Wednesday, 15 April 2009

“Now or Never”, by Jack Cafferty (Wiley)


“Getting Down to the Business of Saving our American Dream”

In Now or Never, CNN reporter and talking head Jack Cafferty takes a look at America as it is today, and offers his opinion on what is amiss and what should be done to save the American Dream.

The book is a bit of a mixed bag, with each chapter covering different issues and facets of life and politics in America. Topics covered include:

- The 2008 election (the “$1 Billion Battle”).

- Bush’s legacy (“executive branch run amok”) in both domestic (especially economics) and foreign policy.

- The foreign policy challenges facing America (“I hope President Obama has brought a big shovel with him to the Oval Office, because it’s going to take him a while to muck out the Bush barn”), including Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Israel-Palestine, and a resurgent Russia.

- Education in America and the results of the Bush administration’s slashing of funding (“The kids who come out of our schools are often dumber than rocks”).

- Immigration.

- The state of parenting in America, and how when it comes to poor manners, “the kids aren’t special, and I don’t have to put up with their behaviour. If you can’t control your obnoxious little brats, leave them at home. They don’t belong out in public…” (A lot of this chapter rings true for the UK.)

- Energy policy and the party nominees’ flip-flopping throughout the campaign season on the best way to address this issue (with the Republican off-shore drilling as potentially disastrous to the environment and tourism in coastal regions).

- The national debt, the state of the economy and what it means for future generations. As well as going after the Bush administration (“Our collective failure to pay our bills and run our economic house responsibly is threatening to take this country down”), Cafferty goes after the rich and clueless bankers, berating them for their greed and causing the “seismic jolts” on Wall Street.

Cafferty also offers a couple of biographical chapters about his family and fatherhood. Filled with factual data and information, but overlaid with Cafferty’s trademark opinions, wit and style, Now or Never is a breath of fresh air in this genre.

The chapter on the primaries and election is amusing, as Cafferty reprimands the Democrats for “their overwhelming lack of success in stopping President Bush from doing anything”. He takes some shots at some of the characters that emerged during the long campaign season, from Rev. Jeremiah Wright (“bigoted old lunatic”), to Sarah Palin, who’s campaign strategy he describes as a “brash, if vacuous, mission to babble her way to victory and sit a heartbeat away from the presidency of the United States.” His appraisal of the GOP’s prospects in 2008 are also blunt: “For all their love of patriotism, small government, fiscal control, and family values, the GOP could have nominated Jesus Christ and still lost in 2008.” No party is spared from criticism.

Of most interest to me was the chapter about China. It is a revealing look at a long list of outstanding issues between the US and China, and the media’s portrayal of them: the dangerous and defective products that have poured into the US markets (lead-painted toys, poisoned pet food, etc.), currency manipulation disputes, and Chinese “dumping” of manufactured products in the American market. The author also discusses China’s human rights record, its military modernisation and increased defence expenditure. It is clear that the author’s opinion of America’s largest creditor is not favourable, and it was exhibited perfectly in a comment he made on CNN’s Situation Room, when he said China was run by “goons and thugs”. Cafferty describes the reaction (alternately “firestorm” and “contretemps”) to his statement with a calm wit, but also taking another clear shot at the Chinese government propagandists – all while never retracting the statement. Good for him, that’s what the First Amendment’s for.

In discussing his topics, Cafferty relies on his CNN broadcasts to provide plenty of quotes of his positions at the time of the events – from the Iraq War, the 2008 elections, to economics and trade issues. While this is very useful, his use of reader comments from his “Cafferty Files” blog is not always advisable. Sometimes, the comments he reproduces in the book add to the debate, or at least are amusing, but oftentimes they can be merely ad hominem attacks on Bush or Cheney, or whoever is in the firing line at the time.

There are a couple of inaccuracies in the book – including Cafferty’s claim that McCain approached Kerry about being his VP pick in 2004, when it was actually the other way around; and also claiming China was sending oil and arms to Darfur, when it’s really a case of China buying oil with arms. These are no doubt the result of typos slipping through the editorial net, rather than a Bush-esque attempt to rewrite history. But, when you’re berating McCain (and especially Palin) for being inaccurate, it pays to be careful yourself.

Overall, this was an entertaining book. Cafferty’s opinions are mostly populist (cautious of free trade, protectionist in some ways), but also equal-opportunities for both Democrats and Republicans when it comes to criticism. It’s not academic, but neither is it supposed to be seen or considered as such, I think. When Cafferty talks about his family and his upbringing, he is surprisingly honest, and isn’t afraid to accept and detail his own failings as a father. It’s a bit of a rant in places, for sure, but there’s plenty of factual content to support his positions (selectively chosen as some of them are). Not being familiar with his TV show, I felt the curmudgeonly approach was a nice change, and certainly made it a more fun read.

That being said, the book isn’t as targeted as it might appear. The subtitle is “Getting Down to the Business of Saving Our American Dream”, but there’s not a whole lot in the way of policy proposals in here. The book, as I’ve said, is interesting, but the arguments and issues aren’t exactly new. His style and approach mean the book’s unlikely to convert anyone already skeptical of liberal/Democratic policies.

If you’re looking for something less stuffy and scholarly, something that is passionate and might at least raise a smile while distracting you a bit from the despair of the economic crisis, then Now or Never would be a very good place to start. Bringing big issues down to earth, in clear and accessible language, Now or Never is a great primer for many of the issues facing the American public today.

Also try: Michael Kinsley, Please Don’t Remain Calm (2008); Matt Taibbi, The Great Derangement (2008); Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (2008)

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