IN APRIL 2001, about three months into his presidency, George W. Bush paid a visit to the Boys and Girls Club in Wilmington, Delaware. He was there to make an announcement: that he would donate the royalties from his campaign autobiography, A Charge To Keep, to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
"Because I believe so profoundly, I believe so strongly in mentoring," the president said. "And I believe so strongly in helping children understand somebody loves them."
But there was a zinger that Bush left out. According to Joe Conason’s new book, Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth (Thomas Dunne Books), "his budget proposed the complete elimination of $60 million in federal funding for the Boys and Girls Clubs. Royalties from his book sales fell somewhat short of that amount. Where’s the love?"
The anecdote is one of numerous instances of Republican hypocrisy, prevarication, and venality documented with admirable thoroughness by Conason, a columnist for the New York Observer who also writes a weblog for Salon.
For liberals, Big Lies is as comfortable and comforting as a warm bath or a favorite pair of old jeans — confirmation that they’ve been right all along about what my late father invariably called "the goddamn Republican Party."
To Conason, the particular misdeeds of the Bush administration are far from unique; rather, they have grown organically from a party that fought against racial integration, against Social Security, against environmental protection, even against the liberal internationalists who tried to warn Americans about the evils of Nazi Germany.
For good measure, Conason observes that the Republicans’ conservative forebears — the Tories of the 1770s and the Democrats of the 1860s — were also on the wrong side in the American Revolution and the Civil War.
Ultimately, Big Lies is a take-no-prisoners argument, evidence — at long last — that liberals are mad as hell. And that they’re not going to take it anymore.
CONASON HAS clearly struck a nerve. Though Big Lies has yet to show up on the New York Times’ bestseller list, it ranked number six in sales on Amazon.com as of this past Tuesday. And that success — as well as the publicity bonanza generated by other liberal authors, ranging from Senator Hillary Clinton to humorist Al Franken — suggests a profound shift in the tone of public discourse.
Just 10 months ago, Al Gore kicked off a public debate over liberal media bias. In an interview with the New York Observer, Gore dared to challenge the conventional wisdom, noting that certain elements of the conservative media — such as the Fox News Channel and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show — serve as an "echo chamber" for the Republican National Committee, injecting Republican talking points into the nominally liberal mainstream media. Gore further observed that the Democrats enjoy no such media advantage (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, March 14).
Today, Gore is said to be pondering a liberal radio network, possibly with Al Franken as one of its stars. And Conason joins a spate of liberals who’ve written books, some of which are selling well, some of which are doing rather better than well. The best-known is Franken, whose forthcoming Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right received an invaluable jolt of buzz when Fox filed a lawsuit — since withdrawn — charging him with violating its trademark for the phrase "fair and balanced" (see "Don’t Quote Me," News and Features, August 22).
Conason and Franken are hardly alone. Although Clinton’s book, Living History, is warm and fuzzy rather than ideological, its brisk sales show that there is far more interest in our most prominent liberal politician than her hateful critics on the right would have believed. Stupid White Men ... and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!, by Michael Moore, remains a bestseller. Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News, published this past spring, sold well, and Alterman’s numerous appearances on talking-head shows introduced many viewers to the idea that maybe the media aren’t so liberal after all.
Other liberal pundits with anti-Bush books, just out or in the works: the Nation’s David Corn (The Lies of George W. Bush), columnist Molly Ivins and her frequent collaborator, Lou Dubose (Bushwhacked), populist firebrand Jim Hightower (Thieves in High Places; see "Jim Hightower Speaks," News and Features, August 22), and Princeton economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (The Great Unraveling).
Yet we live in a culture in which it is possible to write a monumental bestseller and still fail to reach hardly anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. Think about it. Have you read any of the doorstops produced by the likes of Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh? Well, guess what? The people who are buying such books will not be paging through Big Lies anytime soon.
Still, books such as Conason’s can have a salutary effect. Though I was already familiar with most of the tales of Republican perfidy that he tells, there is considerable value in having them all neatly gathered together in one 245-page book. Moreover, to the extent that television and radio programmers lean right because they think that’s where the audience is, success for Conason, Franken, Corn, et al. may force them to rethink their assumptions.
Which would be a welcome development indeed, especially with Campaign 2004 under way and Bush likely to have a fundraising advantage of several bajillion dollars.
CONASON TAKES a few wrong turns. For instance, he is obsessed with Ann Coulter and right-wing blunderbuss David Horowitz, both of whom — especially Horowitz — strike me as too far out of the mainstream to worry about.
More enjoyable is Conason’s takedown of Limbaugh, who really does matter. It turns out that, when his audience isn’t looking, Rush likes to relax with $2000 bottles of wine and vacations in Paris. Nothing wrong with that, except for the contrast with his carefully cultivated man-of-the-people stance.
But Conason is strongest on Bush, a man whom he claims is "[i]gnorant but certainly not stupid," and "a modern master of the pseudopopulist style."
Perhaps the most disturbing part of Big Lies — aside from Bush’s misdeeds on matters ranging from tax cuts for the rich to welfare for corporations to favors for the bin Laden family — is a long discussion of the roots of "compassionate conservatism." Conason notes that, in political terms, the first word is meant to soften the second in order to impress voters who were disgusted with the nasty extremism of Newt Gingrich.
In fact, the phrase was coined by a conservative ideologue named Marvin Olasky, who has advised Bush and his political mastermind, Karl Rove. That, of course, isn’t news. What I hadn’t known, before reading Conason, is that "compassionate conservatism" means something very specific to Olasky and, apparently, to Bush as well: the end of the liberal welfare state, with all aid to the poor and needy instead coming from private charity, preferably of the religious variety. That certainly puts Bush’s faith-based initiative in a more malign light.
Conason also reports that Olasky appears to have flirted with an extremist ideology known as Christian Reconstructionism, whose tenets include the public stoning of homosexuals. As Conason writes, "While liberals sometimes mockingly liken Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to the repressive Muslim fundamentalists of the Taliban, it is the Christian Reconstructionists whose vision of a purified America most closely resembles that of radical Islam."
Now, Bush isn’t exactly progressive on issues of concern to lesbians and gay men, but he’s hardly someone I’d suspect of secretly harboring a desire to stone them to death. So Conason’s section on Olasky and Christian Reconstructionism struck me at first as a tad unfair.
But you know what? The introduction to Olasky’s book Compassionate Conservatism carries Bush’s byline. And Bush’s record as governor of Texas — which includes, as Conason notes, "a decision to deprive 200,000 children from poor working families of subsidized health insurance" — sounds like pure compassionate conservatism, as defined by Olasky.
In other words, Bush may not understand what Olasky is all about, and I suspect he would be appalled if he did. But Bush has nevertheless allowed his philosophy of governance to be influenced by a radical theocrat, and in ways that have harmed those who most need a helping hand.
This past spring, Harold Meyerson wrote an essay for the American Prospect in which he concluded that George W. Bush might well be the most dangerous president of modern times — the worst, in some respects, since Confederate president Jefferson Davis was keeping slavery alive. I dismissed it because of the weirdness factor (i.e., Davis) and because Meyerson hadn’t even considered the high crimes and misdemeanors of Richard Nixon.
Joe Conason has got me wondering. Big Lies is a valuable and convincing book about a president and a political movement that are eating away at the roots of our democracy.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com Read his daily Media Log on BostonPhoenix.com.
Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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