Men Without Qualities

Fortunate Son: George W. Bush and the Making of an American President, by J.H. Hatfield, Soft Skull Press, 2000;

Dick: The Man Who Is President, by John Nichols, New Press, 2004;

Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They’ll Steal the Next One Too, by Mark Crispin Miller, Basic Books, 2005.

Reviewed by Gerald Carpenter These three books have several things in common. For one thing, they are all well written, though J.H. Hatfield’s prose is chattier and less elegant than John Nichols’s or Mark Crispin Miller’s. All three deliver a lot of information that concerned citizens should find very useful. And each in its own way demonstrates a new kind of censorship — one that seeks to suppress inconvenient information by ignoring it rather than confronting it directly. This last notion reveals a fair amount of cowardice on the part of the American intellectual establishment. How can we have an informed debate if we don’t know what the main propositions are?

The case of Hatfield’s Fortunate Son shows that the Bush secret service was already in full operation before the Supreme Court appointed him president. The craven submission of St. Martin’s Press, the confiscation of the original edition, the last-minute save by Soft Skull Press, and the slander campaign against Hatfield that culminated in his lonely death in a motel room (perhaps he killed himself; perhaps he had help) — these are what we know about the book, if we know anything at all. Few journals of opinion and comment paid any attention to the book.

Hatfield interviewed hundreds of people for Fortunate Son. He researched exhaustively every known fact about George W. Bush and his family. He crosschecked every controversial statement. The picture that emerges of what Garrison Keillor calls “the Current Occupant” is of a well-born loser who wouldn’t have succeeded in anything without the intervention of his family’s friends and hirelings. Dubya is, in Robert Musil’s phrase, “the man without qualities.” Or, as the prez himself put it, “I’m more or less a media creation. I’ve never really done anything.” As Hatfield tells it, W’s story is exactly that of an 18th-century nobleman’s son, who spends his youth dodging all responsibility, drinking and jumping from scrape to scrape, and then, when he succeeds to the title, becomes an object of veneration. If people had been able to read this biography before the 2000 election, it might not have been close enough for the Right to steal.

Nichols’s Dick makes a convincing argument that the United States is being governed by Vice President Richard Cheney. The preference for cheating over playing by the rules, the obsession with secrecy, the gathering of all power into the hands of a “unitary executive” — these are all earmarks, as Nichols shows, of Cheney’s career. As a portrait of the architect of our present disaster, Nichols’s book is mesmerizing in its insight: “Cheney did not rise on the basis of his competence, as the official spin would have it. His career has been characterized by dashed hopes, damaging missteps, and dubious achievements. No, it was not competence; rather, Cheney has climbed the ladder of success because of his willingness, proven again and again, to sacrifice principle and the public good in the service of his own ambition and of those who might advance it.”

Miller’s Fooled Again is the final piece in the puzzle of how we got into this mess. It is an elegant detective novel, an agonizingly detailed and brilliant reconstruction of a great crime. Miller concentrates on the most egregious theater of election theft in 2004, the State of Ohio, and the violations he reveals, the felonious dirty tricks, the role played by partisan government officials, add up to an appalling story almost too painful to think about. Yet we must. We only learn by reading, not by watching television, and these three books make a great tripod on which to base our future actions.

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