BookExpo 2012, Los Angeles--The election four years ago, in the midst of the great financial crisis, of Barack Obama as our forty-fourth president marked the beginning of a raft of historic changes. With a black man entering the White House, America's race-distorted psyche underwent a massive shift; the final discrediting of "market fundamentalism" led the government to implement "new New Deal" reform that has ushered in a period of unprecedented economic and social equality; and, last but hardly least, the American people were finally rid of the hideous, crippled personalities of the Bush administration. Or so we thought.
This election year, when even the Republicans seem unable to take Sarah Palin's bid for the presidency seriously, publishers have begun trotting out the old bogeys to satisfy our appetite for politics. Some of the resulting books are interesting, some are heartbreaking and some are terrifying, but remember: these people aren't in charge anymore.
If I Did It, by George W. Bush
Early in President Bush's administration, when his reign seemed catastrophic merely for humanity at large and not equally so when measured by his own nominal aims, there commenced a lively debate among progressives about whether Bush was as unreflective and intellectually stunted as he appeared to be or if he was, in fact, a nefarious genius pretending to dimness to deflect attention and confuse those who might oppose his relentless arrogation of power. After eight years of his extraordinary failures, this question would seem to have been answered; but in this "hypothetical" memoir, it is reopened by Bush himself. The culmination, according to inside sources, of intensive psychoanalysis undertaken by the former president after leaving office as history's most unpopular president--and, perhaps not incidentally, after being divorced by his wife, Laura--the book is Bush's attempt to explain what motivated eight years of apparently willful destruction of American prestige, constitutional freedoms and human lives. The short answer is that he has no more idea than the rest of us. Judged either as journalism or as memoir, If I Did It is uninformative and singularly unilluminating; but as a psychological specimen, it achieves a kind of horrifying transcendence. Its publicity materials liken it to David Carr's 2008 investigative memoir The Night of the Gun and Italo Svevo's pre-postmodern novel Confessions of Zeno; these comparisons are both apt, but what it most resembles is Eichmann in Jerusalem--if Eichmann in Jerusalem had been written by Eichmann.
Good Enough for Government Work, by Dick Cheney
Cheney's memoir--the advance for which, it is rumored, went straight into the pockets of the legal team hired after his removal to The Hague--is, unlike that of his former puppet-protégé, all too self-conscious. Bush's book is a textbook example of how the narcissist cannot help but reveal himself even when trying hard to say nothing; Cheney's, on the other hand, demonstrates that a sociopath can produce the coldest and most apparently honest of confessions, when it suits his purposes, without actually communicating anything of his real self. In this thousand-page tome, Cheney documents with scrupulous accuracy the arc of his career in the private and public sectors, describing frankly and often with charm how the interlocking desires for money and power motored him through the upper levels of the government and defense and oil establishments. He names names, details conspiracies and analyzes with penetrating intelligence the characters of George Bush, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld and everyone else he made use of to get what he wanted. But like a logical paradox, Cheney simply cannot be resolved. It may be that by releasing some of this information before his trial concludes, he hopes to pre-empt public opinion or win sympathy from the court before his sentencing; it may be that, like many self-satisfied confidence men, he simply could not contain forever his pride in his machinations; or it may be that he really did need the money. But whatever he says, however honest he sounds, it is difficult to believe him, and maybe that is the point. It is so hard to believe this man, even when he has no reason to lie, that the very fact of his confession casts doubt on the veracity of his crimes.
I Once Was Blind, by Colin Powell
Powell's earnest memoir of redemption begins in 2003 when, inextricably entangled with a cabal of clannish con men, he made the terrible choice to stake his personal honor on professional loyalty--a decision that was all too convenient for his superiors. In the several years that followed, Powell, like his country, lost hope and wallowed in despair. But then he--also like his country--was given fresh hope by a young man named Barack Obama, who, as president, conquered longstanding racial barriers, redeemed the promise of American greatness and, not least, appointed Powell special envoy to the Pitcairn Islands, a post in which he has crafted a legacy that he may believe will someday overshadow his role in the Bush administration. Powell is so powerful a symbol for our recent national rehabilitation that one can almost forget that the heart-rending soul-searching he describes in the first chapter--a process that culminated in lying to the UN about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction"--contributed to hundreds of thousands of needless deaths.
My Guy, by Condoleezza Rice
In addition to the Bush administration confessions mentioned here, this year will see the publication of Karl Rove's impassioned plea for America's forgiveness, Mea Culpissima; Donald Rumsfeld's embarrassing book-length self-abasement, Boots on the Ground: A Fuck-Up's Story; Secure in Their Persons by Alberto Gonzales and John Yoo; To Each According to His Need by Bill Kristol; and Ya Ali!, the staggering account of how a trip to Karbala converted John McCain to Shiite Islam. Everyone has confessed, everyone has recanted--except Condi. The former secretary of state, who now directs a private music academy in Birmingham, Alabama, is apparently no less infatuated with the fatuous former commander in chief than ever, and the robust sales of her creepy adulation, light on text but heavy on full-page photo spreads, serve as a nauseating demonstration that there remain numerous dead-enders whose minds cannot be changed by any number of war crimes trials.
The Darling Buds of May, by Barack Obama
In this dense but economical and beautifully rendered memoir, President Obama revisits his courtship of the First Lady. Brimming with poetic allusion and subtle observation, thoroughly literary but entirely accessible, it is already shooting to the top of the bestseller list before its official publication date. Obama's memoir seems destined to become a classic; the only question is, When did he find the time to write it?
Nevertheless, by Ralph Nader
Nader's thin but sobering self-published polemic argues that the tyranny of the two-party system will soon become more dangerous than ever. He concedes that, by any measure, the Obama administration has been a spectacular success: the last four years have seen the advent of universal healthcare, the implementation of a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine and the construction of thousands of cutting-edge solar energy plants that promise to break our dependence on fossil fuels by 2030. However, Nader argues, although Obama is undeniably skillful, these achievements have depended on an irreproducible confluence of lucky demographic changes; even if Obama could be credited with everything personally, even assuming the eventual overturning of the Twenty-second Amendment (now in progress), the question of what will happen when Obama inevitably passes on has been left unanswered. American culture--vapid, self-indulgent and celebrity-obsessed--has for decades privileged personality over competence and institutional continuity, and Obama's heroic presidency has only aggravated that trend; sooner or later, Nader argues, we are bound for a terrible fall. Though cogently written and impeccably argued, Nader's book is a victim of its timing: released during President Obama's transfixing re-election campaign, it has yet to find a wide audience. But anyone who tears his eyes away from the "Yes We Can" pageantry long enough to read it will find here a somewhat Cassandra-like reminder that we would be wise to keep just a few of our eggs out of Obama's basket.