The Magazine

That Man in the White House

From the December 8, 2003 issue: Reading the Bush bashers.

Dec 8, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 13 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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IS THERE SOMETHING to this trading-places idea? The steam rising from this year's stack of new books on President Bush suggests that there is. It's true that for sheer fantasy, none of these anti-Bush books contains anything to rival such Clinton-era classics as Terry Reed and John Cummings's "Compromised," which asserted that Clinton had been installed as president on the say-so of Ronald Reagan's CIA director William Casey, or Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's "The Secret Life of Bill Clinton," which implicated Clinton in drug-running and even murder. Still, the anti-Bush books I've been reading through are undeniably . . . overdone. Pick one up, turn it over in your hands, and you can hear, if you listen closely, the faint sound of veins popping.

The new crop of Bush-hating books owe a lot to conservatives in other ways, particularly to the political potboilers that have proved so lucrative in recent years: Michael Savage's "Savage Nation," Sean Hannity's "Let Freedom Ring," Ann Coulter's "Slander," Bill O'Reilly's "The No-Spin Zone"--the list of right-wing bestsellers is long and dispiriting. Like them, the anti-Bush products are not books in the traditional sense. They're tracts, pumped up and inflated to a size sufficient to fit in display racks. In appearance they are indistinguishable from diet books or the oeuvre of Dr. Phil. Chatty and personal, skipping lightly from one subject to the next in brief, easily digestible chapters, interrupted now and then by diagrams or cartoons or pithy sayings helpfully printed in bold, they show no sign of having been written for people who read books. They have found their audience.

AMONG THE MANY TIES that bind them, the authors are unanimous in claiming inspiration from Paul Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times, who, to borrow a term from epidemiology, seems to be Patient Zero in this most recent outbreak of Billy Bob Gasket Disease. You can understand why they revere him so. Unlike most Bush-hating authors--there are volumes out now by a comedian, a media gadfly, a few reporters, a political consultant, a talk-show host--Krugman has a real job, as a salaried economist at Princeton. Ten years ago he started moonlighting, writing charmingly on economic matters for Fortune, Slate, and other general-interest magazines. His well-earned success brought him a regular column on the Times op-ed page. He has recently gathered dozens, though it seems like thousands, of his Times columns and published them under the title "The Great Unraveling."

Every collection of newspaper columns, paced in hiccups of 750 words or less, faces problems of redundancy and continuity. Whether from presumption or laziness, Krugman has made no effort to overcome them. The breathless tone is unrelieved, the repetition dazzling. Right from the start you wonder whether the author, much less a copy editor, has bothered to read the book. On page three, in a new introduction, we learn that "America's radical right now effectively controls the White House, Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media." Seven paragraphs later, on page five, we discover that "America's right-wing movement now in effect controls the administration, both houses of Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media."

So that must be his thesis--what happens to a country when its right-wingers in effect control the administration, Congress, much of the judiciary, and a good slice of the media. (Wait--did I say that already?) So that must be his thesis. (Oops!) What happens is mayhem. Krugman sees a country in which free speech is disappearing, the poor are paying more taxes than the rich, and religious superstition is supplanting evolution in grade-school curriculums. That none of these things is actually taking place does not dampen his eagerness to spread the word. "This is hard for journalists to deal with," he writes. "They don't want to sound like crazy conspiracy theorists."

Krugman is quite happy to, however--he may not have a choice--and it is this mixture of insouciance and paranoia that make his columns so unpleasant to read; painful, too, for anyone who took pleasure and profit from his earlier stuff in the 1990s. "Together," he writes, "these columns tell a coherent story." They do. Column by column, we watch a talented fellow jettisoning one gift after another--his humor, his prose style, his mental discipline, his taste--in a rush to alert everyone else to the terrible fantasy that grips him. "The Great Unraveling" should be of interest only to sadists and shrinks.

THE BOOKS by Krugman's acolytes may have broader appeal. Their common thesis is most economically summarized in Jim Hightower's "Thieves in High Places"--not in the text itself, which is rendered unreadable by a tumult of exclamation points and sidebars and graphs, but in the book's index: