||Since the presidentâ€™s re-election, loathers of George W. Bush have had no shortage of cudgels with which to club him: a distressingly belated response to Hurricane Katrina; an experiment in warrantless wiretapping; a modest parade of indictments; a nation-building project so distant from its original intent that our troops are now caught in a proto-civil war. One can certainly understand how these developments â€” and Bushâ€™s correspondingly rotten approval ratings â€” have emboldened the opposition. The problem is that these developments have also made the presidentâ€™s critics more susceptible to rhetorical excess, and Bush, like his predecessor, already has an impressive gift for bringing out the yawping worst in those who disagree with him. Otherwise reasonable people go slightly berserk on the subject of his motives; on the subject of his morality, the hinged fall off their door frames and even the stable become unglued. This is both an aesthetic problem and a substantive one. Substantively, it means gerrymandering evidence so that inconvenient facts donâ€™t make it onto the map. And aesthetically, it means speaking in a compromising and not wholly credible tone.
Now, just in time for the midterm elections, the collected columns of two passionate Bush critics, Lewis H. Lapham and Sidney Blumenthal, are landing in bookstores. Both, to varying degrees, suffer from a distorting case of Bush-phobia. Laphamâ€™s â€œPretensions to Empire: Notes on the Criminal Folly of the Bush Administrationâ€ is by far the more trying of the two. The editor emeritus of Harperâ€™s Magazine and its Notebook columnist for more than 25 years, Lapham compares the Bush administration to a â€œcriminal syndicateâ€ and Condoleezza Rice to a â€œcapo.â€ He likens the United States to â€œa well-ordered police stateâ€ and the policies of its Air Force to those of Torquemada and Osama bin Laden. He calls Bush â€œa liar,â€ â€œa televangelist,â€ â€œa wastrelâ€ and (ultimately) â€œa criminal â€” known to be armed and shown to be dangerous.â€
Well. At least his point of view is unambiguous. But unless you agree with it 100 percent â€” and are content to see almost no original reporting or analysis in support of these claims â€” you may feel less inclined to throttle Laphamâ€™s targets than to throttle Lapham himself. For this book is all about Lewis Lapham: the breathtaking lyricism of his voice, the breadth of his remarkable erudition. He goes across the street and around the corner to confirm the worst stereotypes about liberals â€” that theyâ€™re condescending, twee, surpassingly smug. â€œWhat I find surprising is the lack of objection,â€ he writes of the misguided American public. â€œThe opinion polls show four of every five respondents saying that they gladly would give up as many of their civil rights and liberties as might be needed to pay the ransom for their illusory safety.â€ Wouldnâ€™t Lapham be a more interesting columnist if he took this finding seriously? And analyzed it, perhaps, giving it its due? (Though later he generously allows that not every Idahoan and Nebraskan â€œis as dumb as Donald Rumsfeld,â€ based on his â€œreading of the national character in the library of American history and biography and a fairly extensive acquaintance with the novels of Melville, Twain, Howells, James, Wharton, Dreiser, Faulkner, Cather, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Oâ€™Hara and Roth.â€ Idahoans and Nebraskans, rejoice.)
People who are serious about politics donâ€™t just preen. They report, explain, explore contradictions, struggle with ideas, maybe even propose suggestions. If they do none of these things, theyâ€™re simply heckling, and if the best Lapham can do is come up with 50 inventive new ways to call Bush an imbecilic oligarch, thatâ€™s all heâ€™s doing: heckling. Like his worst counterparts on the right, he compares those he doesnâ€™t like to fanatics, as when he refers to David Frum and Richard Perle as â€œMufti Frumâ€ and â€œMullah Perle,â€ adding, â€œProvide them with a beard, a turban and a copy of the Koran, and I expect that they wouldnâ€™t have much trouble stoning to death a woman discovered in adultery with a cameraman from CBS News.â€ Possibly, but provide Lapham with a blond wig, stiletto pumps and a copy of â€œThe Fountainhead,â€ and I suspect he wouldnâ€™t look much different from Ann Coulter. Heâ€™s just another talk-radio host, really â€” only this time by way of Yale and Mensa.
Thereâ€™s one column thatâ€™s conspicuously absent from this collection, and thatâ€™s the one from September 2004, which included a brief account of the Republican National Convention. Lapham wrote it as if the convention had already happened, ruefully reflecting on the content and sharing with readers a question that occurred to him as he listened; unfortunately, the magazine arrived on subscribersâ€™ doorsteps before the convention had even taken place, forcing Lapham to admit that the scene was a fiction. He apologized, but pointed out that political conventions are drearily scripted anyway â€” he basically knew what was going to be said. By this logic, though, I could have chosen not to read â€œPretensions to Empireâ€ before reviewing it, since I already knew Laphamâ€™s sensibility, just as he claims to know the Republicansâ€™. But I dutifully read the whole book. And I discovered, with some ironic poignancy, that Lapham did have a point: some people never acquire any more nuance as they go.
Unlike Lapham, Sidney Blumenthal did watch the 2004 Republican convention before writing about it. On Day 3, he wrote of Senator Zell Millerâ€™s keynote address, â€œMillerâ€™s oration, extraordinary in its hostility and shrillness, was hardly pitched to win over undecided voters.â€ This was true. But Blumenthalâ€™s columns for both Salon and The Guardian of London, gathered together in â€œHow Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime,â€ are hardly pitched to win over undecided readers, either. There was a time when Blumenthal was an unpredictable writer and thinker (during his years at The New Republic, for instance), but by 1997, when he left The New Yorker to go work for the Clinton White House, his transformation to predictable partisan was more or less complete. During the Ken Starr years, Blumenthal was publicly accused by the journalist Christopher Hitchens of waging a covert campaign to portray Monica Lewinsky as a stalker; today, he seems to appreciate the value of special prosecutors a good deal more. His book is dedicated to Joseph C. Wilson IV, the American diplomat who publicly challenged Bushâ€™s claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to get yellowcake uranium from Niger, and whose wifeâ€™s identity as a spy was thought to have been leaked by the White House in retaliation. (It now looks as if the State Department was the original source of the leak, though people in the White House certainly had no trouble passing the information along.) Blumenthal devotes quite a few columns to this subject. One of them ends in a long list of questions â€” 19, by my count â€” that he hopes the prosecutor investigating the leak will ask Dick Cheney. â€œMr. Vice President,â€ it solemnly concludes, â€œyou are under oath.â€
Blumenthal still retains some of the finer journalistic instincts. Heâ€™s a voracious reader and a brisk search engine, consistently able to unearth the most damning quote of the news cycle â€” as when the editorial board of The Army Times said of Abu Ghraib: â€œThe folks in the Pentagon are talking about the wrong morons. ... This was a failure that ran straight to the topâ€ â€” or to highlight a story that got less pickup than it deserved, like The Washington Postâ€™s revelation that the United States was wiretapping Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize winner). He reads reports that otherwise go unread, and quotes mischievous legislative fine print. He also relies on a large cast of dissenting administration insiders to deliver some of his most piquant critiques, which can be very effective, whether itâ€™s Flynt Leverett, one of Condoleezza Riceâ€™s early choices to direct Middle East peace talks, saying, â€œI didnâ€™t want to stick around for a charade,â€ or James Dobbins, Bushâ€™s first envoy to Afghanistan, saying, â€œI was horrified by the presidentâ€™s last speech on the war on terror.â€
After a while, itâ€™s hard to deny that these columns have a certain cumulative power. But their content has also been curated with one aim in mind, and thatâ€™s to cast the Bush administration in the grimmest possible light, rather like Philip Roth telling the story of his protagonist in â€œEverymanâ€ from the point of view of his illnesses. Blumenthal also has a taste for tiresome epithets â€” he calls Paul Wolfowitz â€œthe neoconservative Robespierreâ€ and compares Bush (yawn) to a cowboy. And rather than letting damning facts speak for themselves, Blumenthal insists on pushing his arguments to the breaking point. He claims Bush had â€œplenty of informationâ€ to act on before Sept. 11, but fails to produce anything more specific than the findings of the 9/11 Commission. He suggests the tragedy of New Orleans might have been prevented if funds for a flood control project hadnâ€™t been diverted to the Iraq war (as if dozens of other factors hadnâ€™t conspired against the poor city). He even suggests that Rudolph Giuliani became a figure of national reassurance after the Sept. 11 attacks â€œin large part because President Bush was not to be seen for days.â€ (Does he really think Giuliani would have been less impressive if Bush had responded with alacrity? Was Blumenthal anywhere near New York that morning?)
Itâ€™s hard to trust a narrator who only and always assumes the worst. Thereâ€™s a story Blumenthal tells about George W. Bushâ€™s private tour of the brand-new Clinton library in Little Rock, during which the president apparently told his guide, â€œA submarine could take this place out.â€ (The structure juts out over the Arkansas River.) The observation sends Blumenthal into a reverie: â€œWas this a wishful paranoid fantasy of ubiquitous terrorism destroying Clintonâ€™s legacy with one blow?â€ he asks. â€œOr a projection of menace and messianism, with only Bush grasping the true danger, standing between submerged threat and civilization?â€ Either is possible. But itâ€™s also possible that the president was making a joke.
The left has often complained that what it needs isnâ€™t polite speech, but voices as pungent as those on the right. Maybe so. But even the angriest people on the right tend to be funny. Books like this one are a depressing reminder of how important it is for writers to have a slight sense of humor about themselves, if they want to be taken at all seriously.
Jennifer Senior, a contributing editor at New York magazine, writes about politics.