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Eric Alterman | The Nation

Eric Alterman

Author Bios

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Columnist

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also "The Liberal Media" columnist for The Nation and a fellow of The Nation Institute, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, where he writes and edits the "Think Again" column, a senior fellow (since 1985) at the World Policy Institute. Alterman is also a regular columnist for Moment magazine and a regular contributor to The Daily Beast. He is the author of seven books, including the national bestsellers, What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News (2003, 2004), and The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America (2004). The others include: When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and its Consequences, (2004, 2005); His Sound & Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy (1992, 2000), which won the 1992 George Orwell Award; It Ain't No Sin to be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen (1999, 2001), which won the 1999 Stephen Crane Literary Award and Who Speaks for America? Why Democracy Matters in Foreign Policy, (1998). His most recent book is Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Most Important Ideals (2008, 2009).

Termed "the most honest and incisive media critic writing today" in the National Catholic Reporter, and author of "the smartest and funniest political journal out there," in the San Francisco Chronicle, Alterman is frequent lecturer and contributor to numerous publications in the US, Europe and Latin America. In recent years, he has also been a columnist for: MSNBC.com, Worth, Rolling StoneMother Jones, and the Sunday Express (London), a history consultant to HBO films and a senior fellow at Media Matters for America. A former Adjunct Professor of Journalism at NYU and Columbia, Alterman received his B.A. in History and Government from Cornell, his M.A. in International Relations from Yale, and his Ph.D. in US History from Stanford. He lives with his family in Manhattan.

Articles

News and Features

It's only August, but I'll go out on a limb and congratulate the
Village Voice
's Keith Harris for what I feel confident will stand
the test of time as the stupidest comment of the year. "Because his
vision of rock and roll is so grand, Springsteen requires a popular
consensus as surely as any invasion of Iraq. And as we've learned yet
again, nothing sparks phony consensus like national cataclysm. Maybe
that's why, for the past few days, a nagging thought has burrowed into
my brain that I wish was merely the snide aphorism I initially took it
for: If there hadn't been a September 11, Bruce Springsteen would have
had to invent one."

Like an Ann Coulter bestseller or a Rush Limbaugh radio rant, Harris's
review is idiotic but instructive. Aside from its self-evident (and
self-incriminating) silliness, what galls about the comment is its
willful forfeiture of the common cultural ground upon which Bruce
Springsteen plies his trade. Does 9/11 belong only to George Bush and
Donald Rumsfeld? Is American popular culture the exclusive preserve of
Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Britney?

While managing to keep both feet planted in the mainstream, Springsteen
has done more than any American artist to give voice to the American
"other" that pop culture would prefer to forget: the humiliated Vietnam
veteran, the fired factory worker, the hunted illegal immigrant, the
death-row inmate, the homeless person living beneath the bridge and
Amadou Diallo, a West African immigrant, accidentally murdered by
forty-one shots from New York's finest. With his 1994 AIDS ballad
"Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen became the first heterosexual
rock star ever to sing in the voice of a homosexual man, in a work
that--as Ann Powers, who was then writing brilliant music criticism in,
uh, the Village Voice, observed--succeeded in crossing "the
barriers of class, race, and gender."

Springsteen is vulnerable to criticism on any number of grounds,
artistic and commercial, but his willingness to offer solace in troubled
times strikes me as pretty low on that list. Springsteen was literally
stopped in his car after 9/11 by someone who cried out, "We need you."
Monmouth County, where he lives, lost 158 people in the towers. He
played a couple of local benefits. He read, repeatedly, about the
meaning of his work to his fans in the New York Times's
"Portraits of Grief." He called a few widows, shared their stories and
made a record. It's what he does. "I have a sense of what my service to
my audience is going to be," he explains. "It's the true nature of work
in the sense that you're filling a place. And that place comes with its
blessings and its responsibilities." So sue him.

It is a separate question as to whether one thinks the art that emanated
from this impulse is wholly successful. With regard to The
Rising
, I can argue the point either way. But to take issue with the
very idea that art can be a balm to those in pain--or, as Springsteen
puts it, "music is medicine"--is cynicism itself. And to the degree that
this is at all representative of leftist attitudes, it speaks for an
impotent and self-defeating left: too smug and self-satisfied to engage
the culture of the common people, preferring instead to smirk on the
sidelines.

Granting both its sincerity and its (inconsistent) genius, The
Rising
does nevertheless raise some complicated questions about art,
politics and commerce. One has to go back to 1984--to Springsteen's own
Born in the U.S.A.--to find a rock record that was marketed as
energetically to mainstream America. After decades of relative
reclusiveness, Springsteen is suddenly everywhere in the mass media:
taking over the Today show in Asbury Park, on David Letterman two
nights in a row, ditto Ted Koppel, on MTV, Saturday Night Live,
simultaneous covers of Time and Rolling Stone; long
interviews with the New York Times, the LA Times and
USA Today. I half expected him to duet with Elmo or Big Bird over
breakfast. It should surprise no one that the record entered the charts
at No. 1 in eleven countries.

The problem arises--just as it did with Born in the U.S.A.--when
the work's cultural signification overwhelms its artistic essence; what
Nietzsche, in Twilight of the Idols, termed "the thing itself."
The dilemma for anyone who seeks to use popular culture to communicate a
message at odds with its market-driven heart of darkness is: who's using
whom? Did Springsteen accidentally empower Reaganism back in the
mid-1980s as he simultaneously denounced it? Is he somehow cheapening
the individual tragedies of which he writes and sings by performing
these haunting melodies at the ungodly hour of 8:30 am in the happy-talk
context of a Today show beach party?

Matt Lauer asked Springsteen whether he feared being accused of
exploiting the tragedy of 9/11, and Springsteen told him to listen to
the music and make up his own mind. The same might be said of his
willingness to embrace (and exploit) America's mighty mass-marketing
machine.

The answer has to be a personal one. In Asbury Park, I did some random
interviewing of people who had traveled many hours, and waited on
overnight lines, in the hope of seeing Springsteen perform four songs in
the Convention Hall for the Today broadcast. I spoke to a
firefighter who had gone into the burning buildings, a 16-year-old girl
who was repaying her mom for waiting ten hours on line to get 'NSync
tickets, a woman with her 5-year-old son, who, back in '85, enlisted her
entire family in a weeklong wait for tickets. Nobody mentioned Matt or
Katie. Nobody mentioned the marketing campaign. Nobody even complained
about the all-night wait and the uncertainty that they would be allowed
inside the hall. They were there for Bruce because Bruce was there for
them. In the midst of what Springsteen accurately terms "a theater of
humiliation on TV and on the radio, a reflection of self-loathing," they
had created a community around something better. This was their
hometown.

(Don't forget, while those Nation folks are on vacation,
www.altercation.msnbc.com.)

Speaking on NPR recently, Cokie Roberts, the soon-to-retire co-host of
ABC's This Week, falsely informed her listeners that "the
President was exonerated by the Securities and Exchange Commission." In
fact, even though his daddy was the President of the United States
during the incident in question, after a remarkably relaxed
investigation the SEC informed Bush's lawyer that its decision "must in
no way be construed as indicating that [George W. Bush] has been
exonerated."

Call me sentimental, but I'm going to miss the old gal. With no
discernible politics save an attachment to her class, no reporting and
frequently no clue, she was the perfect source for a progressive media
critic: a perpetual font of Beltway conventional wisdom uncomplicated by
any collision with messy reality.

Lippmann/Dewey fans will remember that the very idea of a watchdog press
breaks down when the watchdog starts acting like--and more important,
sympathizing with--the folks upon whom he or she has been hired to keep
an eye. With Cokie, this was never much of an issue. Her dad was a
Congressman. Her mom was a Congresswoman. Her brother is one of the
slickest and wealthiest lobbyists in the city. Her husband, Steve
Roberts, holds the dubious honor of being perhaps the only person to
give up a plum New York Times job because it interfered with his
television career. And together they form a tag-team buck-raking/book-writing enterprise offering up corporate speeches and dime-store
"Dear Abby"-style marriage advice to those unfortunates who do not enjoy
his-and-her television contracts.

Cokie came to public attention at NPR, where she developed some street
cred as a Capitol Hill gumshoe, but apparently grew tired of the hassle
of actual reporting, which only helped her career. With no concern for
the niceties of conflicts of interest, she and her husband accepted
together as much as $45,000 in speaking fees from the very corporations
that were affected by the legislation she was allegedly covering in
Congress. Moreover, she claimed something akin to a royal prerogative in
refusing to address the ethical quandary it obviously raised. (A
spokesman responding to a journalist's inquiry said that Queen Cokie's
corporate speaking fees were "not something that in any way, shape or
form should be discussed in public.")

Apparently, nobody ever told Cokie that the job of the insider pundit is
to at least pretend to be conversant with the major political, economic
and intellectual issues in question before putting these in the service
of a consensually derived story line. The pedantic George Will and the
peripatetic Sam Donaldson at least give the impression of having
considered their remarks ahead of time, either by memorizing from
Bartlett's or pestering politicians. Not Cokie. Once, when a
reporting gig interfered with one of her many social and/or speaking
engagements, she donned a trench coat in front of a photo of the Capitol
in the ABC studios in the hopes of fooling her viewers. She was not a
real journalist; she just played one on TV.

Still, her commentary was invaluable, if inadvertently so. As a pundit,
she was a windup Conventional Wisdom doll. The problem with Bill
Clinton, for instance, was that he was the wrong sort for Cokie and her
kind. "This is a community in all kinds of ways," she told Sally Quinn
during the impeachment crisis. "When something happens everybody gathers
around.... It's a community of good people involved in a worthwhile
pursuit." Here was her analysis of the complicated constitutional
questions impeachment raised: "People who act immorally and lie get
punished," she proclaimed, noting that she "approach[ed] this as a
mother." (Her own children are fully grown, but perhaps they're real
sensitive...) "This ought to be something that outrages us, makes us
ashamed of him." When the country refused to go along with the ironclad
Broder/Cokester consensus, she supported impeachment anyway, because
"then people can lead public opinion rather than just follow it through
the process." These same "people," meaning Ken Starr, Newt Gingrich and
Cokie's friends, made a return appearance in Cokieworld when the Supreme
Court handed Al Gore's victory to George W. Bush following the Florida
2000 election crisis. "People do think it's political, but they think
that's OK," she averred. "They expect the court to be political, and
they wanted the election to be over."

All this is relevant to those of you who are not dewy-eyed about Cokie's
departure--or Dewey-eyed about democracy, for that matter--because
Cokie's inadvertent honesty helps us understand how George W. Bush ever
made it to the White House in the first place. Why are we hearing about
Harken Oil only today? Why did the press ignore the evidence of Bush's
personal and professional dishonesty back in 2000, when it still
mattered? Meanwhile, these same reporters concocted stupid stories about
Al Gore's penchant for "exaggeration," misreporting the simplest facts
on his (essentially accurate) claims about the Internet, Love Canal and
Love Story. It's not as if evidence of Bush's unsavory past was
unavailable. I wrote about it twice on MSNBC.com, in the fall of 2000,
following a damning Talk magazine exposé of Bush's
suspicious business ethics, written by Bill Minutaglio and Nancy Beiles,
and based on documents made public by the Center for Public Integrity.
But nobody cared. The Times, the Post, the Journal,
CBS, ABC et al.--who had all championed Ken Starr's $70 million
investigation of a $30,000 unprofitable land deal--did not think Bush's
fortune-making sweetheart deals were worth more than the most cursory of
investigations. (Let's not even bring up the dubious Texas Rangers deal
or the missing years in his National Guard record.)

How did the media--and hence the nation--manage to miss these stories?
Just ask Cokie: As she explained back then in defense of herself
and her colleagues, "The story line is Bush isn't smart enough and Gore
isn't straight enough. In Bush's case, you know he's just misstating as
opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial
exaggerator." Thus spake Cokathustra.

For more, check out www.altercation.msnbc.com during The Nation's
summer lull. We never take vacations at Altercation.

Writing in a forthcoming issue of The Journal of Israeli History
about Israeli revisionism, Mark Lilla of the University of Chicago's
Committee on Social Thought makes the observation that while American
neoconservatives like to present themselves as people who "care deeply
about ideas," in truth "they are engaged in intellectual life...not out
of curiosity or natural inclination, but out of a purely political
passion to challenge 'the intellectuals,' conceived as a class
whose political tactics must be combated in kind." Hence, the
"quasi-militaristic rhetoric," the "cavalier use of sources and
quotations," and the frequent "insinuations of intellectual bad faith
and cowardice, even treason." This style marks them, Lilla notes, as a
new breed: the "counter-intellectual."

A former editor of the neocon policy journal The Public Interest
and author of The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics, Lilla
observes that among his older friends, some "had once been genuine
intellectuals who made important contributions to history and
criticism." Their obsessive hatred of the culture of the sixties,
however, induced them to renounce "any intellectual ambitions that did
not serve the cause of restoring the cultural status quo ante. As
for the young people they inspired and frequently sired, they became
counter-intellectuals without ever having been intellectuals--a unique
American phenomenon." Neocon history, Lilla explains, is one of
"political success and intellectual failure." He laments, "To judge by
the kinds of articles published in magazines like Commentary and
even Partisan Review in this period, it was hard to imagine that
writers like Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, and Delmore Schwartz
had ever graced their pages."

The mass media never noticed this transformation. If you look, for
instance, at the reviews of David Brock's book Blinded by the
Right
--wherein Brock laments the moral and intellectual decline from
Norman Podhoretz to homo-hating son John--even die-hard liberals take
the old guys on their own self-flattering terms, as if the neocon
parents were men and women of profound idealism while the "minicon"
children can muster only attitude. Well, as John Lennon used to say,
"The dream is over." The neocons have shown their true intellectual
colors, and they are not pretty.

As The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported, Irving
Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hilton Kramer and the intellectual
historian John Patrick Diggins have all withdrawn from a conference
honoring the work of Sidney Hook, to be held at the City University of
New York. Diggins, according to conference organizer Robert Talisse,
went so far as to threaten not only to convince others to stay away but
also to convince certain funding institutions to withdraw their money
(and hence, destroy the conference). The alleged crime: Somebody invited
Cornel West to replace Richard Rorty as a featured guest.

Now whatever one may think of Brother West's recent political
activities--and I think very little of them--he is a recognized scholar
of both Hook and the pragmatist tradition in which the latter labored.
Rorty, for instance, whose authority on pragmatism nobody dares to
question, praises West's The American Evasion of Philosophy as "a
novel piece of intellectual history." The book contains a long and
thoughtful discussion of Hook.

The Chronicle reports that this Gang of Four felt West to be "not
enough of a scholar" to justify their presence. This is a bit like a
little league coach claiming Barry Bonds is "not enough of a hitter" to
play a game of sandlot ball. Kristol and Kramer have made careers as
ideological entrepreneurs and polemical publicists. They cannot boast a
single work of lasting scholarly significance between them. Gertrude
Himmelfarb and John Patrick Diggins are both serious, albeit unusually
combative and ideology-minded, historians. Both have shamed themselves
with this act of combined intellectual cowardice and conservative
political correctness.

Harvard president Larry Summers, a neocon hero, lost West to Princeton
at least in part because of his willingness to confront him with
unfounded rumors that the deeply committed teacher was stiffing his
students. West saw his name dragged through the mud in conservative and
some not-so-conservative publications due to his willingness to take his
scholarship and inspirational personal presence beyond the territories
traditionally traversed by Harvard's University Professors. The great
irony of the CUNY conference on Sidney Hook is that it finds West doing
just what Summers and his critics complained he had neglected:
participating in the scholarly life of the academy.

One wonders just what is so frightening. Perhaps it is a sense of being
outgunned. I have seen West debate the elder Podhoretz at a conference
sponsored by the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale, and the two proved
so mismatched I left feeling a little sorry for Norman. Equally likely,
however, is the fear that a leftist like West will remind audiences that
their putative hero died a proud socialist. He may have been a fanatical
anti-Communist, but his passions derived from an honest engagement in
the life of the mind, something the neocons long ago forfeited in their
love affair with power.

Ironically, West told Sam Tanenhaus that he didn't know he had been
invited to the conference and was wholly unaware of having caused a
conservative boycott. He explained, however, that he had been planning
to go anyway--as a spectator. He saw a notice about it in The New
York Review of Books
and looked forward to catching up on the recent
scholarship on Hook. West recalled that back in 1985 he had flown from
California to Washington, DC, to be present for Hook's Jefferson Lecture
and had the opportunity to tell the then-83-year-old philosopher how
important his work had been to him.

Hook never succeeded in fusing Marx with Dewey, just as West, in this
view, is still quite a distance from combining Gramsci with Sly Stone.
They agreed on virtually nothing about the cold war or the culture wars.
But they did share a commitment to follow their ideas wherever they
might lead, and to take on all comers in a spirit of good faith and
honest engagement. We can all learn from that.

Affirmative action, while generally a good and necessary thing, has
always been more complicated than its supporters admit. It inspires a
backlash; it often promotes people who are underprepared for their
assigned tasks; and it attaches a stigma to those who do succeed on
their own, often with a crushing psychological burden. Yet another
problem is how easily it can be manipulated for nefarious purposes.

Women and minorities have been agitating for greater representation in a
largely white, male media structure for decades, making their case by
the numbers. According to a recent study published by Fairness &
Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), women made up just 15 percent of sources
appearing on the three major network news programs in 2001, while 92
percent of all US sources for whom race was determinable were white.

Conservatives, meanwhile, have also made a case for greater media
representation. They've done so by redefining the terms of debate. While
most pundits and nearly half the "experts" employed by the media are
quite conservative by any reasonable or historical measure of the term,
that's not good enough. They are demanding more. Bernard Goldberg, Nat
Hentoff and Reed Irvine are hardly the only conservatives who say they
deserve greater representation. Many news producers and editorial page
editors apparently concur.

The media's response to the traditional affirmative-action
constituencies and the well-funded propaganda offensive by the
conservatives has been to capitulate to both sides at once. Hence the
rise of the female and/or minority conservative pundit, often
unqualified by any traditional standard and frequently close to the line
in terms of sanity but with job security the rest of us can only
imagine.

When MSNBC began operations in the summer of 1996 and hired eighteen
regular pundits--of whom I was one--the most recognizable type among the
mostly unknown cast were the blonde and black fire-breathing
right-wingers. Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Jennifer Grossman, Niger
Innes, Deroy Murdoch, Brian Jones, Joseph Perkins, Betsy Hart (a
brunette, but still...); the list goes on and on. At the time, I used to
joke that the producers might wish to inquire about the politics of the
black/blonde daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. If she liked Star Wars
and tax cuts for the rich, they should offer her a lifetime contract.

It didn't matter to the network executives at the time that women and
minorities in real life were far more liberal than most television
people, and their gimmick was, in that regard, deceptive. These pundits
gave the new network some "pop" in the larger media--or so it was
believed. In fact, most of those named above have faded back into the
proverbial woodwork. But not all. Laura Ingraham now wears her leopard
miniskirts on radio and is apparently a political fashion consultant to
CNN's Reliable Sources. (On Al Gore's Florida speech: "His
perspiration was, I mean...it was quite unpleasant." On the state of the
nightly news: "I think one of the worst things that's happened to news
is this sort of open-collared shirt, no tie, you know, do you take the
jacket off? That whole, you know, undress thing on television...")

Coulter, meanwhile, well... it's complicated. On the one hand, she is
the television babe to end all television babes--bright blonde locks,
legs that never end and skirts so short as to make Sharon Stone distrust
her Basic Instincts. On the other hand, she is clearly the victim of an
undiagnosed case of political Tourette's syndrome. How else to explain
incidents like the time she attacked a disabled Vietnam vet on the air
by screaming, "People like you caused us to lose that war"? Or when she
termed Bill Clinton a "pervert, liar and a felon" and a "criminal"? Or
Hillary Clinton "pond scum" and "white trash"? Or the late Pamela
Harriman a "whore"? Coulter also wrote a book during the impeachment
crisis that appeared to suggest the assassination of Bill Clinton. She
was, also, as the Boston Globe reported, credibly accused of
plagiarizing from a colleague at Human Events for her book.

By the time she finally got herself fired from MSNBC, Coulter was a
star. (No man, or ugly woman for that matter, would have lasted remotely
as long.) She found herself celebrated by the likes of John Kennedy Jr.,
who gave her a column in George, as well as bookers for talk
shows with hosts like Wolf Blitzer, Larry King, Geraldo and Bill Maher,
and quoted by ABC's George Will with the same deference usually reserved
for Edmund Burke or James Madison.

Lately Coulter has gotten herself in the news again by calling for the
wholesale slaughter of Arabs, the murder of Norm Mineta and the use of
mob violence against liberals and Muslims. Perhaps she's kidding, but
it's hard to know. We have, too, another book-length screed,
Slander, this one bearing the imprimatur of Crown Publishers. As
with her entire career in the punditocracy, it is a black mark on the
soul of everyone associated with it. Here is Coulter's characterization
of a New York Times editorial criticizing John Ashcroft: "Ew
yuck, he's icky." She worries about "liberals rounding up right-wingers
and putting them on trial." One could go on, and on, and on.

What's scary is that Coulter is hardly alone. Look at the
free-associating reveries Peggy Noonan manages to publish every week in
the Wall Street Journal, or the lunacies that right-wing lesbian
Norah Vincent pours forth on the LA Times Op-Ed page--as if
self-consciously seeking to fill the space mercifully vacated by that
nutty nineties icon Camille Paglia. Check out Alan Keyes on MSNBC and
tell me, seriously, that the man has ever made what Bobbie Gentry called
"a lick of sense" in his life. I'm not saying that women and minorities
don't have the right to be as idiotic as white men. But be careful what
you wish for and smart about how you pursue it. Liberals and
conservatives both got their affirmative action. Guess who won?

Did you know that the mere act of asking what kind of warning members of
the Bush Administration may have received about a 9/11-like attack is
just clever hype by that sneaky liberal media conspiracy? So goes the
argument of the regular National Review seat on Communist News
Network liberal media program, Reliable Sources. Recently, host
(and Washington Post media reporter) Howard Kurtz decided to fill
the chair not with his favorite guest/source, NR editor Rich Lowry, or the much-invited NR
Online
editor, Jonah Goldberg, but with the relatively obscure
NR managing editor, Jay Nordlinger. Nordlinger explained, "The
story is surprisingly slight," blown up by a liberal media fearing Bush
was getting "a free ride." Give the man points for consistency. The Bush
White House's exploitation of 9/11 to fatten Republican coffers via the
sale of the President's photo that fateful day--scurrying from safe
location to safe location--was also, in Nordlinger's view, "another
almost nonstory."

Nordlinger's complaint echoed the even stronger contention of another
Kurtz favorite, Andrew Sullivan. The world-famous
gaycatholictorygapmodel took the amazing position that potential
warnings about a terrorist threat that would kill thousands and land us
in Afghanistan was "not a story" at all. Sounding like a Karl Rove/Mary
Matalin love child, Sullivan contended, "The real story here is the
press and the Democrats' need for a story about the war to change the
climate of support for the President."

But Sullivan at least deserves our admiration for expertly spinning
Kurtz regarding The New York Times Magazine's decision to cut him
loose. Echoing Sullivan's PR campaign--and with a supportive quote from,
uh, Rich Lowry--Kurtz framed the story entirely as one of Times
executive editor Howell Raines avenging Sullivan's obsessive attacks on
the paper's liberal bias. OK, perhaps the standards for a Post
writer tweaking the Times top dog are not those of, say, Robert
Caro on Robert Moses, but where's the evidence that Raines was even
involved? The paper had plenty of reasons to lose Sullivan even if his
stupendously narcissistic website never existed. Sullivan's Times
work may have been better disciplined than his "TRB" columns in the
notsoliberal New Republic (before he was replaced by editor Peter
Beinart) and certainly than the nonsense he posts online, but it still
must have embarrassed the Newspaper of Record. As (now Times Book
Review
columnist) Judith Shulevitz pointed out in a critique of his
"dangerously misleading" paean to testosterone, Sullivan was permitted
to "mix up his subjective reactions with laboratory work." Stanford
neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky told Shulevitz at the time, Sullivan "is
entitled to his fairly nonscientific opinion, but I'm astonished at the
New York Times." The Andrew Sullivan Principles of Pre-Emptive
Sexual Disclosure also embarrassed the magazine when he used its pages
to out as gay two Clinton Cabinet members and liberal Democrats like
Rosie O'Donnell. (I imagine he came to regret this invasion of privacy
when his own life became tabloid fare.) Meanwhile, Sullivan's
McCarthyite London Sunday Times column about September 11--in
which he waxed hysterical about the alleged danger of a pro-terrorist
"Fifth Column" located in the very city that suffered the attack--should
have been enough to put off any discerning editor forever. Yet the myth
of his martyrdom continues. Sullivan's website carries the vainglorious
moniker "unfit to print." For once, he's right.

* * *

Sorry, I know enough can be more than enough, but this quote of Sully's
is irresistible: "I ignored Geoffrey Nunberg's piece in The American
Prospect
in April, debunking the notion of liberal media bias by
numbers, because it so flew in the face of what I knew that I figured
something had to be wrong." When a conservative pundit "knows" something
to be true, don't go hassling him with contrary evidence. It so happens
that linguist Geoffrey Nunberg did the necessary heavy lifting to
disprove perhaps the one contention in Bernard Goldberg's book
Bias the so-called liberal media felt compelled--perhaps out of
misplaced generosity--to accept: that the media tend to label
conservatives as such more frequently than alleged liberals. Tom
Goldstein bought into it in Columbia Journalism Review. So did
Jonathan Chait in TNR. Howard Kurtz and Jeff Greenfield let it go
unchallenged on Communist News Network. Meanwhile, Goldberg admits to
"knowing," Sullivan style, happily ignorant of any relevant data beyond
his own biases. He did no research, he says, because he did not want his
book "to be written from a social scientist point of view."

Unfortunately for Bernie, Nunberg discovered that alleged liberals are
actually labeled as such by mainstream journalists more frequently than
are conservatives. This is true for politicians, for actors, for
lawyers, for everyone--even institutions like think tanks and pressure
groups. The reasons for this are open to speculation, but Nunberg has
the numbers. A weblogger named Edward Boyd ran his own set of numbers
that came out differently, but Nunberg effectively disposed of Boyd's
(honest) errors in a follow-up article for TAP Online. In a truly
bizarre Village Voice column, Nat Hentoff recently sought to ally
himself with the pixilated Goldberg but felt a need to add the
qualifier, "The merits of Goldberg's book aside..." Actually, it's no
qualifier at all. Goldberg's worthless book has only one merit, which
was to inspire my own forthcoming book refuting it. (Hentoff
mischaracterizes that, too.) Meanwhile, the merits of Hentoff's column
aside, it's a great column.

* * *

Speaking of ex-leftists, what's up with Christopher Hitchens calling
Todd Gitlin and me "incurable liberals"? Since when is liberalism
treated as something akin to a disease in this, America's oldest
continuously published liberal magazine? Here's hoping my old friend
gets some treatment for his worsening case of incurable Horowitzism. (Or
is it Sullivanism? Hentoffism? Is there a Doctor of Philosophy in the
house?)

Meanwhile, I've got a new weblog with more of this kind of thing at
www.altercation.msnbc.com. Check it every day, or the terrorists
win...


TORTURE 'OFF THE BOOKS'?

Cambridge, Mass.

William Schulz, in his respectful but selectively critical review of
"less than two of [Shouting Fire]'s 550 pages," misses the point
of my proposal regarding torture warrants ["The Torturer's Apprentice,"
May 13]. I am against torture, and I am seeking ways of preventing or
minimizing its use. My argument begins with the empirical claim--not the
moral argument--that if an actual ticking bomb case were ever to arise
in this country, torture would in fact be used. FBI and CIA sources have
virtually acknowledged this. Does Schulz agree or disagree with this
factual assertion? If it is true that torture would in fact be used,
then the following moral question arises: whether it is worse in the
choice of evils for this torture to take place off the books, under the
radar screen and without democratic accountability--or whether it is
worse for this torture to be subjected to democratic accountability by
means of some kind of judicial approval and supervision. This is a
difficult and daunting question, with arguments on all sides. In my
forthcoming book Why Terrorism Works, I devote an entire chapter
to presenting the complexity of this issue, rather than simply proposing
it as a heuristic, as I did in the two pages of Shouting Fire on
which Schulz focuses. Schulz simply avoids this horrible choice of evils
by arguing that it does not exist and by opting for a high road that
will simply not be taken in the event that federal agents believe they
can actually stop a terrorist nuclear or bioterrorist attack by
administering nonlethal torture.

Schulz asks whether I would also favor "brutality warrants,"
"testilying" warrants and prisoner rape warrants. The answer is a
heuristic "yes," if requiring a warrant would subject these horribly
brutal activities to judicial control and political accountability. The
purpose of requiring judicial supervision, as the Framers of our Fourth
Amendment understood better than Schulz does, is to assure
accountability and judicial neutrality. There is another purpose as
well: It forces a democratic country to confront the choice of evils in
an open way. My question back to Schulz is, Do you prefer the current
situation, in which brutality, testilying and prison rape are rampant,
but we close our eyes to these evils?

There is, of course, a downside: legitimating a horrible practice that
we all want to see ended or minimized. Thus we have a triangular
conflict unique to democratic societies: If these horrible practices
continue to operate below the radar screen of accountability, there is
no legitimation, but there is continuing and ever-expanding sub
rosa
employment of the practice. If we try to control the practice
by demanding some kind of accountability, we add a degree of
legitimation to it while perhaps reducing its frequency and severity. If
we do nothing, and a preventable act of nuclear terrorism occurs, then
the public will demand that we constrain liberty even more. There is no
easy answer.

I praise Amnesty International for taking the high road--that is its
job, because it is not responsible for making hard judgments about
choices of evil. Responsible government officials are in a somewhat
different position. Professors have yet a different responsibility: to
provoke debate about issues before they occur and to challenge
absolutes. That is what Shouting Fire is all about.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ


SCHULZ REPLIES

New York City

Neither I nor Amnesty International can be accused of having closed
our eyes to the reality of torture, police brutality or prison rape. Of
course, some authorities may utilize torture under some circumstances,
just as others choose to take bribes. The question is, What is the best
way to eradicate these practices? By regulating them or outlawing them
and enforcing the law? That an evil seems pervasive or even (at the
moment) inevitable is no reason to grant it official approval. We tried
that when it came to slavery, and the result was the Civil War. Had we
applied Professor Dershowitz's approach to child labor, American
10-year-olds would still be sweating in shops.

WILLIAM F. SCHULZ



HITCHENS'S 'CULTURE WAR'

Princeton, N.J.

Christopher Hitchens argues that "suicide murders would increase and
not decrease" if a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians
moved closer to reality ["Minority Report," May 13]. This claim seems to
bolster Sharon's cataclysmic "war on terror" in the occupied
territories: If terrorists seek to destroy peace and only feed on
Israel's generosity and sincerity, surely Sharon is correct to eliminate
"terror" as a precondition for negotiations?

In fact, the Oslo process has moved the Palestinians further from the
goal of a viable state, and the Israeli left's best offers to date (at
Camp David and Taba) envisage the annexation of the vast majority of
settlers to Israel in perpetuity along with blocs of land, which would
fatally compromise a nascent Palestine. As for Hitchens's observation
that the first suicide bombings coincided with the Rabin/Peres
government: How does this undermine the explanation that Israel's
prolonged oppression has created and fueled the bombers? Rabin and Peres
imposed a curfew on Palestinians rather than Israeli settlers after the
murder of twenty-nine Arabs by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron early in 1994
(the first suicide bombing was in response to this); they sent death
squads into the West Bank and Gaza to kill militants and those who
happened to be in their vicinity (the wave of suicide bombings in the
spring of 1996 followed one such assassination); and they greatly
expanded the settlements, contributing their share to the broader trend
of illegal settlement expansion that's doubled the number of Israelis
living across the Green Line since 1992.

Hitchens's promotion of a "culture war" between religious extremists and
secular opponents of "thuggery and tribalism" obfuscates the reality of
Israel's prolonged and enduring oppression of Palestinians. His argument
that a more generous Israeli policy would lead to more Palestinian
violence, meanwhile, serves to legitimize Sharon's current tactics. How
did such a clearsighted commentator become so myopic? Perhaps if
Hitchens stopped looking at every situation through the lens of the "war
on terror," he'd regain his former clarity of vision.

NICHOLAS GUYATT



LBJ A RACIST? THINK AGAIN

Washington, DC

I share Eric Alterman's admiration for the work of biographer Robert
Caro ["Stop the Presses," May 6]. But why does Alterman feel compelled
to refer to Lyndon Johnson as a "thoroughgoing racist"? Johnson was a
white man born in 1908 in the most racist region of the most racist
country on earth. He was born in a time and place where racism was
accepted as part of the atmosphere, where lynching was commonplace,
where black people led lives of unimaginable degradation (see Leon
Litwack's Trouble in Mind, a portrait of the early
twentieth-century Jim Crow South, which has to be read to be believed).

Of course, given his background, political ambitions and ineligibility
for sainthood, Johnson used racist language and shared racist
assumptions. Who from that time and place, wanting what he wanted, did
not? But what distinguishes Johnson, at all stages in his public career,
was his relative lack of public racism. Johnson was a New Deal
Congressman from 1937 to '48 who never strayed from loyalty to the
national Democratic Party even though conservative Texas Democrats were
in revolt against it from 1944 onward. Of course, running for the Senate
against a Dixiecrat in 1948 as Southern resistance to civil rights was
beginning to build, he opposed the Truman civil rights program. That was
the minimum required to be elected to Texas statewide office. Given the
pathological ferocity of Johnson's ambition, sticking with Truman for
re-election, as Johnson did, took guts that year. As a senator, Johnson
was never identified as a leader of the Southern bloc or as an enemy of
civil rights. Again, especially in public, he said and did the political
minimum to pay homage to the racist consensus. Caro evidently describes
his involvement in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the forerunner of all
the other civil rights laws to come. Texas black and Hispanic voters
never doubted that, given the alternatives, LBJ was their man.

Johnson later became the greatest civil rights President in history,
pushing through the epochal changes in the laws, appointing Thurgood
Marshall to the Supreme Court and going so far as to vet prospective
federal judges with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Blacks who worked with
him, like Roger Wilkins, remember him fondly while acknowledging his
ancestral racism, which he tried, not always successfully, to transcend.
But if Johnson is a "thoroughgoing racist," where does that leave
Richard Russell, James Eastland or Strom Thurmond--or Richard Nixon, for
that matter? What about Barry Goldwater, who was probably less "racist"
than Johnson but was an opponent of all civil rights legislation and was
the leader of the forces of unrepentant segregation (i.e., racist murder
and oppression) in 1964?

As with Abraham Lincoln, also now under renewed attack on similarly
ahistorical grounds, to describe Johnson as an extreme racist flattens
the historical landscape and renders the fierce conflicts of a past age
meaningless. There is nothing wrong with honestly describing anybody's
racial views, including those of Lincoln or Johnson. But in studying
history, context is everything. And in studying Lincoln or Johnson, what
matters most is not the ways they shared their contemporaries' racial
attitudes but the ways they did not, as reflected in their words and
actions.

PETER M. CONNOLLY


ALTERMAN REPLIES

New York City

There's a bit of hyperbole in Peter Connolly's thoughtful letter, and
I disagree with his point about it taking guts to stick with the
Democratic President, but by and large I think his criticism is on the
mark, and I appreciate it. He is right. Context is everything.
Johnson may have been a racist, but unlike most politicians in his time
and place he was not a "race man." That's an important distinction, and
I wish I had considered it.

ERIC ALTERMAN

The essential mystery of the 2000 election has always been this: How in
the world did George W. Bush ever get close enough to invite the
Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court to give him his
"victory"?

Of course, he couldn't have done it all by himself. Al Gore ran away
from one of the most successful economic records of any Administration
this century and could not seem to articulate a single compelling reason
that he should be President. Bush was also mightily aided by Ralph
Nader, whose spoiler candidacy commanded just enough support to swing
battleground states for the Republicans while failing to come even
remotely close to the 5 percent, matching-funds goal that was his
professed inspiration. But the biggest piece of the puzzle is still
Bush. He may have "grown" in office, but the fact is he had some of the
skimpiest qualifications for the job of almost any successful candidate
in our history, while Gore's were among the best. Moreover, his
political views were well to the right of most voters on almost
everything, while Gore's were well within the national consensus. By any
conventional calculation, Bush should have lost in a landslide.

The obvious answer to the paradox is that Bush sold his personality, not
his politics. But how? Are people just stupid? Don't they realize that
it doesn't matter if one candidate is a likable cutup and the other one
a superior stiff when it comes to stuff like global warming, a patients'
bills of rights, Social Security, the right to choose, etc.? Well,
that's one answer. But a more compelling one is that the so-called
liberal media, contrary to its nonsensical reputation for favoring
Democrats, failed to inform the public of the two candidates' political
and ideological differences, and the implications those differences held
for the nation's future.

The release of two different kinds of campaign documents--Ambling
Into History
, a book by New York Times reporter Frank Bruni,
and Journeys With George, a film by former NBC News producer
Alexandra Pelosi--shed considerable light on just how the media managed
to spend millions upon millions covering the candidates while reporting
next to nothing of value to voters. Ambling is a memoir of a
love-struck reporter. The journalist charged with covering the campaign
for the newspaper that sets the agenda for most of the elite media
focuses with laserlike intensity on every nod, wink, smile and
profession of alleged "love" that comes his way from the candidate. But
we hear barely a word about the candidate's pollution- and
fat-cat-friendly policies as governor of Texas or his lies and
dissimulations when it came to environmental protection, affirmative
action, issues of corporate responsibility, healthcare policy and the
like. If you want to know the exact number of seconds that George and
Laura Bush danced at every one of their nine Inaugural Balls, then the
intrepid Mr. Bruni is your man. If you have any interest in what Bush
might have been doing at his desk the following morning, well, where did
you get the silly idea that a New York Times reporter should
concern himself with boring stuff like that?

The willingness of the Times bigfoot to treat the election as the
equivalent of a junior high popularity contest signaled to the rest of
the media that contentless coverage would be the order of the day. The
net result, as Pelosi shows us in her fascinating but nauseating
documentary--to be broadcast on HBO in November--is a press corps that
follows its campaign masters like a litter of newborn puppies. They wait
open-mouthed for Karl Rove or Karen Hughes to drop a tender morsel of
warmed-over baloney into their mouths, wagging their tails in
appreciation after every feeding.

The clowning frat boy who plays the Republican presidential candidate in
the Pelosi movie does turn out to be a genuinely congenial fellow. If
you've been wondering why it is that everybody seems to like this
guy--and how he has managed to forge so many lifelong bonds with people
irrespective of his apparent doofus-like qualities--then this movie will
provide a painless seventy-six-minute education. The filmmaker--the
daughter of House Democratic whip Nancy Pelosi--hates Bush's politics
but likes him personally, and so can we. She tells audiences that
Journeys is a documentary about process and that the candidate
himself is unimportant. But that's nonsense. Bush is a star. If Pelosi
had had the misfortune to be assigned to Al Gore's press plane, this
movie would have sucked.

But like Ambling, Journeys is more valuable for what it
shows than what it tells. Over and over we hear the reporters criticize
themselves for the emptiness of their coverage as they express a kind of
wearied contempt for the snowmobile rides and other pseudoevents that
substitute for substance. But over and over again, they submit without
apparent protest. They regurgitate the campaign's baloney sandwiches and
watered-down Kool-Aid--without even bothering to convince themselves
that it's really steak and champagne. In between feedings, they ask the
Man for his autograph, laugh at his jokes and seek, without much
success, to justify the effects of their collective lobotomy to Pelosi's
pitiless focus.

Unlike Bruni, Pelosi demonstrates considerable professional
self-awareness (which is why she felt compelled to quit her job and
leave the field entirely after the campaign). Early on, she gives us
the Financial Times's Richard Wolffe speaking excitedly about
covering "the greatest story in the world...big issues, big stakes; it's
a big game, but it's important." A little later he admits, "Most of our
time is spent doing really stupid things, in stupid places with stupid
people." If you want your mystery summed up in a single sentence, it
would be hard to outdo Wolffe: "The Gore press corps is about how they
didn't like Gore, didn't trust him.... Over here, we were writing only
about the trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us."

But Bush himself puts it best, just before kissing Pelosi in pursuit of
her (meaningless) vote in the California primary: "If I lose," he
playfully smirks, "you're out of work, baby. You're off the plane."

Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently
undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related
happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a
book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic). The
lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't
wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists,
by contrast, were near despondency. They had entered the profession
"armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an
exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the
significance of stories and the manner in which they should be
presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a
profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from
professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the
professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits"
focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient
interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned"
profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.

Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered
Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or
anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine
journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet
in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of
figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction
of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its
corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're
not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing
more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on
TV?

As much as the media like to report on themselves--I'd use the
obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation--few
observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been
transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with
more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.)
Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers
have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire
the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the
University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the
Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news;
swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless
task. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive
the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff
wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its
almost-certain end."

Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual
end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many
people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with
exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David
Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But
its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been
shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier
lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed
discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism
that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel
Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si
Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary
journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS,
under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard.
If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else
can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?

With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of
survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a
significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news
division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman,
which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could
they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the
division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is
coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their
corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving
Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public
humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the
entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.

Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of
serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with
only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning
and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The
evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as
well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors
goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local
affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds,
It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public
watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who
has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service
regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein
Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue
operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US
corporations.)

Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies
really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter,
Ted
, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's
dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little
noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?

To immerse oneself in Robert Caro's heroic biographies is to come face to face with a shocking but unavoidable realization: Much of what we think we know about money, power and politics is a fairy tale. Our newspapers, magazines, broadcast and cable newscasts are filled with comforting fictions. We embrace them because the truth is too messy, too frightening, simply too much.

In a 1997 speech on the topic, Ben Bradlee attributes our problem to official lying. "Even the very best newspapers have never learned how to handle public figures who lie with a straight face. No editor would dare print.... 'The Watergate break-in involved matters of national security, President Nixon told a national TV audience last night.... That is a lie.'"

But the problem is much larger than Bradlee allows. Caro demonstrates how this colossal structure of deceit clouds the historical record. The unelected Robert Moses exercised a dictatorial power over the lives of millions of New Yorkers for nearly half a century. He uprooted communities and destroyed neighborhoods using privately run but publicly funded entities called "public authorities," whose charters he personally wrote. Before the publication of The Power Broker in 1974 (1,246 pages, after having been cut by 40 percent to fit into a single volume), no book or major magazine article existed on the topic. Caro's obsessive exhumation of Moses's career transformed our understanding of the mechanics of urban politics. And yet even today the media proceed as if it's simply a matter of campaigns, elections and legislation.

The true face of our money-driven political system is buried so far beneath the surface of our public discourse that almost nobody has any incentive to uncover it. With a meager $2,500 advance to sustain him, Caro sold his house and nearly bankrupted his family; his wife, Ina--a medieval historian--went to work as his full-time researcher. When I asked why he did it, he got a little choked up about the sacrifice of Ina's career and how much she had loved their old house. Finally he said he had no idea. The Caros' combination of intellectual independence and professional dedication inspires comparisons with another great marital partnership: that of the late, great Izzy and Esther Stone. (Can anyone imagine what Izzy would have come up with if he had committed virtually his entire career to smoking out the truth about just two powerful men?)

Caro's new book, Master of the Senate, volume three of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, forces us not only to rewrite our national political history but to rethink it as well. What Caro is doing here is something we rarely see attempted in any medium: His aim, as he once explained to Kurt Vonnegut, "is to show not only how power works but the effect of power on those without power. How political power affects all our lives, every single day in ways we never think about."

Caro's been burrowing beneath the shadows of the substance of our politics for more than twenty-eight years, and what he finds is both fascinating and surprising. In many ways Johnson's personality--so outsized and contradictory as to be cognitively uncontainable--gets in the way of this compulsively readable story, which is about how power is exercised in this country.

Lyndon Johnson did not invent the form of legislative power he exercised through the Senate in the 1950s, but Caro has almost had to invent a new history to describe it. People have told pieces of it here and there, but who's got the time, the motivation or the patience to really nail down not only what happened but what it meant to the nation? Here's a tiny example, of which this new book has almost one a page. Listen to longtime Senate staffer Howard Shuman: "William S. White, [whom Caro terms the Senate's "most prominent chronicler"] wrote that the way to get into the Club was to be courteous and courtly. Well, that's nonsense." Johnson mocked and humiliated liberal New York Senator Herbert Lehman at every opportunity: "It didn't have anything to do with courtly. It had to do with how you voted--with whether or not you voted as Lyndon Johnson wanted you to vote." Neil MacNeil, veteran Time correspondent adds, "The Senate was run by courtesy, all right--like a longshoreman's union."

Now don't go looking in old Time magazines for any hint of this. Caro spends more than 300 of his 1,167 pages on the incredible story of Johnson's navigation of the 1957 Civil Rights Act through Congress, something that hardly anyone thought possible until he pulled it off. With the singular exception of Tom Wicker, then a green (and largely ignored) young reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, no one covering the story had an inkling of how it happened.

One indisputable conclusion that Caro offers is pretty tough to swallow. The advances in civil rights legislation that helped end centuries of legal apartheid in this country could never have occurred had they not been planned and executed by a man who turns out to have been a thoroughgoing racist. Caro was much criticized for downplaying Johnson's 1948 support for Truman, considering the fact that his lionized opponent, Coke Stevenson, stood with the racist Strom Thurmond Dixiecrat campaign. But Johnson, it turns out, attacked Truman's civil rights policies no less virulently. He gave a campaign speech in May 1948 in which he compared civil rights legislation to the creation of "a police state in the guise of liberty." Caro found the speech in a White House file with the following admonition stapled on top. "DO NOT RELEASE THIS SPEECH-speech--not even to staff...this is not EVER TO BE RELEASED." Thanks to Caro, this story, and with it a big chunk of our history, has been released as well.

Addendum: George W. Bush's Executive Order 13233, which effectively eviscerates the Presidential Records Act of 1978 by fiat, is designed to insure that no historian can ever provide this kind of public service again. Twenty Democrats and three Republicans are co-sponsors of a bill to restore it. Write your representatives and tell them to get on board.

How cool is Jennifer Harbury? She is currently arguing her own case before the Supreme Court, demanding the right to sue the government because, she maintains, its leaders deliberately misled her about the murder of her husband, a Guatemalan rebel leader named Efrain Bamaca Velasquez who was killed in army custody during the counterinsurgency war in Guatemala in the early 1990s.

Harbury has a case. The State Department has confirmed that Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, who was present during Bamaca's interrogation/murder, was a paid CIA asset. A CIA report alleges that Alpirez did the dirty deed himself. When then-State Department official Richard Nuccio informed Senator Robert Torricelli of that, Nuccio immediately found himself the target of a Justice Department investigation. A federal prosecutor accused him of betraying America by conspiring with Torricelli to blow Alpirez's cover, of destroying CIA officers' careers and of being an agent of the guerrillas. Although the United States offered no official charges or accusations, in a highly unusual move the CIA demanded that the State Department strip Nuccio of his security clearance, thereby depriving him of his livelihood. Harbury endured a thirty-two-day hunger strike to force those officials to come clean. She is now arguing that she could have saved her husband's life through the US court system had she known the truth during the period between his capture in March 1992 and his murder in 1993 or 1994.

A report by the President's Intelligence Oversight Board rejected the charge of deliberate lying by US officials but admitted that if the government had bothered to investigate "when Jennifer Harbury first raised the issue of her husband's fate" in the spring of 1992, the State Department "might have been able at a much earlier date to provide her with useful information." The key word here appears to be "useful."

Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake and the other Clinton Administration officials named by Harbury are probably right when they argue that leveling with her at the time would have made little difference in saving her husband's life. US courts do not have jurisdiction over the Guatemalan military (though US foreign policy officials often do). They also deny that they lied. But for procedural reasons, the ex-officials have to argue that regardless of whether they lied, a US citizen has no legal right to sue a public official who does lie. Solicitor General Theodore Olson filed an amicus brief arguing on behalf of the government's right to lie: "It is an unfortunate reality that the issuance of incomplete information and even misinformation by government may sometimes be perceived as necessary to protect vital interests," he maintains.

This particular case stinks for more reasons than can be precisely counted. In addition to the above, Bamaca was killed by a genocidal government that enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. This is not only my opinion; it is the view of the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission's 1999 report, which condemns the United States for aiding a "criminal counterinsurgency" against the nation's indigenous Mayan population. America's Guatemala policy was anticommunism gone mad.

Moreover, if David Brock is to be believed, Olson is himself tainted by his lies to Congress. According to Brock's Congressional testimony, Olson lied during his confirmation hearings about his role in the Richard Mellon Scaife-funded "Arkansas Project," run out of the offices of The American Spectator and designed to undermine the Clinton presidency by any means necessary. What a surprise, therefore, that he thinks it's OK for the government to lie as well.

But the sorry truth is that the question of the government's right to lie is a lot more complicated than it looks. The Supreme Court has repeatedly enshrined in law the extremely provocative statement enunciated in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Arthur Sylvester: "It's inherent in [the] government's right, if necessary, to lie to save itself." Dishonest officials have stretched the "national security" definition beyond recognition to protect not only thuggish murderers but also narrow political interests. But the principle itself is not wholly unsound. Although lies undermine the confidence in, and practice of, democracy, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, one can imagine circumstances in which a temporary lie might save lives without endangering the Constitution.

The problem is how to set enforceable limits. Government officials lie all the time. And while it is a crime to lie to Congress and to commit perjury, these acts are prosecuted in such a haphazard and nakedly political fashion that they can hardly serve as much of a deterrent. Lawrence Walsh's legitimate prosecutions of Reagan Administration officials who lied about matters of state were mocked by allegedly high-minded pundits like David Broder and George Will and overturned in a cowardly fashion by defeated President George H.W. Bush after the 1992 election.

Meanwhile, a fanatical cabal inside the Republican Party and Kenneth Starr's office manipulated these same laws to impeach President Clinton and disarm his popular agenda over a private lie not about a matter of state but a routine case of almost adultery. Given that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans have told this same type of lie to protect their families (or themselves) from humiliation, they saw this partisan gambit for what it was, punishing its perpetrators in the 1998 election. But the self-righteous pooh-bahs of the punditocracy--many of whom celebrated the Reagan-era liars and quite a few of whom told their share of adulterous lies--behave as if their hypocrisy were somehow patriotically inspired.

Jennifer Harbury continues to fight not only for justice for her husband but also for a reasonable definition of the government's right to lie. Bully for this brave woman who, despite her personal tragedy, takes democracy more seriously than its alleged protectors. She is a patriot to put the pundits to shame.

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