With Liberalism and Justice for All

W. has liberals so hopping mad that all the heaviest hitters among them seem to be publishing books this year. Which ones to read?

Toward the end of the Clinton era, William J. Bennett weighed in with a book called The Death of Outrage, making the case that people weren’t angry enough about Willy’s sexcapades in the Oval Office, which Bennett argued were on par with the Watergate crimes of the Nixon White House. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues had been one of the top-selling nonfiction books of 1994, doing almost as well as Rush Limbaugh’s blockbusters, The Way Things Ought To Be and See, I Told You So, which topped the lists in 1992 and 1993. How things have changed — in the country and on the best-seller lists! Bennett’s career as a "virtuecrat" suffered a setback when he had to admit to a gambling problem, and Limbaugh interrupted his radio talk show to get treatment for a prescription-drug addiction. The Clinton years seem to have pushed them beyond outrage and into out-of-control behavior.

Meanwhile, there’s been a rebirth of outrage, as an astonishing number of left-leaning authors have reacted to the contested election of 2000 and all the sordid political events that came after. It’s almost impossible lately to keep up with the flood of books denouncing, dissecting, or otherwise deconstructing the Bush administration.

If the state of things under Republican rule appears bleak, look at the talent now lined up on the left: Michael Moore and Al Franken have sold millions of copies of their hard-hitting and entertaining polemical tracts. Backing them up with recent fire-breathing books are such media-savvy agitators as Jim Hightower (Thieves in High Places), Arianna Huffington (Fanatics and Fools), Amy Goodman (The Exception to the Rulers), and Mark Crispin Miller (Cruel and Unusual). West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd has jumped into the fray with Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. Eric Alterman and Mark Green deliver the bill of particulars in The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America. I thought John Dean’s Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush, published earlier this year, was an especially worthy entry.

In fact, when you start to think of the best political-book writers on the left, you easily come up with a shortlist that isn’t so short: Barbara Ehrenreich, William Greider, Paul Krugman, Molly Ivins, Eric Alterman, E.J. Dionne, Hendrik Hertzberg, Garry Wills, Maureen Dowd, Thomas Frank, Paul Berman, Joe Klein, Cornel West, and Gore Vidal all come to mind. I would include Christopher Hitchens, too, the former Nation columnist who went off the reservation on the Iraq war but who is a writer well worth spending time with (a collection of his Nation columns is due out later this month). How in the world do conservatives hope to match up? Not with William Bennett, Rush Limbaugh, or Ann Coulter. Is E.J. Dionne, who wrote in 1991 that "conservatism has reached a stage of intellectual and political exhaustion," getting closer to being right?

Or is it just that the left has better writers? I would argue that at least that much is true, and offer these five recently published books as incontrovertible proof.

Politics: Observations & Arguments, 1966-2004, by Hendrik Hertzberg (Penguin Press, $29.95). This collection should establish Hertzberg as the best political essayist writing in America, from the left or from the right. Attentive readers of the New Yorker are aware of Hertzberg’s unusual alchemy: he examines the baseness, deceptiveness, and folly of modern politics and produces reason, passion, and eloquence. Many of his Talk of the Town commentaries are gathered here, as well as work from his days at the New Republic in the ’80s. There are some surprising gems, including a few previously unpublished pieces, such as a long dispatch on the San Francisco rock scene he wrote for Newsweek in 1966, when he was 23. (Among the members of the Jefferson Airplane was "one girl, a slim, lovely brunette named Grace Slick, whose huge, deep blue eyes flash under her bangs.") Hertzberg took four years off from journalism to write speeches for President Jimmy Carter. ("Like sexual excess and substance abuse, speechwriting has been around awhile. What’s new is the fact that we talk about it openly, without shame.") His lengthy explanation of Carter’s political character ("A Moral Ideologue"), followed by a consideration of the Reagan presidency that he wrote for the New Yorker in 1991, together tell us almost all we need to know about what happened to presidential leadership in the 1970s and 1980s. "Carter’s style of leadership was and is more religious than political in nature ... He didn’t like to perform.... He hated to pretend to be feeling emotions he wasn’t actually feeling at the moment." Reagan had more than the advantage of acting talent — he had a ready-made ideology. "A political ideology is a very handy thing to have," Hertzberg writes. "It’s a real time-saver, because it tells you what you think about things you know nothing about." Hertzberg always manages to sound principled and thoughtful — but not ideological.

Stand Up Fight Back: Republican Toughs, Democratic Wimps, and the Politics of Revenge, by E.J. Dionne Jr. (Simon & Schuster, $24). Is Dionne the nation’s best liberal political analyst? His 1991 classic Why Americans Hate Politics cogently explained what happened in the American battles over political ideas in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In his new book he looks at the end of the Clinton era and reflects on the polarization that continues to mark Washington politics in the Bush era. Dionne takes what conservatives might deride as a "nuanced" position: he decries nastiness in politics and he wants the Democratic party to be tougher in standing up to it. But this is what is so useful about Dionne’s work. He proves it’s possible to hold strong, even partisan, convictions and still be guided by reason and civility. He is angry about what the Bush administration is up to, and he’s angry that Democrats have not been a strong opposition party. For the present emergency, he argues, "The first task of politics now is to prevent a sharp turn to the right. That requires an alliance between the center and the left, which means, in turn, giving up on some of the rote disputes between center and left that are no longer relevant."

Who Let the Dogs In? Incredible Political Animals I Have Known, by Molly Ivins (Random House, $22.95). This latest collection of Molly Ivins’s columns is clearly intended as one last effort to wake up the electorate before this fateful election. Ivins has labored mightily over recent years to warn the nation away from the former Texas governor she calls "Shrub." [Disclosure: as an editor at the Texas Observer and later at the American Prospect, I worked with Ivins on a few occasions.] What’s striking is that some of her earlier work on the first President Bush seems frighteningly relevant today. Recall that in 1992 George H.W. Bush wanted to make "character" the defining issue in his re-election battle against Clinton, whom he accused of waffling. This puts Ivins in highest dudgeon: Bush had been on both sides of the abortion question, on both sides of civil rights, on both sides of Saddam Hussein. He had a murky role in the Iran-contra scandal. Once he was a moderate, then a Reaganite. "George Bush and principle," Ivins spits. "There is one single issue on which George Bush has been resolute through the years." It’s the capital-gains tax cut. What is it with these Bushes, who make such easy claims to moral superiority? Ivins has many more takes on this question, and of course extends it to the current president. Ivins speaks truth to idiocy. Dismembering Newt Gingrich in one column, she recalls Gingrich saying in 1992 that Woody Allen’s affair with Mia Farrow’s daughter "fits the Democratic Party Platform perfectly." Ivins points out, "The Democratic Party has never recommended screwing your lover’s adopted daughter."

Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk, by Maureen Dowd (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $25.95). I feared I was losing my taste for Dowd’s op-ed column in the New York Times. Perhaps Paul Krugman, whose serious pugilism has appeared on the same page in recent years, has made Dowd seem like a welterweight. But this book collects the best of Dowd, and the best of Dowd is very good. There even are a few selections from her reporting days when she covered George H.W. Bush in the news pages. Something interesting happens when you trace her writing about the Bushes over time (most pieces are from the past four years). Early on, she writes so much about the Bush family dynamics and personalities that it seems she’s willfully ignoring what’s at stake politically. Not so by the end. Her wit survives, but there also is a smoldering anger about "the Boy Emperor" who she says has no clothes (or weapons stockpiles).

When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences, by Eric Alterman (Viking, $27.95). Alterman has gained a strong following in recent years as a stunningly prolific magazine and book writer, Nation columnist, and blogger. [Disclosure: I edited his writing when I was at the American Prospect.] Here he breaks away from his work in media criticism and contributes a truly compelling history. In painstaking detail, he examines the lies told by American presidents about matters of war and peace. He shows how FDR lied to Congress and the public about the deals made with Stalin at Yalta. A powerful section shows how the truth about JFK’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis — that JFK and others lied consistently about the deal they made with Nikita Khrushchev to remove US missiles from Turkey — leaked out over two decades. LBJ lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident as the war in Vietnam began to heat up. Then there’s Reagan and the web of deceit about arms to Iran and secret funds to Nicaraguan contras. Full of moral complexity and challenge, this book ought to be considered one of the most important works the left has produced in recent years. Alterman asks a question rarely taken seriously in elite foreign-policy circles: can the American public be trusted with the truth about the US’s role in the world? He argues not just that democracy is imperiled by secret policies, but that in the long run presidential lies "inevitably turn into monsters that strangle their creators."

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