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Good columnist; bad book 

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Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How it Distorts the Truth
By Joe Conason
(Thomas Dunne / St. Martin's Press: New York) $24.95/hardcover

Joe Conason is something of a liberal windup toy. Twist the crank and receive a 750-word column of: "Republican bad, Democrat good. Republican bad, Democrat good." (Repeat as necessary.)

That's a fairly reductive analysis, but Big Lies is a reductive book, even if its author is nobly trying to dismantle the political mythology of the American right. A mythology that -- thanks to the tireless crusading of neoconservative activists, intellectuals and a gaggle of fire-breathing pundits -- has commandeered the mantle of conventional wisdom.

For those with better things to do than keep tabs on the punditry, Conason is a columnist for The New York Observer, and a blogger for the Internet magazine Salon.com. With its big red letters on a white backdrop, Big Lies is marketed as a political rant to be lumped onto the same bookstore tables as those from Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Bill O'Reilly and the rest.

Each chapter of Big Lies is devoted to (you guessed it): a big lie. Examples include, "Tax-cutting Republicans are friends of the common man, while liberals are snobbish elitists who despise the work ethic." Then you've got: "Conservatives truly love America and support the armed forces, while liberals are unpatriotic draft dodgers."

After a brief exegesis on how the right exploits these fibs, Conason proceeds to hammer (and hammer) examples of contradictory information culled mostly from various newspapers. Two of the best chapters take conservatives to task for their bogus populism and phony moralizing. By way of example, Conason offers up our current commando in chief who has famously repudiated his patrician past (the elite New England boarding school, the white-boy affirmative action to Yale and Harvard B School) in favor of a salt-of-the-Texas-earth routine.

While Conason shoots down canards like a sniper with an AK-47, he never acknowledges that his "big lies" are buried beneath the surface of political discourse. While a contrarian like Web blogger Andrew Sullivan might suggest (as he famously did after 9/11) that coastal liberals are mounting an anti-American "fifth column," real influence peddlers don't engage in the same type of smack talking.

Conason fails to pronounce these distinctions, choosing instead to reference influential conservative thinkers like Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol in the same breath as blowhard pundits like Coulter & Co. To Conason, the right is simply the right -- which isn't quite right.

Another example of Big Lies' small vision is its unwillingness to hold liberals in any way accountable for the state of contemporary liberalism, which manifests itself in less than a third of Americans identifying themselves as Democrats. According to Clinton's pollster Mark Penn, the Dems haven't been in such a sorry state since before the New Deal.

But in the windup world of Joe Conason, this isn't the result of the Democratic Party's failure to articulate a coherent platform or the Clinton administration's eschewing liberal concerns for centrist booty. Nope, it's all about blaming the GOP. Though he resorts to trite disclaimers -- not all Republicans are racist, homophobic, corporate kleptos, baby killers, etc. -- his failure to look inward is an act of staggering partisanship that ultimately serves to discredit his grasp on real politics.

As a weekly columnist, Conason does a great job of exposing the peccadilloes of our current administration. At book length he's redundant and boring. Had Big Lies been titled An Encyclopedia of Republican Malfeasance 1854-Present, then perhaps it might pass without comment.

For those who worship at what the New York Press's Matt Taibbi calls the the "First Congregation of Pointy-Headed Lefty Self-Congratulation" perhaps Big Lies offers solace in a time of Republican rule. What it offers the rest of us is less obvious.

-- John Dicker

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