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Book Review: ‘Dreamland: The True Tale Of America’s Opiate Epidemic’

Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones; Bloomsbury (384 pages, $28.00)

First declared by President Nixon, the war on drugs was always already political. Nixon aide John Erlichman later commented on its origins:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

A decade later, President Reagan announced that illicit drugs were a national security threat. “We’re making no excuses for drugs—hard, soft, or otherwise. Drugs are bad, and we’re going after them. As I’ve said before, we’ve taken down the surrender flag and run up the battle flag. And we’re going to win the war on drugs.” Announced three weeks before the 1982 midterm elections, Reagan’s initiative both intensified and militarized the drug war.

Not all drugs were bad, of course. The Reagan administration lavished benefits on Big Pharma, and Congress passed laws that extended patent protections and monopoly rights for brand-name drugs. But even with illegal narcotics, the Reagan administration applied a double standard. As we know from the Kerry Committee report of 1989, CIA officials knew that Nicaraguan drug dealers were selling powder and crack cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s. Nobody lifted a finger to stop it. They also knew that the profits supported the Nicaraguan contras, whom the Reagan administration actively (and illegally) aided in their efforts to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.

As the drug war dragged on, it netted users who didn’t fit Erlichman’s description. A decade ago, we learned that Rush Limbaugh abused Oxycontin, a prescription painkiller also known as hillbilly heroin. He was arrested but served no jail time; Palm Beach prosecutors dropped the charge after Limbaugh agreed to continue his treatment. “I actually thank God for my addiction to pain pills,” he told Fox News in 2009, “because I learned more about myself in rehab than I would have ever learned otherwise.” In particular, he realized he had been trying too hard to be liked in his personal life. But after seven weeks of treatment, he emerged with “zero feelings of inadequacy.” Limbaugh’s skirmish in the drug war turned out to be a voyage of personal growth and self-discovery.

While the Limbaugh story played out, many American cities were experiencing large increases in the use of black tar heroin imported from Mexico. These weren’t cities previously associated with that drug; rather, they were places like Salt Lake City, Boise, Charlotte, Portland, and Columbus. For years, local law enforcement noticed unarmed dealers making home deliveries in small quantities. Even when they made arrests, the cases were minor and often led to deportation. And because police officers rarely communicated with their counterparts in other mid-size cities, they failed to see the larger pattern.

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As Sam Quinones shows in Dreamland, the Oxycontin and heroin stories were closely linked. A Los Angeles Times reporter, Quinones learned that black tar heroin wasn’t produced or distributed by violent Mexican cartels; rather, he traced it to the tiny state of Nayarit and its ranchero culture. The opium was grown locally, and tight-knit families sent wave after wave of polite farm boys to deliver balloons of heroin to white suburbanites in the United States. The service was excellent, and users learned that they could maintain a daily heroin habit for the price of a six-pack of premium beer.

The Xalisco Boys, as law enforcement called the Nayarit operators, spread quickly across the American west. They thrived, it seemed, in every city serviced by US Air out of Phoenix. In reading about them, I was reminded of an ironic passage from T.C. Boyle’s 1995 novel, The Tortilla Curtain. In describing coyotes, a nature writer also commented on the influx of Mexican immigrants:

The coyote is not to blame—he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of opportunities available to him … The coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where life is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable.

Eventually the Xalisco Boys moved east across the Mississippi River. By that time, Big Pharma had aggressively marketed OxyContin for chronic pain relief. Its campaign hinged on industrious self-delusion. Distorting a stray remark in a prestigious medical journal, one pharmaceutical firm persuaded American doctors that Oxycontin and other opiates weren’t addictive. That claim contradicted everything those doctors learned in medical school, but many went along with the program. Between 1997 and 2002, OxyContin prescriptions soared from 670,000 to 6.2 million. One 2004 survey indicated that 2.4 million Americans used a prescription pain reliever non-medically for the first time within the previous year; that was more than the estimated number of Americans who tried marijuana for the first time. Once patients were well and truly hooked on opiates, many switched to black tar heroin, which was cheap and easy to acquire. In effect, American pharmaceutical firms opened up new markets for the Xalisco Boys, who delivered heroin like pizza to America’s suburbs.

Dreamland is a tale of two artificial and highly permeable membranes. One separates legal and illegal drugs, the other Mexico and the United States. Quinones is perfectly positioned to tell that double story. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, he became a crime reporter in Stockton, a mid-size city in the Central Valley that was struggling with gangs and a crack cocaine epidemic. (After Stockton became Ground Zero for the subprime mortgage crisis, Forbes magazine described it as “one of America’s most miserable cities.”) In 1994, Quinones traveled to Mexico, where he planned to study Spanish for three months. He stayed for a decade working as a freelance reporter. What Quinones learned there informed his first two books about immigration, the border, ranchero culture, and the drug trade. He eventually returned to California and worked for the Los Angeles Times until last year.

Quinones brings all of his considerable talent and experience to bear on this sprawling story. Few American journalists can match his narrative skills or crime chops, which he combines with an ever rarer understanding of Mexican culture. His description of Nayarit is especially evocative; you can see practically hear the bandas playing at the feria, taste the cerveza, and feel the crisp new Levis the drug operatives brought home by the dozens.

Toward the end of Dreamland, Quinones shows how some American communities began enforcing their drug laws differently when they realized that their white, middle-class neighbors and family members were the perps. It was a reminder, if any were needed, that the war on drugs has always been a civil war. When will we bind up the nation’s wounds and care for those who have borne the battle?

Book Review: ‘Here Comes The Night: The Dark Soul Of Bert Berns And The Dirty Business Of Rhythm And Blues’

Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues by Joel Selvin; Counterpoint (320 pages, $17.95)

The music business is a decidedly mixed advertisement for American culture in the twentieth century. Gifted artists from the nation’s social margins created dazzling new forms that found huge global audiences, but the business side was sketchy at best. Consider, for example, the rise of the Music Corporation of America (MCA), which grew out of Al Capone’s Chicago before morphing into MCA-Universal, the entertainment conglomerate. Or the mob-controlled Kinney Parking Company, which fattened itself on New Jersey nightclubs before purchasing Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1969. If Frank Sinatra’s links to organized crime are no secret, few know that the Chicago syndicate controlled Louis Armstrong’s career; indeed, Armstrong himself was unaware of that arrangement until his longtime manager died in 1969.

Joel Selvin’s new book captures both the greatness and the grit of the mid-century music business in New York City. It’s not his first look at this scene; Peppermint Twist, which Selvin co-authored in 2012, features the Peppermint Lounge, the Manhattan mob hangout made famous by the Twist dance craze. Before that, Selvin specialized in West Coast music. The chief music critic at the San Francisco Chronicle for decades, he has authored books on Sly and the Family Stone, the Summer of Love, and Ricky Nelson. He also helped with Sammy Hagar’s memoir, which topped the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction in 2011.

Selvin’s hero in Here Comes the Night is Bert Berns, but the story ranges well beyond the obscure producer. Woven deeply into the narrative are more recognizable figures, including Ahmet Ertegun, Jerry Wexler, Phil Spector, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Carole King, Don Kirshner, and Burt Bacharach. Most of the action revolves around two midtown offices, the Brill Building and nearby 1650 Broadway, where a seemingly endless list of hits were produced. This is the micro-world Bob Dylan discovered upon his arrival in New York City and to which he devotes much of his attention in Chronicles: Volume One. But Selvin also reminds us that Irving Berlin, who was born in Russia the year Grover Cleveland entered the White House, kept an office at 1650 Broadway while the Berns saga was playing out.

Although Selvin mostly focuses on producers and songwriters, he doesn’t scant the singers or musicians. We hear about sessions with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, the Drifters, the Shirelles, Ike and Tina Turner, Elvis Presley, Solomon Burke, Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, and Tony Orlando. The sheer number of characters, the cascade of song titles, and the swirl of labels can be overwhelming. But if the reading experience occasionally feels like drinking from a fire hydrant, Selvin’s approach dramatizes the intensity and tempo of this extraordinary subculture. He completes the effect with bits of slang and period diction, lacing his jaunty prose with references to thrushes, shouters, machers, and wiseguys.

Berns grew up in the Bronx, but his musical history might be said to have begun in Havana. Born in 1929 as Bertrand Russell Berns — his father admired the British philosopher — Berns was smitten by New York City’s mambo craze and traveled to Cuba before the revolution. By then, independent labels were already dominating the pop charts, especially in the rhythm-and-blues category, whose products only a few years earlier were known as race records. At upstart Atlantic Records, producers were in charge; they worked close to the knuckle while their bosses greased the nation’s key disc jockeys. In an effort to promote their singles, the labels even signed over the precious publishing rights to Dick Clark and others. Sometimes they also paid the artists. Ben E. King described the Atlantic Records crew as “a better class of thieves.”

Berns started his own label on a shoestring but soon crossed paths with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records. At their first meeting, Berns played a number he derived from “La Bamba” and an unrecorded song called “Shake It Up Baby.” He called the new tune “Twist and Shout,” which Phil Spector mangled in the studio before Berns scored a hit with the Isley Brothers in 1962. Powered by John Lennon’s ragged vocals, the Beatles launched that song into the stratosphere the following year. Berns followed up with “My Girl Sloopy,” which charted in 1964 and went to number one the following year as “Hang On Sloopy.” He also produced “Here Comes the Night,” which introduced Them, the Belfast band featuring Van Morrison, to American audiences. A 20-year-old session musician named Jimmy Page added the shimmering guitar track.

After several years at Atlantic, Berns again started his own label, this time in partnership with Wexler and the Ertegun brothers. It wasn’t a unique arrangement; Atlantic Records was also working with outfits well off Broadway, including FAME studios in Muscle Shoals and Stax Records in Memphis. All seemed well until Wexler proposed a restructuring that Berns refused. Berns bought out his partners, and they parted on bad terms. Later, Wexler refused to pay out $70,000 he owed Berns, whose mob friends visited Wexler. A terrified Wexler hired bodyguards and never forgave Berns. Berns was drained by the experience but turned his attention to his new star, Neil Diamond, who scored with “Cherry, Cherry” and “Solitary Man” and wrote “I’m a Believer” for The Monkees. They also had a falling out, and Berns had someone throw a stink bomb into Diamond’s gig at The Bitter End. After his manager was beaten up, Diamond moved his family to Long Island and borrowed a pistol.

Berns lived at a furious pace, in part because a heart condition made old age a long shot. As Selvin notes, that condition adds an extra layer to “Piece of My Heart,” which Berns recorded with Erma Franklin, Aretha’s sister, in 1967. The following year, Janis Joplin put her stamp on it forever. Berns didn’t live to see it; he died suddenly at age 38. The same year, Atlantic Records became a wholly owned subsidiary of Warner Bros.-Seven Arts, which was based in Los Angeles. Many of Berns’ colleagues and collaborators moved there, too. The music business Berns entered only seven years earlier was already history.

For a relative unknown, Berns left an impressive legacy. He landed 51 pop-chart singles, 19 of them in 1964, his first year at Atlantic. “Berns wasn’t the greatest of the era, although his best work was as good as anybody’s,” Selvin claims. “His name may be lost, but his music is everywhere.”

The Long Sixties: What Did We Know, And When Did We Know It?

Patriotic Betrayal: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Secret Campaign to Enroll American Students in the Crusade Against Communism by Karen M. Paget; Yale University Press

The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI by Betty Medsger; Vintage

Days of Rage: America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence by Bryan Burrough; Penguin Press

In 2006, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau received the Pulitzer Prize for their stories on the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance programs. Later that year, they reported that the administration also traced the banking records of thousands of Americans with suspected ties to al Qaeda. Because Risen and Lichtblau revealed classified information in their stories, some are now calling for their prosecution under the Espionage Act, which doesn’t distinguish between investigative reporting and funneling state secrets to hostile foreign governments.

On this issue, Senator Tom Cotton argues that the system is the solution. “When people violate the espionage laws,” he told a conservative website last month, “they should be prosecuted. They believe they have First Amendment rights, and that’s a defense they can assert in court. Reporters and editors don’t get to decide for themselves what is and is not a sensitive national-security matter. That’s for the American people to decide through their elected representatives.” The Obama administration seems to agree; it has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all other administrations combined.

Is there any reason to believe that Senator Cotton’s prescription would work as outlined? That question links several recent books about national security and political dissent in the 1960s and 1970s. Taken together, they suggest an intriguing thought experiment: If everyone had followed Senator Cotton’s line, what exactly would we know about our government, and how could we use that knowledge to shape it through our elected representatives?

Karen Paget’s exhaustively researched Patriotic Betrayal suggests we would know almost nothing about the CIA. In the 1960s, Paget’s husband was an officer in the National Students Association (NSA), a private organization founded after the Second World War. As part of its Cold War strategy, the CIA not only funded the NSA but also determined its policy positions. Only top officers knew about this arrangement, and many went on to work for the agency. When Paget and her husband were briefed on the CIA connection during the 1960s, they agreed to swear an oath of secrecy under the Espionage Act. The NSA was by no means the only organization in this position; by that time, the CIA had developed an invisible network of political, cultural, and media fronts and contacts that functioned as a highly effective propaganda machine. One agency official named it the Mighty Wurlitzer, after the organ that orchestrated audience responses during the silent film era.

NSA members played their part by reporting on foreign students they met at international conferences. The CIA fed that information to other governments, which almost certainly used it to crack down on dissidents. “My God,” asked one NSA officer who later worked for the CIA, “did we finger people for the Shah?” A similar scenario played out in Iraq, where the 1963 Ba’athist coup led to 10,000 arrests and an estimated 5,000 executions. According to Paget, “It apparently never occurred to witting staff that the information [they provided] might flow through their CIA case officers into a broader CIA pipeline, a fact that haunts many of them today.” At least one senior U.S. official wasn’t haunted at all. “We were frankly glad to be rid of them,” he said of the liquidated Iraqi communists.

The NSA’s development officer, who wasn’t sworn to secrecy, spilled the beans to Ramparts magazine, which published the story in March 1967. Other news organizations picked it up and soon revealed the larger network the CIA had assembled. Congress was taken aback, and agency officials were stunned; it was the first time the CIA had received such public criticism. The brass immediately launched an investigation of Ramparts and everyone connected to it. The CIA’s charter forbade domestic operations, so the fig leaf for the investigation was that the upstart San Francisco muckraker had foreign backers. Yet even after the agency knew this was false, it continued to target the magazine. Ramparts also criticized U.S. policy in Vietnam, and the CIA soon broadened its operation, code-named MH/CHAOS, to include antiwar groups.

The Ramparts vendetta “set in motion an even larger catastrophe for the CIA,” Paget notes. “One may draw a straight line from the Ramparts exposures in 1967 to the 1975 congressional hearings on CIA activities and the revelation of the so-called Family Jewels, a collection of documents containing the deepest agency secrets, including its part in assassinations.” Those hearings, in turn, eventually led to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978, which instituted the surveillance protocols the Bush administration pointedly ignored after the 9/11 attacks.

Nothing in Paget’s account suggests that, absent the whistleblower story, the CIA would have been responsive to American voters speaking through their elected representatives. Whatever knowledge we have of the agency and its history was obtained, at least initially, despite the government’s workaday operations and not because of them.

A similar story played out at the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover’s fiefdom for more than four decades. Although the FBI routinely carried out “black bag jobs” and illegal wiretaps, its operations received no serious scrutiny from Congress or the courts. Before 1971, only one FBI file had ever been made public, and that was over Hoover’s strenuous objection. In 1949, a Justice Department employee was charged with stealing FBI secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union; when her attorney asked that FBI files be admitted as evidence, Hoover claimed that turning them over would endanger national security. He also suggested that the court reprimand the defense attorney for even requesting the files.

As Betty Medsger’s The Burglary makes plain, all that changed in 1971 when a small group of anti-war activists broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. The files they stole revealed a wide range of illicit surveillance and harassment by the bureau. Ironically, the same day Hoover learned of the stolen files, Assistant Attorney General William H. Rehnquist testified under oath that the federal government conducted virtually no domestic surveillance. The burglars mailed the files to five news organizations, four of which immediately returned them to the FBI. After much internal debate, The Washington Post decided to run a story by Medsger. It was another bombshell.

Two FBI programs were especially controversial. One was the Security Index, which began as a running list of dissidents to be rounded up in case of a national emergency. (The list included Carey McWilliams, who was serving in California state government and later became editor of The Nation.) The other was COINTELPRO, which flourished during the 1960s and early 1970s. According to FBI documents, its stated goal was to “expose, disrupt, and otherwise neutralize” the New Left and those connected to it. Much of the surveillance and harassment was directed at antiwar and black activists. We know that the FBI wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that he take his own life. Less well known is the fact that between 1960 and 1966, FBI agents burglarized a Socialist Workers Party office at least 92 times. They also issued bomb threats to party offices and fired shots at one of them.

None of these practices served any law-enforcement purpose. As Medsger notes:

The FBI’s spying operations did not lead to the prevention of any bombing, for instance, by the Weather Underground or any other group that planted bombs in that era. And the files led to few, if any, arrests after such bombs were detonated. Whatever the FBI was doing as it invaded lives, it was not preventing violent crimes or building cases on which arrests and successful prosecutions could be based.

She concludes that the FBI’s goal wasn’t to investigate, prosecute, and convict, but rather to harass and destroy these groups.

Hoover also deployed the bureau’s resources to neutralize his critics. “In a very real sense,” LBJ’s attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach later testified, “there was no greater crime in Mr. Hoover’s eyes than public criticism of the bureau.” Even President Nixon feared Hoover, who had amassed enough dirt to destroy most politicians. Senator Edward Long of Missouri once asked Hoover to provide records of the FBI’s electronic surveillance activities. Hoover replied that he would have to furnish all of those records, including conversations in which the Teamsters union allegedly offered Long money. After that conversation, Senator Long issued a statement that the FBI didn’t conduct wiretaps.

After the Media burglary, the FBI couldn’t maintain that fiction. Four months after the bureau closed its fruitless investigation of that heist, one of Hoover’s successors came clean. Clarence Kelley admitted that the bureau’s illicit activities were “clearly wrong and quite indefensible. We most certainly must never allow them to be repeated.” One FBI official said the burglars should have been prosecuted and then pardoned for their service to the nation.

A common denominator in these books is the Cold War consensus on communism. In effect, both major parties shared the CIA and FBI view that communists and their dupes were behind the civil rights and anti-war movements. For many in power, it was inconceivable that red-blooded Americans would oppose institutional racism or the Vietnam War as such. That category error, reinforced by a culture of secrecy, diminished the authority and effectiveness of both organizations. With the Watergate revelations, which were guided by leaks from a top FBI official, the White House’s reputation was also badly tarnished.

These events furnish the backdrop for Bryan Burrough’s Days of Rage, which focuses on radical violence of the 1970s. That violence included shooting police officers, bank robberies, kidnapping Patty Hearst, and planting thousands of bombs to protest government actions and to foment a revolution. As Burrough notes, the idea behind almost every bombing was to highlight the Establishment’s vulnerability, not to kill or injure. These groups had few options for claiming media attention, and he calls their bombings “exploding press releases.”

Burrough begins Days of Rage by challenging what he calls a myth: namely, that radical violence beginning in 1970 was a protest against the Vietnam War. “What the underground movement was truly about –what it was always about — was the plight of black Americans,” he writes. With varying degrees of accuracy, this claim applies to several groups he tracks, including the Black Liberation Army, the Family, and the Symbionese Liberation Army. But for others, the war and its effects turn out to be central to the story he tells.

Burroughs devotes more attention to the Weather Underground (originally “Weatherman”), which grew out of Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, than to any other group. The war in Vietnam swelled the ranks of SDS, and Burrough cites one of its leaders on the importance of 1968, when “people came to the conclusion that the only way to stop the war was make a revolution, and the only way to stop racism was make a revolution.” One of Weatherman’s first acts was the “Days of Rage” rampage through Chicago from which Burrough takes his title; its slogan was “Bring the War Home.” In 1971, after it changed its name to the Weather Underground, the group bombed the U.S. Capitol to protest the invasion of Laos. The next year, it bombed the Pentagon in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of Hanoi, and in 1975, it bombed the State Department building “in response to the escalation in Vietnam.” The Weather Underground was more than an anti-war group, but how Burrough can cleanly separate its history and actions from the anti-war movement is a mystery.

The war influences Burrough’s story in other ways as well. Many of his subjects were Vietnam veterans radicalized by their military experience. The tiny Symbionese Liberation Army, which said it was targeting racism along with “all the other institutions that have made and sustained capitalism,” included two veterans. The United Freedom Front was led by Ray Levasseur, a veteran from Maine who began his activism by opposing the war. He was incarcerated on a marijuana charge, paroled in 1971, and influenced by the prison movement. Four years later, he and a handful of comrades began robbing banks. They were outraged by racism, but it’s a stretch to say that the United Freedom Front was motivated primarily by the plight of black Americans.

Burrough frequently scants or distorts the relevant historical context. COINTELPRO makes only a handful of brief appearances, even though it specifically targeted SDS and Weatherman. The War on Drugs, which Nixon aide John Erlichman later said was meant to target young people and blacks, is notable for its absence. So are revelations of CIA mischief. Burrough devotes a single sentence to police brutality at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Pentagon Papers are mentioned once, and Watergate is touched on lightly. There are fleeting references to Cambodia and Kent State. One chapter opens with President Nixon calling Hoover, the CIA director, and two other national security officials into the Oval Office.

Everywhere [Nixon] looked, the antiwar movement seemed to be turning increasingly violent. The deaths at Kent State were still fresh in the air. Weatherman had now declared war; its first attacks were promised any day … The president lectured Hoover and the others that ‘revolutionary terrorism’ now represented the single greatest threat against [sic] American society.

Would Burrough have us believe that the anti-war movement, and not the Ohio National Guard, was responsible for the deaths at Kent State? I don’t see any other way to read this passage.

Burrough also conflates radicals and hippies and thereby distorts the latter group’s values and influence. The two cohorts overlapped, but they were by no means interchangeable, and there was a great deal of well-documented tension between them. According to Burrough, America “had fallen in love with everything about this groovy new counterculture — except its politics.” (Here and elsewhere, groovy signals Burrough’s disdain for that period’s youth culture.) At the same time, he claims that the counterculture was a victim of its own political success; the nascent environmental and women’s liberation movements were “diverting the attention of many who had built their lives around protesting the war and racism.” Finally, he implies that the counterculture, which was nothing if not communal, fostered widespread narcissism in the broader American culture; he quotes Tom Wolfe and a contemporary article by David Horowitz to clinch that point. Never mind the muddle; this is hippie punching of the highest order.

Burrough presents himself as a journalist marshaling the facts and minimizing his political judgments, but his selection and emphasis make the radical violence of this period look even crazier than it was. Although he mentions egregious state violence, not only in Southeast Asia but also in America’s black communities, he saves his outrage for its more sensational revolutionary counterpart. Virtually no one defends these groups or their tactics today, but Burrough is surprised by the low-key press accounts of that period, “when bombings were viewed by many Americans as a semi-legitimate means of protest” or “little more than a public nuisance.” Perhaps the press struck a different balance between blown-up toilets in empty buildings and the far more lethal forms of sanctioned political violence at hand.

Critics have rightly praised Days of Rage for its original reporting; many underground figures shared their stories with Burrough for the first time, and he interviewed retired FBI agents to flesh out his account. For that reason alone, I recommend Days of Rage, especially if read alongside Medsger. Whether or not others share my misgivings about Burrough’s overall portrait, it certainly complicates Senator Cotton’s view of how our government works — and what we’re entitled to know about its workings. Nowhere does Days of Rage indicate that American voters could have shaped government policies and priorities they knew nothing about at the time.

If there are lessons to be extracted from these three books, they have as much to do with the dangers of elite consensus as with those of dissent. Today’s bipartisan support for secrecy and massive domestic surveillance, for example, seems as uncritical and self-justifying as the Cold War consensus that produced the foreign policy, intelligence, and law enforcement disasters of the 1960s and 1970s. These books show, among other things, that excessive government secrecy produced bad governance and even worse outcomes, and that a strict policy of killing the messenger turned those outcomes into catastrophes.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo and teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. His new book is No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.

Book Review: ‘They Know Everything About You’

Shortly after this review appears, Robert Scheer will celebrate his 79th birthday. In 2008, he told a large audience he was born the same year as John McCain, the GOP’s presidential candidate that year. “I’m not saying McCain is too old to be president,” he added. “But I lost my car keys three times this morning.”

Not that you’re likely to catch Scheer doddering around the house. In 2005, while many of his peers were composing their memoirs, Scheer helped create Truthdig, the award-winning news website he continues to direct. Since then, he has also written two astute books: The Pornography of Power (2008), about Pentagon budget excesses in the post 9/11 period; and The Great American Stickup (2010), which recounts the Wall Street meltdown, the effects of which continue to hamper the global economy.

Since his early years at Ramparts magazine, the legendary San Francisco muckraker, Scheer has worked the left side of the American political spectrum. He ran for office as a Democrat in 1966, but his recent books grind no partisan axes. To the contrary; they dramatize the bipartisan nature of those entirely preventable fiascos. Although many pundits have decried the failure of Democrats and Republicans to work together, Scheer has shown that when it comes to under-regulating Wall Street and overfunding the Pentagon, the major parties have cooperated all too well.

As a journalist and candidate in the mid-1960s, Scheer made a similar point about the bipartisan consensus on anticommunism and Vietnam. As a result, White House press secretary Bill Moyers anxiously monitored the vote tallies when Scheer almost unseated the congressional incumbent, an LBJ ally, in Oakland’s Democratic primary. We now know that the FBI and CIA investigated Scheer and his Ramparts colleagues despite rules against domestic espionage by the latter agency. In fact, much of what we know about CIA overreach during that period can be traced to whistleblower stories in Ramparts.

Now, a half-century later, Scheer has turned his attention to the digital world and its discontents. His new book probes data-collecting corporations, massive government surveillance, and the challenges they pose to our freedoms. Once again, Scheer finds that the two major parties are scarcely distinguishable; both the Bush and Obama administrations have worked with high-tech companies to create what the book calls “a brave new world of wired tyranny.”

Since 2001, we’ve known that the NSA was scooping up our telephone calls and digital communications. What we didn’t know was the extent to which high-tech companies were partners in that effort. That sector, of course, has always been part of the national security state; the Internet itself was the product of military-funded research. But until recently, most media coverage cast these firms as unwitting collaborators in the NSA’s project. Scheer counters that they were the trailblazers in amassing and analyzing private information. “Google is a mind-boggling financial success precisely because it breaches privacy more effectively than any enterprise before it in history,” he claims. “The NSA is piggybacking on Google rather than the other way around.”

Not all the corporate players in Scheer’s book are household names. He charts the fortunes of In-Q-Tel, the CIA-created venture capital firm designed to “identify, adapt, and deliver innovative technology solutions” for the intelligence community. He also reviews the history of Palantir, a Silicon Valley company formed to analyze the mountains of personal data collected by the CIA. Former CIA director George Tenet, who founded In-Q-Tel, and Condoleezza Rice have served as Palantir advisors, and Tenet received at least $2.3 million in stock and other compensation for his work with Palantir and three other firms. Thanks to whistleblower Edward Snowden, we now know that U.S. intelligence agencies spent $52.6 billion in 2013 on what The Washington Post called “a bureaucratic and operational landscape that has never been subject to public scrutiny.” Given this lack of scrutiny, one wonders whether these companies are also identifying, adapting, and delivering innovative conflicts of interest.

When it comes to protecting customer privacy, the big Silicon Valley firms haven’t covered themselves in glory. In a 2013 court filing, Google claimed “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to a third party.” (In this case, the third party was Google.) Scheer also quotes the company’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, on the topic of privacy. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know,” he told an audience in 2009, “maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Taken together, these self-serving remarks suggest that expectations of customer privacy, which Google is breaching for profit, are illegitimate and misplaced.

Schmidt’s advice is also misleading. The desire to keep information private isn’t itself furtive; as the Fourth Amendment implies, the burden is always on those who wish to violate our privacy without sufficient cause — not on us to justify our conduct, even to ourselves. Finally, Schmidt’s comment overlooks a serious danger. For what if it’s a government agency, and not the customer, that’s doing something unseemly? Unfortunately, that scenario isn’t hypothetical. The government certainly didn’t want anyone to know about its indiscriminate snooping, but when a whistleblower exposed it in 2001, the NSA didn’t stop that activity as per Schmidt’s advice. Rather, it struggled to justify its mission, and Obama’s director of national intelligence eventually lied under oath to Congress about it.

Scheer is having none of it. “For democracy,” he claims in the book’s first sentence, “privacy is the ball game.” Without the liberties guaranteed by the First and Fourth Amendments, both of which assume the importance of personal sovereignty, the American experiment is a hollow exercise. In contrast, the new surveillance state assumes that citizens “are all potential enemies of the government.” That assumption, in turn, has produced a bipartisan crusade “to turn the war on terror into a war on the public’s right to know.” To support his claim, Scheer devotes three chapters to the importance of whistleblowers — and to the rough treatment they typically endure. He also notes that the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act, which fails to distinguish them from genuine spies, than all previous administrations combined. Along the way, Scheer identifies several unlikely heroes, including Chief Justice John Roberts, whose “defense of privacy in the age of the Internet set as clear a standard on the subject as the nation has ever enjoyed through its judicial system.”

Although the underlying issues in Scheer’s book are far from new, technology has supercharged their significance. “No government has been more far-reaching and effective in invading the private space of the individual than our own,” Scheer concludes. Moreover, everything we have learned about that invasion “resulted not from the ordinary checks and balances of our political system but, rather, from the all-too-rare example set by a few brave truth tellers risking imprisonment or worse.” Though Scheer doesn’t say so, his point also reflects the limits of traditional journalism. Many Americans assume that news organizations will detect and report government misconduct. But even in its glory days, The Washington Post needed a whistleblower to uncover the Watergate story, and today’s news organizations are shedding jobs at an alarming rate, in part because the digital revolution has decimated their business model.

Scheer directs his argument to general readers, not to constitutional scholars or policymakers. A portion of this audience may regard privacy as obsolete, and some notable liberals consider Edward Snowden a cowardly traitor. Melissa Harris-Perry, a political science professor and columnist at The Nation, taunted Snowden on MSNBC in 2013, presumably in an effort to defend the Obama administration from its critics. Under such conditions, one wonders how we will address, much less solve, the systemic problems Scheer identifies. But by raising them so forcefully, he continues to perform the important work he began five decades ago.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo and teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. His new book is No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Book Review: ‘The Utopia Of Rules’

What intense pleasure this book gave me, despite the dull topic: bureaucracy. My reading experience almost certainly reflected my surroundings. Book in hand, I spent seven hours next to a luggage carousel at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. My flights had been canceled, and my only goal was to reclaim my bag and return home. A battery of airline employees, bristling with devices, could tell me nothing about my bag’s location, though we all knew it was lying only yards away from us. The airline’s technology was surprisingly effective in other ways. For example, it automatically rebooked me on a flight I never wanted. As a result, my luggage arrived safely in Syracuse a few hours before I touched down in San Francisco. Only a cultural anthropologist could explain this system’s deep logic.

David Graeber is perhaps best known for Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011), which became required reading for the Occupy Wall Street movement. In that book, Graeber showed that the standard explanation for the origins of money, rehearsed in dozens of economics textbooks, was a fairy tale. In The Utopia of Rules, Graeber similarly claims that the conventional wisdom about bureaucracy is misleading; although strongly associated with the public sector, today’s bureaucracies can’t be understood apart from the rise of the modern corporation. Noting that the right’s critique of bureaucracy has been extraordinarily successful, Graeber maintains that the left needs to develop a new way of talking about it. This set of loosely connected essays is an attempt to begin that conversation.

The book’s title is keyed to a major claim: that all bureaucracies are in some sense utopian insofar as they “propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to.” To function, these schemes must ignore 98 percent of the social experience they’re designed to order. (In my case, a robot concluded that I should travel to Syracuse the day after my scheduled meeting.) This split between the map and the territory points to another one between the rational, technical means a bureaucracy employs and the irrational ends to which they are often put. The parade example might be U.S. policy in Vietnam, especially under the direction of uber-bureaucrats Robert McNamara and Dean Rusk; according to Norman Mailer, Rusk was “always a model of sanity on every detail but one: He had a delusion that the war was not bottomless in its lunacy.” But one can easily identify similar patterns in today’s private sector; for example, the countless efficiencies built into our industrial food system, whose overall rationality is questionable.

Graeber argues that we have entered the era of total (or predatory) bureaucratization. Characterized by advanced technology, a fusion of public and private power, and the state violence to maintain it, this new system is exceedingly wasteful, at least for the ordinary citizen. If you’ve ever retyped your entire résumé into a potential employer’s database, you have some inkling of its extravagance. But total bureaucratization, Graeber argues, is remarkably efficient at one thing — extracting profit. Based on the notion that paperwork creates value, it begins with “the irritating case worker determining whether you are really poor enough to merit a fee waiver for your children’s medicine,” and it ends with “men in suits engaged in high-speed trading of bets over how long it will take you to default on your mortgage.”

To support his analysis, Graeber returns to familiar turf: banking. Governments regulate banks in part because they determine the size of the money supply. Banks try to shape those regulations, and sometimes they capture the regulatory institutions themselves. But total bureaucratization goes beyond regulatory capture. Now when the government catches banks defrauding customers, it issues fines that represent only a fraction of the swag. No one goes to prison, even when the fraud is massive. Matt Taibbi (The Divide) and Brandon Garrett (Too Big to Jail) have documented this point and its obvious injustice. But Graeber argues that what appears to be a bug in the justice system is actually a feature. Noting that the government is essentially accepting a percentage of the corporation’s haul, he concludes that the relationship between the two organizations is symbiotic.

It was not always thus. Graeber shows how past bureaucracies have served important civic purposes. The post office, which began as an expansion of the military courier system, was once regarded as a marvel. Both in Europe and America, it accounted for half the government budget and more than half the civil service. Mark Twain celebrated the efficiency of the German post office, and Lenin wanted to organize the entire Soviet economy in its image. Now the object of right-wing attacks, the U.S. Postal Service is ceding ground to the Internet, but Graeber notes that the two have a great deal in common. Like the post office, the Internet was originally developed by the military, is rapidly reshaping everyday life, has a reputation for dazzling efficiency, and inspires utopian ideas about cooperative economies. Also like the post office, the Internet became a medium for unwanted communications and government surveillance.

Graeber concludes with a counterintuitive argument: that we secretly love bureaucracies. Like games, they are a utopia of rules: “Who hasn’t dreamed of a world where everyone knows the rules, everyone plays by the rules, and — even more — where people who play by the rules can actually still win?” He contrasts games with play, which is more open ended and less rule governed; its appeal is complete, if sometimes frightening, freedom. Games and play in their pure forms are utopian fantasies, but the tension between the two is inevitable and potentially productive. As a kind of conceptual parallel, Graeber offers language, the quintessential human faculty, which is both rule governed and endlessly playful.

The upshot of Graeber’s analysis could be clearer. The body of the book ends on a decidedly pessimistic note:

[I]n this particular case, and in this larger political-economic context, where bureaucracy has been the primary means by which a tiny percentage of the population extracts wealth from the rest of us, they have created a situation where the pursuit of freedom from arbitrary power ends up producing more arbitrary power, and as a result, regulations choke existence, armed guards and surveillance cameras appear everywhere, science and creativity are smothered, and all of us end up finding increasing percentages of our day taken up in the filling out of forms.

For his suggestions on how to proceed, readers must return to the introduction, where he offers the Global Justice Movement — which was perhaps most visible at the 1999 World Trade Meeting in Seattle — as a starting point.

A senior colleague once observed that professors came in two types: field mice and parachutists. The former works a small patch of ground intensively, while the latter lands in a different place with each jump. Graeber is a first-class parachutist. His discussion floats freely between social theory and science fiction, state formation and superheroes, modern anthropology and blockbuster films. Field mice will no doubt object that he has misconstrued some feature of the terrain; such objections come with the territory, as it were. But when you’re chained to a luggage carousel, there’s nothing quite like a fresh vista, and The Utopia of Rules is brimming with those.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo and teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. His new book is No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones.

Photo: Christian Schnettelker via Flickr

Book Review: ‘Becoming Richard Pryor’

In the 1970s, my politically conservative father kept a small collection of comedy albums in our suburban home near Berkeley. I’m not sure how — my oldest brother may know better — but a Richard Pryor album appeared and went into heavy rotation. Craps (After Hours) was raucous and exhilarating. I still recall several outrageous bits, but Pryor’s sensibility also made a powerful impression on me. Profound irreverence, I gathered at the ripe old age of 12, was an acceptable social posture, even for adults. When reinforced by that period’s iconoclastic literature and film, Pryor’s influence almost unfit me for life in America — or most of it, anyway — during the Age of Reagan that would soon follow.

The geography in this case turns out to be important. As I learned from Scott Saul’s adroit biography, Becoming Richard Pryor, Pryor repaired to Berkeley for most of 1971 to find (or rather, to reinvent) himself. Pryor had already learned standup comedy in Greenwich Village, migrated to Los Angeles, and flopped in Las Vegas. His model was Bill Cosby, but he finished shedding that influence in Berkeley. His home base was Alan Farley’s one-bedroom apartment near campus, not far from where police scattered tear gas one week before.

Farley worked at KPFA, the nation’s first listener-sponsored radio station, and he scheduled standup gigs and a radio program for his guest. Pryor caught the eye of Ralph J. Gleason, the Berkeley resident and San Francisco Chronicle critic who also wrote for Ramparts magazine and co-founded Rolling Stone. Gleason praised Pryor as “the very best satirist on the night club circuit.” Much later, Pryor would reject comparisons to Lenny Bruce, whose comedy albums featured Gleason’s liner notes. But much like Bruce, Pryor’s post-Berkeley persona was profane, scathingly honest, and deeply political. That was the Richard Pryor I heard on Craps (After Hours), and he was amazing.

An English professor at the University of California, Saul shares the Berkeley connection. His previous book documents the efforts of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and others to navigate cultural crosscurrents and create new musical possibilities in the 1960s. Becoming Richard Pryor nudges Saul’s readers closer to the present, but it doesn’t try to depict Pryor’s entire life; in fact, the epilogue treats everything from June 1980, when Pryor lit himself on fire after five days of cocaine and alcohol abuse, to his death in 2005. Saul focuses instead on Pryor’s artistic formation. Thus the book’s title, which echoes Bob Newhart’s comment that after the debacle in Las Vegas, “Richard Pryor decided to become Richard Pryor.”

Who was Richard Pryor before that? A damaged child, mostly. His paternal grandmother, who raised him, also ran a brothel in the thriving vice district of Peoria, Illinois. His mother lived elsewhere, his father was a violent pimp, and his stepmother turned tricks. It wasn’t the sort of childhood that Bill Cosby had turned into comedy gold, but Saul shows how Pryor’s Peoria experience shaped his outlook, art, and turbulent personal life.

After his Berkeley sojourn, Pryor returned to Los Angeles and landed a tiny role in Lady Sings the Blues, the Billie Holiday biopic. During the shoot, his part expanded steadily until he was billed as a supporting actor. That pattern, which hinged on Pryor’s knack for stealing scenes with improvised dialog, was repeated in several other pictures. After that film wrapped, Mel Brooks recruited him to work on Blazing Saddles. Pryor, a lifelong Lash LaRue fan, wanted the role of Black Bart that eventually went to Cleavon Little. The stumbling block was Pryor’s reputation as a drug fiend. He worked on the screenplay, but many of his best lines were cut from the film. After Bart bunks with Lily von Shtupp (played by Madeline Kahn), he is asked how his evening went. “I don’t know,” Pryor had Bart reply, “but I think I invented pornography.”

Pryor didn’t appear with Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles, but the two worked together on Silver Streak and Stir Crazy. In the former, Pryor’s limited role again grew into a substantial one. His improvisations sparked the film’s signature scene, in which Pryor applies blackface to Wilder, coaches him on his African-American disguise, and manages to skewer Hollywood’s minstrel tradition. Stir Crazy, the unofficial sequel, was the third-highest grossing film of 1981.

In the early 1980s, Saul maintains, “the future of Hollywood itself was bound up with the riddle of [Pryor’s] appeal.” The studios would solve that riddle by favoring blockbusters over what Saul calls “a certain sort of ‘1970s movie’ that sat uneasily within its supposed genre.” Pryor’s work after his self-ignition was unremarkable, and even his best roles couldn’t showcase the range and insight he displayed in his standup work. Even so, Saul makes a strong case that Pryor’s screen and television work created the necessary room for Eddie Murphy, In Living Color, Chappelle’s Show, and Key and Peele to flourish.

Pryor’s severe burn and recovery calmed his spirit, but his health deteriorated steadily after his 1986 diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. Seven years later, he launched a farewell tour that focused on his life with the disease. A boxed set of his standup work appeared in 2000, and he died of a heart attack five years later. He was only 65, but much of his best work was already three decades old. In the epilogue, Saul marshals the expected tributes. Bob Newhart said Pryor was “the single most seminal comedic influence in the past 50 years,” Chris Rock named him “the Rosa Parks of comedy,” and Mel Brooks called him “the funniest comedian of all time.”

To measure Pryor’s achievement, Saul considers him as a comic, social critic, and crossover artist. Longtime friend and colleague Paul Mooney summarized Pryor’s social criticism with a single epithet: Dark Twain. But it was Pryor’s work as a crossover artist, Saul argues, that is “probably the most misunderstood and underappreciated aspect of his career.” If his television and film work couldn’t accommodate his range and depth, it was nevertheless true that his success changed an industry that largely kept black talent in a media ghetto. In his life as well as his work, Saul argues, Pryor was “crossing over” from the time he emerged, twisted but not broken, from Peoria’s red-light district. In this superb biography, Saul expertly traces those transgressions and makes the strongest possible case for Pryor’s cultural centrality.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His new book, No Simple Highway: A Cultural History of the Grateful Dead, was an Amazon Best Book of the Month in history and a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. Richardson’s history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism.

Book Review: ‘The Stranger: Barack Obama In The White House’

A reading from the annals of American journalism:

The inescapable hurry of the press inevitably means a certain degree of superficiality. It is neither within our power nor our province to be ultimately profound. We write 365 days a year the first rough draft of history, and that is a very great task.

These words, spoken by Washington Post publisher Philip Graham in 1953, have aged well. Six decades later, we have more daily news, opinion, and analysis than ever, but profundity is still scarce. If that standard is too high for the first draft of history, what can we reasonably expect from the second?

Chuck Todd’s The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House raises this question with unusual force. Todd hosts Meet the Press, serves as NBC News’ political director, and was that network’s chief White House correspondent from 2008 to 2014. Few journalists are in better position to tell the inside story of Barack Obama and his presidency. Todd’s announced goal for The Stranger is to “bring readers behind the scenes to understand both who Barack Obama is and who he isn’t, what he strives to be and what he actually is.”

Todd does indeed bring readers behind the scenes, furnishing almost 500 pages of D.C. war stories, many of them media-centric, and most of them involving Obama. But Todd’s portrait of Obama is more problematic. Part of the problem is his book’s episodic structure. Most of the 19 chapters examine a specific challenge that Obama has faced in office: health care reform, Afghanistan, the 2010 elections, gays in the military, handling the Clintons, refuting the birthers, and so on. Each chapter reflects firsthand reporting and adds a drizzle of analysis. But the great issues of the day are set next to trifles like beads on a string, with little or no indication of their relative importance. It’s a difficult way to produce a portrait or even a cohesive narrative. As Todd plows through the crises, conflicts, and teapot tempests, I thought of Ben Hecht, who compared daily journalism to telling time by looking only at the minute hand of the clock.

What portrait of Obama we do have is furnished mostly through contrast. Joe Biden figures heavily and positively in Todd’s account, almost always as the president’s old-school liaison with a truculent Congress. Bill Clinton is the consummate retail politician, the kind Obama perversely refuses to become. The president’s other foils include Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, but Todd returns again and again to The Man from Hope. Obama’s problems with Congress could be solved if only he, like President Clinton, persisted in winning over his enemies even as they try to pulverize him. Instead, Obama relies too much on logic and rationality in an irrational world. Worse, he “shows clear disdain for almost every institution that defines the Capitol.” As a consequence, Washington’s “governing culture” returns that disdain, and nothing is accomplished.

Todd’s description of Obama matches others in circulation, but here’s where checking the hour hand of the clock might be worthwhile. Yes, President Clinton cooperated with the GOP — for example, to deregulate Wall Street. In doing so, he helped enable the fraud and greed that eventually crashed the global economy. Working with the Republican Congress, Clinton also reduced the annual deficit, and like many in the Beltway, Todd blesses Obama’s efforts to do the same — even during a weak recovery, when austerity is precisely the wrong move for economic growth. Finally, Clinton helped the Republican Congress “end welfare as we have come to know it.” Todd thinks Obama could likewise work productively with the GOP on “entitlement reform”

Though Obama has long said he would like to revise the social safety net programs that suck up so much of the federal government’s money (an issue on which he could find common ground with Republicans), many Democrats, particularly the ones in leadership, have made it clear they have no intention of allowing benefit cuts.

These programs presumably include Social Security, which has its own funding stream, performs the job it’s supposed to do, and is popular with the American people. It seems never to occur to Todd that working with the GOP to cut benefits would hurt the vast majority of Americans, just as the bipartisan deregulation of Wall Street did. For him, spending cuts would demonstrate leadership, and that’s what matters.

Like many of his media colleagues, Todd also can’t resist false equivalencies. Both George W. Bush and Obama, he writes, early on addressed a crisis “by tackling something that, though tangentially related, didn’t share a direct relationship to the immediate concern.” Bush responded to 9/11 by invading Iraq, while Obama focused on health care reform instead of the recession. A better description might be that Bush manufactured a problem in Iraq whose remedy produced a catastrophe. In contrast, Obama addressed a real problem (health care) with mixed results, and passed an economic stimulus that was offset by spending cuts at the state and local level. Meanwhile, he tried to clean up Bush’s mess in Iraq and later approved a mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — an immediate concern by any definition.

If you like clichés and mixed metaphors with your false equivalencies, Todd won’t disappoint you:

There was no doubt that Republicans in Congress were doing everything they could to destroy the president’s agenda, but if Barack Obama wanted to glimpse the other great obstruction, he needed only to look into the mirror. Because while he didn’t have a willing dance partner, he seemed completely flummoxed by how to navigate these political waters and ask for a dance.

What Obama would see in the mirror, apparently, is an awkward teenager failing to navigate the political waters at the prom. (This is what the New York Times rather generously calls “utilitarian prose.”) But even if we disentangle Todd’s metaphors, the dance trope doesn’t work. Todd details the lengths to which Republicans now go to avoid contact with Obama for fear of attacks from their right. The girls in Todd’s metaphor wouldn’t dance with Obama under any circumstances; even being seen with him would end their social lives. Here and elsewhere, Todd implicitly equates Obama’s reluctance to perpetually court his adversaries with their reflexive refusal to engage him constructively.

By way of conclusion, Todd assesses Obama’s reputation:

[Obama’s] legacy in the long run may have bright prospects, but as it stands in the near future he will be a president whose potential wasn’t realized. He nudged the political spectrum to the left, without changing it. He began a recovery, without completing it. He passed major legislative initiatives by compromising some of the values he held dear.

As Todd notes, Obama likes policies (such as Romneycare) once favored by moderate Republicans. That’s what “the left” means in this paragraph. As for the idea of nudging a spectrum: Is that even possible? And how would Obama have completed the economic recovery? Certainly not by accommodating the GOP, whose austerity program was far more economically wrongheaded than his own. To realize his potential, Obama should have changed the political spectrum (whatever that means), completed the economic recovery with or without Congress, and built broad consensus for major reforms without compromising his values. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why Chuck Todd makes the big bucks.

Finally, there’s the matter of timing. One wonders why Todd would offer this portrait as Obama enters the final two years of his presidency — what Obama calls the fourth quarter, when “interesting stuff happens.” His recent initiatives on immigration reform, Cuba, and China support that remark. Todd’s assessment of Obama’s legacy is premature at best, even if his war stories are welcome.

Falling somewhere between rough draft and polished presidential history, The Stranger offers interesting and valuable information about Obama and his presidency but struggles to transcend the superficiality of daily journalism. For this reason, and despite its contributions, The Stranger doesn’t realize its potential.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

Book Review: ‘The Georgetown Set’

Great minds, we are told, discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; and small minds discuss people. But as Gregg Herken’s carefully researched book shows, you can learn a lot about Cold War ideas and events by discussing the right people. Specifically, you can see how flaws and weaknesses in U.S. foreign policy, intelligence, and political journalism arose from a smart, largely well meaning, occasionally unhinged, and dangerously insular slice of the Washington establishment.

The period is familiar turf for Herken, the University of California historian whose previous books explore the development of nuclear weapons. In The Georgetown Set: Friends and Rivals in Cold War Washington, he turns his attention to the DC dinner-party circuit of Philip and Katharine Graham, George Kennan, Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Frank Wisner, and a revolving cast of characters that included Dean Acheson, Chip Bohlen, Averell Harriman, and John F. Kennedy. Their influence was such that one insider called those parties “a form of government by invitation,” and Herken’s detailed portrait lends credence to the book’s opening quote from Henry Kissinger: “The hand that mixes the Georgetown martini is time and time again the hand that guides the destiny of the Western world.”

Before the Second World War, Washington dinners were formal affairs, but those gave way to what journalist Joseph Alsop called “zoo parties,” featuring alcohol-fueled exchanges about politics and current affairs. At Alsop’s Sunday night suppers, party affiliation was less important than breeding and wit, and the host expected to hear strong opinions over cocktails and terrapin soup. Alsop skillfully extracted inside information from his guests, who knew that their remarks might appear in the syndicated column he wrote with his younger brother. Although Herken’s training is in diplomatic history, his book offers valuable lessons about Cold War political journalism.

The narrative also opens a window on the CIA’s early days. As director of the agency’s covert operations, the manic-depressive Frank Wisner was responsible for many debacles, and even his victories were often spoiled by downstream consequences. Other books have documented the CIA’s clubby early culture, but Herken shows how it fit the Georgetown pattern and extended to the press. It was Wisner who created the agency’s secret propaganda machine, which he nicknamed the Mighty Wurlitzer. Named after the theater organs that guided audience reactions to silent films, the program was designed to shape public opinion both here and abroad, and it relied on the New York Times, Fortune magazine, and the Alsops to put favorable spin on CIA stories. When Wisner’s fortunes fell after the Bay of Pigs debacle, he sank into depression and committed suicide in 1965.

Two years earlier, Washington Post publisher Philip Graham, who struggled with depression and alcoholism, did the same. His widow Katharine, who inherited the newspaper from her father, took over its management, grew into the role, and led the Post through the glory days of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate. But the view from Georgetown continued to shape the paper’s coverage. The Alsop column in particular was a unique mix of access and advocacy journalism; Stewart Alsop described it as “not only the news-behind-the-news but the news-before-the-news.” The column’s influence peaked during Kennedy’s presidency, but Joe Alsop also helped polish Henry Kissinger’s image during the Nixon years.

Although the book is a group portrait, Herken returns again and again to the largely forgotten Alsop, a distant relative of Theodore Roosevelt who graduated from Groton and Harvard before rising through the journalistic ranks. He was a New Deal dandy with a touch of noblesse oblige, but mostly he was a staunch Cold Warrior. (His opinion of the Soviets didn’t improve after the KGB attempted to blackmail him over a homosexual tryst in Moscow.) He wondered who lost China, called the 1953 armistice with Korea “a concealed surrender,” coined the phrase “missile gap,” adored Jack Kennedy, and goaded LBJ to take a hard line on Vietnam. During the 1960s, he visited that country in high style twice a year, largely to bolster his unshakable conviction that the war was winnable. He came to regard his younger and more skeptical colleagues, including those who were reporting fulltime from Vietnam, as traitors.

When a U.S. defeat in Vietnam seemed inevitable, Joe Alsop predicted fresh recriminations of the who-lost-China variety. As late as 1979, he told Joan Baez that she and other antiwar activists were “all blood-guilty. You had a considerable role in causing this country quite needlessly to lose a war, with the most damaging consequences to American interests all over the world … I trust you will sleep uncomfortably for many years to come because you are haunted by the consequences of your act.” Coming from an insider who rarely missed a chance to promote American state violence, Alsop’s charge was a vast projection. The finger-pointing he predicted never transpired, but one wonders whether he was completely deluded. After all, voters soon rewarded Ronald Reagan, who considered the U.S. effort in Vietnam a “noble cause” sabotaged by spineless politicians.

It’s tempting to wax nostalgic about bipartisan dinner parties and the golden age of American newspapers, but Herken reminds us that the good old days weren’t all that good. His subjects, he concludes, “bore no little responsibility for the miscalculations and disasters of that era: the danger, profligacy, and waste of a runaway nuclear arms race; reckless and costly clandestine adventures overseas; complacency in the face of political reaction at home; and, not least of all, the protracted debacle of Vietnam.” In short, the hands that mixed those Georgetown martinis had a great deal of blood on them.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

Book Review: ‘On Highway 61’

Highway 61 — which connects Duluth, Minnesota, with St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans — also served as Bob Dylan’s musical lifeline. “I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country,” Dylan wrote in his memoir. “It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors.” That stretch of asphalt also furnished the title for Dylan’s 1965 album featuring “Like A Rolling Stone.”

Dennis McNally’s new book, On Highway 61, effectively traces Dylan’s musical genealogy, but it’s much more than a study of his influences. McNally’s larger argument is that an “American alternate voice” that started with Henry David Thoreau can be heard in Mark Twain’s fiction as well as the African-American music that radiated from the Mississippi River. For all its variety, that music consistently emphasized cultural and spiritual freedom and gradually widened white America’s vision and increased its tolerance. The civil rights victories of the 1960s, McNally maintains, were the result of that “long, rich progression” whose apotheosis was Dylan.

In many ways, On Highway 61 serves as a prequel to McNally’s previous works: Desolate Angel, his biography of Jack Kerouac, and A Long Strange Trip, his bestselling history of the Grateful Dead. (McNally worked for the Dead as a publicist after earning a Ph.D. in American history.) Elsewhere McNally casts those works as a two-volume history of the post-war counterculture, but in his new book, he “wanted to dig into older and deeper roots” of the 1960s. In doing so, he found “a fundamental origin in the ongoing relationship between white, often young Americans and African-American culture, primarily music.”

McNally begins with Thoreau, the New England abolitionist who questioned American materialism and celebrated the pastoral. Thoreau visited the Mississippi River Valley only once toward the end of his life, and McNally offers no evidence that he ever turned his gaze to African-American music. (We know he enjoyed sea chanteys, especially “Tom Bowline.”) But if Thoreau is an unlikely point of origin for this regional history, his anti-war posture, civil disobedience, transcendentalism, and back-to-the-land impulse make him the perfect avatar for the 1960s.

From Thoreau, McNally shifts to Mark Twain, whose birthplace of Hannibal, Missouri, lies on Highway 61. Twain married into a New England abolitionist family, set his greatest fiction on the Mississippi River, and associated freedom with America’s vast hinterland. (“But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” Huck Finn concludes, “because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.”) McNally makes no case for Thoreau’s direct influence on Twain, and once a shared emphasis on the pastoral connects the two writers, that notion fades from view. What remains is “the freedom principle,” which McNally presents as an alternative to the dominant strain of American materialism.

Twain enjoyed minstrelsy and was an ardent fan of the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, whose spirituals he endorsed as late as 1897. According to McNally, these two genres virtually exhausted professional black entertainment in the late nineteenth century. (Shows based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which were popular even decades after the Civil War, were the only other reliable vehicle for black entertainers.) Music critic and Dylan biographer Robert Shelton has argued that spirituals were even more problematic than minstrelsy insofar as they represented white society’s appropriation of an African-American form. McNally respectfully disagrees but notes that spirituals wouldn’t become popular with black audiences until the twentieth century.

After describing the rise of ragtime in and around St. Louis, McNally shifts to a higher gear. In short order, he offers capsule biographies of trailblazing bluesman W.C. Handy, Charley Patton, jazz pioneers Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden, and Louis Armstrong. It was Armstrong, McNally argues, who placed jazz at the center of American culture and “set the music free.” McNally mentions but declines to explore the more complicated question of Armstrong’s personal freedom. In fact, Armstrong encouraged black artists to seek the protection of a powerful white patron, and his own turned out to be the Chicago mob. And though many thought Armstrong’s showmanship bore an uncomfortable resemblance to minstrelsy, McNally’s broader point about his centrality is well taken.

McNally’s narrative stays in overdrive for the next 150 pages. Along the way, we meet Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Duke Ellington, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Odetta, Muddy Waters, Pete Seeger, Jack Kerouac, Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, and many others. We also make short stops for the folklorists and record labels that gathered and disseminated the music. Readers may lose sight of McNally’s larger argument as the cast of characters grows, but two important themes emerge from the middle portion of the book. The first is that white musicians admired and absorbed the innovations of their African-American counterparts and idols. By way of example, McNally sketches Chicago during the 1920s, where Hoagy Carmichael, Bix Beiderbecke, Gene Krupa, and Benny Goodman steeped themselves in the fertile jazz scene. McNally is alert to thorny issues of white appropriation and domination, and though he declines to explore that question in depth, he uses it to temper what might otherwise read as a triumphalist story of American cultural progress. (That story must now accommodate the strife in Ferguson, Missouri, which lies close to Highway 61.)

The second major emergent theme is that African-American music and its popularity set the stage for the civil rights movement. Again, any attempt to see that movement steadily and whole would hijack the book, and McNally wisely focuses on how American music paced, reflected, and sometimes modeled broader social change. Interestingly, McNally maintains that the folk revival of the 1950s, which is tightly linked to the civil rights movement in the public imagination, was merely one manifestation of the freedom principle — more intellectual than ragtime and jazz, but no more central to the civil rights dialogue.

The last quarter of the book is straight Dylan biography. The book’s main thesis disappears until McNally considers the recording of “Like a Rolling Stone.” With that song, McNally asserts, Dylan became the center of a cultural nexus that was “the manifestation and fulfillment of the freedom principle that had existed since Thoreau.” McNally carries his narrative though Highway 61 Revisited, noting that Dylan finished recording it the same week that Congress passed the Voting Rights Act. He also asserts that Dylan “represented a great flowering of the influence of the African American quest for freedom on the arts, both in his genuine commitment to the civil rights movement and his use of black influences in his music.”

Some readers may find this formulation problematic. Dylan was important and seminal, but his relationship to the civil rights movement and his “use of black influences in his music” didn’t distinguish him from many precursors, contemporaries, or later artists. Here and elsewhere, McNally’s thesis is perhaps better understood as an organizing device for a wide-ranging story about African-American music and its reception. Likewise, Highway 61 focuses that story geographically, but some of the music McNally discusses originated or flourished elsewhere. Chicago receives a great deal of attention, as does New York, where Dylan recorded Highway 61 Revisited on Seventh Avenue, perhaps the least pastoral spot in North America.

In short, McNally’s saga is no simple highway. Both the map and the territory resist reduction, and the underlying story isn’t built for speed. But On Highway 61’s considerable pleasures are more about the journey than the destination. To paraphrase Thoreau’s mentor, McNally doesn’t take us where the path may lead; instead, he goes where there is no path and leaves a trail.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

Book Review: ‘You Lie!’

Though often denigrated, polemic has a long and colorful history in America. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which referred to kings as “crowned ruffians,” was as incendiary as it was popular during the Revolutionary era. Pamphlets charging the powerful with corruption and immorality could be vulgar and vicious, but they had one key virtue. By raising their subjects excessively, they focused attention on significant public issues.

Good polemic requires more than a knack for invective. To attack someone successfully, the polemicist must first establish his own credibility. This requirement is especially important now that readers can check facts and sources instantaneously. Another key to effective polemic is the ability to re-frame opposing arguments, which typically have some merit. “A talented polemicist,” journalist Lee Siegel maintained recently in The Wall Street Journal, “should win some converts from the opposition simply by making the case that his opponent’s argument isn’t crazed or pernicious, just radically incomplete.”

Jack Cashill’s literary output is largely polemical. He’s a weekly contributor to WorldNetDaily, a right-wing website founded by Joseph Farah in 1997. As recently as last year, the site reported that Barack Obama isn’t a natural-born American citizen and is therefore ineligible to serve as president. In 2009, Farah objected to President Obama’s speech at Buchenwald, the notorious German concentration camp. “We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished,” Obama said. Farah conceded that the context for this statement was confronting Holocaust deniers. But he also suspected that Obama was signaling to Muslims that he would continue their work, which, Farah implies, includes smiting the Jews. “So, I ask you,” Farah concluded, “am I really taking Obama’s words at Buchenwald out of context? Or am I the only one seeing them in context?”

Producing an average of one book per year since 2003, Cashill has found a modest audience. His publishers include WND Books and Thomas Nelson, both of which are connected to WorldNetDaily; the latter distributes its books through HarperCollins Christian Publishing. Cashill’s Deconstructing Obama (2011), which argues that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s two bestselling memoirs, was published by Threshold Editions. A Simon & Schuster imprint whose editor-in-chief is former GOP operative Mary Matalin, Threshold made news last year when it withdrew The Embassy House, Dylan Davies’ book about his experience in Benghazi. That decision followed Davies’ appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes. (CBS also owns Simon & Schuster.) When officials refuted Davies’ account, 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan apologized on air for inaccuracies in her story and took a leave of absence.

Cashill’s latest effort is published by Broadside, an imprint of HarperCollins whose mission includes “creating a forum for cutting-edge conservative ideas.” In 2010, Broadside head Adam Bellow said he intended to “uphold a standard of intellectual seriousness on the right.” Their books would be “serious, soberly argued, well researched, and make a respectable case—agree or disagree.”

Cashill’s purpose in You Lie! is to examine President Obama’s falsehoods — a category expanded to accommodate verbal gaffes, bad predictions, exaggerations, and unfulfilled pledges — since the beginning of Obama’s political career almost two decades ago. As Cashill notes, liberals have written similar books about conservatives in general (Joe Conason’s Big Lies) and President George W. Bush in particular (David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush). But Cashill goes one step further than his liberal counterparts. In effect, he bundles up the president’s purported lies and dubs that entire package Obama’s true self. Obama doesn’t simply lie from time to time; he is essentially a liar.

Nevertheless, most of the discussion in You Lie! doesn’t document clear-cut fabrications. Instead, Cashill rehearses talking points a casual viewer of Fox News would recognize immediately: overheated charges about Benghazi, the New Black Panther Party, the ATF’s Fast and Furious program, and so on. Under Republican leadership, the House of Representatives has investigated all of these charges ad nauseam, and the results are a banquet of nothingburgers.

On issues where the Obama administration (not always the president) might be culpable, Cashill flattens every complexity and nuance. Often his charges are supported poorly or not at all, and some of the lies are demonstrable truths. For example, Cashill claims that Obama lied when he said Warren Buffett paid a lower income tax rate than his secretary. Two paragraphs later, Cashill admits that Buffett paid a lower rate, but only because a greater percentage of his income came from capital gains. Cashill also claims that Obama lied when he said of Mitt Romney, “When you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia—not al Qaeda.” That statement was a lie not because it was untrue, Cashill explains, but because Romney never suggested that al Qaeda “was anything less than a serious threat.”

Cashill also challenges Obama’s remark that some of his economic policies would have made him a moderate Republican in the 1980s. Instead of refuting that remark, Cashill settles for a smear. “There was another Obama hiding in the shadows,” he notes ominously. “That Obama emerged in all his pinkish glory on an October 2008 afternoon in Holland, Ohio.” That’s when Obama told Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher that he wanted “to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance, too.” Obama followed that comment with what Cashill calls “the unwittingly honest kicker,” which is as follows: “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

Cashill maintains that this “was not a comment a moderate Republican would have made in 1880, let alone 1980.” Again he offers no evidence, so I decided to look for some. I immediately found a quote from longtime Republican and FDIC chair Sheila Bair. “Having worked for Senate Republicans in the 1980s,” Bair wrote in a 2013 New York Times article, “I remember a time when Republicans stood up to special interests and purged the tax code of preferences for investment income and other special breaks.” My computer also told me that the top marginal tax rate in 1980 was 70 percent, and it was 91 percent under President Eisenhower. Today it’s 35 percent, and capital gains are taxed at only 15 percent. (In 1978, the maximum capital gains tax was reduced to 28 percent.) Finally, I found this quote in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 State of the Union address: “The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government.” Two years later, this GOP hero endorsed an income tax and an inheritance tax. In less than a minute of online searching, I found more relevant (and exculpatory) evidence than Cashill offers in two pages of fervid prose.

I checked out three other so-called lies. One was Obama’s comment that his mother spent the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies. False, says Cashill; her insurance company paid those bills. But Obama’s mother was refused disability insurance and therefore had to pay uncovered costs out of her pocket. The New York Times article Cashill cites includes that point, but he doesn’t mention it. Is it a stretch to imagine that Obama’s ailing mother used some of her precious time arguing about the denial of disability insurance?

Another Obama stretcher was his assurance that if Americans liked their health insurance plans, they could keep them under Obamacare. To dramatize his point, Cashill cites the case of Edie Sundby, who suffered from cancer and lost her coverage when her health insurer withdrew from the individual market in California. “Our individual business in California has always been relatively small and we currently serve less [sic] than 8,000 individual customers across the state,” the company said in a 2013 statement. “Over the years, it has become more difficult to administer these plans in a cost-effective way for our members in California.” Cashill never mentions the company’s stated reason for leaving the California market; rather, he attributes that departure to the advent of Obamacare. It’s one thing to say that satisfied customers could keep their insurance; it’s quite another to say that health insurance companies had to keep their sick customers. The gap between those two statements was one of the reasons for reforming health care in the first place.

Finally, there is Obama’s purported lie about climate change. “But the debate is settled,” Obama said. “Climate change is a fact.” Cashill reports that more than 30,000 scientists, 9,000 of them holding Ph.D.s, signed the Global Warming Petition, which challenges the evidence for climate change. Cashill doesn’t tell you that this petition includes a relatively small number of climate scientists. NASA, which might be a more authoritative source on this question, reports that “97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” The National Association of Scientists and Royal Society of London have issued similar findings. Cashill also would have us believe that Obama cherrypicked his evidence when he noted that the 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. There’s a cherrypicker here, but it’s not Obama.

Not everything in You Lie! is tendentious. Cashill rightly calls out President Obama for his unfulfilled promise to make transparency a touchstone of his administration. In fact, the administration has used the Espionage Act to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers more times than all other administrations combined. But we don’t need Cashill to break this news; more credible sources (including those on the left) have been reporting it for some time.

In short, Cashill doesn’t show that Obama’s positions are radically incomplete; instead, he proves that his own are narrowly partial. He also assumes a lazy, gullible, or similarly blinkered audience. I’m less concerned, however, about the quality of Cashill’s screed than the fact that HarperCollins, one of the five remaining major trade publishers in America, decided to publish it in the first place. There’s an embarrassingly large gap between this book’s intellectual seriousness and Adam Bellow’s announced standards. Founded in 1817 and now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, this is the company that published Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age and other landmarks in American literature. One wonders what Twain, that connoisseur of American folly, would make of these “cutting-edge conservative ideas.”

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

Book Review: ‘Seven Bad Ideas’

Few writers have done more than Jeff Madrick to guide American readers through the coils of political economy. His many books — including Why Economies Grow (2002), The Case for Big Government (2009), and Age of Greed (2011)— combine broad historical analysis and specific policy proposals. A stream of essays for The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, and other outlets also challenges our reflexive reverence for markets and aversion to government regulation, both of which have dominated economic thinking for decades.

Madrick edits Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs and has directed policy programs at various institutes. (When I was the economics editor at the University of California Press, he also served as my advisor.) Yet his current teaching appointment at Cooper Union is in humanities, not economics. That niche is fitting insofar as Madrick, an elegant writer, targets generally educated readers and situates economic issues in their social, political, and historical contexts. This approach is rare in the United States, where economists write dry scholarly papers for each other and aspire to timeless truths.

We might compare Madrick’s posture to Thomas Piketty’s, whose bestselling Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) claimed that economics has yet to overcome “its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.” Piketty’s jab was clearly aimed at mainstream American economists.

There is one great advantage to being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political or financial elites. Hence they must put aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.

If Piketty’s tone was feisty, his appeal was for greater intellectual scope, engagement, and humility among economists. On this point, Piketty and Madrick agree.

The global economic meltdown beginning in 2007 strengthened and sharpened Madrick’s critique of the profession. That entirely preventable disaster should have chastened the free-market fundamentalists who have controlled economic policy since the 1980s. Their failure is still very much with us. Last year, U.S. median household income was 8 percent lower than it was in 2007, and the poverty rate was 2 percentage points higher.

Yet remorse is in short supply. Former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan, who touted financial deregulation at every turn, admitted to Congress that he presumed banks would do more to protect their shareholders. Not a word about homeowners, who lost $8 trillion in equity when the housing bubble popped, or the sharp rise in unemployment that followed. In 2010, Obama’s chief economic advisor, Lawrence Summers, claimed that the federal government lacked the authority to regulate markets on behalf of consumers. He made no mention of his own steadfast opposition to regulating the derivatives market, whose collapse helped precipitate the financial crisis.

Such remorselessness isn’t confined to elite policymakers. When Madrick visited the annual conference of American economists in 2009, he found “no one fundamentally changing his or her mind about the value of economics, economists, or their own work. No one questioned their contribution to the current frightening state of affairs, no one humbled by events.” He credited a handful of independent thinkers, including Robert Shiller, George Akerlof, Dean Baker, Nouriel Roubini, and James Crotty. But he found few economists willing to re-examine their basic assumptions in light of new evidence.

Madrick’s new book targets that collective stolidity. It begins with a stark claim: “Economists’ most fundamental ideas contributed centrally to the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed — the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression.” Policymakers didn’t simply fall asleep at the switch or misapply worthy ideas. Rather, an entire generation of economists embraced bad ideas and lost the capacity to criticize them. It is a measure of their insularity, Madrick argues, that the socially corrosive misery they helped create didn’t prompt a fresh review of their most cherished ideas.

The first bad idea is the biggest one of all: the so-called Invisible Hand, which Adam Smith outlined in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and The Wealth of Nations (1776). In brief, it claims that the pursuit of self-interest in a competitive marketplace allocates resources efficiently and thereby grows the economy. The mechanism for this growth consists of price signals, which guide investment, production, and consumption decisions in the absence of any central authority. Beautiful in its simplicity and power, the Invisible Hand became the foundation of modern laissez-faire economics. Smith’s original idea was less a universal law than a parable about the way markets might work under specific conditions that rarely obtain. For Madrick, the main problem isn’t Smith’s idea so much as its flatfooted reception among today’s economists. Now enshrined in standard textbooks, the Invisible Hand has become what Madrick calls “a source of clean economics in a dirty world.”

Another bad idea is that entire economies, and not only individual markets, are self-regulating. Once again, price signals are the mechanism for this self-correcting equilibrium known as Say’s law. For John Maynard Keynes, the Great Depression refuted this idea by showing that demand could remain low, and unemployment rates high, even when wages, interest rates, and prices were falling. Yet Say’s law made a comeback during the Great Recession, when many economists ignored Keynes’s analysis and called for spending cuts. The federal government resisted that call and implemented a modest Keynesian stimulus that was largely offset by state and local spending cuts. But Britain’s Conservative government implemented austerity policies with disastrous results, leading many prominent economists to withdraw their support for the Conservative program.

Madrick quotes MIT economist and Nobel Prize winner Robert Solow on the appeal of Say’s law. “There has always been a purist streak in economics that wants everything to follow neatly from greed, rationality, and equilibrium,” Solow wrote in 2008. “The theory is neat, learnable, not terribly difficult, but just technical enough to feel like ‘science.’ Moreover, it is practically guaranteed to give laissez-faire type advice, which happens to fit nicely with the general turn to the political right that began in the 1970s.” Those three sentences encapsulate much of what is wrong with the profession today.

Madrick next turns his sights to Milton Friedman, perhaps the most influential economist in the second half of the 20th century. A staunch believer in the wisdom of markets, the University of Chicago professor was also a relentless critic of Social Security, minimum-wage laws, and other measures he regarded as government interference in those markets. Madrick’s main objection to Friedman’s work is his version of American economic history, which downplayed the enormous contributions the U.S. government made to economic growth. Friedman’s popularity also reflects the profession’s penchant for economic theory and modeling. In the absence of any fine-grained historical understanding, Madrick maintains, theory building has become a kind of intellectual narcotic.

Friedman’s student, Eugene Fama, comes in for criticism for his efficient markets theory (EMT), which holds that security prices faithfully reflect the intrinsic value of that security. For Madrick, EMT made useful contributions early on but pushed the notion of rationality too far — so far, in fact, that Fama eventually rejected the very idea that markets could be irrational. “The word ‘bubble’ drives me nuts,” he said in 2007, when the housing bubble burst. Six years later, he told The New York Times, “I don’t even know what a speculative bubble means.” Fama effectively defined that term out of existence by insisting that markets were always efficient and rational. Many observers found more value in Robert Shiller’s work, which showed that speculative bubbles existed and did real damage. As the global economy went over the cliff in 2008, Lawrence Summers said he also consulted the old-school economic histories of Hyman Minsky and Charles Kindleberger, who documented the self-reinforcing nature of financial booms, crashes, and panics.

The split between Fama and Shiller, who shared the Nobel Prize in 2013, points to Madrick’s final bad idea: the notion of economics as a science. Madrick’s poster boy for this position is University of Chicago professor and Nobel Prize winner Robert Lucas. “I came to the position that mathematical analysis is not one of many ways of doing economic theory,” Lucas once said. “It is the only way. Economic theory is mathematical analysis. Everything else is just pictures and talk.” That belief led Lucas to claim “economists are in possession of a body of scientifically tested knowledge enabling them to determine, at any time, what … responses [to economic problems] should be.” Yet according to Madrick, the policy response to the 2008 crash was “an absurdist drama and a masterpiece of forgetting.” He concludes that the urge to make economics a science, or to presume it already is one, is both self-defeating and anti-intellectual.

Seven Bad Ideas isn’t an exhaustively argued treatise but rather a set of snappy essays in the pamphleteering tradition. Several themes emerge from them: an indifference to history, the drive for purity, and a nostalgic attachment to rationality, the great Enlightenment virtue that most modern thinkers view skeptically. Although mainstream economists rarely discuss power and privilege, neither is irrelevant to their professional practices. As Piketty notes, American economists enjoy outsized prestige compared to their counterparts elsewhere. They’re also remarkably attuned to incentives, including their own. Perhaps they can be shamed productively. But until their incentives change, Madrick’s calls for greater intellectual range, depth, and humility are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

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Book Review: ‘Against Football’

The National Football League has become a scandal machine. Powered by a recently released video, the media spotlight is now shining brightly on former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who punched his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who claimed he hadn’t seen the video before it was released to the public, has asked former FBI chief Robert Mueller to conduct an investigation of the incident. It’s no isolated case; NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence 85 times since 2000.

That kind of violence is a serious problem for the NFL, but it’s not the league’s only headache. Last year, it agreed to pay $765 million to settle 4,500 lawsuits from former players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Lou Gehrig’s disease, dementia, and other afflictions related to head injuries incurred on the field. The NFL admitted no wrongdoing, but a 2013 Frontline documentary showed that the league sponsored dubious medical studies to support its claim that no players had suffered brain damage. In 2005, the New York Jets’ team physician, who was the lead author on nine of those studies, even called for the retraction of a peer-reviewed article about the brain of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster. Before his death at age 50, the Hall of Fame center suffered from amnesia, dementia, and depression. A 2002 autopsy revealed that he also had CTE.

The settlement was another black eye for the NFL, but after a full decade of mendacity and obfuscation, it was the best way to keep the cash registers ringing. The league now generates more than $9 billion in annual revenue, and $44 million of that lands in the pocket of Roger Goodell. Nobody doubted that the show would go on.

The NCAA has its football problems, too: not only routine headlines about recruiting violations, but also Taylor Branch’s broader indictment in his 2011 Atlantic cover story, “The Shame of College Sports.” Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his books on Dr. Martin Luther King, claimed there was an “unmistakable whiff of the plantation” in the way college football and basketball generated huge sums of cash for everyone but the athletes. The same year, Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was indicted on 52 counts of child molestation between 1994 and 2009. Penn State’s president, athletic director, and head football coach resigned amid allegations that the university enabled or covered up the crimes, for which Sandusky received a minimum sentence of 30 years. The moral of that sad story was that preserving Penn State’s football program was thought to be more important than protecting young boys, one of whom was sodomized in the team’s shower room.

What’s a football fan to do? Fiction writer and essayist Steve Almond feels your pain and wants to intensify it. For four decades, the Bay Area native carefully followed the once mighty and now woeful Oakland Raiders. But in Against Football, he maintains that football has become too toxic for him to enjoy. And you shouldn’t enjoy it, either.

Almond’s book isn’t a manifesto; rather, it’s a searching and personal essay on the game and its powerful appeal. His attitude throughout is deep ambivalence. For him, football is “a lovely and intricate form of art” that is “perfectly engineered to hit our bliss point.” Unfortunately, it’s also shrouded in a culture of violence, crony capitalism, racism, and homophobia. Furnishing examples of each social disorder, Almond also reminds us that the NFL goes out of its way to promote militarism. The Armed Forces are major sponsors, fighter jets buzz the stadiums, and remote feeds from military bases are commonplace. The NFL allowed the White House to use the 1991 Super Bowl as an infomercial for the Gulf War, which launched 11 days before that game. Addressing the massive television audience at halftime, President Bush described that conflict as his Super Bowl. When the second Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003, the league held a kickoff concert at the National Mall. “Supporting the military is part of the fabric of the NFL,” the league’s official website declares.

Almond understands what he’s up against, and he sorts opposing views into several buckets. The first is a kind of flat amorality that passes for realism. “Football is the most popular thing in America,” ESPN commentator Scott Van Pelt said in response to the Frontline documentary. “Not the most popular sport. The most popular thing.” As an argument, Almond writes, Van Pelt’s reaction is “creepy and frankly fascistic.” But he nowhere contradicts Van Pelt’s assessment. Indeed, football’s enormous popularity only dramatizes the moral problems Almond raises.

Another reaction mirrors Almond’s own for many years. Many fans acknowledge the NFL’s shortcomings but dissociate them from the considerable pleasures of spectatorship. Upon interviewing the Boston University brain scientist who has painstakingly documented the game’s destructive effects, Almond discovers she’s a diehard New England Patriots fan. He also recounts a friend’s plea after learning about his book’s thesis: “Please don’t take this away from me.”

The third kind of reaction says a lot about the male culture the NFL helps to create. After Almond wrote a related piece for The New York Times Magazine, he received copious hate mail, a large portion of which referred to the size of his vagina.

Certainly more fans are expressing discomfort with the game and the NFL, but much of the backlash has focused on broader social problems rather than the damage the game itself produces every day. The league could be perfect on domestic violence, for example, and still be a menace. For this reason, the backlash seems unlikely to lead to the systemic reform or outright boycott Almond recommends. Current levels of disgust with the NFL resemble those reserved for our industrial food system or besmirched financial institutions. Some of us will become vegetarians or move our money to less rapacious local banks; others will simply harbor fewer illusions about those institutions and their leadership.

Meanwhile, more parents are wondering whether their children should play football in the first place. President Obama claimed that if he had a son, he wouldn’t let him play pro football. “I don’t really know where to begin here,” Almond writes. “Is the life of Obama’s hypothetical son worth more than the lives of the kids who grow into pros?” He thinks the president should “admit that it’s wrong to watch a sport so dangerous he wouldn’t let his own son play it.” Yet Obama’s comment probably reflects the views of many middle-class parents. Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin predicts that football will increasingly resemble boxing: a pathway out of poverty but a rare option for suburban children. If Zirin is right, the NFL may have trouble reaching their next financial goal: $25 billion in annual revenues, much of it expected to come from attracting more female fans. One wonders how many more American women will embrace a game that’s damaging brains, employing scores of domestic abusers, and wrapping the whole package in the American flag.

Almond has a knack for putting human faces on these issues. Toward the end of his essay, he recounts his mother’s sudden and rapid descent into dementia. In one week, she changed from a high-functioning psychoanalyst to an invalid requiring ’round-the-clock care. Almond describes her response to that decline. “One night, as I tried to explain to her for perhaps the 10th time that she could not go home yet, she looked at me in a panic. ‘Something terrible is happening to me,’ she said, and began to weep inconsolably.” Her dementia turned out to be a reaction to her medication; once home, she recovered quickly. “But no one,” Almond writes, “can come face to face with dementia and look at football in the same way. At least, I couldn’t.”

Almond doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but sometimes it’s enough to raise the right questions at the right time. Against Football does that with disarming humor and humanity.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.

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Book Review: ‘The Invisible Bridge’

The Invisible Bridge is the third and weightiest installment in Rick Perlstein’s history of postwar American conservatism. The first volume, Before the Storm (2001), culminates in Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential bid in 1964, and Nixonland (2008) carries the story through Richard Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972. The Invisible Bridge, which comes in at 810 pages without notes, climaxes with Gerald Ford’s victory over Ronald Reagan at the 1976 GOP convention.

A self-described “European-style Social Democrat,” Perlstein is an independent scholar whose work has appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, The Village Voice, The New Republic, and other left-of-center outlets. He also served as a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, where he blogged about conservative governance. It’s no surprise, then, that liberals are the implied audience for his history of American conservatism. He’s especially concerned to highlight the obtuseness of contemporary (mostly liberal) pundits who wrote off the conservative movement and its heroes in the aftermath of Goldwater’s waxing in 1964. Perlstein couples that critique with deep respect for the conservative movement’s passion, strategy, and execution. Its members “were taking risks for what they believed in,” he told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb in 2001. “We could use a little more of that these days.”

Like its predecessors, The Invisible Bridge focuses on electoral politics but serves up an enormous amount of period detail, much of it culled from archives and media accounts. In Nixonland, such detail often supports the book’s main conceit: that the club Nixon organized at Whittier College prefigured his rise to national power. The Orthogonians, Perlstein noted, appealed to the unheralded college athletes who “labor[ed] quietly, sometimes resentfully, in the quarterback’s shadow.” Building on that base of low-status strivers, Nixon managed to defeat a member of the coolest campus club in the race for student body president. Nixon’s strategy hinged on the fact that workhorses far outnumber show horses in the voting population, and it eventually informed his campaigns against Helen Gahagan Douglas and John F. Kennedy.

The Invisible Bridge’s organizing device isn’t a neat parable, but a more abstract tension between American optimism and pessimism in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and revelations about CIA and FBI abuses. Perlstein shows that Ronald Reagan resolved that tension for many Americans by insisting that even our gravest mistakes, crimes, and sins were trivial compared to our divinely ordained role as a global leader. The problem with our Vietnam policy, Reagan maintained, wasn’t its lethal wrongheadedness but rather our halfhearted effort. He minimized Watergate in his public remarks and stood by Nixon until the end, despite political advice to the contrary. Almost by definition, America could do no wrong. If a person thought that about himself, we would regard him as a sociopath.

Forty years later, American exceptionalism still resonates in both major parties, but only one seems willing to argue, as Senator Marco Rubio did last year, that America is “the greatest country in the world, and we have nothing to apologize for.” Contrast that statement, which Perlstein describes as hubristic, with President Obama’s recent concession that in the aftermath of 9/11, “We tortured some folks. We did some things that were contrary to our values.” Obama was channeling Jimmy Carter, except that Carter couldn’t prosecute Nixon, whom Ford had pardoned before any criminal investigation. Perlstein’s stated goal in The Invisible Bridge is to resuscitate that earlier period’s debate over compromised ideals in a nation that “has ever so adored its own innocence, and so dearly wishes to see itself as an exception to history.”

As President Obama’s admission suggests, Perlstein’s formulation touches on a core issue for American liberals today. Philosopher Richard Rorty raised eyebrows in 1997 when he argued that national pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. For a liberal pragmatist like Rorty, we raise questions about our individual or national identity not to determine who we really are or what history really means, but rather to decide what to do next or what we will try to become. For earlier generations of American liberals, Rorty wrote, “disgust with American hypocrisy and self-deception was pointless unless accompanied by an effort to give America reason to be proud of itself in the future.” After Vietnam, he claimed, the American left lost its ability to harness national pride to create a better future.

The Invisible Bridge is perhaps the most detailed account of that loss. Even as the GOP struggled to overcome Nixon’s legacy, the Democrats foundered. Jimmy Carter campaigned on creating a government “as idealistic, as decent, as competent, as compassionate, as good as its people.” Although that was enough to win in 1976, more Americans were warming to Reagan’s blithe optimism. The Invisible Bridge culminates with Reagan’s near miss at the GOP convention in 1976, but Perlstein shows that even there, Reagan was winning hearts and minds.

Perlstein’s achievement, both in this volume and the series as a whole, is impressive.  The research is prodigious, the prose vivid, and one can only imagine what his treatment of Reagan’s presidency will bring. Nevertheless, the sheer quantity of detail occasionally stalls the narrative, and the enormous cast of characters, most of whom appear only once, thwarts a more thorough consideration of the major players. Many California writers (most notably Carey McWilliams and Joan Didion) nailed Perlstein’s chief protagonists in real time but receive little or no mention. Likewise, the postwar California culture that shaped Nixon and Reagan (along with Jerry Brown, who figures in the 1976 race) is passed over lightly in this third volume. Hippies, whom Governor Reagan frequently disparaged, do not appear. Aside from the The Village Voice, the alternative press is largely invisible, the environmental movement is mentioned only briefly, and Nixon’s war on drugs (which President Reagan would militarize) goes unremarked. Selection and emphasis are the author’s prerogative, and Perlstein covers a great deal of ground masterfully. Even so, his account is occasionally exhausting but not quite exhaustive, especially if the goal is to deepen our understanding of Nixon and Reagan.

The omissions inflect Reagan’s portrait in particular. Perlstein is quite right to emphasize Reagan’s uncanny ability to stage himself, but he consistently presents Reagan as a blithe if somewhat detached spirit. As Joan Didion pointed out during his presidency, Reagan’s public optimism (and daily habits) perfectly reflected the Hollywood studio system at its peak. But that system also taught him how to get ahead. Director John Huston said Reagan had “a low order of intelligence. With a certain cunning.” Perhaps the latter trait helped Reagan acquire the support of powerful if shady figures. One was his agent, Lew Wasserman, who became the king of Hollywood. Wasserman’s best friend of 50 years was Sidney Korshak, whom Perlstein describes as “the colorful attorney of Chicago’s organized crime syndicate” before dropping him from his narrative. Another Reagan patron was J. Edgar Hoover, who, we now know, leaked FBI intelligence to help the California governor smite his enemies and protect his reputation. Perlstein cites Seth Rosenfeld, whose tireless legal campaign wrested away the proof of that working partnership from the FBI, but Perlstein never explores the Hoover-Reagan connection.

These relationships complicate the conventional picture of Reagan’s sunny mythmaking without detracting from Perlstein’s achievement, which is to document the conservative movement’s extraordinary rise. His account challenges the liberal assumption that Nixon and Reagan somehow put one over on American voters. Carey McWilliams, who hammered away at Nixon from his perch at The Nation, later realized it was he who had missed the point. “Again and again I asked myself why it was that so many Americans either found it difficult to take Nixon’s measure or were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt,” McWilliams recalled in his memoir. But Nixon hadn’t fooled anyone. Rather, McWilliams concluded, “A section of the public apparently felt that the times called for a bastard and that Nixon met the specification.” Some version of that conclusion applies to Reagan as well, and Perlstein’s epic forces American liberals to contend with that unsettling insight.

Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.