The Blog

The Good, the Bad,
and the Greenwald

Literate insights, occasional distortions, and forays into ugliness.

12:00 AM, Apr 16, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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I KNOW THIS WON'T endear me to many of my fellow conservatives, but I like Glenn Greenwald. I've spoken to him a few times on the radio and have enjoyed our jousts. Mind you, I agree with virtually nothing Greenwald says or writes and recognize his unbecoming fondness for the personal insult, but I consider him a worthy adversary.

So I looked forward to reading Greenwald's third and latest book, Great American Hypocrites, especially since I'm one of the title characters. Following two bestsellers, Great American Hypocrites purports to document the rot at the heart of the conservative movement. As its back flap brays, it will dispel myths like "Republicans are brave and courageous" with the truth--that the GOP is "a party filled with chicken hawks and draft dodgers."

Like most things that spring from Glenn Greenwald's keyboard, Great American Hypocrites is a combination of literate insights, occasional distortions, and forays into ugliness that are difficult to understand given Greenwald's obvious intelligence. In other words, the book is filled with the Good, the Bad, and the distinctly Greenwald.

"The Good" comes during Greenwald's discussion of how hypocrisy characterizes the modern GOP. Greenwald posits John Wayne as the archetypal Republican - a guy who acted tough and noble but whose personal life was ignoble and at times pathetic. Greenwald acidly notes, "John Wayne flamboyantly paraded around as the embodiment of courage, masculinity, patriotism, wholesomeness and warrior virtues" when in fact he was a Lothario who went to great lengths to avoid military service during World War II. (Worse still, Wayne inflicted "The Green Berets" on the movie-going nation in the 1960s, a cinematic crime that can never be fully forgiven.)

You'll want to take special note of Greenwald's none-too-subtle code language that has the Duke "flamboyantly parading." Throughout "Great American Hypocrites," neocons and other Republicans are reliably "prancing" or perambulating in some less than manful way. Greenwald stretches with both holding up John Wayne as a Republican idol and all his talk of prancing. For what it's worth, in my conversations with neocons, I've never heard a single one of them mention John Wayne. I've also noticed that they seldom "prance" let alone "flamboyantly parade." Well, maybe a couple do, but they are the exceptions.

This childish provocation aside, Greenwald's larger point about hypocrisy among conservative ranks is worth considering. I can't claim to be as bothered by hypocrisy as Greenwald is; I certainly wouldn't write a book on the subject. We all fail to live up to our expressed values on occasion, and thus slip into hypocrisy. (In fairness to Greenwald, he makes this precise point in his book.)

But it's worth pondering whether the hypocrisy among Republican politicians has reached a tipping point the past few years. We've seen purported family values champions looking for love in bordellos, airport restrooms, and instant message chats with teens. The concern isn't that these men are merely hypocrites, but that their rhetoric is nothing but a hollow means to gaining office.

If that's the case, then they can't be trusted once in office. As we saw with the contingent of round-heeled Republicans who wanted to beat a retreat from Iraq as soon as the Iraq Study Group gave them the cover to do so (and with sufficient time to reap the benefits for their 2008 reelection campaigns), character matters. If the GOP wants to govern effectively, it has to upgrade the quality of its elected officials. That is one of the clear lessons from the past few years, and conservative activists should take note of it.

That's it for "the good," on to "the bad." One of the problems with Great American Hypocrites is that the terrain it covers isn't particularly fresh. Although Greenwald makes the chicken hawk argument with more creativity than you'll find anywhere at the Daily Kos, we're not exactly breaking new ground here. Nevertheless, Greenwald loves the chicken hawk stuff and makes his point with needless length, a trait familiar to critics of his blog.

Also striking a familiar chord will be a certain slippery disingenuousness that sometimes creeps into Greenwald's writing when he tries to make a point. Take this quotation regarding Ronald Reagan:

"Ronald Reagan, depicted as the epitome of salt-of-the-earth, manly courage, avoided combat during World War II, remaining instead in Hollywood as a coddled actor."

In case the reader misses the initial insinuation, three sentences later Greenwald refers to Reagan's "combat avoidance." Some 70 pages later, Greenwald goes what is truly a rhetorical bridge too far, inveighing, "Ronald Reagan never got anywhere near war (claiming eyesight difficulties to avoid deployment in World War II), and he spent his life as a Hollywood actor." (Emphasis added.)

The historical record regarding Ronald Reagan's WWII service is clear. Reagan enlisted in the reserves in 1937. He went on active duty in April 1942. Being horribly nearsighted, something that virtually every Reagan biography recounts in some detail, the army classified Reagan for limited service. Like every other member of the Army, Reagan spent the war serving his country where and how his superiors told him to do so. Reagan did not see combat, but there is nothing in the record that supports the notion that he "avoided" combat. As for the line about him "claiming eyesight difficulties," a cheap shot that implies whether or not Reagan had "eyesight difficulties" is a matter of dispute, the less said the better.

I can already picture Greenwald's Anna Karenina-length blog post responding to this point. I expect some lawyerly parsing of the terms "combat avoidance" and "claiming." Nevertheless, unless Greenwald has done some scholarly research showing that Reagan actually did something to proactively "avoid" combat, research that he oddly opted not to footnote, this is a strikingly disingenuous not to mention sloppy effort to smear Reagan.

The sad fact is that Greenwald often opts for personal attacks rather than reasoned argument.

In a later section of the book, Greenwald devotes much verbiage to explaining what makes neocons tick, and what makes them so odious. It can't merely be that some neocons support wars without ever having served in the military. After all, many Democrats supported Bill Clinton's military actions. So it has to be something else.

Greenwald therefore explores the psychology of the typical neocon and concludes, "[They] strut around as though their support for war means that they are fighting it, and [they] consequently apply the warrior attributes to themselves." Forget the fact that Greenwald and I obviously disagree with this assessment--you'd expect as much.

What's jarring is that Greenwald has taken on such a ridiculous task as psychoanalyzing people he doesn't know. But the exercise is more frivolous still. Even if the typical neocon thinker is in the habit of dressing like Bismarck and barking out orders to his local barista like a feudal warlord, who cares? The people that Greenwald scolds in his book (other than the politicians) are judged by their ideas, not their intrinsic worth as people. Even if Glenn Greenwald successfully proved that all neocon thinkers are truly dreadful human beings, that wouldn't discredit their ideas.

All of which brings us to the distinctly Greenwald parts of the book--Greenwald takes an unseemly relish in engaging in irrelevant personal attacks. Personally attacking Ronald Reagan at least makes sense on some level. But personally attacking private citizens with different ideologies has a certain senselessness attached to it.

Even if every reader of Great American Hypocrites walked away from the several pages that attack Norman Podhoretz (to take just one of the many conservative thinkers that Greenwald assails) convinced that Podhoretz is just about the most awful person to ever walk the face of the Earth, Podhoretz's ideas would remain unscathed. Podhoretz has never argued that a reader should agree with his ideas because he is such a wonderful guy. Instead, the ideas have a life of their own.

Greenwald's own success makes his personal attacks particularly ironic. There was nothing in Glenn Greenwald's background that suggested he should have been one of the kings of the progressive blogosphere. And Russ Feingold didn't read passages from Greenwald's first book from the Senate floor because Greenwald is such a fine human being. Greenwald gained prominence because of the power of his ideas and his writing. Whatever prominence he retains will also result exclusively from the quality of his work. It's a mystery why he doesn't realize that it operates the same way at all spots on the ideological spectrum.

Great American Hypocrites will likely be a big hit. Whatever the equivalent of red meat is for the angry left, this book is it. As a confessed Greenwald admirer, I found it largely disappointing. Like the rest of us, Greenwald has both strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Too much of Great American Hypocrites indulges his fondness for pointless ad hominem attacks, the weakest aspect of his work.

Many of Greenwald's fans will probably take delight in his description of Rush Limbaugh as a "draft-avoiding, illegal-pill-addicted and multiple-divorced (man) burdened with one of the most decadent and degraded lives of any public figure anywhere." Whether they take note of the irony that a mere two pages later Greenwald decries our "attack-based personality-obsessed politics" is an open question.

If Greenwald himself sees the irony, he doesn't betray any such awareness in "Great American Hypocrites."

Dean Barnett is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.