Nuggets from the Recent Slew of Anti-Bush Books

[ The books Hertsgaard reviews below are some good ones. Other important, recent books in the topic area include

Thanks to Robi Sarlos for the tip on the review below. –doclalor ]

Chapter and verse on the need for regime change

by Mark Hertsgaard, March 14, 2004, Los Angeles Times

Howard Dean won’t be on the ballot this November, but he has shaped the 2004 presidential campaign in ways that history will not forget. It was Dean who showed his fellow Democrats that it was OK to fight back against George W. Bush. The former Vermont governor’s early success taught Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in particular that voters wanted not the cautious, incremental critiques that Capitol Hill Democrats have long offered but unapologetic condemnations of where Bush was taking the country. Of course, rank-and-file Democrats also desperately wanted a candidate with enough centrist appeal to beat Bush, or they would have flocked to Dennis Kucinich instead of Dean. Kerry, whose war heroism provided that centrist appeal, was smart enough to appropriate Dean’s insurgent message — to graft the doctor’s passion onto his own gravitas — and it saved his candidacy. In politics as in life, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

What’s remarkable is how long it took Kerry (and most other Democrats) to catch on. After all, Dean’s ascendancy was only one manifestation of a larger phenomenon visible for more than a year now: the emergence of an aggressive, grass-roots opposition to the Bush administration. Many Democrats gave Bush the benefit of the doubt after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the honeymoon was short-lived. One could clearly see the new mood during the lead-up to the Iraq war, especially in the massive numbers of ordinary Americans who joined the worldwide antiwar demonstrations on Feb. 15, 2003. One could see it in the explosive rise of and other unabashedly anti-Bush activist groups. And one could see it on the nation’s bestseller lists.

Over the last 1 1/2 years, books attacking Bush and his agenda have been bought in large numbers in the United States. The biggest-selling nonfiction book of 2002 was “Stupid White Men,” a polemic by filmmaker Michael Moore that spent nearly 70 weeks on various national bestseller lists. Last fall, Moore returned with “Dude, Where’s My Country?” but has been overshadowed recently by Al Franken’s “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” which has been among the top 15 bestsellers for nearly 30 weeks and still appears to be going strong. Journalists Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose have scored with “Bushwhacked” and a half-dozen other books with equally critical views have made various bestseller lists for short periods of time.

Conservatives have had bestsellers too. Fox TV personality Bill O’Reilly has led the pack with “Who’s Looking Out for You?” Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham enjoyed successes with, respectively, “Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism” and “Shut Up and Sing: How Elites From Hollywood, Politics and the UN Are Subverting America.” Conservative bestsellers have been a fairly common phenomenon in the United States since the rise of talk radio made Rush Limbaugh a household name in the 1990s. Now the other side is getting in on the act as well.

The most surprising is Franken’s book. The TV comic best known for his sketches on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” is certainly amusing. A passage describing how he exposed O’Reilly, the self-proclaimed master of the “no-spin zone,” as an apparent serial liar is laugh-out-loud funny. But what sets “Liars” apart is how tightly researched it is, thanks to 14 Harvard graduate students the author affectionately calls “Team Franken.” When he accuses Bush and his allies of rewarding the rich while punishing the poor or of plundering the environment on behalf of corporate backers, he provides facts, often drawn from official sources, that don’t get in the way of the laughs.

That is an achievement rarely found in Moore’s books. Moore strains for laughs more often than he delivers them, and he can be very loose with facts and reasoning. He asserts, for example, that the Bush administration has exaggerated the terrorist threat to frighten Americans into accepting the rest of its agenda. But he undercuts that argument by denying that there is any real terrorist threat (as evidence, he cites data showing that Americans had a greater probability of dying from the flu than from the Sept. 11 attacks) and by asserting that corporations that throw people out of work are the real terrorists.

By contrast, “Bushwacked” is a model of investigative rigor leavened by genuine wit. Virtually alone among the authors under review here, Ivins and Dubose are not primarily polemicists but veteran shoe-leather reporters. Their criticisms of the Bush administration are undeniably sharp, but they are based on the stories from people they sought out, investigated and brought to life on the page — people like Luz Cruz, a Philadelphia mother of three whose heating subsidy was part of $200 million in Low Income Home Energy Assistance funds Bush withheld in January 2003 at the same time he was pushing a $337-billion tax cut for the very rich. The combination of facts, tart humor, deep knowledge (especially of Bush’s Texas roots) and practical proposals for reform make “Bushwacked” the most impressive of these books.

David Corn’s “The Lies of George W. Bush” is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case that “through his campaign for the presidency and his first years in the White House, [Bush] has mugged the truth — not merely in honest error, but deliberately, consistently and repeatedly to advance his career and his agenda.” He blames the media for letting Bush get away with that. Bush’s falsehoods do get reported sometimes, Corn writes, but rarely are they the story’s focus and almost never do reporters use the word “lie” to describe them, as that is seen as editorializing.

Paul Krugman adds a twist to this idea in “The Great Unraveling,” a collection of his previously published columns for the New York Times. Borrowing from a book by a young Henry A. Kissinger, Krugman suggests that the “right-wing movement [that] now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media” is a revolutionary power “that means to smash the existing framework” and overturn the nation’s commitment to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and aid to poor families; the separation of church and state; and other core principles. But mainstream reporters, being part of the existing framework, can’t grasp that today’s conservative revolutionaries really mean what they say, Krugman writes, so they fail to alert their audiences to what is really happening.

If U.S. citizens did know, they would reject such a revolution, argue most of these authors. Franken, Moore, Jim Hightower and Joe Conason claim that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Americans are actually more liberal than conservative. In “Big Lies,” Conason cites dozens of polls from such authoritative sources as the Gallup and Harris organizations that show a clear majority of Americans embracing liberal positions on taxation, healthcare, education, Social Security, the environment, corporate regulation, the minimum wage — virtually every domestic issue except welfare.

It’s an accurate point but one easy to misinterpret. James Carville, the Democratic strategist who managed Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns, knows better than most that polls aren’t the same thing as politics. People must have a reason to vote and Carville supplies lots of them in “Had Enough?” Democrats should follow some simple rules this election season, he writes: Stop apologizing (Democrats, he notes, won two world wars and presided over the greatest periods of economic growth since World War II); think big; never just oppose, always propose; and be willing to fight for what you believe. Carville insists that activist government has done good things for America: Social Security has dramatically reduced poverty among the elderly; Medicare and Medicaid have delivered healthcare to millions who would otherwise go without. If House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is so convinced that the private sector is superior to the public, Carville taunts, let him buy his health insurance on the private market and let the rest of us have the health plan he and all members of Congress enjoy.

Whether Kerry and other Democrats will apply the insights found in these books during this election year remains to be seen. But clearly there is a popular appetite for such views, and not only among the relatively small portion of the populace who buy books. Whatever one calls the people eager for regime change in the United States, they are undeniably stirring. And despite the president’s advantages of incumbency and prodigious fundraising, that cannot be welcome news inside the Bush White House.

Mark Hertsgaard is the author of numerous books, including On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency and The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World.

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