Recently, our office mailboxes and bookshelves started filling up with new titles bashing President George W. Bush and his cohorts in the Department of Defense and the White House. Some were silly, some serious, most of them seriously disturbing. Welcome to election season, 2004.
On this and the following pages, we've opted not to focus on some of the bigger books aimed at Bush this election year, like John Dean's Worse Than Watergate or Richard Clarke's Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror. And we've tried to avoid the more strident and humorless of the genre, books with titles like The Bush-Haters Handbook: A Guide to the Most Appalling Presidency of the Past 100 Years.
Here, for your summer reading pleasure, are a handful of reviews of some of the more intriguing titles in the genre by the publishing industry's election season dream, the media-hound's candy shop, presidential politics and the Bush administration's whipping boy -- that goddamned liberal media.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
The "L" word
Has anyone obsessed more over the failures, corruption and inconsistencies of the current administration than Robert Kennedy Journalism Award winner and Pulitzer finalist, columnist/cartoonist Ted Rall? Probably not. Case in point: This summer, Rall published two books, collections of his writing and drawing on the bulldozer tactics of the Republicans, the sleeping Democrats and the Bush administration's imperialistic tendencies.
Rall can be faulted for didacticism, but not for lack of passion or knowledge. After 9/11, he spent a long stint in Afghanistan, sending dispatches back to the States, and emerged galvanized. His biggest frustration? In spite of the Bush administration's near-disastrous domestic and foreign policies, the Democrats refuse to pick up the gauntlet, so afraid are they of being called -- sshhhhhhhhhhh! -- liberal.
In You're Liberal (with a foreword by George McGovern), Rall outlines a sensible "Manifesto for a New America" based on what he argues are liberal principles: A full-time job should earn you a full-time salary. Working hard entitles you to a worry-free retirement. Everyone has the right to the best possible education. No American should be denied medical care. We have the right to collective bargaining (be still my heart!). Those who rule us should live like us (you gotta be kidding!). The list goes on in Utopian language that only Dick Cheney could hate. OK, maybe Don Rumsfeld, oh, and John Ashcroft. (George W. Bush would probably love it until they boxed his ears and slapped him around a bit.)
Generalissimo El Busho might be Rall's angriest work. Bush is depicted as a petty dictator, a draft dodger, a banana republic warmonger in a series of work starting with the Supreme Court appointment to the presidency and stretching to the current status of our troops and civilians in Iraq. For all their aggressiveness and intentional distortion, given the current quagmire in the Middle East, Rall's depictions of Generalissimo El Busho don't feel terribly exaggerated. Rall might be preaching to the choir, but he's one hellfire and brimstone preacher with a full gospel backup chorus.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Only in Bush world
It's a pity the Bush-bashing book genre is dominated by screeds that say as much about their authors' vanity as their politics.
While this subgenre took its cue from the spate of books birthed during those years when Clinton hatred comprised an ideology unto itself, they're not always the most substantive reads. In the context of today's starkly polarized electorate -- where pollsters claim only about 18 percent remain persuadable-- a book that offers eloquent bitch slaps to everyone from milquetoast Democrats (paging Tom Daschle!) to robotic radicals (Chomsky anyone?) seems destined to be pulped in the rush toward partisan fervor.
Which is too bad, because Sore Winners is a great read, wickedly funny but not at the expense of depth. John Powers is the resident media critic at the LA Weekly who pinch hits on NPR as a film critic for Teri Gross' Fresh Air. Though it doesn't contain much by way of new information (Powers is a critic not an investigative reporter), the analysis is first rate. The title is the author's term for what might also be called the "cultural politics of gloating." Being a "sore winner" is not just limited to a president who has no compunction telling Bob Woodward, "I do not need to explain why I say things. ... Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."
No, George Bush's ugly America permeates all spheres. Take the NFL, where after scoring a touchdown, Terrell Owens of the 49ers busts a marker from his sock, signs the ball and hands it to his financial adviser for later resale; Or Random House's CEO Peter Olson who shamelessly brags to a New York Times Sunday Magazine reporter at a publishing industry confab about the reams of people he's fired. And then there's reality television that, though often compulsively watchable, is rooted in humiliation. As Powers says, "Bush Culture has become one long schadenfreude spree."
The relationship between Bush World and the actual policies of the administration are at times tenuous, though it's not hard to connect the dots between an administration that offers perpetual war with tax cuts and a population bent on myopia. As Powers notes, when Islamic radicals exploded a bomb at a Jakarta hotel killing 14 people, the news placed the story below Kobe Bryant's first courthouse appearance. As the country continues to scratch its head wondering "why do they hate us?" Powers remarks, "They hate us because we don't even know why they hate us."
Sore Winners is stronger in its casual observations than in any overarching analysis. From a lesser writer, such an effort might grow tiresome; however, Powers packs more sense in a quick sentence than others can fit into an entire book. Discussing the post 9-11 fatwa that "the age of irony is over," Powers notes how such a statement is really indicative of the tumor of sanctimony in the mainstream media.
"As the British demonstrated during the Blitz, you can fight the enemy and be ironic at the very same time; in fact, humor helped keep things bearable when the bombs were hitting London. Only dullards think you must be earnest to be serious."
Sadly, the left embodies such sanctimony as much as the right. In a hilarious chapter, Powers notes how, despite his political leanings, reading William Kristol's neoconservative Weekly Standard is infinitely more fun than reading The Nation. While the right has a sense of play and energy, The Nation's pages are like "trying to gobble dry muesli." Powers shrewdly notes that the left is united by "patterns of consumption" and fawning over celebrity radicals like Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, and Jim Hightower.
"What these folks have in common is not a vision of the world -- but fame."
While Sore Winners is no more likely to influence a swing voter than the endorsement of Bea Arthur would, it serves as an intellectual scrapbook, a thoughtful and irreverent critique that holds a mirror to what American culture has become when ruled by a man who thought Friends was a movie, that Sex and the City involved his private life, yet still manages to convince half the country he's a "man of the people." Only in Bush World ...
-- John Dicker
In the doghouse
This impressive collection of columnist Molly Ivins' razor-sharp observations covers the period of American electoral politics from March 1986 and the Reagan era to the current election season, "the glorious election year of 2004, with a boring stiff in one corner and stupefying incompetence in the other."
In a bracing introduction, Ivins stops short of saying, "I told you so" about the shortcomings of President George W. Bush, and indeed, in the section of the book devoted to his rise from Texas governor to leader of the nation, she more than gives him the benefit of the doubt. But Bush's behavior since the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has sealed his fate with Ivins and tried her patience beyond repair. "I knew him, but even I hadn't counted on what fear would do to him. Fear makes people do terrible things. I also think Bush is badly advised, chiefly by Dick Cheney and also by that whole nest of neo-cons in the Defense Department. One of the most elementary mistakes you can make in politics is to listen only to people who agree with you. How could they be so stupid? Karl?"
Ivins owes a debt of thanks to her editor, Jonathan Karp, for the shape of the book and the careful choices made from her body of work. Who Let the Dogs In offers both a remarkable career retrospective of one of America's most important political columnists (Ivins has been nominated for a Pulitzer three times), and an overview of the turbulent political era that marks the turn of the 21st century. If any theme rings throughout the book, it's a measured call for campaign finance reform, all but dead in the water under the current administration. Corporate interests have never been more prominently placed in Washington as under the Bush White House, Ivins observes, an administration that seems to feel a corporate head should chair every department of the federal government, conflicts of interest be damned.
Ivins thoughtfully dissects the Clinton White House, warts and all, excoriating the press and the Republican party for their shameless attacks on Hillary Clinton, heralding the Clinton era as the true beginning of the current brand of hate politics, a trend in full swing this election year but certainly not a Democratic invention.
Most remarkable is Ivins' hopefulness throughout and absolute belief in the system, despite its flaws. Her assessment of Bush is less vitriolic than regretful for what a rotten leader he turned out to be. "It is not necessary to hate George W. Bush to think he's a bad president," she concludes. "Grown-ups can do that, you know. You can decide someone's politics are a miserable failure without lying awake at night consumed with hatred.
"Poor Bush is in way over his head and the country is in bad shape because of his stupid economic policies.
"If that makes me a Bush hater, then sign me up."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Liar, liar, pants on fire
Many people think our president is a liar, but Robert Scheer, Christopher Scheer, and Lakshmi Chaudhry have the facts to back it up.
Though The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq isn't light reading, it's a necessary handbook for deciphering the muddle and spin of the Bush administration's war on terror and understanding what America has lost in the process.
While hysterical ranting would seem appropriate, this concise, expertly researched book is not simply reactionary. Biggest Lies grew out of Christopher Scheer's widely read article, "The Ten Most Appalling Lies about Iraq," published on the Alternet Web site in June 2003 (www.alternet.org). The voluminous response encouraged the younger Scheer, who had been researching weapons of mass destruction and other key Iraq issues with his father, journalist Robert Scheer, and Chaudhry, a senior editor at Alternet, to compile his findings in a book. Robert Scheer is the author of six books, as well as a nationally syndicated columnist with the Los Angeles Times and a host of NPR's Left, Right and Center.
Using testimony culled from a wide range of sources as well as their own extensive research, the authors offer insightful and historical explanations for many perplexing aspects of the war on terror, successfully arguing that every major assertion of our government in pressing for the conquest of Iraq has proved to be false. Though it's no longer necessarily news that the government's policy on Iraq was formulated by a small group of influential, right-wing radicals who dominate the president's foreign policy, it's fascinating to see how deftly these policies were put forth and to what end.
Knowledge is power, and just as the FBI now considers almanacs to be dangerous tools for terrorists, Biggest Lies, which so clearly shows the Bush administration's lies and weaknesses, might be next on the Feds' most-wanted list. So read it while you can, but make sure your terrorist neighbor isn't looking over your shoulder.
-- Erin Ergenbright
The Five Biggest Lies Bush Told Us About Iraq
By Robert Scheer, Christopher Scheer, and Lakshmi Chaudhry
(Seven Stories Press: New York)
The revolution comes to your laptop
Joe Trippi does not mess around. When he jumped on the bandwagon as the manager for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, he knew he was in for a bumpy ride.
Starting with only 432 known supporters and $100,000 in the bank, Trippi surprised everyone (including himself) when he managed to create a virtual tsunami of Dean fans and raise millions of dollars, using a tool that no one had thought to use before: the Internet.
Trippi's book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything is part memoir, part rallying cry, and part how-to. Told with humor and candor, it is a behind-the-scenes look at the rise of a classic "little-campaign-that-could" story, and candidate Dean's even more dazzling fall.
Most people know how the Dean saga ended, in what Trippi calls a blaze of "seemingly misplaced, eleventh-hour enthusiasm." Dean's "I Have a Scream" speech was gratuitously broadcast from every media, and bits of it were even looped electronically for dance mixes.
The point, Trippi maintains, isn't that the campaign lost, but that a massive amount of knowledge was gained. "For the first time in my life, maybe the first time in history, a candidate lost but his campaign won."
In his book, Trippi details the candidates he chose to work with over the years, almost all of whom were the underdogs. Dean certainly fit the underdog criteria. With a campaign that began as "charmingly modest" (in other words, broke), led by an unprepared and inexperienced team, it's no wonder that even Dean's mother was quoted in the New York Times as calling her son's campaign "quixotic" and "the silliest thing I'd ever heard."
Still, the dark horse had a message, and one that Trippi couldn't ignore. Long before, Trippi had sworn off the politics game due not only to poor health, but also to a growing bitterness with the system. The average American was no longer interested in voting or even participating in local government. An electoral race had been reduced to a race to raise money, in which only the richest can survive.
That money grabbing has caused Americans to lose a sense of individual power within politics. He quotes Jimmy Carter, who points out, "There's a criterion for success in American politics now ... and that is extreme wealth or access to major wealth. And we are the only democratic nation in the world, in the western world, within which that blight or cancer is affecting our system."
In the end, it was Dean's courage to actually question President Bush's decision to go to war and his disdain for candidates too beholden to special interest groups that contributed to winning Trippi over. "I listened to this guy say the things that I'd been waiting to hear a candidate say for twenty years and like a damn schoolgirl, I fell in love."
Trippi's love for technology and his profuse affinity for geekery made the Dean/Trippi team a match made in heaven. He maintains that this isn't the "information age," but the "empowerment age," and we can use technological resources to distribute power among the people.
Through Internet discussion groups and personal blogs (Web logs), Trippi realized that there was an audience for Dean, ripe for the picking. He organized a central Internet location at MeetUp.com and found that if you build it, they will indeed come.
"If we did anything in the Dean for America campaign, it was simply finding new ways to involve people in the process," says Trippi, and rightfully so. The people themselves were the ralliers and the organizers. When 22,000 supporters checked in online one night on MeetUp.com, the people organized themselves into donating $10 and a penny to the fund-raising (the penny to indicate that it was a MeetUp.com user who donated). At the end of their fund-raising quarter, they'd raised $600,000 and a whole lot of pennies.
The guerilla-like tactics continued. Inspired, Trippi's team set up a Web cam called Dean.tv. While Vice President Dick Cheney hosted a $2,000-a-place luncheon to raise money, Dean.tv pulled a satirical play, broadcasting Dean eating a $3 sandwich. Cheney raised $250,000 at that single event, but Dean's camp managed to raise $500,000.
Revolution is a go-get-'em book, full of fist-in-the-air Rocky moments. In typical Trippi fashion, he relates a story about an elderly woman who, when she died, had stipulated that the money family and friends would have spent on flowers be donated to the Dean cause, because, she said, Bush was "a lying whistle-ass." It makes one wonder what other amazing things Trippi and his team could have accomplished if they only had more time.
-- Kara Luger
Joe Trippi will sign and read from The Revolution Will Not Be Televised
Tattered Cover Book Store, Cherry Creek, 2955 E. First Ave., Denver
Friday, July 23, 7:30 p.m.
The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet, and the Overthrow of Everything
By Joe Trippi
(HarperCollins: New York)
Scorched Earth: The Bush environmental legacy
A recent Yale University poll on the environment shows that Americans are overwhelmingly concerned about the nation's environmental health, that they want to see more political action on the environment, and that they believe a candidate's stance on the environment will be a factor in how they decide to vote in November.
One can only hope all those polled, and the majority of Americans who presumably care, will read Robert S. Devine's slim but devastating analysis of the Bush administration's assault on environmental protection, Bush Versus the Environment.
Devine, an investigative journalist, lets Robert Kennedy Jr. do the howling in the introduction to the book. Kennedy's spiel, which has seen print recently in Rolling Stone, is scathing.
But more alarming is Devine's careful analysis of the tactics the Bush White House has employed to placate corporate interests at the expense of the nation's greatest source of wealth, its natural riches.
The three prominent tactics examined are: 1) the administration's deliberate encouragement of lawsuits challenging existing environmental laws, aimed at the federal government (think Clean Air Act), and the government's failure to defend those laws in court; 2) the administration's tendency to ignore significant scientific evidence that doesn't directly support the president's goals, and pressure from the White House on scientists to produce results the administration can support (think global warming); 3) fuzzy math used to denigrate and question the benefits of proposed regulations that serve humanity and the environment, not the corporate bottom line, and fuzzy math calculated to advance White House-supported initiatives (think proposed drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.)
With patience, severity and overwhelming evidence, Devine paints an administration whose policies undermine the entire system of environmental safeguards put in place over the past half century. What kind of administration would take sides with Boise-Cascade, one of the biggest timber operators in the world, against its own National Forest Service when it comes to protecting federal roadless areas in Idaho? Devine asks. The answer: an administration that just last week quietly overturned law put in place by the Clinton administration to keep parts of our national forests uncut and untraveled by motor vehicles in perpetuity.
All those voters who care about the environment had better sit up and listen, says Devine, or the policies implemented by this White House will have future consequences that might be irreversible.
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Fetch, play dead, roll over, good boy
Reading about political activism is like reading about running a marathon. It sounds great and admirable, but getting off your butt to participate is hard.
In this tidy collection, ice-cream baron Ben Cohen and activist Jason Salzman neatly arrange strategies for deposing the Bushies, each sub-categorized for a particular type of citizen: 1) actions for practical, concerned and busy people (those who want Bush to go but don't have much extra time); 2) actions for anti-Bush patriots with time to spare (retirees, students on summer break, those unemployed thanks to Bush economic policy, those with a few hours to a few weeks to give for the cause); and 3) actions for anybody-but-Bush guerillas who are urged to take it to the streets but keep it legal.
Each chapter provides online resources on a particular election issue (e.g., fair elections, voter registration) and a variety of ideas on how to participate.
Some are quite imaginative, like the chapter on "Pets for Regime Change." Practical, concerned, busy people are urged to decorate their pets' leashes with a "Bite Bush" button. Anti-Bush patriots with time to spare are encouraged to dress their pets in anti-Bush clothes, say, hand-knitted "Stop Bush" sweaters. The anti-Bush guerilla can stage an anti-Bush animal event, for example, dressed as rabbits, accompanied by borrowed or pet rabbits, carry signs that say: "I'm hopping mad at Bush and I plan to vote" and demonstrate with other bunnies in a public space.
Each chapter also includes a relevant Bushism, just to remind readers why he needs to go. The animal chapter reprints this 2001 U.S. News and World Report quote from George W.: "Then I went for a run with the other dog and just walked. And I started thinking about a lot of things. I was able to -- I can't remember what it was. Oh, the inaugural speech, started thinking through that."
-- Kathryn Eastburn
Ever have a secret desire to control the world? Wreck a national forest? Rob the country blind? Are you addicted to secrecy and power?
Then, for God's sake, read Loving the Cheney Within, a compact series of one-page comic illustrations of Bush's right-hand henchman.
When thoughts like these arise and you find yourself grinding your teeth in bed at night, your Inner Cheney has emerged. Here's a multi-step program to help you break free from toxic thoughts you might share with our vice president.
Our favorite affirmation? "Set boundaries. Tell you Inner Cheney: 'Okay, you can drill for oil in Yosemite National Park but not the Grand Canyon.'"
Jim Hightower and friends have collected a bunch of Hightower's previously published columns and arranged them cleverly in six sections, designed (tongue in cheek) to remind us of "Six Perfectly Good Reasons to Elect George W. Bush" ... again.
Hightower skewers Bush and the environment, Bush and the economy, Bush and food safety (a pet peeve of the former Texas commissioner of agriculture), Bush and personal liberty, Bush and the common good, and, well, "You Name It!" -- what George W. means to Hightower personally.
A lot of this stuff really has nothing to do with George Bush, but hey, it's election season. Hightower fans can wallow in aw shucks, cornpone humor, and newcomers can get a handle on the Progressive Populist's dog and pony show.
Hightower will make an appearance in Colorado Springs on Wednesday, Aug. 4 to promote his new book.
-- Kathryn Eastburn