Update: PoliticsTV has a great interview with Sidney discussing the book. You can see it here.
(Please welcome to the Book Salon Sidney Blumenthal who joins us today with his book How Bush Rules. Sidney will be in the comments section to answer questions and chat with readers. Part one of the discussion began last week with author Rick Perlstein and can be found here.)
Sidney Blumenthal must be chuckling today. As a member of the Clinton Administration who lived through Whitewater and the sex-scandal-that-wasn't, it must be more than a bit amusing (and Sidney is known for nothing if not wicked wit) to watch the GOP in full operational meltdown over the leadership's acknowledged coverup of Mark Foley's predatory sexual behavior. What comes around goes around as they say, but God rarely bothers to work himself up to this grand level of irony.
While others such as Bob Woodward have only recently and reluctantly come around to the notion that access to failure and disgrace are certainly not worth the cost of one's book sales and that the legacy of the Bush Administration should be viewed with appropriate skepticism, Sidney Blumethal has been doing that grunt work for years. Often referred to as "the first blogger" as much for style and tone as well as his lacerating insights, this collection of essays that begin just after the Iraq invasion and on the eve of the 2004 Presidential campaign seem extraordinarily prescient in the current political climate. Those who cannot at this point acknowledge the truth when he calls George W. Bush "the most willfully radical president in American history" simply aren't paying attention.
The book begins by chronicling the events that culminated this week in the passage of the Bush Torture Act, but as Sidney notes, they have been constructing the architecture of that particular monument to George Bush's ego, barbarism and amorality for quite some time. As he notes, it was facilitated by 9/11 opportunism:
The events of September 11 lent Bush the aura of legitimacy that Bush v. Gore had not granted. Catastrophe infused him with charisma of a "war president," as he proclaimed himself. Suddenly his radicalism had an unobstructed path.
As Rick Perlstein observed last week, Sidney possesses "an unflinching understanding of the malignant sociology of the modern right wing." He chronicles with cold horror as Bush dispatches a team of mediocre minds to come up with rather palid excuses why no limitation whatsoever should be placed on his ability to behave like an utter and complete savage:
Executive power was rationalized by a radical theory called the "unitary executive," asserting that the president had complete authority over independent federal agencies and was not bound by congressional oversight or even law in his role as commander in chief…Indeed, Bush signed a directive stipulating that as commander in chief he could establish any law he wished in dealing with those accused of terrorism.
Revelations of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were the tip of the iceberg of the vast network of the detained and disappeared. The Interntional Committee of the Red Cross was forbidden access. Those at the top of the chain of command were shielded from legal accountablity, while a few soldiers and the famle gneral in charge of Abu Ghraib were offered up as scapegoats.
Accountability is treated as a threat to executive power, not as esential to democratic governance. No one at the top of the chain of command has been held responsible for the crimes of Abu Ghraib. No one who commited grevious errors of judgment in the Iraq war has been held to account. Instead they have been showered with honors, medals and promotions.
While the reviewer for the New York Times gave off writing about curios at the weekend knick-knack fair to dismiss this as ilttle more than "Bush hatred," others who have not had their gray matter extinguished over the past six years will recognize the ring of truth.
Sidney's gift for language and analysis pull you into the book even as your impulse is to recoil in horror at the details of the catastrophic Bush regime; the deftness with which he wields his rhetorical scalpel during a frequently painful autopsy make it bearable, and the notion that there were those who saw it all quite lucidly while it was happening and persisted in telling unpopular truths is quite comforting. This book is a testament to Sidney's prescience as well as his doggedness.
From June 2005:
Bush's statement at his press conference on his torture policy is more than a case study of how his White House markets its "products." It reveals his fundamental misunderstanding of the political dimension of the war on terrorism and his failure to grasp the full range of instruments available to advance America's national interest. Bush imagines that his high-flown rhetoric about the "march of democracy" amounts to international diplomacy, but he has no concern for how people abroad can be expected to react to the continuing reports on torture. For him, any opposition becomes further proof of the righteousness of his cause. Bush has faith that he can dictate what should be perceived as fact even when it collides with faces on the ground. The talking points about his virtue, prepared by his staff, play to his vanity. But as he postures for the domestic political market, he undermines America's national interest in the world.
There's also an interesting essay on Bob Woodward, who in this light could be viewed as the sort of anti-Sidney Blumenthal. Considering the fact that while Sidney was toiling away aiming sharp, well-thrown daggers the scales had not yet fallen from Boobie's eyes, I think his perceptions about Woodward (and those who buoy the sales for his seven-figure book deals) are particularly acute:
Woodard's fabled access has inspired comparisons with influential Washington journalists from before Watergate. But unlike Joseph Alsop or Walter Lippmann, he advocates no ideas and is indifferent to the fate of government. His access has been in the service of his technique of accumulating mountains of facts whose scale fosters an image of omniscience. As his best-sellers and wealth piled up, he lost a sense of journalism as provisional and inherently imperfect, viewing it instead as something engraved in stone. He had no point of view and felt no need to provide one because his point of view was the journalist as all-seeing god. But the method also made him particularly vulnerable to manipulation by cunning sources.
It would be hard for a thinking person to argue that over the past six years Sidney Blumenthal has not been right and that Woodward has been anything but wrong, an access pimp played like a violin by charlatans and thieves. Yet Larry King and Chris Matthews will no doubt continue to give him air time whenever he so desires, and we will continue to suffer his doltish credulity well into the future. Why we don't start listening to those who had it right all along, when it counted, remains a mystery to me. But with this new book, Sidney Blumenthal establishes that he was indeed one of those rare and insightful minds.
As a final note: Sidney dedicates the book to to Joe Wilson, who is frequently here on Sunday's to chat it up in the comments section at the Book Salon. Joe is in Connecticut holding a fundraiser for Ned Lamont today and sends his regards:
Please tell those who are on it how valuable I think the book is to understanding our times. Sid did not make the Bush regime radical. He has rather cataloged its radicalism, chapter and verse. It is a must read for anybody who values our democratic traditions and deplores the usurping of that tradition by this authoritarian crowd.
I think that sums things up perfectly.