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September 24, 2006

FDL Book Salon: How Bush Rules, Week 1

Posted in: BushCo,FDL Book Salon

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Some of you might have noticed, or not, that Sidney Blumenthal’s book is published by Princeton University Press. One of the nice things about buying a book from a university press is that you’re almost guaranteed that the manuscript has been read by several experts in the field who certify that it is more or less bullshit-free–and that, if it is overly apportioned with bullshit, the manuscript is sent back to the author for further revision and another round of bullshit detection. This process they call "peer review." For Blumenthal’s How Bush Rules, I was chosen by Princeton UP as one of the peers. 

This was overly flattering. I am no peer to Sidney Blumenthal. He had been, in the past, one of the nation’s most distinguished campaign journalists (his book Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War–about how the two less-than-heavyweights contending for the presidency in 1988 punted on the chance to shape a novel politics responsive to the radical geopolitical changes then electrifying the world–well displays what made his work in this field special: literary sophistication, historical erudition, and thematic depth).  Then, he was the distinguished White House correspondent for the New Yorker. He jumped ship in 1997 — it was quite controversial at the time; it’s something the Firedoglakers might want to ask him about next week — and joined the Clinton White House. His ringside seat for the ensuing Clinton wars lent a special sharpness to his book called, well, The Clinton Wars. Among other things, Sidney Blumenthal brought to bear an unflinching understanding of the malignant sociology of the modern right wing. (He wrote a book about that too, by the way: 1988′s Rise of the Counter Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power.) 

These days he occupies an absolutely fascinating, and nearly unique, position. We netroots partisans (I count myself among your number) are, constitutionally, outsiders to the Beltway culture of go-along-to-get-along. We are moralist and idealists, but also, unlike the torture-compromising clowns running our hate-to-love-it-love-to-hate-it Democratic Party, scrappy street fighters disdainful of a political elite that values politeness for its own sake. Sidney Blumenthal is all these things, too. At the same time he’s also unquestionably been a part of that Beltway elite. Inside the Clinton White House, he took charge of Clinton’s "Third Way" initiative, an attempt to make liberalism less left. It was an ideological tendency that some of us might have found a little to compromising and polite for our taste. He is an in-between man. He writes the columns that make up this book I was called on to review from that perspective. 

So what was my verdict? Not to put to fine a point on it, I said: one hundred percent bullshit free!

Well, I said a little bit more than that. For instance, quoting from my manuscript review: 

One of the things that makes the manuscript significant is how it stands the test of time. Even the oldest pieces aren’t dated: Blumenthal was reporting as outrages developments other journalists were either ignoring or playing down at the time, in their will to innocence towards the regime in power–things that are being reported now as if they were revelation. It is one of the things that will make the book book valuable five, ten, or even thirty years from now: it provides a record of what well-informed citizens could have been expected to know about the presidential abuses of power and when. Speaking as a historian of political culture in the age of Richard Nixon, I can testify that one of the biggest challenges is answering just this question: to what extent can you blame the citizenry for ignorance of what Nixon was up to in the months leading to the 1972 election? It is a real testament to Blumenthal’s astringency that he can provide answers to such questions to future historians of the Bush regime.

I think this is an interesting thing for this community to discuss. It provides a platform for what you Pups do best: holding the media accountable. I asked, and ask: why was the Beltway establishment media so late to the table calling Bush on so many of the things Blumenthal understood when they were actually happening? Here’s a homework assignment: read and discuss today’s New York Times Book Review piece on this book. Discuss why Sidney Blumenthal makes the reviewer so mad. Why does the reviewer seem to so willfully miss what is fresh, penetrating, and, above all, well-argued in its presentation.  

Like the psychological insights. Brother Blumenthal has read (and understood) his Shakespeare, and I’m not sure you can say that about, say, Joe Klein, I wrote that one of the book’s key themes, 

 which I’m convinced more and more historians will be converging upon, is the "Oedipal" interpretation of the Bush presidency. To see it requires a depth of contextual understanding going back several decades that is very much in evidence here, as seen in insights like, "Just as the elder Bush picked someone [as vice president] who might have been one of his sons, young Bush chose a version of his father."… Also–again owing to his lively grasp of the psychological transit between regime sof the first Bush and the second–his account of the bureacratic battle between the neoconservatives and Colin Powell, especially in the years Powell has been out of office, is riveting; likewise his point that Reagan owes his place in history to his rejection of his foreign policy hardliners.

He gets at some of the deeper structures of what Karl Rove is up to. You have to know your American history to do that. For instance, on the changing role in American politics of its biggest swing constituency: Catholic voters, I flagged  

Blumenthal’s erudite understanding of its importance in the rise of the New Deal coalition George Bush and Karl Rove have made it their long term project to undo, is the role of Catholicism in American political coalitions. His framing of the Hierarchy’s motivations in all this–"Politics in red robes"–is particularly fine. It is "part of a crusade against their own declining moral authority," he writes, in the context of the pedophila scandals and the rejection by rank-and-file Catholics of church teaching on abortion and stem-cell research (and, Blumenthal may now wish to add, end-of-life care), and I am thoroughly convinced. It is typical of the most powerful sort of Blumenthal insight: quiet and devastating. His Salon piece on Cardinal Ratzinger, with its concluding roll-call of anticlerical statements by the founders, is an important article in its own right.

Here’s another deeply penetrating insight of our author: the price of loyalty to President Bush. The closer one embraces him, the more devastatingly Bush seems to betray them. What’s this all about? 

At that, I throw the discussion to you.

Rick Perlstein is an author and veteran of the FDL Book Salon himself with his book Before the Storm. He’ll be joining us once again here in the comments today.


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