David Corn is Mother Jones‘ Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation.
He has written for the Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Newsday, Harper’s, The New Republic, Mother Jones, Washington Monthly, LA Weekly, the Village Voice, Slate, Salon, TomPaine.com, Alternet, and many other publications.
He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War (Crown, 2006).
His book, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown, 2003) was a New York Times bestseller. The Los Angeles Times said, "David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. The Washington Post called it "a fierce polemic…a serious case….[that] ought to be in voters’ minds when they cast their ballots. A painstaking indictment."
His first novel, Deep Background, a political thriller, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1999. The Washington Post said it is "brimming with gusto….As clean and steely as an icy Pinot Grigio….[An] exceptional thriller." The Los Angeles Times called it "a slaughterhouse scorcher of a book you don’t want to put down" and named it one of the best novels of the year. The New York Times said, "You can either read now or wait to see the movie….Crowded with fictional twists and revelations." The Chicago Tribune noted, "This dark, impressive political thriller…is a top-notch piece of fiction, thoughtful and compelling." PBS anchor Jim Lehrer observed that Deep Background is "a Washington novel with everything. It’s a page-turning thriller from first word to last…that brings some of the worst parts of Washington vividly alive."
Corn was a contributor to Unusual Suspects, an anthology of mystery and crime fiction (Vintage/Black Lizard, 1996). His short story "My Murder" was nominated for a 1997 Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America. The story was republished in The Year’s 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories (Carroll & Graf, 1997).
He is the author of the biography Blond Ghost: Ted Shackley and the CIA’s Crusades (Simon & Schuster, 1994). The Washington Monthly called Blond Ghost "an amazing compendium of CIA fact and lore." The Washington Post noted that this biography "deserves a space on that small shelf of worthwhile books about the agency." The New York Times termed it "a scorchingly critical account of an enigmatic figure who for two decades ran some of the agency’s most important, and most controversial, covert operations."
Corn has long been a commentator on television and radio. He is a regular panelist on the weekly television show, Eye On Washington. He has appeared on The O‘Reilly Factor, Hannity and Colmes, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Crossfire, The Capital Gang, Fox News Sunday, Washington Week in Review, The McLaughlin Group, Hardball, C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, and many other shows. He is a regular on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show and To The Point and has contributed commentary to NPR, BBC Radio, and CBC Radio. He has been a guest on scores of call-in radio programs.
Corn is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University.
[FOR TWO UPDATES, SCROLL TO THE END.]
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A few years ago I concocted a theory about John Grisham I was too lazy to prove. Here was the hypothesis: This bestselling author was the most successful popularizer of populist notions in American culture. His stories--on paper and onscreen--often pit small folks against malicious corporations and their anything-for-a-buck lawyers who manipulate a system that favors monied elites. In The Pelican Brief, a rapacious oil developer looking to drill in the environmentally precious marshlands of Louisiana funnels millions to government officials and bumps off two Supreme Court Justices to thwart a lawsuit brought by public-interest lawyers against his wildlife-threatening scheme. In The Rainmaker, a young lawyer battles a mega-firm on behalf of a couple screwed over by an insurance company that won't cover a bone-marrow transplant for their son, who is dying of leukemia. The Runaway Jury's bad guy is Big Tobacco. In The Street Lawyer, a corporate attorney bolts from his firm when he discovers it's been wrongfully evicting poor people from their homes. Justice for sale. Money in politics. Corporate greed and malfeasance. And millions of readers devour this stuff.
But not me. I was interested in this notion of Grisham the Populist, based on reading the book reviews and seeing several Grisham flicks. After tearing through The Pelican Brief--too breezy, too melodramatic, too unrealistic, even for airport fiction--I was not eager to do the heavy lifting necessary to confirm the theory (that is, read the books). Instead, I tasked an assistant to peruse some Grisham novels and draft plot summaries. In the meantime, I wrote Grisham and requested an interview to discuss the politics of Grishamland. Should face time be granted, I figured, I would crack open paperbacks in preparation. In the meantime, the summaries started appearing on my desk, and my assistant complained, "This is like reading television." But no word came back from Oxford, Mississippi. I deep-sixed Project Grisham.
Then recently the phone rang. A book review editor asked, "Didn't you once have some ideas about John Grisham?" "Well, uh, kind of, but I didn't really pursue it...." Yet that was enough for this editor: The new Grisham was being FedExed to my office. I was back on the case.
I was under no illusion that Grisham was a modern-day Steinbeck or Odets. He's not writing to send a message. And he does take his swipes at progressive-minded characters. The NAACP lawyer in A Time to Kill is an egotistical cad who cares more about money and power than helping a black man on trial for killing the two white men who raped his daughter. The anti-tobacco activists of The Runaway Jury use underhanded means to defeat the tobacco-industry lawyers. But by placing legal Davids in battle against corporate Goliaths to derive drama, Grisham has consistently presented an unflattering picture of the Enron class. However, his latest, The Summons, only marginally hews to such a story line. The main clash is not between the powerful and the screwed. It occurs within a family. There is an evil-corporations subplot, but it's mostly device, not driving force.
The setup: Ray Atlee, a 43-year-old law professor at the University of Virginia, receives a letter from his dying father, "The Judge," calling Atlee back home to Clanton, Mississippi, to discuss his father's estate. Atlee, estranged from Dad and the ancestral home, does not look forward to the trip. He's already in a funk. His ex-wife has married a millionaire corporate raider and borne him twins (conceived, all too obviously, while she was married to Atlee), and a lovely (and rich) third-year law student is teasing Atlee silly. So off he goes in his midlife-crisis sports coupe to the town he escaped. When Atlee arrives home, he finds Dad dead. Atlee dutifully starts organizing his father's papers and stumbles across a surprise: more than $3 million in cash hidden in twenty-seven stationer's boxes. Where did this poorly paid public servant get the moolah? What should Atlee do with all those Ben Franklins? Include them in the estate--which would mean the government would grab its share, his father's honor might be tainted and Atlee's alcoholic/junkie brother, Forrest, would claim half and be able to finance his descent into complete self-destruction?
This is a what-would-you-do mystery, and a how-would-you-do-it thriller. (We learn that three mil in hundreds fills three large garbage bags--and that poses logistical difficulties if you're driving a car with a small trunk.) Grisham throws in enough moral shading to supply Atlee reason beyond avarice to take the money and run. But greed hovers, even as Atlee tells himself he's not sure he's going to keep the loot. First, he has to uncover the backstory.
A warning to any potential readers of The Summons: There are a few plot points in this book, and to describe it further is to reveal precious twists. If you have an inclination to read this novel, do not continue beyond this paragraph. Skip ahead to the review of the Italian Baroque lady painter who specialized in blood-drenched scenes.
OK, now that the Grisham fans are gone, let me say that this book is much better than the improbability-ridden Pelican Brief, but it was still unsatisfying. The main dilemma is engaging--what to do with free, albeit probably tainted, money?--yet there's not much oomph to the tale. Perhaps that's because Grisham does not provide reason for readers to care about Atlee. He's a good-enough sort, plays well with fellow faculty members, has been hurt by a woman who done him wrong and won't sleep with a student until she graduates. He specializes in antitrust, but we're spared his views. He's not the Jimmy Stewart type, drawn helplessly into an alternative world of intrigue. He's a guy who likes flying and is coasting. Until he finds the cash.
Atlee then faces three immediate challenges: how to move the money without being spotted, how to determine whether it's marked and how to discover its origins. Of course, he's able to succeed on each front, but the trouble is that these tasks end up not requiring great ingenuity. Also, there's someone trailing him, and that unknown person wants the cash and is willing to use violence to get it. Atlee has to watch his back as he shuttles to various rental-storage lockers (where he keeps the money) and to various casinos (where he drops hundred-dollar bills, looking to see if the expert money-handlers will detect them as marked). As for the money's source, Atlee's investigation is too straightforward. In the judge's papers, the files concerning one case are missing. Atlee heads to the Gulf Coast to examine the court records. He then talks to the lawyer who won. And--bing!--that mystery is solved, a bit too easily.
It is this case that brings us the novel's hint of populism. Seems a Swiss pharmaceutical behemoth was selling an anticholesterol drug that had an unfortunate side effect: kidney failure. The company was aware of the problem but marketed the drug anyway. By the time Judge Atlee came to be presiding over a wrongful death suit, filed against the company by a widow living in rural Mississippi, tens of thousands of kidneys had been ruined. The judge showed the company's lawyers no quarter and in the end socked the pharma with an $11.1 million fine. "The opinion," Grisham writes, "was a scathing indictment of corporate recklessness and greed.... [The] trial was Judge Atlee at his finest." How did this lead to boxes full of cash? I'll leave that to your imagination. Here Grisham is in sync with his past us-versus-them plots. But The Summons does not dwell upon the malfeasance of the drug-maker. Rather, the book blasts away at the attorney who won the case, in what amounts to an indictment of mass-tortlawyers. The pages drip with scorn for attorneys who become wealthy by handling class-action suits against corporate malefactors, such as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers. "I worship money," this lawyer tells Atlee. Grisham takes the bogeymen of the Naderish left and the Chamber of Commerce right--corporate evildoers and trial attorneys--and places them in a state of moral equivalence.
But this is far from the point of the book; it's simply the point of my review, for there's not much to dig into in The Summons. The solutions to the few mysteries in it are not big shockers. The novel contains just enough elegant touches to make readers realize there should be more. Atlee's difficult relationship with his brother is rendered well. The impact of the found money on Atlee is interesting to watch. Yes, watch--this is like reading television. But the drama is not as intense as in A Simple Plan, which used a similar scenario. (Grisham does obliquely reference that book/movie in this novel.) Atlee's desire to hold on to the bucks ends up threatening his comfortable life, and Grisham throws in a much-yearned-for curveball toward the end. For a moment, it looks as if Atlee might actually be facing time in the slammer. But fate is not that unkind. And who is it that's after Atlee? A reader who looks at this book as an English parlor mystery, wherein the culprit has to be someone in the room, will not be hard pressed to conjure up the answer.
Back to the important matter: my take on Grisham. He's certainly not writing left-wing agitprop disguised as legal-drama pulp. But in his universe, lustful and reckless corporations often run wild until they are checked by a righteous judge or some other soul moved by ideals, not dollars. Trial attorneys might be scumbuckets who care more about champagne baths than about their clients. Still, Grisham has the novel's annoying millionaire ambulance-chaser tell Atlee, "It takes people like me to keep 'em honest"--a proposition that neither author nor protagonist rebuts. The Summons does not advance the unsteady justice-ain't-equal populism of Grisham's previous work. That's not its mission. But in general Grisham presents the tens of millions who glide through his popcorn novels with the view--in some books more than others--that life is often unfair for a reason, unfair by design, and that specific interests are responsible for this. Not quite a Nation editorial, but better than Sidney Sheldon.
[FOR AN UPDATE ON THIS STORY SCROLL TO THE BOTTOM]
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Did George W. Bush once have a financial relationship with Enron? In 1986, according to a publicly available record, the two drilled for oil together--at a time when Bush was a none-too-successful oil man in Texas, and his oil venture was in dire need of help. (In early March The Nation broke the story on its website; two days later the New York Times covered this Bush-Enron deal.)
In 1986 Spectrum 7, a privately owned oil company chaired by Bush, faced serious trouble. Two years earlier Bush had merged his failing Bush Exploration Company with the profitable Spectrum 7, where he was named the company's chief executive and director. Bush was paid $75,000 a year and handed 1.1 million shares, according to First Son, Bill Minutaglio's biography of Bush. Bush ended up owning about 15 percent of Spectrum 7. By the end of 1985 Spectrum's fortunes had reversed. With oil prices falling, the company was losing money and on the verge of collapse. To save the firm, Bush began negotiations to sell Spectrum 7 to Harken Energy, a large Dallas-based energy company mostly owned by billionaire George Soros, Saudi businessman Abdullah Taha Baksh and the Harvard Management Corporation.
In September 1986 Spectrum 7 and Harken announced a plan under which Spectrum 7 shareholders would receive Harken stock. Bush said publicly that Spectrum 7 would continue to operate in Midland, Texas, as a wholly owned subsidiary of Harken and that he would become an active member of Harken's board of directors. As Minutaglio reports, the deal would give Bush about $600,000 in Harken shares and $50,000 to $120,000 a year in consultant's fees. It also would provide $2.25 million in Harken stock for a company with a net value of close to $1.8 million.
As the details of the Spectrum-Harken acquisition--which Bush badly needed--were being finalized, Enron Oil and Gas Company, a subsidiary of Enron Corporation, announced on October 16, 1986, a new well producing both oil and natural gas. A press release reported that the well was producing 24,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 411 barrels of oil per day in the Belspec Fusselman Field, fifteen miles northeast of Midland. Enron held a 52 percent interest in the well. According to the announcement, 10 percent belonged to Spectrum 7. At that point, Spectrum 7 was still Bush's company. Harken's completion of the Spectrum 7 acquisition was announced in early November.
To spell it out: George W. Bush and Enron Oil and Gas were in business together in 1986--when Ken Lay was head of Enron. (Lay was named Enron chairman in February of that year.) How did this deal come about? Was this the only project in which Bush and Enron were partners? The White House did not respond to a request for information but later was quoted as saying there had been nothing unusual about the arrangement. Spokeswomen for Enron and EOG Resources (formerly Enron Oil and Gas) said they could not provide information on the well or on other possible Bush-Enron ventures.
Does the relationship between the younger Bush and Lay go back further than heretofore reported--to the mid-1980s? The deal could have happened with no contact between Lay and Bush. But most company heads would be quite interested to know that the son of a sitting Vice President had invested in one of their enterprises. Is it possible that Bush and Spectrum 7 received undue consideration from Enron? Given Enron's penchant for using political ties to win and protect business opportunities, it's tough not to wonder whether this Bush-Enron venture involved special arrangements. This is one more Enron partnership that deserves scrutiny--especially since George W. Bush failed to acknowledge it before the details became public. The Spectrum-Enron deal is either an odd historical coincidence or an indication that there's more to learn about the Bush-Enron association.
Editor's note: Below is David Corn's article, posted on March 4, 2002, that first broke news of the Bush-Enron oil deal. An update follows.
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