The Magazine

Public Nuisances

Some are dangerous, and some are just pains in the neck.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By JOE QUEENAN
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100 People Who Are Screwing Up America

by Bernard Goldberg

HarperCollins, 305 pp., $25.95

ON PAGE 56 OF THIS scattershot attack on the legions of Satan, the veteran reporter Bernard Goldberg singles out the clear and present danger posed to the Republic by one Matthew Lesko. Lesko is the blathering ninny who turns up in late-night infomercials clownishly exhorting the public to access the Himalayas of "free money" sitting around in government coffers.

Is Lesko annoying? Very. Is he manipulative, willfully misleading, only too ready to bend the truth for his own purposes? Almost certainly. But does anyone seriously believe that a shilling goofball marooned in the bowels of late-night cable television is doing irreparable harm to our nation in the manner of Eminem or Kenneth Lay or Paris Hilton? The notion that Goldberg would include someone as innocuous as Matthew Lesko on his list of Public Enemies Number 1-100--a list that includes such gilt-edged anacondas as Michael Moore, Al Sharpton, and Barbra Streisand--creates the unsettling suspicion that the author could only come up with about 42 people that he really hated, and then had to pad out the list with ringers.

Happily, it is the eccentric, unscientific nature of Goldberg's enemies list that makes this volume readable, in the sense that slapdash books of this nature can ever be truly called "readable." Everyone knows Goldberg's shtick--liberal bias ruined America and my career, even though I do have eight Emmys--so no one is going to be terribly surprised that Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Bill Moyers, and a host of journalists far more famous than Goldberg rear their increasingly ugly heads on his list.

Nor will those conversant with Goldberg's pissed-off-old-white-millionaire-everyman persona be shocked when he refers to Walters as "the Queen of Crap," which she most assuredly is. Few will be stunned to see the names Teddy Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Julian Bond, Noam Chomsky, and Maxine Waters surface on Goldberg's roll call of the officially proscribed. Unsurprisingly, punching bags such as Paul Krugman, Al Franken, and Jonathan Kozol all report for their licks, as do cultural villains on the order of Michael Jackson, Ludacris, Courtney Love, Tim Robbins, and the hypnotically uninteresting Janeane Garofalo.

What separates the angry, inelegantly written, hugely derivative 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America from all the other angry, inelegantly written, hugely derivative books about people who are screwing up America is the author's endearing penchant for hauling his personal bêtes noires in from left field and giving them a shellacking just for the hell of it. For those of us who specialize in gratuitous cruelty, there is nothing more satisfying than a totally unoccasioned ad hominem attack on a hapless target triggered by, apparently, nothing. (An example: Molly Ivins is not even mentioned in Goldberg's book and has absolutely nothing to do with this review, but this seems like a nice time to point out that the talentless, gutless pinko, who gave a negative review to my first book and then canceled out of a television appearance on the same show as me, has been accused of filching material from other, far more talented, writers. On more than one occasion. For more details, consult Florence King, Clive James, et al.) Thus, in a book that mercilessly tees off on Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Katha Pollitt, and other certified dimwits, Goldberg goes out of his way to blast Anna Nicole Smith, a harmless fatso; Phil Donahue, a harmless has-been; and Kate Hudson, the feather-headed spawn of the equally innocuous Goldie Hawn and the supernaturally inoffensive Kurt Russell.

He also trashes Sheila Jackson Lee, the misguided but not especially pernicious Democratic congresswoman from Texas who wants more hurricanes named Jamal, DeShawn, and LaToya, as a point of racial pride, and accuses Paul Begala of being a "left-wing hatemonger," whereas most of us thought he was merely an idiot. He attacks Internet celebrities no one has ever heard of, academics who are not household names, artists who are not important, bureaucrats no one could pick out of a police lineup, and A-team novelists like Jane Smiley who, whatever her failings as a political theorist, can actually write original, moving prose, which Goldberg cannot.

Still, there are statutes of limitations on even the most noble vendettas, and sometimes Goldberg's variations give off the unambiguous fragrance of mold. Seeking to even old scores, and I mean old scores, Goldberg acts as if the geriatric Norman Mailer is still a vital force in this society, lambastes the increasingly pathetic, irrelevant Oliver Stone, and singles out David Duke for what he clearly believes to be a long overdue woodshedding. It's as if he started writing this book in 1979, set it aside for 25 years, then precipitously exhumed it, threw in a few generic remarks about how much he hates gangsta rap, and published it as is. No, there is nothing wrong with hating the enemy, but to be a worthy adversary one's nemesis must at least still be breathing. Oliver Stone's last movie was the disastrous Alexander; David Duke hasn't been a vital force in Louisiana politics for years, and never made any impact nationally; and even Norman Mailer knows he is too old to fulfill the role of Minister of Evil. Besides, Michael Moore's got it locked up.

This brings us to the subject of Harry Belafonte. A congenial has-been who last had a hit in 1937, Belafonte once referred to Colin Powell as a "house slave." This is poisonous, stupid, dishonorable, unmanly. That is not the point. Unlike Howard Stern, Eminem, Jerry Springer, Howard Dean, and, of course, Michael Moore, who exercise tremendous power in this society, Harry Belafonte is a foolish old man, a relic, a joke. (Rule of thumb: If people under the age of 30 haven't heard of you, you are probably not Beelzebub.) From the perspective of the embattled conservative, who sees his cause triumphing in the political arena but ceaselessly ceding terrain on the cultural battlefield, Michael Moore is smallpox, Martin Sheen is cholera, Barbra Streisand is yellow fever, Susan Sarandon is typhus. By comparison, Harry Belafonte is a mild case of tendonitis. This is worrying. If a seasoned malingerer like Bernard Goldberg cannot produce anyone more sinister than Harry Belafonte to put on his list of seditious ne'er-do-wells, it strongly suggests that things are not nearly as bad in this country as many of us believe. The same holds true for Wallace Shawn: If the hideous gnome who played the chubby dwarf in The Princess Bride is the 85th scariest guy in Goldberg's Personal House of Horrors, this country has seriously lowered its standards of terror.

This brings us to the final question. When Al Franken or Janeane Garofalo or someone even worse responds to Goldberg's insults by writing a parody of 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, who will appear on their list? Obviously, Mel Gibson will make a fine stand-in for Oliver Stone; clearly Arnold Schwarzenegger can do yeoman service as the right-wing version of Tim Robbins. But where does the right come up with a demon as malignant as Eminem? Where does the right find an ex-president as sanctimonious and unctuous and insufferable as Jimmy Carter? Where does the right look for a scoundrel as dapper and stylish as Al Sharpton? And where, oh where, is the right going to find its very own Harry Belafonte?

Frankly, I don't think the conservative movement has anyone in a class with Harry Belafonte. And that's why conservatives are just no fun.

Joe Queenan is author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglo-phile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.