Bush Bashers New and Recycled

By David Hayes, The Globe and Mail Book Review; October 30, 2004

Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants:The Looting of the News in a Time of Terror
by James Wolcott
(Miramax, 2004, 313 pages)

Bushworld: Enter at Your Own Risk
by Maureen Dowd
(Putnam 2004, 523 pages)

The U.S. economy has been lacklustre for the past two years, but one niche industry has thrived: books attacking the left and right. Titles from the left-bashing assembly line would include Ann Coulter’s Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism; Sean Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism; and Michael Savage’s The Enemy Within: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Schools, Faith, and Military.

On the left, Michael Moore is the Microsoft of right bashing, a player so dominant he overshadows all others with his bestsellers (Dude, Where’s My Country?, Stupid White Men), his hit documentary film Farenheit 9/11 and agitprop stunts. Other notable entries include Molly Ivins’s Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush’s America, Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)Leads America, by Eric Alterman and friends.

Where left bashers tend to aim broadly, as though puzzled that anyone takes the quaint notion of a progressive ideology seriously in the modern world, today’s right bashers most often focus on the culture surrounding George W. Bush’s presidency. Which prompted Bush to quip to reporters: “It really gets me when the critics say I haven’t done enough for the economy; look at what I’ve done for the book-publishing industry.”

Now, from stage left, come two books by high-profile journalists: Vanity Fair cultural critic James Wolcott, whose prose is like a fizzy cocktail laced with hemlock, and New York Times political columnist Maureen Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator whom Bush dubbed “the Cobra.” Wolcott’s book draws on research and reporting he’s been doing for years as a columnist at Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, but is a wholly original work. Dowd’s is a stitched-together collection of her Times columns, and suffers because of it.

In Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants, Wolcott directs his notoriously acid observations toward the right-wing media, filled with what he characterizes as bullies intent on stifling dissent and providing partisan support for Bush. He writes: “Their eager eyes and wet propel them into exciting careers in talk radio, newspapers, magazines, books, public speaking, and — the place where all doggies go if they’re especially good at being bad — cable news. Some were bred and groomed in Beltway finishing schools and modelling academies, getting their barking orders at think tanks and foundations funded by right-wing zealot Richard Mellon. . . . Others levitated their way up from prosperity with the dream of helping those even more fortunate than themselves.”

His style is dazzling or annoying, depending on your tolerance for hyperbole. He sprays it like buckshot across every page, although his aim is usually true. Wolcott’s kennel contains veteran conservatives such as Rush Limbaugh (“Republicans have no more loyal a four-legged friend”), Peggy Noonan (“A smear mistress with a smiley face”) and Bill O’Reilly (“His opening monologues on Fox News’s The O’Reilly Factor are like stomach rumbles set to words — arias of acid indigestion”) as well as young neo-con whippersnappers like David Frum (“If he were any more of a suck-up, he’d have to have his tongue recoated”) and the leggy blond Ann Coulter (“the Paris Hilton of postmodern politics, an elongated zero, a white-hot sex symbol symbolizing nothing”).

But as with Michael Moore, Wolcott’s laughs sugar-coat a serious concern: the dumbing down of American life. He notes that a 2003 study by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes showed how the U.S. media, especially Fox News, were creating or perpetuating misperceptions about U.S. foreign policy (for example, that many still believe weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq and Iraqi forces had used them against U.S. forces, and that Saddam Hussein had close ties with al-Qaeda). Wolcott quotes a former Fox News manager who reported that his unit was told by the channel’s brass to “seek out stories that cater to angry, middle-aged white men who listen to talk radio and yell at their televisions.”

No mistake, Wolcott is a scold and Attack Poodles is a polemic. True believers will be delighted and those aligned rightward, if they bother with it at all, will read it and roar in protest. But it’s a rollicking, well-written rant, which makes reading it a pleasure.
I wish I could say the same of Bushworld. Newspaper columns such as Dowd’s are ground out week by week, chuck steak to a book’s strip sirloin. At their best, they’re miniature gems capturing an insight du jour that helps enlighten readers to unfolding news, but they’re designed to have a short shelf life. Reading them in aggregate, after the fact, can be like eating a warmed-up casserole. Faced with a book contract, shrewd writers of newspaper columns don’t simply recycle; they use the columns as a foundation to construct a cohesive new entity. Dowd, alas, did not.

As a columnist, she has a jaunty touch, although her many critics, not all of them conservatives, prefer words such as snide, childish and pretentious (In Bushworld, one finds references to Proust and Visconti’s Death in Venice nestled alongside a cross-section of pop culture from I Love Lucy to Stars Wars to Austin Powers.) But never mind, at least she’s not one of those op-ed columnists whose arid prose is riddled with grisly academic formulations. Besides, she has invented an entertaining concept on which to hang a political book.

To Dowd, U.S. politics is dominated by a carnivalesque theme park called “Bushworld” (“it’s their reality; we just live and die in it”). Within it, an ongoing morality play unfolds, which in Dowd’s hands becomes a quirky amalgam of Shakespeare, Greek mythology and Freud. (The columns are arranged within sections: The Old King is Deposed; Oedipus Wrecks; War of the Chads.) Her qualifications are sound, having covered both Bushes — pere and fils — during both Iraq wars, in addition to the Reagan and Clinton presidencies. Lately, she’s been villainized by the right as a member of the loathsome liberal set, but won the Pulitzer for columns gleefully chronicling Bill Clinton’s impeachment circus, so she swings both ways.

In Bushworld, she depicts the family as a double-knit, WASPish Texas clan, and borderline paranoid. She paints sharply detailed portraits of Jeb the elder, the anointed Bush son who was expected to become president, and George W., a shallow, underachieving frat boy who against all expectations landed in the Oval Office. Indulging her mania for nicknames, Dowd explains how George W. (a. k. a “Boy King,” “Boy Emperor,” “Mini-Me,” “Junior” or simply “W”) surrounded himself with conservative ideologues, among them “Rummy” (Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld) and “Uncle Dick [Cheney] of the Underworld,” and cut himself off from the world. “All presidents are in a bubble,” she writes, “but the boy king was so insulated he was in a thermos.”

Saucy stuff, but the weaknesses are apparent from the early pages. For one thing, the many intriguing ideas Dowd raised over this four-year period of column-writing aren’t developed, logically, step by step, into a coherent theme. And a collection of columns, written against deadline pressures, is a rickety structure. For example, in her June 16, 1999, column, Down quotes Bush referring to an eventual statement about “the East Timorians,” to which Dowd writes, “The statement, one hopes, will call them the East Timorese.” Turn a few pages and, in a column dated three months later, Dowd explains again that Bush erroneously refers to the citizens of the Indonesian territory as “East Timorians instead of the East Timorese.”

This kind of thing happens over and over in Bushworld. Readers of a newspaper columnist, encountering such repetitions over months, rarely notice them. But they’re clumsy and distracting when readers of a book encounter them within minutes, unless their appetite for Bush bashing is ravenous. Bogged down in Dowdworld, I found my mind drifting back to the spritzy bonhomie of Wolcott’s company. Like the anecdote about CNN’s Larry King imparting an old pro’s advice on surviving in television journalism to one of the right’s rising stars, broadcaster Tucker Carlson: “The trick is to care,” King explained, “but not too much. Give a shit — but not really.”