Although it happened in early July after ethically challenged Congressman Gary Condit finally admitted to police that he'd had an adulterous affair with 24-year-old Chandra Levy, it's hard to say precisely when the media's obsession with the missing person case slipped into predictable absurdity.
Was it the night CNBC's Geraldo Rivera dialed up one of Condit's old motorcycle buddies to discuss on the air whether Condit had had a vasectomy? (That, of course, to answer the stitched-together what-if, "What if Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance?") The buddy said yes. Geraldo then quoted a "trusted" former FBI agent who insisted he had information that Levy had menstruated in late April, so she couldn't have been pregnant.
Was it the night when Fox News Channel's Paula Zahn, conducting her approximately seventy-eighth Levy-related interview in prime time, asked spiritual teacher Sylvia Browne where Levy's body was? Unlike everyone else in America, Browne knew the answer; Levy's body was located near "some trees down in a marshy area...but this girl is not alive."Zahn: How do you know that, Sylvia? Browne: Because I'm a psychic.
Was it when San Francisco Chronicle writer Dave Ford wrote "Condit's private life wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't lied about being involved with a young woman who remains missing" (emphasis added)? Because, naturally, if Condit had held a press conference the day Levy was declared missing and announced he'd had an extramarital affair with the intern and talked to her right up to the time of her disappearance, his private life would have been of no interest to reporters.
But that's what happens when the national press decides to tell a scandal story they like; preferred narrative trumps fact every time. The press doesn't have a clue about whether Condit played any role in Levy's disappearance, but that's not really the point. Journalism today, particularly the bold brand perfected in Washington over the past decade, has become such an odd, arrogant animal it no longer plays by any recognizable rules. In the wake of Katharine Graham's passing, her beloved Washington Post suffered an unwelcome reminder of just how badly its game has slipped since the paper's heady Watergate days. The Post was forced to run a lengthy recantation when a Modesto, California, minister admitted to the FBI that he had fabricated the story about his daughter having an affair with Condit seven years ago. The Post ran that irrelevant gossip as a page-one exclusive, even though it never confirmed the story with the daughter or the Congressman. Remember when Woodward and Bernstein had to three-source their stories?
Convinced, like the Post, that Condit's love life was in and of itself news, the Fresno Bee ran a story about a 31-year-old Congressional aide who said that five years ago Condit gave her his phone number! And not just any number--oh, no--a "mysterious" phone number. As the excitable aide explained, "When you call, you just hear music playing and then a beep. That is when you are supposed to leave a message."
It's called a pager.
And Dan Rather's CBS Evening News was chastised for not running this stuff?
The pundits got some things right, like taking Condit's spokeswoman to task for the slimy suggestion that Levy may have invited danger with a string of one-night stands. But then they went one step further, insisting that Levy's private life was irrelevant to the investigation. "This shouldn't even be an issue," argued Fox News Channel's Alan Colmes. So, for those keeping score at home, detailing the sordid details of a nonsuspect's sexual history is paramount for the press but discussing possible intimate relationships the missing woman may have had--other than, of course, with the nonsuspect Congressman--is completely out of bounds. How on earth does the press keep track of these arbitrary boundaries?
During a press feeding frenzy it's always easier if the good guys and bad guys are clearly identified. And from the press's perspective, clearly nobody associated with the Levy family--not their lawyers, private investigators or public relations experts--was open to question. What else would explain the silence surrounding this flip-flop?
On July 15 the Levys' Washington attorney, Billy Martin, was asked on Meet the Press whether Chandra was pregnant at the time of her disappearance.Martin: We do not yet have a final answer on that.
Here's what he said five days earlier on CBS's Early Show, when asked the exact same pregnancy question by Jane Clayson:Martin: I don't think we want to answer that, but we do know the answer. Clayson: You do know the answer? Martin: We do know the answer.
The press politely looked the other way, never uttering a peep.
Incredibly, media bigfoots have actually toasted the press's performance. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, when not soliciting worthless opinions from true-crime authors on what had happened, insisted that the Levy story is "the stuff of great...journalism through the ages." Fox News Channel's Juan Williams suggested with a straight face that the press has been "restrained" in its coverage. (Will Williams ever challenge his employer on the air?) And the editor of the Beltway bible, The Hotline, was nearly moved to tears by the press's admirable job. Not only had the press "come through with flying colors" but the Levy story reminded us all that journalism "can be a dirty, ugly and even dangerous business. Those who aren't willing to take on those aspects of the profession might want to think about a new line of work."
Apparently, setting up a tripod for another day of tedious media stakeouts in front of Condit's district office is not for the faint of heart.
The next scene in Return of the Bushies may feature Brent Scowcroft, who was National Security Adviser to Bush I. The anonymous leakers of Washington are whispering that Scowcroft is in line to become head of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. This little-known outfit advises the chief executive on sensitive intelligence matters and occasionally investigates national security controversies. In recent years it has probed such delicate topics as security at the Energy Department ("a dysfunctional bureaucracy that has proven itself incapable of reforming itself," huffed the board), ex-CIA director John Deutch's mishandling of classified information (PFIAB--pronounced Piffiab--blasted George Tenet, the current director, for not supervising the Deutch inquiry better) and the China-stole-our-nuclear-weapons-secrets flap ("Possible damage has been minted as probable disaster; workaday delay and bureaucratic confusion has been cast as diabolical conspiracies. Enough is enough"). PFIAB also oversees the Intelligence Oversight Board, which is supposed to prepare reports on intelligence activities that may be unlawful.
Scowcroft, a national security establishment elder, has the standing to lead the board--but his connections make him a poor choice. If he's tapped for the part-time, unpaid job, which requires no Senate confirmation, he'll be granted access to a trove of government secrets. But Scowcroft heads a company that is--and would continue to be--in the business of providing intelligence to firms here and abroad. Should a fellow who directs an intelligence service for foreign and domestic corporations be allowed the run of the US intelligence apparatus?
After the fall of Bush I, Scowcroft hatched the Scowcroft Group. Billed as an "international business advisory group," Scowcroft's firm--"managed directly" by its namesake, according to its website--offers businesses "a wide range of services" to assist them in "strategic planning, risk management, market development and ongoing operations." The group boasts "extraordinary regional expertise" in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Western and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. And it claims "strong ties to key decision-makers" in these regions. Its clients are telecom, insurance, aerospace, energy, financial, electronics and food companies around the world.
As the chairman of PFIAB, Scowcroft could easily come across sensitive information useful to customers and his own business endeavors. For instance, in 1997 the Scowcroft Group contracted with Medley Advisors to help it provide political intelligence and analysis to firms that trade the stocks, bonds and currencies of emerging-market nations. What if Scowcroft, while tending to his PFIAB duties, acquires nonpublic information related to the financial position of such nations? This is not to suggest that he's going to sell secrets and commit treason. But there likely will be enough overlap between his private and public interests to provoke questions about his official actions and decisions.
Scowcroft and his group are connected to many enterprises that could benefit from inside intelligence. He has been a consultant for the oil industry and sits on the board of Pennzoil-Quaker State. (In 1996 he was paid $130,000 by Pennzoil--part of a consortium exploring and drilling in Azerbaijan--to lobby US policy on Azerbaijan.) He has been a director of Global Power and Pipelines, an Enron subsidiary with interests in power projects in China, Guatemala, the Philippines, Argentina and Colombia. He has been on the board of telecom giant Qualcomm since 1995. This past February he exercised fewer than half his stock options in the company and pocketed $17 million.
Scowcroft is now steering a government review panel assessing new intelligence-collection technologies. Could what he gleans from this exercise be useful to Qualcomm? Or to iDefense, a high-tech firm that maintains a partnership with the Scowcroft Group and was hired by the Pentagon, according to Intelligence Newsletter, to conduct "a series of private intelligence missions"?
Beyond Scowcroft's business ties lies another problem: his Bush ties. A friend of the family, he was a key foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush during the campaign. PFIAB would inspire more confidence if it were not filled with loyalists who could be expected to be protective of the Administration. When Bill Clinton was President, he appointed several fundraiser pals to the board--and earned justified criticism--but in 1998 he named Warren Rudman, a former Republican senator, to be PFIAB's chairman. No one could argue that Rudman had an interest in covering Clinton's backside.
Scowcroft's possible appointment has irritated conservatives who correctly consider him a member in too good standing with the business-before-ideology, go-easy-on-China foreign policy establishment. Columnist William Safire recently took a swipe at Bush for considering Scowcroft, who, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, was dispatched by Bush I on a secret mission to China to keep US-China relations on an even keel. And the Scowcroft Group has been keen on doing and promoting business in China. National security right-wingers shudder at the thought of a Scowcroft-led PFIAB investigating charges of Chinese espionage. Scowcroft has also been opposing sanctions against Iran and Libya of late, and hawks would not be wrong to suspect it's because of his links to Big Oil.
The presidential executive order governing PFIAB notes that members of the board "shall be...qualified on the basis of achievement, experience and independence." Such boilerplate is often ignored. But Scowcroft stretches the boundaries of the independence qualification. He's not independent from Bush circles. And he will arrive toting a briefcase overflowing with obligations to corporate clients. Scowcroft, per federal regulations, will not even have to file a financial disclosure form. This is one act of clan patronage Bush should forgo.
George Fuchs, The Nation's controller since 1995, died recently, far too young. We knew George for his quick check-writing, his help with our taxes, his ironic sense of humor, his love of the New York Giants, his seriocomic administration of The Nation's annual football pool and his inimitable taste in novelty ties, of which he possessed an impressive collection. His favorite was a Dilbert pattern with blue checks. Unforgettable. And so was George.
The world will never be the same after Genoa. We are referring both to the bloody confrontations at the G-8 summit and, more deeply, to the long history of conquest that began when Columbus sailed from Genoa in the name of free trade and globalization five centuries ago. The torturous legacy of Columbus, the conquistadores, the mercantilists, the colonialists, the adventurers obsessed with their manifest destinies, continues today in the G-8, the club of leaders of once and future empires.
Were these leaders at all conscious of the human tragedy inflicted in the name of free trade? Were they aware of the long and devastating history of economic expansion without regard to people or natural environments? Was it all--including the dozens of activists killed in India, Bolivia and other countries in earlier anti-corporate globalization protests and the 23-year-old Italian shot to death at close range by police in Genoa--so much "collateral damage" on the voyage of progress?
Some of the G-8 leaders claimed awareness of those concerns. "There is no demonstration drawing 100,000, 150,000 people without having a valid reason," noted French President Jacques Chirac. Past protests have at least had the effect of creating a public relations problem for the G-8, which was also chastened by the rout of the drug companies on AIDS, the failure to gain a Multilateral Agreement on Investment, the forcing of debt relief onto the international agenda. So the summiteers brought developing country leaders to Genoa for an audience and asked UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to launch his AIDS fund there.
But as in past meetings, they remained insulated from any dialogue with the citizenry in the streets. George W. Bush parroted the mindset of the governing elite when he said, "Those who claim to represent the voices of the poor aren't doing so." It is the arrogant view that what's good for the global corporate class is good for the world that those 100,000 people (along with more than a million in the less-developed world who have demonstrated against the IMF and the World Bank) have challenged.
Instead of listening, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi shipped in 20,000 national police plus a couple of thousand troops armed with tear gas, water cannons and helicopters. Philippine academic Walden Bello filed a report to this magazine's website (www.thenation.com) describing how, at 11 on Saturday night, police barged into the press center of the Genoa Social Forum, the Italian group that lined up about 600 groups behind a pledge of nonviolence, and forced everyone to the floor. At about the same time, the Wall Street Journal reported, Italian police raided a school building housing activists in an operation that neighbors described as leading to "hours of beatings and screaming." Perhaps, some surmised, the police operation was not really meant to keep order at all. Bello quotes Pam Foster, the coordinator of the Halifax Initiative in Canada, as asking, "Why did the police go after the peaceful demonstrators but take their time dealing with the anarchists?"
The globalization protesters--the great majority of them nonviolent--are worried that the escalating carnage at these meetings will discredit the movement's message and scare away thousands who would otherwise join the demonstrations. But the international movement continues to take to the streets because there is no other forum. The corporations have lawyers in the meeting rooms who serve as government negotiators, then return to big-name law firms and implement whatever decisions are made. The Bush Administration promises openness on the Free Trade for the Americas Act and the next WTO round, but so far all they have shared with the public are broad principles.
The movement in this country thus has much work ahead of it after Genoa. A week before the G-8 summit, members of the business-friendly Democratic Leadership Council were applauding themselves at a meeting at which free trade was a mantra and funding was provided by global corporations. Yet if ever there was a moment when Democrats could recapture the banner of patriotism and the national interest from the Republicans, it is now--by calling for the protection of democracy, the environment and labor rights against those who've never seen a sweatshop they didn't want to own or a rainforest they didn't want to slash. As if to drive home the point that a devotion to "free trade" is most often a cover for greed, many countries are currently working toward a global tobacco-control treaty backed by the World Health Organization, but the United States, Britain and Japan are using the WTO as a club to force open markets in poor countries to tobacco pushers.
Where things go from Genoa isn't clear. Even as G-8 leaders were making plans to meet next in a remote Canadian fastness, protest leaders were planning for the next round of actions, first at the World Bank and IMF annual meeting in Washington in September and then at the WTO meeting in Qatar in November. At the same time, some US groups have decided to focus more of their energy on making local links with global issues--for example, opposing privatization of public services that help the poor. In Washington, groups like the AFL-CIO, Friends of the Earth and Public Citizen, which forged a Congressional coalition that beat back President Clinton's fast-track fantasies, are gearing up for a similar fight over Bush's demand for fast-track authority to negotiate the FTAA.
The courage, coalition and commitment that have unfolded from Seattle 1999 to Genoa 2001 define a movement that, despite outer repression and inner divisions, cannot be stopped until the global decision-making system is radically reformed. The real new world order has to include many worlds, starting with the people pushed to the margins for 500 years.
The problem of punditocracy ignorance does not usually constitute a national security threat. If most Americans walk around misinformed about Gary Condit's sexual escapades or Elián González's emotional state, the Republic will probably survive. But on an issue like missile defense--where so many generals and admirals consider it part of their patriotic duty to mislead the public--its ramifications become considerably more worrisome.
When a Pentagon spokesperson recently announced that it had carried out a "successful test in all respects" over Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, some pundits swallowed this line faster than you can say "student deferment."
In a column titled "The 'Smart People' Were Wrong," the Washington Post's Michael Kelly beat his chest and snarled: "In the blink of a video screen going blinding white on July 14, it became impossible to offhandedly disdain a missile defense system as 'weapons that don't work.' It does work. No one can any longer assert that missile defense is unattainable." Melanie Kirkpatrick of the Wall Street Journal crowed about the "resounding success--putting the lie to the it-can't-be-done crowd."
I don't know Kirkpatrick, but the gullible Mr. Kelly covered the Gulf War and should know better. It was back then that the Pentagon sold the pundits on a remarkably successful "kill ratio" for US Patriot missiles attempting to destroy Iraqi Scuds over Israel. This too was said to be proof that Star Wars worked. Kelly's conservative comrades like Fred Barnes insisted that the Patriot's alleged success proved that "we need SDI." Patrick Buchanan declared: "The debate is over." Then-President Bush "ought to insist on the restoration of full funding for SDI and entertain no counterargument." Wall Street Journal editors concurred, adding, "The epic debates over ABM and SDI, after all, were over whether to give American civilians the kind of protection Israeli civilians have just received."
In fact, according to a GAO study released in 1992, Patriots had a success rate of only 9 percent during the war. Israelis were actually safer without them, suffering more damage in fewer attacks when "protected." In the event of a genuine attack on the United States, a missile defense system like the Patriot would have left Barnes, Buchanan and the Journal editors a heap of radioactive ash.
Pundits seem to lose not only their skepticism when writing about Star Wars but much of their intelligence. William Safire is no dummy, but swearing fealty to Star Wars last year, he committed perhaps the single silliest sentence his newspaper published since A.M. Rosenthal accused a man of killing Abe's sister with his penis. Admitting that the technology for missile defense was nowhere to be found on earth, the former PR man countered, "But many who insist it will never work were doubtful our technology could ever put a man on the moon." Aside from the obvious illogic involved here, are there actually any mortals on the planet who fit Safire's description? Repeated entreaties to Safire and his editors have failed to turn up any such evidence.
Any journalist with even a hint of historical memory would know better than to accept at face value what Pentagon officials claim for Star Wars technology. A year ago William Broad of the Times quoted a top Star Wars official admitting that "none of the tests address the reasonable range of countermeasures." It found a retired scientist who had worked on the program at Lockheed who explained, "The only way to make it work is to dumb it down. There's no other way to do it.... It's always been a wicked game."
In 1984, in an instance of fraud that remained a secret for a full nine years, a test of Lockheed's Homing Overlay Experiment turned out to have been rigged by the placement of a beacon in the target missile so that it could easily signal its location to the interceptor missile. In 1996, Nira Schwartz, a computer software expert who worked for TRW, sued her employer because, she said, she was being forced to misreport her data on the crucial matter of whether the interceptor missile could discern the difference between a real warhead and a decoy. Denials ensued, of course, but she was backed up by other witnesses. After reviewing the classified data on these and other tests, MIT missile expert Theodore Postol concluded that Pentagon officials "are systematically lying about the performance of a weapon system that is supposed to defend the people of the United States from nuclear attack."
Even the July 14 "successful" test that sent Kirkpatrick, Kelly and others into such rapture hardly stood up to a single day's scrutiny. In a story reported by the Los Angeles Times, but followed up by few others, the program's spokespeople were forced to admit in the test's aftermath that its radar system proved unable to tell ground controllers whether a kill vehicle had destroyed its target, falsely reporting that the interceptor had missed the dummy warhead. In the event of a genuine attack, this failure would cause a system to waste missiles on targets already destroyed, making it even easier to overwhelm. No surprise there, I'm afraid. In May, after fighting ferociously to keep it secret, the Pentagon reluctantly released its own internal study reporting that despite an investment of more than $70 billion, Star Wars technology remains so elementary that "a rigorous assessment of potential system performance cannot be made."
The public is not clamoring for this silly science fiction project and, should they ever notice, will not appreciate throwing another $300 billion down this sinkhole. Yet the Bush Administration continues to push it in the apparent hopes of abrogating the ABM treaty, undercutting NATO, sparking a new cold war with Russia and China and inspiring a rash of nuclear proliferation on the Asian subcontinent. Meanwhile, "smart" pundits like Michael Kelly and William Safire cheer this insanity like drunken frat boys at a college football game. It's almost enough to make one despair of the value of the First Amendment, to say nothing of the alleged benefits of higher education.
Joe Pulitzer famously said, "A newspaper should have no friends." Looking at the massed ranks of America's elites attending Katharine Graham's funeral in Washington on July 23, it's maybe churlish to recall that phrase, but it's true. At least in political terms, Mrs. Graham had way too many friends.
The twin decisions, concerning the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, that made Mrs. Graham's name as a courageous publisher came at precisely the moment when, in biographical terms, she was best equipped to handle pressure. She'd had eight years to overcome the timidities that bore down on her after Phil Graham's suicide left her with a newspaper she resolved to run herself. The amiable but essentially conservative bipartisanship that had the notables of each incoming administration (Carter-time excepted) palavering happily in her dining room hadn't yet numbed the Post's spinal nerve.
Mrs. Graham sustained her fatal fall during an annual confab of the nation's biggest media and e-billionaires, organized by the investment banker Herb Allen and held in Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a proper setting for her passing. Sun Valley was developed as a resort by the Harrimans, starting with the nineteenth-century railroad bandit E.H. Harriman. That quintessential insider, Averell Harriman was often to be seen at Mrs. Graham's house in Georgetown.
Mrs. Graham didn't strong-arm her editors and reporters, they say. But editors and reporters aren't slow to pick up hints as to the disposition of the person who pays their wages, and she sent out plenty such clues.
In late 1974, after Nixon had been tumbled, Mrs. Graham addressed the Magazine Publishers' Association and issued a warning: "The press these days should...be rather careful about its role. We may have acquired some tendencies about overinvolvement that we had better overcome. We had better not yield to the temptation to go on refighting the next war and see conspiracy and cover-up where they do not exist." She called for a return to basics. Journalists should stop trying to be sleuths. In other words: The party's over, boys and girls! It's not your business to rock the boat.
Mrs. Graham had plenty of reasons, material and spiritual, to find excessive boat-rocking distasteful. The family fortune, and the capital that bought and nourished the Post, was founded in part on Allied Chemical, the company run by her father, Eugene Meyer. I remember a hard edge in her voice when she deplored "those fucking environmentalists"--perhaps because rabble-rousers had derisively taunted her as "Kepone Kate" after a bad Allied Chemical spill in the James River. Yes, privately her language was agreeably salty.
By the early 1980s the leftish liberal Kay Graham of the late 1930s, who would associate as a tyro reporter with the red longshoreman leader Harry Bridges on the Oakland docks, was long gone. For one thing, there had been the ferocious pressmen's strike in 1975, and the successful lockout. Rhetorically, at least, Mrs. Graham did not later make the gaffe of equating the sabotage of her plant by the Pressmen's Union with the disposition of the AFL-CIO, but I don't think she ever forgave labor; and that strike helped set Mrs. Graham and her newspaper on its sedately conservative course.
In the early 1980s she associated increasingly with Warren Buffett, the Nebraska investor who bought 13 percent of the Post's B stock and who was then riding high as America's most venerated stock player. Mrs. Graham simultaneously became a big-picture mogul, pickling herself in the sonorous platitudes of the Brandt Commission, on which she served.
The best evidence of the Post's decline, symbolic of what Mrs. Graham had overseen, was a seven-part, multi-thousand-word series published in January 1992. The series launching that election year was by two prominent Post reporters, David Broder and Bob Woodward, who "for six months followed the Vice President everywhere" and "spent an unprecedented amount of time interviewing Mr. Quayle," discovering after these labors that the derided veeplet was a much underestimated statesman of discriminating stature.
In the early 1990s I used to get copies of letters sent to the Post's editors and ombudsman by Julian Holmes, a Maryland resident with a career in the Navy Weapons Lab, who read the Post diligently every day, firing off often acute and pithy criticisms. In all, Holmes told me the other day from his Maine home, he sent some 130 such letters to the Post and achieved a perfect record of zero published.
Deploring the Quayle series in a letter sent to ombudsman Richard Harwood on January 22, 1992, Holmes pointed out that nowhere in the "in-depth" exam of Quayle could be found the words crime, public land, population, healthcare, oil, capital punishment, United Nations, Nicaragua, unemployment, homeless or AIDS.
No need to labor the point. The basic mistake is to call the Washington Post a liberal paper, or its late proprietor a liberal in any active sense, unless you want to disfigure the word by applying it to such of her friends as Robert McNamara. When it came to war criminals she was an equal opportunity hostess. In her salons you could meet Kissinger, an old criminal on the way down, or Richard Holbrooke, a younger 'un on the way up. The Post's basic instincts have almost always been bad.
Former Mayor Marion Barry had some pro forma kindly words for Katharine Graham after her death, but I always think that one decisive verdict on the Post's performance in a city with a major black population came with the jury verdict acquitting Barry on the cocaine bust. Those jurors knew that the Post, along with the other Powers That Be, was on the other side from Barry, and I've no doubt that firmed up their assessment of the evidence. In that quarter, for sure, neither the Post nor Mrs. Graham had an excessive number of friends.
CIVIL RIGHTS REFORM As House Republican leaders thwarted debate on the tepid Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, the NAACP convention chose a radically different course by endorsing full public financing of campaigns. Noting that 95 percent of campaign contributions in excess of $200 come from white givers, the NAACP resolution declared that the current system "unfairly dilutes the political strength of African-Americans in participating in political parties, elections and the passage of legislation." Says Georgia NAACP state conference president Walter Butler, "We know that [campaign finance reform] is a civil rights issue that should be dealt with as other civil rights issues in the past." The NAACP vote came as Congressional Black Caucus members were questioning, and in some cases opposing, milder reforms. "There's a lot of skepticism, a lot of fear that campaign finance reform, if it's done wrong, could end up hurting black candidates," says Fannie Lou Hamer Project executive director Stephanie Wilson. "We've spent a lot of time arguing that only with public financing can African-American candidates really break through the barriers." In North Carolina the National Voting Rights Institute has sued the state on behalf of the NAACP and other groups, arguing that costly campaigns serve as a "poll tax," violating constitutional guarantees that economic status should not serve as a barrier to political participation.... An assist for the new drive comes from Adonal Foyle, center for the NBA's Golden State Warriors. Foyle founded Democracy Matters, whose fifteen coordinators will build support on college campuses for public financing. Foyle argues that if players had to buy their way into the NBA, people wouldn't take it seriously. Yet "that's what has happened in politics."
MASSACHUSETTS MISCHIEF Massachusetts voters in 1998 overwhelmingly endorsed a Clean Elections initiative designed to flush special-interest money out of politics. But public financing only functions when legislators allocate the money for it. The Massachusetts Senate did that by a 36-2 vote, but powerful House Speaker Thomas Finneran is balking, even as 2002 races for governor and other posts get under way. "I used to think Massachusetts was an initiative state before I met the Massachusetts legislature," says David Donnelly, of Massachusetts Voters for Clean Elections, which has been organizing protests and rallies. Outside Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, former Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who now heads Common Cause, urged legislators to "remember they were elected by the people, not by Tom Finneran." US Representative Marty Meehan said, "When I see Democrats playing games at the State House, I say that's the best weapon they can give the Republicans for the next election."
ALTERNATIVE POLITICS Campaign finance reform isn't the only electoral change on the agenda this summer. By a 10-1 vote the San Francisco Board of Supervisors set a March 2002 referendum on adopting instant-runoff voting (IRV) for local posts. IRV, devised as an alternative to winner-take-all elections, allows voters to rank candidates for an office. If a first-choice candidate is eliminated, the vote automatically transfers to the second choice. A San Francisco win "could put instant-runoff voting on the radar across the country," says Rob Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Vermont, Alaska and New Mexico are also considering IRV proposals.... Another alternative, cumulative voting, under which voters apportion their votes among candidates, has earned enthusiastic support from an Illinois task force chaired by former GOP Governor Jim Edgar and former Democratic Representative (and federal judge) Abner Mikva. The state once had a cumulative system, but it was scrapped twenty-one years ago as part of a move to downsize the legislature. Since the change, Illinois has witnessed dramatic declines in the number of contested legislative races and in voter turnout.
RELIGIOUS LEFT The Unitarian Universalist Association's new president, William Sinkford, left no doubt about what his promise of "radical fellowship" would mean for the 220,000-member denomination. "During my presidency, our Unitarian Universalist voice will support racial justice and gender justice and equal rights for our bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender brothers and sisters," Sinkford announced in a speech following his election as the predominantly white religious group's first African-American leader. "We will speak for responsible stewardship of the environment. And we will work to redress the economic injustices that plague our society." The denomination's Cleveland general assembly voted to make economic globalization a primary issue for 1,050 UU congregations, following an appeal from Chuck Collins of United for a Fair Economy and strong support from the convention's large youth caucus. With Congress expected to act this year on granting President Bush fast-track authority to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community is gearing up a grassroots education and lobbying push to challenge trade policies that Collins says "are about profits, not values."
To those who say he cannot do it,
Who claim his head is filled with suet,
He says that he is plenty able
To deal with issues on the table.
Though he may have no depths to plumb,
He says for sure he isn't dumb.
It's almost more than we could hope:
The President is not a dope.
There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"
"Bustin' Out," episode six of R.J. Cutler's breakthrough reality TV series American High, opens on 17-year-old Morgan Moss pointing a pistol at his mother's head and barking demands: "Say what a nice child I am on camera. Now." It's a chilling moment, despite the fact that the pistol in question fires only paintballs, and despite the knowledge (if one has followed the show at all sequentially) that the Moss family is a high-functioning team of caring individuals--especially when it comes to dealing with screwball Morgan.
Post-Columbine America has every right to be sensitive when the topic turns to teenagers. Sociologists inform us that the "generation gap"--the psychodemographic rift that was assigned a name in the mid-1960s--is wider than ever. Blame Sony PlayStation and Eminem and Maxim. Blame the presence of narcotics in our schoolyards. Blame, as former President Clinton did at last May's White House Conference on Teenagers, the fact that families don't sit down to dinner together anymore--at least not often enough to countervail the influence of toxic culture. Or that when they do sit down to dinner (according to a recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation), two-thirds of families with school-age children leave the television on.
This doesn't have to be a bad thing. This summer PBS is rebroadcasting American High in its entirety, giving teens, parents of teens and our largely teenophobic population a second chance to grapple with and maybe even understand one another better, through the potent (at least in this case) medium of documentary TV.
American High is an obsessive chronicle of the lives of fourteen upperclassmen, mostly seniors--jocks and band geeks, a pierced punk rocker, a couple of delinquents by default, no cheerleaders--at suburban Chicago's Highland Park High School. Executive producer Cutler chose Highland Park for its receptivity to his vision for the project, which included not only an entire academic year of on-site filming but an addition to the school's curriculum: A video-diary class taught by producer Jonathan Mednick. The 800 hours of self-reflexive footage shot by Mednick's chosen students, plus an additional 2,000 hours (documenting everything from earnest powwows in the girls' room to out-of-control keggers to senior prom) shot by Cutler and his crew, are the raw material for American High.
It's hard to imagine the blood, sweat and tears it must have taken to cut this quantity of tape into thirteen twenty-two-minute episodes. But Cutler managed it. Superbly. The end result is a multifarious collection of coming-into-adulthood stories that rub shoulders with one another and trip gamely over one another's limbs as they unfold side by side, week after week. Each story is, in and of itself, a vivid and affecting slice of life-on-the-verge. Shuffled together, they form a discursive epic of both the inner and outer struggle of the Misunderstood American Teen.
The video diary excerpts are, as intended, a revelation, a chance for Cutler's subjects to rage against their parents and the societal machine, wax philosophical or get up close and personal. Morgan breaks it down for us: "These are your teen years...you're supposed to go wild...have unprotected sex...go pick fights, stay out all night, look at the stars." Regarding that little thing called "life," Sarah, a doe-eyed redhead, deep in the thrall of a Turgenevesque first love, says, "It's this road we're all traveling on. I have no idea where my road is going to take me." (From the mouths of relative babes, this and other, similar platitudes are strangely moving.) Robby, the chronically good-natured lacrosse player, tells the story of when his buddy Brad (another featured student) came out to him: "His eyes were absolutely, totally lost.... He was like so scared. And I'm like, y'know what Brad? That's cool. I still love you."
A testament to Mednick's instruction, the diaries also often pack a whopping cinematographic punch. In one particularly effective tableau, Kiwi, Highland Park's champion field-goal kicker, records a moment of (literally) naked truth. Slumped in half-shadow, microphone taped to his bare chest, he describes a gut-deep fear of turning 18, brought on by missing a crucial post-touchdown point. Says Cutler of Mednick, "He never discussed content with them. What he discussed with them was form, formal expression, the expressionism of where you place the camera or what light does.... It's not like he said to Kaytee [a budding singer-songwriter, unlucky in love], 'Wrap yourself in red when you're talking about being heartbroken.'" Mednick's students learned their lessons well. The pictures prove it.
In contrast to the talk-to-the-camera nature of the diaries, Cutler and his crew are both everywhere at once and nowhere to be found, as they collect the Home Depot's worth of narrative nuts-and-bolts from which the framework of the series is constructed. Cutler learned his doc-chops from D.A. Pennebaker, one of the medium's old masters, as a producer on Pennebaker's Clinton campaign saga The War Room. Like Pennebaker's films, American High is firmly rooted in the tradition of cinéma vérité, in which the capture of spontaneous action is the prime directive, interpretive narration is eschewed and the presence of the filmmakers deliberately obscured.
One of rawest, realest stories Cutler documents is that of Pablo, the self-described "poetically inclined hooligan," a sweet, deep kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Over the course of many episodes, we watch Pablo confront the blunt economic realities of his broken home (one tragic scene shows him begging his estranged father for the change from their not-so-Happy Meals). In a midseries moment, Pablo, fresh from a viewing of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, tells his mom that he's thinking about joining the Marines. It reads as a joke. Not long after, however, he appears at a recruitment office, aces the aptitude test and is told that his numbers qualify him for any job the corps has to offer. On the drive home, he comes to his senses: "I thought [the Marines] would be a great place to write poetry," he says. "If I went to war...I'd probably go AWOL." Case closed. But in the penultimate episode, after a vicious fight with Mom, he returns, grimly determined to muster up. "This is going to be my declaration of independence," he says. One breathes a sigh of relief when, after failing the drug screening, he's thrown back into the muddle of civilian life.
Later, Cutler proves that he is not entirely beholden to the principles of classic vérité. "We're working with people who are pioneers in this area," he says, "but we've all learned that rules are made to be broken." In the final episode, flouting the noninterference ethic of the genre, Kaytee (who speaks mostly disparagingly of her formidable musical talent) is spirited off to a professional recording studio. Headphones fitted snugly over her ears, a look of pure joy on her face, she lays down track after wax-worthy track as her parents watch, bewildered, behind soundproof glass. "The lovely thing is that you wouldn't normally do it," says Cutler, "and if you did do it, you wouldn't tell anybody about it. But maybe the truth is that in Kaytee's junior year of high school she met this group of people that were making a documentary series and it had this impact on her life.... It's not that they turned her into an artist. It's a much more symbiotic experience."
It's just this sort of reverent irreverence that makes watching American High such a pleasure. Cutler's love of his work, and of his teen subjects, is everywhere detectable. From the punk-pop theme song that blares, "We walk the halls of life/See the things that we wanna see/Be what we wanna be/Wherever I go I search for me," to the company credits that end each episode: "Actual Reality Pictures," splashed across the screen while a helium-altered voice squeals, "Hey man! Trust me, dude!"
On a more critical note, one could argue that Cutler's love has blinded him to some of the more unpleasant aspects of teen life. The brutal cliquishness of high school is barely addressed. And the oft-crushing tedium of classes disappears via a postproduction hat trick--the number of minutes devoted to student-teacher interactions can be counted on one hand. Hopped up on Cutler's distilled and purified Bildungsromane, older viewers might (as I was) be temporarily brainwashed into thinking that adolescence is something they'd jump at the opportunity to re-experience.
The series closer is a graduation double-episode in which art and life converge to offer up a grab bag of terrific moments. Prom queen Anna is held hostage and forced to listen to a ballad of reconciliation performed by her remote, chastity-fixated father, a gesture that backfires horribly. His treacly Stevie Wonder stylings leave her scrambling for the edge of the familial nest. Pablo, reduced to almost-tears when the graduation planners refuse to let him wear a Greco-Roman wreath in lieu of the standard-issue mortarboard, recovers quickly. "Next week is senior prank time," he announces, "and from the heart of hell I stab at thee!" Morgan, lacking Pablo's sense of timing, spends graduation eve in jail for vandalizing school property. Barred from the ceremony, his parents photograph him in cap and gown, holding his case number against his chest. And then there's Allie, battered survivor of the college application process and her parents' ugly divorce, whose last hurrah is easily the most symbolic. Having barely squeaked by grade-wise, she proudly displays her diploma for the camera. "Nobody can tell me I didn't damn graduate," she says. "I'm closing the chapter to high school, and I walk away, and then there's a new beginning." As she turns to make her exit, she runs headlong into a metal post.
American High ran into its own rude obstacle on its way into the big, bad world. The first four episodes, commissioned by Fox, ran last year during what Cutler describes as the network's "summer from hell." Airing opposite the CBS juggernaut of Survivor and Big Brother, American High--perhaps too real for the "reality TV" market, with its lack of hard-bitten contestants scrabbling after prize money and its non-escapist obsession with the high-stakes game of life itself--was quickly squashed. Much to Fox's credit, however, it paid for the remaining episodes and promised not to stand in Cutler's way if he found a new home for the show.
Enter PBS, which, according to Gerry Richman, VP of national production for Twin Cities Public Television, was thrilled to offer asylum to American High. TPT, the affiliate in charge of packaging the series, has done a bang-up job, holding town hall meetings at which Morgan and Kiwi have been special guests, and maintaining a website (www.pbs.org/americanhigh) that offers everything from cast photos (suitable for locker posting) to a detailed curriculum for Mednick's video-diary class. (The "station finder" link will take you to the website of your local public television station, where a schedule for summer reruns of American High, which started in mid-July, can be found.)
Teen viewership spiked dramatically for PBS when it premiered the series back in April, and the network hopes to build on this success by creating more smart, youth-friendly programming. An American High 2 is also in the works. Says Cutler, "We're hoping to continue into the second season with an inner-city school, and instantly the contrast will provide all kinds of answers." Answers to what Richman rightly calls the "monumental mystery" of high school. Answers that our country sorely needs.
In mid-June of 1999 NATO's first military campaign ended in victory over Yugoslavia. It may have been the first war in history in which the winning side suffered no combat casualties. America's coercive diplomacy had worked. Yet for Wesley Clark, the US Army general who led the NATO forces in the fight, "it didn't feel like a victory." Most other NATO leaders felt "simply relieved" the whole affair was over.
A few weeks later, Clark was rewarded by being summarily relieved of his command, notified via phone call by Hugh Shelton, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Within an hour he received another long-distance call from a reporter in Washington who had been tipped off. It may just be a rumor, Clark said, hoping to find a graceful way out. He immediately called Shelton back, suggesting that premature publicity would be humiliating to him personally. "All you have to do is correct the leak and say it's just rumor," Clark pleaded. That was impossible, Shelton said. The Pentagon had already notified Congress about his replacement. Clark then phoned Defense Secretary William Cohen, who was traveling in Japan. When Cohen finally accepted the call, he was brief: The decision had been made and "you should know it's been cleared by the White House."
This dramatic passage helps explain why Clark wrote this book. Waging Modern War is dressed up as an analysis of the changing nature of contemporary conflict; the struggles over Bosnia and Kosovo are indeed presented here as a string of high-powered conferences, press briefings and frantic phone exchanges. But they provide the background for Clark's other war--against his own superiors in the Pentagon--and the infighting in Washington's bureaucratic jungle makes for more fascinating reading.
The villains in this rather bitter tale are Cohen, Shelton, Army Chief Dennis Reimer and other mostly unnamed Pentagon officials who restricted "my interactions within the broader U.S. government," as well as the media and Congress. The Joint Chiefs prevented him from achieving a clear military victory--by resisting "their obligation to win" and failing to "support" him. Shelton is portrayed as a detached and vague executive without "Washington experience" or understanding of how NATO works; Reimer is depicted as a Machiavellian figure plotting in the shadows to undermine the man whom he once considered a potential Army chief of staff.
In short, Clark insinuates that he was set up, just as a friendly Congressman had warned him. His requests were ignored. He was muzzled. At one point Cohen ordered him "to get his f---- face off the TV." His 800-plus aircraft using the latest weaponry seemed unable to inflict significant damage on Slobodan Milosevic's military and police forces. But how could they do it when each target had to be approved by the White House? Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine Clark's frustrations. But the way he relates them seems designed to seduce the reader into believing that if only he had been allowed to execute his strategy--for example, to deploy Apache helicopters--the course of the war would have been different.
The Apache issue is in some ways a central unifying theme of the narrative. The modern helicopters, tanks and artillery pieces that Clark assembled in northern Albania were never used because the Joint Chiefs thought the plan too risky. The vulnerabilities of the Apaches in the rugged and inhospitable Albanian Alps were all too evident; a couple of them were lost in training missions near the steep mountain walls that form the natural frontier between Yugoslavia and Albania.
But the Apache issue is something of a red herring. The real policy disagreements centered around the use of American power in conflicts where US national interests are ill defined or missing, as we can see from the following two exchanges recorded by Clark.
First, at the White House Clark contends he was knocking on an open door in offering his view that Milosevic would back down if confronted by the threat of airstrikes. He finds National Security Adviser Sandy Berger "interested" and "receptive." "And you think the air threat will deter him?" Berger asks. "Of course, there's no guarantee. But, yes," Clark replies. There are no follow-up questions--Berger only "nodded in assent"--presumably because he had heard similar advice from two top civilian experts on Milosevic and the Balkans, Madeleine Albright and Richard Holbrooke. (Albright publicly likened Milosevic to a "schoolyard bully" who would collapse after a few punches.)
At the Pentagon, however, Clark's hunch sets off alarm bells. "What...if the air threat doesn't deter him?" Gen. Joe Ralston asks. "It will work," Clark says, adding that he knows Milosevic "as well as anyone." Ralston persists: "OK, but let's just say it doesn't. What will we do?" "We'll bomb," Clark replies. "Right, but you know that there are real limitations on what the Air Force can do," Ralston says. "And what if the bombing doesn't work?" Clark: "I think that's unlikely, but in that event, I guess we'd have to do something on the ground, directed at Kosovo." What if that doesn't work, asks Ralston. We'll keep going, replies Clark, suggesting a full-scale ground involvement. But it would not come to that, Clark assures Ralston, because he knows that Milosevic does not want to get bombed.
In Waging Modern War, Clark breezily dismisses Ralston's concerns as "innate conservatism" and proceeds to outline his own bold views on war in the post-cold war era. Traditional US military education, he says, still focuses on Clausewitz's assertion that "no one in his right mind would, or ought to, begin a war if he didn't know how to finish it." Clark continues:
In practice, this proved to be an unreasonable standard. In dealing with complex military-diplomatic situations, the assertion of power itself changed the options. And trying to think through the problem to its conclusions in military terms always drove one to 'worst-case' analysis. Had we done this in Bosnia we could well have talked ourselves out of participating in any agreement.
Later, when the war was going badly and the skepticism of the Joint Chiefs was vindicated, the question of an eventual ground invasion became another source of contention. The Joint Chiefs had considered a ground campaign from the north, while Clark insisted on the southern strategy--moving troops from Albania into Kosovo. In arguing against the northern option, Clark asserts that "the Yugoslav military would be well prepared to defend" the approaches through the Pannonian flatlands north of Belgrade. His other concerns were "the problem of urban warfare in Belgrade, or the determined resistance of the Serb population along the way."
But Clark is on very shaky ground here. The basic Yugoslav defense posture has been based on the realization that the country could not rely on frontal defenses or actions by regular armed forces against a superior enemy entering the northern flatlands, which are natural tank country. (There are no military fortifications of any kind between the Hungarian border and Belgrade, although Yugoslavia had acquired a substantial number of American TOW antitank missiles.) The basic defense force was a universal citizens' militia known as the territorial army. The role of the regular armed forces was to slow down an expected Russian attack from the north and withdraw into the mountains and merge with the territorial army to conduct defense in depth, or partisan warfare.
The strength of this defensive nation-in-arms concept, quite apart from the recognition of realities, rests on its message to potential invaders that the price of an attack will be high. Ironically, it was shown to be highly effective during the Yugoslav wars. When Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, both had strong territorial armies (which were always under local control) and were capable of successfully resisting a far better equipped Yugoslav army, which was under Milosevic's control.
Clark offers no evidence in his memoir of having made a sustained attempt to understand the enemy's defense doctrine. He suggests that the Pentagon's reluctance to commit US ground forces to a campaign in the rugged and inhospitable mountains reflected the capriciousness of the Joint Chiefs. Some of them, he says, were "almost looking for reasons why the ground attack in Kosovo would not work rather than how to make it work." In questioning the "quality" of the Joint Chiefs' advice to President Clinton, Clark says that "none of them had seen or studied the terrain in northeast Albania." But speaking as someone who has crossed, several times, all of the six mountain passes between the former Yugoslavia and Albania, I find their skepticism entirely reasonable. I could not imagine an Abrams tank negotiating any of them without prior extensive engineering road work.
Moreover, the general is apparently unaware that Yugoslavia had a close military relationship with the United States ever since President Truman unilaterally offered several planeloads of US military communications equipment to Tito in 1949. For a while, Yugoslavia was formally linked to NATO by virtue of the Balkan defense pact that Tito concluded with Greece and Turkey, both NATO members. The Pentagon had a fairly detailed knowledge of Yugoslavia's defenses. (American pilots knew the exact location of the underground military communications center outside Belgrade; they unsuccessfully tried to destroy it during the first day of the war.) The Yugoslavs, unlike the Iraqis, knew well how the US military operates; most of their senior officers had passed through US military academies.
But tactical disagreements only highlight a deeper split in Washington's establishment about how to manage America's pre-eminence in the post-cold war world. On one side were defense and foreign policy experts around President Clinton who saw American hegemony as a way to solve the world's problems. The "laptop bombardiers," as these experts are sometimes referred to, insisted that the United States and its allies could and should use force against a sovereign country in order to halt the abuse of human rights by its regime against its own citizens. (This was first applied in Bosnia, not in Rwanda, where, at roughly the same time, far more people were massacred within a far shorter period of time.) The assertion of power in this context was described as a moral act driven solely by our commitment to humanitarian values.
The Joint Chiefs, on the other hand, were wary of this policy and its implications, sticking to the proposition that power should be used to defend or advance US national interests.
It is not clear at which point Clark parted company with his old military comrades to join the laptop bombardiers, led by Albright and Holbrooke. Nothing in his earlier career suggested the likelihood of such a departure. A native of Arkansas, Clark was a West Pointer, a Rhodes scholar and a veteran of the Vietnam War, in which he was wounded. When he was a colonel, in 1986, his commanding officer, General Reimer, was greatly impressed by Clark and talked about him as a future Army chief of staff. A few weeks later, at age 43, Clark won his first star.
But only after the arrival in the White House of another Rhodes scholar from Arkansas did Clark's career really take off. He added three stars during Clinton's first term even though his promotion to four-star general in 1996 was expressly opposed by the Army. Nor was Clark the Pentagon's candidate for the post of Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. Clark hints that his personal relationship with the President may have helped him. (In one of his first meetings with the Joint Chiefs, Clinton asked the Army chief if he knew "my friend, Wes Clark.")
It seems clear that the change in Clark's thinking occurred after he arrived in Washington in 1994 and came under Holbrooke's spell. The general admired the diplomat's compelling personality, his hyperactive ambition and his activist, can-do approach. (During one of their first private talks about the Bosnian war, Holbrooke asked Clark, "Don't you think we ought to bomb?") Clark volunteered to join Holbrooke's Bosnia mission and observed him bluffing the Balkan warlords, negotiating deals of great consequence on the fly, stitching things together as he went along and at the signing of the Dayton accords gaining public adulation rarely accorded to a diplomat. Holbrooke's view on coercive diplomacy and the crucial importance of the media gradually became Clark's own. Even his Army loyalty was shaken; he came to share Holbrooke's view that his military superiors in Washington were consciously sabotaging the Dayton peace process. ("Wes, do you understand that there are members of the Joint Chiefs who want our efforts [in Bosnia] to fail," Holbrooke tells Clark. "Not Shali," Clark thinks, defending only the chairman at the time, Gen. John Shalikashvili, but not the other five service chiefs.)
After a structured Army life, Bosnia vaulted Clark into another, far more interesting orbit, where he hobnobbed with European leaders, negotiated with Balkan warlords, attended glittering diplomatic functions and received constant media attention. More important, Bosnia in Clark's mind "had set a pattern that could be applied again"--this time in the emerging Kosovo crisis. He seems oblivious to the fact that Bosnia and Kosovo--although only seventy miles apart--have two vastly different ethnic mixtures with vastly different histories. There's nothing in this book to suggest that Clark ever closely examined the political purpose of the assertion of American power in Bosnia or what would eventually happen to that unhappy territory now that Dayton had compelled three ethnic communities to form a multiethnic state favored by only one of them (the Muslims).
Grave decisions affecting the lives of millions are based on the hunches of a few laptop bombardiers without regard to their ultimate outcome. Clark, perhaps inadvertently, concedes this point. After the attack on Yugoslavia began in March 1999, he writes, "a number of us had begun to ask in private about the political goals of the campaign."
There you have it. The Pentagon's concern about the lack of strategic clarity was not irrational, as Clark would have us believe. Milosevic did not cave. Except for Britain's Tony Blair, who declared the NATO attack to be "bombing with compassion," other NATO allies were wary to various degrees about the whole venture. Once it became clear that Serbia would not collapse, Clark's (and the Administration's) only option was to bomb Serbian civilian infrastructure with the intention of rendering the daily life of the population impossible.
But the deliberate destruction of nonmilitary targets violated the very international law that NATO claimed to uphold. Most questionable and legally troubling was the intimidation bombardment of the editorial offices of Belgrade television in full knowledge that civilian casualties were inevitable. (One should not exclude the possibility that war crimes charges will be leveled at some future date against those who ordered it, as human rights advocates have suggested.) Clark makes only a fuzzy reference to the strike on "the television facility." (The transmitter, which one might ordinarily think of as the "facility," is located some twenty miles away, on top of Mt. Avala.)
The nearly three months of bombing inflicted severe damage on the Serbs, while their neighbors suffered collateral economic pain. It ended through diplomacy, with the help of Russia's Boris Yeltsin; Russia was rewarded with the rescheduling of more than $4 billion in debt payments. But quite apart from making matters worse in the Balkans, the intervention extended America's open-ended commitment to maintain troops in the area. Kosovo itself is in ruins--economically, psychologically and politically. It is also clear that the intervention sowed dragon's teeth, insuring continuation of the profound civil and nationalist strife that is now developing in neighboring Macedonia.
Clark's book about halfway wars like the one against Serbia is, in essence, an excellent manual on How Not to Wage Modern War. Not that the author would consent to this title. A halfway war, of necessity, has to look like a Nintendo war, in which supersonic jets and high-tech weapons defeat barbarian demons on the ground without spilling a drop of American blood.
The prosecution of such wars has to be carefully programmed. Since they don't involve national survival, appeals to patriotism don't work. Clinton and his advisers knew from the beginning that they would be unable to muster public support for the use of ground forces--which means the prospect of body bags coming home--for an affair in which the United States was not directly threatened. "Nothing would hurt us more with public opinion than headlines that screamed, 'NATO LOSES TEN AIRPLANES IN TWO DAYS,'" Clark reasoned. Which meant that the planes would remain at high altitudes as they proceeded to hit their targets.
Equally important is the justification that was advanced in the months leading up to the attack. Clark presents it as "the moral and legal imperative" to destroy Milosevic's military and police, who "were committing or aiding the ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. Naturally, I turn to Clark's description of the Kosovo situation, because I spent a good deal of time as a reporter in Kosovo--first in 1975-76 and later between 1990 and 1996--which gives me a background from which to measure his accuracy. I find his descriptions one-sided and appallingly misleading.
To begin with, Clark ignores the fact that the Albanian Kosovars proclaimed independence in 1991 and organized a parallel government, complete with their own school and health systems. He states merely that the "mistreatment" of Albanians in 1998-99 was "the source of NATO's action." The difference is important: The Kosovo Albanians had been mistreated ever since Milosevic came to power. The province came under direct police rule in 1989. Schools were shut. All Albanian civil servants were fired. Most people lived off remittances sent by relatives working abroad. Yet when Milan Panic, in trying to dislodge Milosevic in a December 1992 election, promised the Albanian Kosovars everything short of independence if they would take part in the balloting (the solid Albanian bloc of nearly 900,000 votes could have been decisive), the Albanians refused. "We begged them to stand in the elections," former British Foreign Secretary Lord David Owen, who accompanied Panic, told me. "But they were totally secessionist.... It's like talking to Scottish nationalists; these are not people you can do business with." Milosevic tried to break the nonviolent secessionist movement through constant pressure: police raids on villages, perpetual searches, financial penalties and other forms of harassment. Although the repression was horrendous, there was no "ethnic cleansing" at that point. Nor did the outside world respond to the Kosovars' appeals for help.
Only after the Kosovars began an armed struggle against the Serbs in 1997 did the outside world begin to pay attention. The newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army quickly raised tensions through a campaign of assassinations of Serb officials. By mid-1998, Kosovo was engulfed in a war for independence, with the KLA controlling more than a third of the province. Milosevic was now dealing with a serious insurrection. Predictably, he resorted to massive force. At that point, the Serbs began conducting major raids on villages suspected of harboring KLA guerrillas, and the villagers began fleeing to escape Serb artillery shellings.
Even this was not the type of ethnic cleansing that had been carried out earlier in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia itself, with the aim of changing the ethnic composition of designated regions. Clark, however, sticks to a cartoon version of Kosovo's crisis: NATO had to attack Serbia to force Milosevic to stop ethnic cleansing. The focus on this indisputably malevolent despot--we have to "hurt" him, "break [his] will" and remove him from power--seems to reflect the need to convince the public of the wickedness of Milosevic and the Serbs.
I suspect that Clark's harshness toward Milosevic may be in part based on personal embarrassment. At one time he was cozy with the Serbian leader, and the dictator's abandonment of his onetime Bosnian and Krajina allies helped Holbrooke's and Clark's careers. In turn, Holbrooke and Clark helped rehabilitate Milosevic at Dayton, making him the "guarantor" of the Bosnian peace treaty. ("He's always liked you," Holbrooke told Clark while urging him to intervene with Milosevic.) Who would now admit being friendly with an accused war criminal, today awaiting trial at The Hague? How else can one explain that Clark, having worked the other side of the street and repeatedly assured his superiors that he knew Milosevic as well as anyone else, came to realize in 1998 that he should be removed from power and that this revelation was imparted to him by a Bosnian Serb leader, Biljana Plavsic, herself now under indictment and awaiting trial in The Hague?
Truth is the proverbial first casualty of war. Usually it takes years to learn what really happened during a war. We now know that some atrocity stories were exaggerated. A young Albanian woman named Rajmonda was all over cable television during the war, explaining that she had started killing Serbs after they killed her sister, only to admit after the war's end that this was not true. ("If this small lie...made some kind of impact on what Western countries did in Kosovo, then it's worth it," an Albanian commentator said later.) Most figures--including Clark's account of the number of Serbian tanks destroyed--were vastly exaggerated. So were claims by the US government and NATO about the number of missing Albanians feared dead: On April 19, 1999, the State Department put the figure at 500,000, while Defense Secretary Cohen reduced it to 100,000 on May 16. (After the war, the International Committee of the Red Cross said 3,368 Albanians were missing, and it has their names. There may be a few thousand more still unaccounted for, but the totals are nowhere near the US projections; The Hague's indictment of Milosevic lists about 600 Albanians who died in Kosovo.)
But lies and exaggerations are natural parts of warfare, as is news management, at which Clark seems to have been quite effective: On the night of the assault on Belgrade, he had an aide call Tom Brokaw of NBC News to complain about his use of the phrase "American-led airstrikes." The wording, Clark said, would get the mission "on the wrong foot with the public." (The fact that the phrase was accurate is indisputable; for example, Clark himself notes that 99 percent of bombing targets were selected by the United States.)
Clark briefed journalists and gave interviews "to protect the credibility of the campaign." He also understood the need to feed journalists material in background briefings, and he found media representatives to be quite cooperative. Journalists attending his briefings, he says, asked questions that displayed "a sense of underlying moral purpose and unity here (except for the one Serb journalist present)." Sadly, this simple statement says more about the press coverage of the war than any critical analysis I have read.
But books are different; they lack the excuse of a daily or weekly deadline. They require candor and dispassionate judgment. Clark's memoir is disappointing, which is unfortunate, because Kosovo was NATO's first but probably not last war. Clark was apparently still feeling hurt and humiliated when he wrote it. There is something tragic about his view of himself, a sense that he was there alone fighting Milosevic and the Pentagon, cajoling and hectoring reluctant allies, and waging the battle for public opinion--and in the end being abandoned by his superiors. "The stress of the relationship with Washington had been the worst part," he thought after the war ended.
The problem is that he is not completely candid. I realized that early on, while reading his account of a 1994 meeting with the notorious Bosnian Serb military leader Gen. Ratko Mladic, who a year later was accused of war crimes by The Hague's international tribunal. The two apparently got on so well that they agreed to exchange hats. I remember looking at newspaper photographs of them with their hats switched and thinking that the picture told me a great deal about Clark's judgment. Clark makes no mention of the friendly hat-swapping in Waging Modern War. It occurred at a time when anti-Serb sentiments in Washington were running high. Only connoisseurs understand why he experienced what he calls a "painful few days" after meeting Mladic, and why that left a "profound impression" on him: To have a friendly meeting with a Serb was, as he puts it, "reputation-breaking" stuff.
At the time Clark was still making a career in the military; we shouldn't be surprised if the picture comes back to haunt him, should he try to build another career, in politics.
As bloated Hollywood blockbusters such as Pearl Harbor and A.I. disappoint to a staggering degree this summer, foreign films without huge promotional budgets are delivering offbeat, heart-stirring cinematic experiences afflicted with one minor marketplace burden: subtitles. You'd think that an American public addicted to website scrolling, instant messaging and cell-phone menus would no longer balk at scanning words onscreen. But, no, mon Dieu, in American movie theaters, English rules! While Miramax finesses the problem with ad campaigns and trailers implying its foreign films are actually English-language (see the one for With a Friend Like Harry, for example), a trio of wonderfully genuine films are now on screens, supplying a welcome relief from the linguistic bait-and-switch game.
Hailing from Iceland, Vietnam and Taiwan, and radically different in style, all three are set within a circumscribed universe of families (one single-parent, one extended, one nuclear) beset by sexual tensions, deceit, betrayal and some decidedly odd forms of reconciliation. Plot points and character arcs come to hinge on the cold of a Reykjavík winter, the heat of a Hanoi summer and the intrusive waters of Taipei. Fierce narrative inventions combine and collide with stylistic panache. Maybe Iceland's 101 Reykjavík, Vietnam's The Vertical Ray of the Sun and Taiwan's The River are old-fashioned, for in place of digital effects and sci-fi concoctions, they expertly deliver the kind of cinematic magic that can transport an audience unreservedly into a believable and all-consuming parallel universe, only to be spat out at the end, on a summer evening, on a city street or multiplex asphalt, forever transformed.
At last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, where 101 Reykjavík had its North American premiere, first-time director Baltasar Kormakur was jazzed: His film was getting major buzz, his bar back home in Reykjavík was thriving, he had a major role in another Icelandic film at the festival and he'd just been invited into the cast of the new Hal Hartley movie, Monster. Back then, he couldn't have known that the buzz would evaporate without his landing a major distributor; luckily, New York's Film Forum has performed yet another rescue to our benefit, one that will hopefully incubate an audience.
If 101 Reykjavík has energy to burn, its protagonist most certainly does not. A slacker terminally tied to his mother's couch, Hlynur divides his time between drinking, surfing porn on the web, masturbating in his creaky bed, shagging women and visiting the unemployment office, where his surliness nearly loses him the stipend he relies on for his, um, lifestyle. Liquor virtually jump-starts the film's energy, as scenes of Iceland's younger generation partying its way into oblivion carry the same kind of freshness that Icelandic bands and singers have already brought to the global music scene. No surprise, then, that the film's soundtrack is credited to Damon Albarn, star of the Brit pop group Blur, and Einar Örn, who started the Sugarcubes with Icelandic diva Björk. The driving rhythms of the music may not be synchronized with any productive energy on the part of Hlynur, but they are indeed in pace with the sexual energies and essences that suffuse this film.
For that, there's Victoria Abril to thank. Made famous by her roles in the films of Pedro Almodóvar and other Spanish directors, Abril would seem an odd casting choice for an Icelandic film. What's she doing in Reykjavík? Why, she's playing Lola, a clever deus ex machina dropped into this frozen universe to teach flamenco dance--and set the blood of the natives on fire. Poor Hlynur! Lola is introduced as a friend of his mom's, setting the stage for a madcap sex farce, rife with mix-ups.
With Mom conveniently absent over the holidays, and Abril left to babysit mama's boy, Hlynur cannot imagine any impediment to his lusty fantasies. When Mom returns with her own agenda, though, even this jaded couch potato of a son is shocked. Mom announces proudly that she's now a lesbian and Abril is the woman of her dreams. Be happy for us, my son. And that's only the beginning.
101 Reykjavík is a straightforward sort of movie, but its unabashed innocence and stylistic aplomb are wonderfully endearing. Equally pleasing is its refusal to follow the rules of niche marketing, which would certainly prohibit a single film from aiming so broadly. A brash young heterosexual male, his masculinity mangled by a pregnant girlfriend and limited prospects, gets his comeuppance. That's one film. A middle-aged woman, responsible for aged relatives and an overdependent son, finds happiness in the arms of a foreign female. That's another. Add to that count Abril's character, an expatriate who's sick of wandering and ready for a nest, and Hlynur's girlfriend, whose pregnancy falls victim to his commitment phobia, and the mix becomes wonderfully complex. It's such a relief to find all these characters together in one movie, with a killer soundtrack to boot, that 101 Reykjavík surely deserves to be seen, if only to inspire legions of viewers to dream of Victoria Abril while stocking up on Icelandic pop and mixing a cocktail.
The time-honored trope of family gets a further, equally unpredictable workout in two Asian films from directors mining nearly opposite terrain, nationally and aesthetically.
Tran Anh Hung is a French-Vietnamese filmmaker whose early work (The Scent of Green Papaya) was suffused with nostalgia for a preliberation Vietnam, where a privileged boy romped through a fabulous manse in tandem with the child-maid in whose care he was entrusted. Shot on a soundstage in France, it was a hard sell to anyone looking for a film devoted to history, politics or modern Vietnam. As if in retaliation against his critics, Tran's next film (Cyclo) moved ruthlessly into the present, tracking the rough life of drug dealing and prostitution in the contemporary, corruption-filled streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Now, with The Vertical Ray of the Sun, he has melded the best of both early works into a lush, poignant film, set in a near-timeless Hanoi, that traces a trio of sisters through the cycles of family relations, the vagaries of their husbands, their brother's future and finally the youngest sister's coming of age.
Public and private are fascinatingly intertwined, as are past and present. The film's action, for instance, is bracketed by two memorial observances: a banquet at the start of the film for the clan's mother and another, which they head off to prepare at film's end, for their father. In between, the fantasies and dreams of the three daughters reprise the themes of their parents' marriage in subtle ways.
Lou Reed supplies the anthem to which Lien, the youngest sister, and her beloved (too beloved, perhaps) brother Hai awaken. Other tunes haunt other locations. Visual beauty accompanies emotional shifts, from serenity to pain, from suspicion to temptation, amid shifting family fortunes. One sister suspects her husband of infidelity, another doesn't. One husband is faithful, another may not be. Nothing is quite what it seems in this romantic universe, certainly not the business trips taken by the set of husbands, with momentous results. Yet nothing is ever entirely defined either, as ambiguity itself becomes the essence of the work.
To be honest, plot is not the point here. Instead, prepare to succumb to a higher power: the shimmering essence of a Vietnamese summer. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who shot a great deal of Wong Kar-wai's meditative In the Mood for Love, has outdone himself. In one jewel-like shot, the surface of the water in an antique bronze bowl at the center of an adulterous liaison bubbles into a cloud of luminosity, turning the air liquid with its force. Surfaces reflect the temperature, skin shines with humidity and the languid universe of Southeast Asia claims a magnificent visual register. How ironic that the films shaping our views of modern Vietnam these days seem to be made by French--or American--hyphenated filmmakers, whose cinematic canvas has become a space for them to work out their own complicated relationships to this magnetized place. The emerald green so emblematic of Vietnam is present here, not in the sorts of battle scenes that characterized Apocalypse Now (to be re-released this month in Francis Ford Coppola's definitive director's cut) but rather in the quieter battles of a family.
It's the quotidian feel of life that is worshiped in Tran's film. Such a religious word is not out of place: The Vertical Ray of the Sun, no mere movie, is a prayer rung out across the movie palace, a benediction to the everyday, a stirring of the skin where no breeze has traveled, a visual altar upon which to gaze. Ultimately, what Tran offers is a way of experiencing life as a thing of beauty and a process of, dare I say it, enlightenment. What's important in the universe of Vertical Ray is the tenderness of life, the joy of human connection and the sense of continuity. Luckily, it's got the marketing muscle of Sony Classics behind it, beefed up with Crouching Tiger revenues, so it might just win some hearts.
The River, only now having a limited theatrical run five years after its debut, makes a completely different parable out of the common shards of parental eros, adolescent frustration and city life. More King Lear than Midsummer Night's Dream, The River continues director Tsai Ming-liang's obsession with disjointed families, isolated individuals and sparer-than-spare narratives. Instead of lush landscapes, Tsai plunges us into a cerebral world of perfect frames and rigorous compositions, where alienation becomes palpable and the physical world offers few comforts.
Ever since he first came to notice (with Vive L'Amour and Rebels of the Neon God), Taiwanese/Malaysian filmmaker Tsai has been a cinephile's favorite for his uncompromising visual minimalism and perverse goings-on. In The River, a fractured family carries out its business in near-silence, interacting like strangers. Mom is having an affair with a porn salesman, Dad is cruising for anonymous sex in gay saunas and teenage son Hsiao-kang is, well, trying to find his way to adulthood by blundering into absurd situations.
In one hilarious scene that serves as the film's central emblem, he's hired as an extra by real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui. His role? A corpse, floating in the murky waters of a local river. Afterward, he warms up with a quick sexual tryst in a hotel room with one of the production assistants. But his luck is short-lived. He soon develops a pain in his neck which may or may not be a result of his dead man's float. It gets worse and worse, even more so after a motorcycle accident that sends his neck even further out of joint and leads his mother and father on ever-escalating searches for a cure. And we, the audience, are there with them as life gets reorganized around the mysterious ailment. Soon the physical universe falls prey to maladies, too. The apartment ceiling begins to leak, occasioning another round of investigations. While his father constructs ineffective barriers and his mother performs heroic acts to stanch the flow, Hsiao-kang suffers, and suffers some more. Existentialist to the core, but never without a perverse sense of humor, The River is a minimalist masterpiece.
Admittedly, this plot summary is far more coherent than the film itself. In fact, I was halfway through the film before I realized that this was a family, before I understood that the father and mother were in fact a couple, or that the pain in Hsiao-kang's neck is not simply metaphorical, or suggestive, or a joke, but a veritable cosmology guiding the film. By the time the father and son show up, with characteristic abruptness, at the same pitch-dark gay sauna, we, the audience, thoroughly retrained by Tsai to be simultaneously saturated with anticipation and detached from narrative expectation, are ready for anything, even a terribly transgressive rewrite of the Oedipal myth.
The River ends with a spectacular rejection of film logic: We never do learn what's wrong with the poor boy's neck.
In 1980, when Ronald Reagan flattened his opponents and the religious right burst onto the national political arena, many progressives could barely believe their eyes. Only a decade before, rebellion was in the air. How could so much be lost in so little time? Observers were quick to blame the fickleness of the American electorate, right-wing backlash, a tightening of belts and the "status anxiety" of American workers. They wondered how a bunch of right-wing ideologues so far from mainstream American values could capture the nation's political will so quickly.
But conservatism wasn't an aberration, a fringe movement filled with conspiracy-theory-spouting crackpots--though it certainly had its share of them. The hippies, antiwar protesters and civil rights crusaders may have been more photogenic, but beginning in the late 1950s, thousands of "ordinary" Americans--middle-class suburbanites dedicated to the notion that government and moral laxness are the root of all evil--were hard at work in the trenches, steadily building a culture and a political movement. That this conservative movement would eventually topple the nation's liberal consensus indicated just how precarious that supposed consensus was.
Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors uses the case of Orange County, California, to tell the story of the postwar conservative "revolution," highlighting that county's pivotal role in the making of the new American right. In the process, she helps us to reimagine the 1960s as not simply a moment of leftist radicalism but one of feverish conservative mobilization as well. McGirr, a Harvard historian, begins her story in the early 1960s, when droves of Southern California housewives organized kaffeeklatches for Barry Goldwater. Only a few years earlier, William F. Buckley Jr. had begun to publish National Review, and Russell Kirk's Modern Age dedicated itself to opposing "political collectivism, social decadence and effeminacy." Orange County's conservative movement, McGirr persuasively argues, was the nucleus of a broader right-wing movement spreading through the Sunbelt and West during that period--a movement that would eventually transform conservatism from a marginal group of anti-Communist crusaders to a viable electoral contender by the decade's end.
What was it about this place, which exuded such an enormous sense of possibility, that made it such a congenial home to ideologies and politics that foreclosed so many possibilities for so many? Was it in the water? The air? McGirr locates the roots of Southern California conservatism in a variety of factors: racial and class homogeneity, affluence, social mobility and a highly privatized, socially isolated physical landscape. Throw in the cultural context of cold war America and a burgeoning network of evangelical Protestant churches, and you've got the ingredients for a potent conservative cocktail. But it took right-wing ideologues like Fred Schwarz of the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade and Robert Welch of the John Birch Society to give the grassroots insurgency a worldview and an organizational infrastructure.
By narrowing her focus to a particular place, McGirr is able to connect conservative ideologies to the social locations from which they sprang, painting a complex portrait of the different forces that came into play to create the neoconservative movement. Her book shares with Mike Davis's City of Quartz an attention to the importance of place, picturing Southern California as the crucible of an emergent America. Goodbye, Norman Rockwell: Middletown may be the nation's geographic center, but at least since the 1950s, the real engine of economic and cultural change has lain in the suburban subdivisions at least a thousand miles to the west.
Today the American West continues to conjure up dreams of mobility, of individualism, of becoming--which explains the shocked responses to my recent announcement that after twenty years of living in the West, I am moving back to the East Coast. The East connotes tradition, rootedness, stodginess; the West, newness. To migrate from East to West is to better oneself, to move forward, to move beyond the lot one was dealt in life; to move back suggests the opposite. How strange, then, that a place that is founded on movement, on newness, on breaking with tradition, became the home of a movement dedicated not only to untrammeled modernization but also to turn-back-the-clock notions of morality.
In reality, says McGirr, it wasn't very strange at all. Orange Countians' individualistic ethos grew out of their affluence, and their (mistaken) belief that they were self-made successes and that individual will was the only thing standing between success and failure. At the same time, their roots in small towns in the Midwest and South gave them a connection to small-town values and Protestant piety. Disneyland, "with its mixture of nostalgia for a simple American past and its bright optimism about the future," in McGirr's words, may be the supreme embodiment of this blend of modernity and tradition.
Freshly scrubbed, newly affluent Californians defined their identity in relation to Communists and East Coast "collectivists." In 1960 the conservative mobilization began when outraged Orange Countians went on a witch hunt against Joel Dvorman, who held a meeting in his backyard, having invited a speaker who publicly opposed the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dvorman was a school-board trustee; it didn't help him that he was also New York-born, Jewish and a Yale graduate to boot. After the meeting, he was quickly denounced by angry neighbors for importing "Communist ideas" into Anaheim.
McGirr argues that Orange Countians flocked to conservative activism for good reasons--it was a worldview that resonated with their personal histories. She wants us to discard the pluralistic theories of Bell, Lipset and Hofstadter, who attributed conservatism to supposed status anxieties, persecution complexes and paranoia--psychological factors, says McGirr, that not only don't explain the overwhelming ordinariness of the grassroots conservatism but that distort reality in the process. Orange County's middle-class entrepreneurs became political entrepreneurs, spreading their vision of the Good Life, because right-wing ideas made perfectly good sense to them. Plus, in a region filled with so many new arrivals, conservative activism offered people a social outlet, a sense of community.
Suburban Warriors is a political history (unlike Davis's bricolage of politics, economics and cultural critique) that focuses primarily upon activists like Walter Knott of Knott's Berry Farm fame and elected leaders like Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, whom McGirr credits with mainstreaming conservative ideas and making them palatable to the masses. But the book is most compelling when it depicts the ways that conservatism permeated the culture and everyday lives of many rank-and-file Orange Countians.
Right-wing Orange County was truly a counterhegemonic culture in the making. Walter Knott headed the Orange County School of Anti-Communism, enlisting hundreds of citizens in the fight against the Red Menace. The Santa Ana Register, where most residents got their news since the 1930s, railed against spending for schools and roads and pronounced taxation "robbery." (It didn't seem to matter to them that Orange County's growth was itself fueled by massive federal military spending.) Right-wing businessmen helped to finance the publication and free distribution of magazines like the Liberty Bell and Grass Roots, which spread the conservative gospel to ordinary Orange Countians. (Women constituted at least half of the grassroots "kitchen table" activists, though they were afforded relatively few leadership roles.) Conservative activists recognized the importance of winning over the hearts and minds of citizens in a fashion that would impress even Antonio Gramsci. If they appeared at times to be snake-oil salesmen, they were also skillful organizers, imbued with a fighting spirit and a wealth of resources that have rarely been matched on the left.
Suburban Warriors is essentially a success story, charting the ever-expanding fortunes of the conservative movement in this country, which culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right in the 1980s. Orange County's success as a crucible for conservatism, McGirr skillfully argues, was rooted in the fact that it took tried and true American values of individualism and community, boldly exaggerated them and then recombined them in ways that accentuated their messy contradictions. "Strong stakes in [the] capitalist order," McGirr writes, "caused them to elide the very real market forces that challenged the material base upon which their lives were built." And still the movement thrived, for it articulated the dreams, fears and self-interests of its middle-class constituency.
McGirr's "rational choice" analysis of conservatism may hold true for conservatism's middle-class roots in places like Orange County, but it doesn't fully explain how the right has, over the past twenty years, managed to expand its base to so many Americans who share so few of the privileges of its core constituency. A couple of years ago I sat in the spare living room of a timber worker in a small Oregon community who told me that he regularly donates money to the wealthy Heritage Foundation, which opposes public restrictions on corporate power, though he fears that he may lose his job because of corporate downsizing. How can we make sense of the apparent contradictions at the heart of much working-class conservatism, particularly among white working-class men? McGirr is right that many observers, imagining a liberal consensus, have been too quick to paint conservatives as universally marginal individuals who respond to their hearts more than to their minds. But at the same time, we should not be so quick to discard explanations that speak to the fears and anxieties at the root of many conservative beliefs.
Still, progressive activists would do well to read this book and learn how diligent and painstaking the conservative road to power has been: how important the tens of thousands of grassroots activists were to the process of building a movement, how skillfully the right was able to transcend divisions in the interest of winning political power and how so many conservative beliefs, first publicly articulated in the 1960s, are still with us today.
Prior histories of the roots of the American right have tended to tell the story of national right-wing organizations and their leaders. By focusing upon one place--a not very typical but nonetheless pivotal place--McGirr blends political and social history and goes where few analysts have gone before: to the kitchen tables as well as the meeting halls of the early right-wing movement. This is the book's great contribution.
What has become of Orange County? It's still a hotbed of conservatism, though over the past two decades, with the decline of California's military industry, many of its residents have migrated to places like Colorado and Oregon, fleeing the increasingly multiracial cast of Southern California. The migrants are searching for cheap land, bringing with them California-style evangelical Christianity, an antipathy toward government and privatized landscapes filled with theme parks and strip malls. They set into motion a mania for tax-cutting initiatives, filled the coffers of religious-right organizations, fought against gay and lesbian rights, and sought to replicate their California Eden. In Washington a presidential administration is peppered with religious conservatives and free-market enthusiasts, thanks in part to their efforts. Increasingly, it seems, we all live in Orange County.