mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

mark


Chapter and verse on the need for regime change

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.

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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 anti-war demonstrations on Feb. 15, 2003. One could see it
in the explosive rise of MoveOn.org and other unabashedly anti-Bush
activist groups. And one could see it on the nation’s bestseller
lists.

Over the last 1½ 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 in order 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, Bushwhacked 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 Bushwhacked 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 S. 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.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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