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.
Is Bill Kristol the Antichrist?
On his new album, country-rocker Steve Earle lets politics infuse his music.
Before nonpresident Al Gore recently weighed in against President Bush's
rush to war in Iraq (for posing "the potential to seriously damage our
ability to win the war against terrorism and to w
In July the Washington Post, under the headline "Panel Finds No
'Smoking Gun' in Probe of 9/11 Intelligence Failures," reported that the
House and Senate intelligence committees jointly investigating the
September 11 attack had "uncovered no single piece of information that,
if properly analyzed, could have prevented the disaster, according to
members of the panel." With an implied that's-that, the committees then
went on to examine broader matters concerning systemic weaknesses within
the intelligence agencies. That was good news for the cloak-and-dagger
set and the Clinton and Bush administrations. Systemic problems tend to
be treated as no one's fault. The committees were signaling that there
would be no accountability for mistakes made by the spies before
In the past year, numerous media accounts have revealed screw-ups,
miscalculations and oversights. The FBI didn't pursue leads on potential
terrorists enrolled at US aviation schools. The CIA had learned that a
suspected terrorist--who would end up on the flight that hit the
Pentagon--was in the United States after attending an Al Qaeda summit,
and it failed to notify the FBI. The CIA didn't act on intelligence
going back to the mid-1990s suggesting that Al Qaeda was interested in a
9/11-type attack. Time magazine noted recently that George W.
Bush's national security team did not respond quickly to a proposal to
"roll back" Al Qaeda.
Hints were ignored and the intelligence system failed, an indication
that reform is vital. To reform effectively, it is necessary to zero in
on specific mistakes as well as big-picture flaws. Yet the
committees--distracted by personnel disputes and a leak
investigation--have not indicated that this sort of comprehensive probe
is under way (the Senate Judiciary Committee did examine the FBI's
handling of its botched investigation into Zacarias Moussaoui, an
alleged 9/11 conspirator, and identified numerous incidents of
While the meandering September 11 inquiry is far from done, in recent
months both committees released little-noticed reports (accompanying the
intelligence budget they approved) showing that the systemic stuff is
pretty awful. The Senate committee observed, "it is very difficult to
determine how much money the Intelligence Community has budgeted for
counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterproliferation." It
complained that the CIA, the National Security Agency and other
intelligence bureaucracies are not "able to produce auditable financial
statements"; that thousands of intelligence slots in the military go
unfilled each year, including scores of analysis openings at the US
Central Command, which is responsible for the fight against Al Qaeda;
that the intelligence agencies' terrorist databases are a mess; that FBI
training for counterterrorism agents is inadequate. The committee also
groused that the "community" has repeatedly ignored Congressional
requests for information.
The House intelligence committee offered a grimmer assessment. It
maintained that extra funding is being put "into an organizational
framework that gives little indication of being prepared to produce
intelligence capabilities that can address the national security demands
of the future." The committee noted that "significant gaps in the
Community's analytical capabilities are widening, and present
opportunity for further surprise in national security areas." It
implored Bush to act on the findings of a commission led by Brent
Scowcroft, Bush Senior's National Security Adviser, which last year
recommended placing the Pentagon's three largest intelligence-collection
agencies, including the NSA, under control of the director of central
intelligence. With that plea the committee was urging the reversal of a
decades-long trend in which military imperatives--rather than political,
economic or diplomatic concerns--drive the collection and analysis of
intelligence. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, though, has thwarted
such a shift.
And a House intelligence subcommittee put out a brief September 11
report in July that cited fundamental flaws within the intelligence
bureaucracy. "CIA's problems," it said, "require more than just
expressed commitment from senior CIA managers...the subcommittee will be
looking for deeds rather than words." Did that mean that the
subcommittee, ten months after September 11, was still not persuaded
that the CIA was acting vigorously to correct the institutional defects
that led to the surprise of that day?
Those reports, produced by committees traditionally cozy with the
"community," hardly inspire confidence in the spies. They could cause
one to wonder whether the committees are throwing money (the several
billion dollars added post-9/11 to the classified $30 billion-plus
intelligence budget) at a wasteful and disorganized bureaucracy. And the
problems are probably worse than described. For years, the intelligence
community has been plagued with fragmentation and insufficient
coordination and dominated by military concerns as the bureaucratic
rigor mortis that inhibits unorthodox thinking (as in how to better
understand the world, rather than how to be like Bond) has deepened. Mel
Goodman, a senior CIA analyst for twenty-four years, maintains that the
"analytical culture" at the CIA has "collapsed" over time, leaving the
agency without the ability to conduct effective long-term research and
analysis. And Gregory Treverton, a senior analyst at the RAND
Corporation and former vice chairman of the National Intelligence
Council, notes that within the CIA "an emphasis to be fast and quick
drives out the ability to think longer and harder" about subjects not in
the day's headlines. He sensibly favors transforming the analytical side
of the CIA into a much more open shop that publicly interacts with think
tanks, academics and nongovernmental organizations. "We need to put
together unconventional sets of people to get a deeper understanding,
one with a more historical foundation," Treverton says. "But how that
gets done is the question."
Indeed. How do you get any bureaucracy--particularly a clandestine
one--to behave creatively and responsibly? Inertia and infighting have
often derailed well-intentioned intelligence reform (see Rumsfeld).
Whatever its chances, fundamental reform--including demilitarizing
intelligence, reshaping the bureaucracy and transforming internal
values--is unlikely in the absence of a thorough, as-public-as-possible
investigation into the errors of September 11, large and small.
Taking on the intelligence community (and forcing a transformation)
appears to be too much for the committees, which have been slow to hold
public hearings. They have politely issued complaints, but they mostly
have eschewed fingerpointing for handwringing. In a slap at the
committees in July, the House approved legislation to establish an
independent commission to examine September 11 intelligence issues. In
the Senate, Joe Lieberman and John McCain have been pushing an
independent review that would also dissect transportation security and
diplomatic and military matters. The less than impressive performance of
the intelligence committees "has made people in both houses look at the
independent commission bill again," says one Democratic Congressional
aide. The Administration opposes such a panel.
In February CIA chief George Tenet testified that the agency had done no
wrong regarding 9/11, and that the attack was not due to a "failure of
attention, and discipline, and focus, and consistent effort." The
committees ought to question his grip on reality. Yet they don't seem
eager to disprove Tenet or to probe or challenge the covert bureaucracy.
They show no signs of exploring all the intelligence and policy errors
related to September 11. And so, they are unlikely to fix them.
The National Endowment for Democracy has been busy--and far from
With the Bush Administration too often feeling the pain of its corporate
sponsors, and with the Enron scandal (so far) producing little political
fallout or legislative change on Capitol Hill, advocates of corporate
accountability have cause for frustration. (Martha Stewart is not much
consolation.) But in one area corporate critics can feel encouraged. For
several years, a small group of lawyers and labor advocates has been
trying to hold transnational companies responsible for their actions by
suing them in the United States for abetting and/or benefiting from
human rights abuses overseas. Finally, these corporation-chasers are
beginning to see signs of possible success.
In about a dozen cases, attorneys in the United States, on behalf of
villagers, indigenous people and labor leaders overseas, have filed
legal action against large corporations under the Alien Tort Claims Act
(ATCA), a law passed in 1789 that allowed foreigners to sue one another
in US courts. The law was not much used until 1979, when the family of a
17-year-old boy tortured and killed by a Paraguayan policeman
successfully employed it to sue the officer. Afterward, human rights
lawyers turned to the act as a way to address human rights violations
conducted or enabled by multinational firms.
In 1996, for instance, the Washington-based International Labor Rights
Fund (ILRF) filed an ATCA suit against Unocal, an oil and gas firm,
charging that it knowingly used slave labor to build a pipeline in
Burma. The plaintiffs included villagers who said they were forced at
gunpoint to work on the project. A federal judge dismissed the ATCA
lawsuit, arguing that Unocal did not have direct control over the
Burmese military regime, a partner in the pipeline project. That
decision is under appeal, but, in a legal first, in June a California
state judge ordered Unocal to stand trial. In that trial, in September,
the plaintiffs will argue under state law that partners in a joint
venture can be held responsible for each other's actions. That would be
a blow to Unocal. Evidence in the federal case showed it was well aware
that human rights abuses were committed by the military regime in
relation to the pipeline.
ATCA-wielding lawyers and activists have been going after corporate
malfeasance around the globe. Earlier this year, a case filed against
Shell by EarthRights International and the Center for Constitutional
Rights got a major boost. This lawsuit claims the oil company is liable
for human rights abuses committed by the Nigerian military against the
Ogoni people, who opposed a Shell pipeline. Shell repeatedly filed
motions to dismiss the case, but in February a federal judge denied
these motions and permitted the case to move into the discovery phase.
Now the plaintiffs can take depositions of Shell officials and review
Texaco was sued in New York by indigenous people of Ecuador, who charged
it with destroying their local environment by dumping a million gallons
of toxic waste into the ecosystem for two decades. The company's
actions, they claim, devastated rainforest areas, caused an increase in
cancer and other diseases and brought several tribes to the brink of
extinction. In March the two sides argued about whether the case should
be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The court has not yet ruled. Two
years ago, residents of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea filed a
lawsuit in San Francisco against the London-based Rio Tinto mining firm.
The plaintiffs maintained that the corporation, which took over a
company that developed a mine on the island, was in cahoots with a
government that engaged in human rights abuses and destroyed entire
villages in wiping out local resistance to the project. In March a
federal judge dismissed the lawsuit after the State Department argued
that the case could interfere with an ongoing peace process in Papua New
Guinea. But the judge said the Papua New Guinea government would have to
agree to permit the plaintiffs to file a case there.
In addition to the Unocal case, the ILRF is handling ATCA lawsuits
against Coca-Cola (for allegedly using paramilitary forces to
suppress--violently--union activity in Colombia), Del Monte (for
allegedly employing thugs who tortured union leaders in Guatemala),
DynCorp (for allegedly spraying Ecuadorean farmers and villagers with
toxic chemicals that were supposed to be dumped on coca plants in
Colombia) and the Drummond Company, a mining firm (for allegedly hiring
gunmen to torture, kidnap and murder labor leaders in Colombia). In a
case against ExxonMobil, ILRF contends that Mobil, which formed a
joint-venture natural gas project with the Indonesian government, paid
the Indonesian military for security and that these troops committed
human rights atrocities--including murder and torture--against villagers
in the Aceh province.
As these ATCA lawsuits creep forward, corporations here and abroad have
to take notice. A plaintiff's win would compel transnationals to
consider bringing their activities overseas into sync with international
human rights standards. As the Wall Street Journal noted, a
ruling against Unocal--if upheld--"could subject a long list of US
companies to lawsuits in American courts as human rights groups seek to
expand the reach of American tort law to foreign soil." Already the
Street is paying attention. "I've started getting calls from mutual fund
managers," says Terry Collingsworth, ILRF's executive director. "They
tell me that they cannot base stock recommendations on moral
considerations. But if there is a chance a company could be damaged by a
big award in a trial, its business practices overseas become quite
relevant." That is, "the markets" are watching and waiting--to see if
Third World locals screwed by transnationals can find justice in courts
far from their villages.
The question is not the 1970s cliché, What did the President know
and when did he know it? The appropriate query is, What did US
intelligence know--and what did the President know and do about that?
The flap over the August 6, 2001, intelligence briefing of George W.
Bush--in which he was told that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network was
interested in hijackings and looking to strike the United States
directly--should not have focused on whether the President ignored that
information and missed the chance to prevent the September 11 strikes.
Still, a political dust-up ensued, as the White House, overreacting to
the overreaction of the Democrats, went into full spin mode. The crucial
issue was broached when National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice
stated, "I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people
would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center."
Actually, it was predicted, and the recent hullabaloo called
attention to the sad fact that the Clinton and the Bush II national
security establishments did not heed hints going back to 1995. In that
year a terrorist arrested in the Philippines said bin Laden operatives
were considering a plot to bomb airliners and fly a plane into CIA
headquarters--information shared with the United States. Two weeks
before that arrest, Algerian terrorists linked to Al Qaeda hijacked a
plane, hoping to crash it into the Eiffel Tower (French commandos killed
the hijackers at a refueling stop).
From 1995 on, US intelligence and the military should have taken steps
to detect and prevent a 9/11-like scheme. There was enough information
in the system to cause the US air command to draw up plans for dealing
with an airliner-turned-missile and to prompt the CIA and the FBI (and
other intelligence outfits) to seek intelligence related to plots of
this type. Apparently nothing of the sort happened. Not even when
terrorism experts continued to raise airliner attacks as a possibility.
In 1998 terrorism analysts briefed Federal Aviation Administration
security officials on scenarios in which terrorists flew planes into US
nuclear plants or commandeered Federal Express cargo planes and crashed
them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the White House, the
Capitol and other targets. In 1999 a report prepared for the National
Intelligence Council noted that Al Qaeda suicide bombers could fly an
aircraft filled with explosives into the Pentagon, CIA headquarters or
the White House.
In 2001 the FBI--not looking for signs of a suicide-bombing plot--failed
to recognize the significance of information its agents received while
investigating foreign students at a Phoenix flight school and Zacarias
Moussaoui, a French national enrolled in a Minnesota aviation school,
later charged with participating in the 9/11 conspiracy. In July Italian
authorities warned the United States that bin Laden agents might try to
attack Bush and other Western leaders at the Genoa summit using an
True, these leads were small pieces of data among the massive amounts of
material swept up by the sprawling intelligence system. But what's the
point of spending more than $30 billion annually on spies and high-tech
eavesdropping if the system can't sort out the valuable nuggets?
Hindsight is indeed easy. The Bush and Clinton administrations, based on
what's now known, don't deserve to be faulted for not discovering the
9/11 plot. But both failed to oversee the intelligence and
law-enforcement communities and make sure they were pointed in the right
There is evidence that the Bush team didn't move quickly on the
counterterrorism front. Newsweek reported that Attorney General
John Ashcroft prodded the FBI to concentrate on violent crime, drugs and
child porn more than on counterterrorism (a story the Justice Department
denied). And Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld threatened to veto a move
that shifted $600 million from the anti-ballistic missile program to
antiterrorism. Was there a counterterrorism policy delay? Other
questions linger. In July 2001 Richard Clarke, then the National
Security Council official in charge of counterterrorism, put out an
urgent alert, placing the government at its highest state of readiness
for a possible terrorist attack. The alert faded six weeks later. What
triggered it? What caused the stand-down? Should there have been a
The multiple failures of policy, imagination and coordination over two
administrations should be investigated. To assign blame? Accountability
does have its place in a democracy. The public has a right to know who
messed up and to be assured that those who did aren't in a position to
commit further mistakes. The point, of course, is to learn from those
mistakes and to be able to tell the public the failures have been
addressed. Does the intelligence system deserve more billions, as Bush
has requested, without demonstrating that it can use the money wisely?
After 9/11 the Bush Administration didn't rush to examine what went
wrong. We're too busy fighting the war, it said, while urging Congress
not to pursue the matter. Belatedly, Congress authorized a joint
investigation by the House and Senate intelligence committees, two
panels that traditionally have been cozy with the intelligence crowd.
That probe has gotten off to a terrible start--the investigators
fighting among themselves over whether to examine government failures or
to concentrate on how best to reorganize the intelligence system and
accusing the CIA and the Justice Department of not cooperating. One
positive consequence of the maelstrom over the August 6 briefing is that
it has prompted more calls for an independent commission, which Senators
John McCain and Joseph Lieberman have been advocating. Yet so far no
inquiry is committed to mounting a no-holds-barred examination and to
conducting as much of it as possible in public.
"I don't have any problem with a legitimate debate over the performance
of our intelligence agencies," said Vice President Cheney. But he has
opposed sharing the August 6 briefing with Congress. How can there be
worthwhile debate without information? After all, the recent tussle
began when the press sensed that the White House had withheld a
significant--or intriguing--fact. And how can there be information
without investigation? The issue is not what Bush knew--but why he
didn't know, and whether his Administration took sufficient steps before
and after that awful day to deal with the failings of the agencies that
are supposed to thwart and protect.
On April 3, a high-octane collection of thirty-three conservatives sent George W. Bush a letter urging him to lend Washington's "full support to Israel as it seeks to root out the [Palestinian] terrorist network." These hawks--including William Kristol, William Bennett, Rich Lowry, Martin Peretz and Richard Perle--called on Bush not to force Israel to negotiate with Yasir Arafat and to "accelerate plans for removing Saddam Hussein." They wanted Bush to adopt Israel's offensive as part of his war on terrorism and let Ariel Sharon roll. The next day, Bush replied, sort of, by declaring that Israel should withdraw from the West Bank. He slammed Arafat, but his aides noted that negotiations should resume, perhaps before a complete cease-fire has been achieved.
The hawks were not pleased. Bush's actions were "a show of weakness," says Marshall Wittmann, a signatory to the crush-them-now letter. Other parts of the hard-line pro-Israel coalition were disheartened. The Anti-Defamation League complained, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee protested, "It is no more appropriate to place a time limit on Israel's acts of self-defense than on America's acts in its own defense." Christian right supporters of Israel--many of whom believe that God granted Israel to the Jews and that Jewish control of Israel is a prelude to the Second Coming--had reason to be disappointed. The Rev. Jerry Falwell stated, "I believe Israel must aggressively defend its borders." Americans for Peace Now, however, praised Bush's new stance.
So Bush frustrated key elements of his support base and won huzzahs from peaceniks (even as he winked at Sharon's continuing operations). How did this come to pass? It was not because of domestic pressure. Democrats criticized Bush for not addressing the crisis, but that didn't mean they wanted Bush to lean on Israel. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, for example, said, "I don't know that the Israeli government has any choice but to be as aggressive as they are." Senator Joe Lieberman remarked, "I believe strongly we should not ask Israelis to stop their war against terrorists until they have achieved greater homeland security." As Bush was pondering what to do, I contacted the Progressive Caucus of the House--no Bush friends there--and asked a spokeswoman if the group was responding to the crisis. "No," she said. Why not? "I don't know." Few if any Democrats were deviating from an Israel-first line. Before heading to the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell remarked that he cared as much about Palestinian rights as Israel's security--a sentiment not echoed by lawmakers, Democratic or Republican.
"All the political pressure is on the side of the pro-Israel lobby," says Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. A staffer to a Congressman who occasionally voices concern for Palestinians notes, "There are not many of us in Congress." In fact, there are almost none, hardly enough for Bush to worry about. Kristol and neocon writer Robert Kagan claim that Bush caved because he "could not withstand a few days of heckling from the European Union and the New York Times." But once pressure from home and abroad forced a reluctant Bush into action, it could well be that he saw little choice but to press for Israeli restraint and negotiations, for the other option was to back Sharon's offensive. That would have risked rifts between Washington and its allies in Europe and the Middle East, undermining Bush's war on terrorism (and his designs on Saddam Hussein).
Hawkish backers of Israel are nervously watching how far Bush will go to rein in Sharon and restart negotiations. They vividly recall that Bush I opposed $10 billion in loan guarantees to Israel in an effort to force Israel to halt settlements in the West Bank. "There is a division within my camp," says Wittmann. "One school wants to cut the President slack for now, and the other believes Bush is already down the road of policy incoherence." Wittmann is hoping Bush's current stance is "ad-hocism, that his actions come from a desire to impose order upon chaos and out of a fear of destabilization in the Arab world. I'm not divining a long-term foreign policy message out of his handling of the current crisis--not yet."
Bush has not threatened to reconsider the fundamentals of US-Israel relations--such as $3 billion in annual assistance to Israel. The various groups that lobby for the Israeli hard-core retain influence in and out of the Administration. "There will be more Congressional involvement in the Middle East in the coming weeks," says the House staffer. That means further opportunity for pro-Israel hawks to shape the debate and Bush's decisions. Still, against the odds--and campaign donations and political clout--Bush spurned the Israel-all-the-way forces this round. A significant shift or a short-term plan? Bush himself probably doesn't know.
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.