking over the White House. A young and likable pussyhound president with useful movie star friends; the first lady a conceptual Jackie Kennedy, a working girl somewhat marred by the ugly fray of commerce. Levy putting us in touch with the White House press office and kindly hyping our importance, hopes dashed with a high-level dis: no dinner invitation. Alas, our credentials extending only to the hot squalor of Century Village. A few select VIP comps A offered to Barry Gibb, the cast of The Specialist, Oliver Stone, and Wesley Snipes among others A yanked during a record-setting onslaught of ticket sales. The presidential advance team deciding, rightly enough, that the already-comped Hillary Clinton had sufficient celebrity firepower. Our hookup to the sweep of Democratic history A a 25-year-old kid living with his grandparents A then offering to put us on as a technical assistant, with access to his poolside cabana and the back corridors of the hotel. A sense of ruinous unprofessional pride intruding A something of a novel experience A our passing on the parade proving to be another fatal wrong move.

The whirlwind Clinton visit bringing reports from all over: breathless tales from the velveteen mafia about a rumored affair with Barbra Streisand, stepping into the Marilyn Monroe-with-a-grip role; several insanely ambitious local restaurateurs expecting the president to dine in state at their establishments and pose for grin-and-grip shots. Our foolish pride turning to dust the day after the big event, Levy off-handedly mentioning that dinner access would have been possible, the rules of the game changing at the last minute. Our more well-heeled sources coming in handy, confirming that Gloria Estefan refused an invitation to the dinner A too much press potential A but eventually agreed to a rather more select predinner reception. The Estefans posing with the president for photographs, everyone making nice and gushing, the new Estefan/Clinton alliance undoubtedly helped along by the summit meeting of the Americas, coming to Miami in December. The city poised to become the temporary epicenter of the universe, abounding in mutual back-scratching opportunities of the show business-meets-politics school. Gloria mingling afterward with an interesting crowd, Nestor Torres performing for the $25,000-and-over contributors, the powerful standing in line to be photographed with Clinton, like kids piling up for a shopping mall Santa Claus. The list a local roll call of money and juice: lobbyist Ron Book; Dan Holtz of Capital Bank; developer Manny Medina; Sanford Ziff; Richard Graves of Graves Brothers Citrus; Miami Mayor Steve Clark; John Lientstrom of Plumbers Local 519. The true heavy-hitters A Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, builder Jorge Perez, U.S. Senate candidate and brother-in-law-from-Hell Hugh Rodham A treated to an even more cozy reception beforehand, the status demarcations remarkably similar to the VIP-room dodges of nightclubs.

Politics as usual, one hand washing another. Levy, who'd met Clinton twice before A once at the Los Angeles home of producer Ted Fields, where Barbra Streisand performed for a glittering assembly, and again during a reporting stint with Post Mortem A getting in his own photo-op and a dose of face time. The president putting down his glass of Florida orange juice, Levy pointing out the controversy over spokesman-candidate Rush Limbaugh, Clinton intently listening to Levy's story about living with HIV and accepting a letter, our own little Bosnian orphan officially requesting a private audience at the White House. Nervy beyond measure and yet struck dumb by the ultimate celebrity, Levy somehow neglecting to mention his involvement with the Mangione concert, his moment in the sun brief but sweet. A few days off from Levy Land and then he's back again ("I'm cursed with the typical South Beach dilemma: fabulous but operating on the verge of major poordom"), juggling projects in development: the Miami premiere of Gus Van Sants's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, an AIDS awareness lecture tour with David Faustino, little Bud Bundy on Married with Children. Another American hustler, out there in the great beyond, pushing the limits and taking his shot at the big time. Truly, it's a great country, rife with promise and possibility, big enough for anyone's dreams.

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Tom Austin