Monday, 29 November 2010

“The Presidency of George W. Bush”, edited by Julian E. Zelizer (Princeton)

Zelizer-PresidencyOfGWBush

A first historical assessment of one of the most controversial presidencies

The Presidency of George W. Bush brings together some of today’s top American historians to offer the first in-depth look at one of the most controversial U.S. presidencies. Emotions surrounding the Bush presidency continue to run high – conservatives steadfastly defend its achievements, liberals call it a disgrace. This book examines the successes as well as the failures, covering every major aspect of Bush’s two terms in office. It puts issues in broad historical context to reveal the forces that shaped and constrained Bush’s presidency – and the ways his presidency reshaped the nation.

The Presidency of George W. Bush features contributions by Mary L. Dudziak, Gary Gerstle, David Greenberg, Meg Jacobs, Michael Kazin, Kevin M. Kruse, Nelson Lichtenstein, Fredrik Logevall, Timothy Naftali, James T. Patterson, and the book’s editor, Julian E. Zelizer. Each chapter tackles some important aspect of Bush’s administration – such as presidential power, law, the war on terror, the Iraq invasion, economic policy, and religion – and helps readers understand why Bush made the decisions he did.

Taking readers behind the headlines of momentous events, the contributors show how the quandaries of the Bush presidency were essentially those of conservatism itself, which was confronted by the hard realities of governance. They demonstrate how in fact Bush frequently disappointed the Right, and how Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory cast the very tenets of conservatism in doubt.

History will be the ultimate judge of Bush's legacy, and the assessment begins with this book.

Editor Julian Zelizer offers a good introduction to the volume, which touches on all the issues to be discussed in the book, before offering a quick historical account of, to borrow the chapter’s title, “How Conservatives Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Presidential Power”. This chapter offers a quick and readable historical account of the evolution of conservative opinions of presidential power – from opposition to, specifically under Nixon, whole-hearted support. “The Bush administration formed in direct conversation with the 1970s”, when many high-ranking members came of professional age during Nixon’s and Ford’s administrations – most notably, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Paul Wolfowitz. Zelizer explains the liberal-conservative fight over the scope of presidential power, and how conservatives fought against any and all attempts to limit presidential power – in part spurred by an article by William F Buckley that called for all conservatives to recognise the importance of the presidency to streamline and push policy making. Establishment conservatives clearly accepted his premise, and have rarely (if ever) looked back. During the Clinton years, GOP opposition to presidential power was more ideological and “pragmatic”, simply because they did not have control over the White House (Zelizer points out that much of the opposition to Clinton’s policies were more due to a dislike of the president, rather than the policies themselves).

“The war on terrorism has highlighted the reality that presidential power is integral, rather than aberrational, to modern conservatism. The relationship is more than simply a product of political pragmatism under conditions of divided government.”

Conservative elements of American political landscape have been just as culpable, if not more so, than liberals for the expansion of government power and size: “Since the 1960s, the Right, rather than the Left, has been a much more vociferous champion of an all-powerful White House.”

Mary Dudziak’s chapter takes a look at a broad range of legal issues that the Bush administration was faced with – from the Supreme Court’s involvement in resolving the 2000 election crisis, to Guantanamo Bay and issues of habeus corpus, and also the financial crisis. Each section is clearly laid out and cleanly argued and explained. It’s a good chapter, but not one that particularly fired my interest.

Timothy Naftali’s chapter on the War on Terrorism is interesting, although it suffers from being on a subject that has been written about to almost exhaustion. That being said, he discusses the differences between Bush’s first and second terms in office, after Condoleezza Rice’s move to the Department of State (which saw an “emergence of a more flexible approach” to foreign policy in general). While describing in brief the successes in South East Asia, Naftali also points out that,

“in its zeal to reorder the international system, the Bush administration created a Petri dish for massive amounts of terrorism in Iraq between 2003 and 2007, with immeasurable damage to U.S. soft power in the Muslim world.”

In his second term, Naftali explains, there was a “quiet rebellion” throughout the government, as opponents to a neoconservative/assertive-nationalist foreign policy found their voices and receptive ears. This rebellion also exhibited the US government’s self-corrective nature, as a more realistic foreign policy began to replace the more assertive unilateralism of the first term.

Frederick Logevall tackles the causes of the Iraq invasion. “How the United States got into Iraq is one of the great foreign policy questions of our time,” the author begins. “Iraq was a war of choice, not necessity, and that it was understood as such by top officials in Washington.” Like Naftali’s offering, much of this has appeared or been discussed in innumerable other volumes. Logevall recognises this, and explains how what emerges from the plethora of memoirs and journalistic accounts is “the story of an administration that decided early for military action and then manipulated the truth to make its case.” Aiding this manipulation was the political environment at the time:

“It is also a story about a permissive decision-making environment in which Congress, the press, and the American public were mostly content to go along, unwilling to raise the tough questions that might have halted or slowed the rush to war.”

A good chapter, and one lucidly and clearly written and argued, Logevall finishes on a grim note:

“regardless of the ultimate outcome in Iraq, the damage done by this unnecessary and reckless war has been enormous in terms of lives lost and resources squandered, in terms of America’s standing in the region and the world, in terms of the impact on the broader struggle against terrorism.”

James T. Patterson explains, in a very good chapter, George W. Bush’s tax and stimulus policies. It is clear that Patterson does not approve of Bush’s vehement belief in supply-side economics (which, Patterson argues and shows with plenty of data, were impractical and ultimately completely wrong – in other words, he argues George H.W. Bush’s opinion that it was ‘voodoo economics’).

“Well before George W. Bush left office in 2009, he had succeeded in securing major cuts in federal taxes that contributed over time to mounting deficits and rising income inequality. This dramatic turn in fiscal policy was the most significant domestic legacy of his presidency.”

In addition, in the wake of the 2008 Wall Street collapse, Bush’s stimulus and bailout packages “promised to have large and long-run consequences” for America’s future fiscal health. Bush’s tax policy was assured long before he started running for president – a “tax-cutting zealotry” within the GOP still defined much of the conservative approach to fiscal matters, and in the George W Bush years, “paved the way for passage of legislation that Ronald Reagan would have envied”. In order to ensure Bush didn’t fall foul of his father’s fate (“Read my lips: no new taxes”), the administration was bull-headed about and insistent on internal unity on taxes – “Bush brushed aside serious internal debate over economic matters”, which in some ways explains Paul O’Neill’s quick exit from his post as Treasury Secretary. Patterson acknowledges the long-term structural issues that exacerbated the negative impact of Bush’s policies, and offers a good summary of the various opposition arguments that were levelled at Bush’s policies throughout his term (especially those following the invasion of Iraq, and the president’s ignoring rising unemployment figures to focus on further tax cuts). Patterson finishes with a warning about extending the Bush tax cuts:

“If Congress were to extend or increase the Bush-era tax reductions, it would enshrine a supply-side revolution that had erected the boldest monument of Bush’s domestic agenda.”

Meg Jacobs takes a look at Bush’s energy policy, placing it in an historical perspective, in “Wreaking Havoc from Within”. Jacobs argues that Bush’s priority on the environment was to “reverse thirty years of environmental and energy policy, specifically through deregulation, tax reform, and the opening up of new lands to exploration and drilling” – to do this, he set up the much-criticised National Energy Policy Development Group, which was chaired by Dick Cheney and staffed by energy industry supporters, lobbyists and former-employees. Bush’s policy was nothing new, the author argues, as it adhered to tired and constant conservative opposition to regulation. What was new, however, and therefore what prevented Bush from fulfilling all his goals, was the growth in support for environmentalism in Congress. Jacobs offers an explanation of the roots of conservative energy policy, from the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-4, through Carter’s and Reagan’s presidency – for example, attempts to reduce the dependence on foreign oil (and the resultant desire to open up ANWR for exploration and drilling).

“Understanding the Bush energy policy is not as simple as saying that this was an administration run by two oilmen, though that certainly matters. Nor can the administration’s policies be explained as crude payback for political backers, though again, energy industry contributions were not insignificant.”

Nelson Lichtenstein’s chapter takes a look at ideology and interest in social policy at home. Put blunty, “Ideology and interest structured the domestic social policy over which George W Bush presided”. Lichtenstein argues that ideology and interests were integral to almost all Bush social policies – consistently conservative in the former, and complex but also considerable in the latter, incorporating many corporate and business interests in decision-making and policy implementation – favouring business interests over labour and worker interests at almost every turn. From Bush’s Social Security and Medicare policies, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (a particularly interesting section), Lichtenstein offers some illuminating treatments of how Bush’s policies conformed to what he calls the “Bush-Cato” social policy approach.

In David Greenberg’s chapter, we get an analysis of the Bush administration’s expertise at navigating an increasingly polarised society and political environment. Specifically, the chapter refers to the difference between Bush administration officials’ contempt for “reality-based” liberals – this refers to a much-cited passage from Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, when he was told that the US was powerful enough to make its own reality.

“Although the taunts of Bush’s critics frequently descended into glibness, the president’s denigration of independent expertise was real, and it marked one of the more significant and all-encompassing features of his administration.”

The Bush administration made ‘science’ and ‘expertise’ derogatory terms, in an attempt to control the discussion – on everything – to adhere to their own narrow, ideological agenda and world-view.

“As never before, administration officials and their allies in politics and the news media openly disregarded the empirically grounded evidence, open-minded inquiry, and expert authority that had long underpinned governmental policymaking.”

Greenberg explains how conservative control of the White House and both Houses of Congress during much of Bush’s administration helped give rise to this assault on expertise – especially when coupled with the media’s changing role (be it Fox News’ flagrant disregard for facts and balance, or the Mainstream Media’s insistence on giving both sides of an argument attention – be it ridiculous or grounded in something concrete). This disregard for expertise and the denigration of those with “book learning” is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the most dangerous legacy of the Bush years – it is a root cause of almost every damaging and dangerous policy that came out of the Bush administration (in both the short- and long-term). Sadly, during the first two years of Obama’s administration, political and media conversations show no evidence of realignment towards sensible, informed decision-making or debate.

President Bush wore his religion and beliefs on his sleeve, so a chapter discussing Religion in Bush’s America was a must. The task is taken up by Kevin Kruse. After a couple of decades in the wilderness, the Religious Right was politically adrift – unable to unseat Clinton, and experiencing few (if any) victories on the Culture War issues that fired up its grassroots followers and organisations, they were struggling to remain relevant. Enter George W. Bush who, on all issues dear to the Religious Right, “dutifully took his place on the right” and fought to bring them victories they had long sort. In some ways, he was successful (stem cells, for example). Kruse offers a quick summary of Bush’s religion and how it played in the election, followed by an explanation of purpose and formation of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In his memoir, Bush would say his faith-based initiatives were some of his favourite achievements of his administration. Kruse also explains how, with the onset of the War on Terror, Afghanistan and Iraq, faith-based initiatives receded from importance; equally, the author explains how the “old guard” of the religious community have been supplanted by a more moderate generation, which aims to focus on its values, rather than the political issues it opposes. This is a welcome development, and might allow the debate to advance in a more mature manner. Despite his wish to transcend the political partisanship over faith, Bush’s policies were dashed by White House indifference and partisanship on Capitol Hill – his one success was his expansion of AIDS support and aid in Africa (something few will be able to fault or condemn).

Gary Gerstle takes a look at Bush’s success at expanding the multicultural make-up of the GOP’s support-base. Mile removed from Pat Buchanan, Bush offered real possibility for expanding the Republican Tent. Bush appointed more minorities to high government office than any previous administration, and multiculturalism was enshrined in his signature piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind – which required schools across the nation to conform to certain standards in core subjects, which was hoped to level the playing field sooner for minorities. Gerstle offers an interesting comparison with the McKinley administration (a favourite of Karl Rove’s, apparently), which created a thirty-year Republican majority, only to be brought low by nativist, anti-immigration forces within. This weakness is once again raising its ugly head in the wake of the Bush administration, as Tea Party forces gobble up more and more media-time and Republican seats in Congress and the Senate.

In the final chapter of the book, Michael Kazin takes a look at Bush’s relationship with the Conservative Movement. The author offers a summary of its evolution, and charts Bush’s relationship with it and the issues that matter most to it. The first term of Bush’s presidency is considered the best of times by movement conservatives as the new president promised to fulfil their wishes and chart a properly conservative path in office (only on immigration did the president break with his base). Ultimately, Kazin argues, the Bush presidency was a disappointment for movement conservatives, as the president slowly but surely jettisoned the fierce adherence to conservative political issues and tropes, as evidenced in Bush’s expansion of government and also his administration’s part in the massive economic bailouts in 2008 – this is quite a hypocritical about-turn, as many of its leaders were members of Reagan’s administration, which implemented many of the same ‘heresies’ (particularly in terms of government expansion). The conservative movement’s insistence on ‘ideological purity’ has proven self-defeating many times (certainly during Bush’s first term and its hiring policies).

The focus on Bush and his administration’s decision-making processes is very helpful, and makes this volume far more in-depth and revealing than George W. Bush’s own memoir, ostensibly about his decision-making processes. The authors who produced chapters for The Presidency of George W. Bush offer many insights into the inner-workings of the Bush Administration and those who helped steer, implement or influence certain policies.

I only have three minor criticisms of this book. Firstly, there’s not a whole lot of new material included in its pages. This, to be fair, is unavoidable as large portions of official documents will remain classified for years and decades to come (this is something Zelizer admits early on in the book). I can’t help thinking this book should have waited a few more years before publication, but that might have led to a completely different book. Secondly, Zelizer claims that the chapters do not attempt to answer the question about whether or not Bush was a ‘bad’ or ‘good’, or one of the ‘best’ or ‘worst’ president, and yet these chapters (particularly the foreign and economic policy chapters) have an overall negative and critical bias – thankfully backed up by plenty of evidence – but it doesn’t suggest a historians’ detachment. The freshness of the events of Bush’s presidency do, of course, mean that tempers and passions are still excited and inflamed by discussion of his administration, so this was unavoidable. My final criticism is that a couple of these chapters are a little dry, and not as accessible as others.

An excellent, single-volume account of the various aspects of George W. Bush’s presidency, I think this volume is very valuable and useful companion for anyone studying the presidency, US foreign policy, and contemporary issues of American politics, society and foreign policy. Indeed, it may be the most useful single-volume, broad-focus book on George W Bush currently in print, and a perfect starting place for study.

Recommended.

Also try: Julian E. Zelizer, Arsenal of Democracy (2010); James T. Patterson, Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (2005); Timothy Naftali, George H.W. Bush (2008); Arthur Schlesinger Jr., The Imperial Presidency (2004); Charlie Savage, The Return of the Imperial Presidency (2007); George W. Bush, Decision Points (2010); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004); Matt Taibbi, Griftopia (2010); Lou & Carl M. Cannon, Reagan’s Disciple: George W Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy (2008); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); David Farber, The Rise and Fall of Modern American Conservatism (2010); Matt Latimer, Speech-Less (2009); Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)

Monday, 22 November 2010

“Speech-Less”, by Matthew Latimer (Three Rivers Press)

Latimer-Speech-LessHB Adventures in Washington Speech Writing

Despite being raised by reliably liberal parents, Matt Latimer is, from an early age, lured by the upbeat themes of the Reagan Revolution, and sets off from the Midwest for Washington, DC, determined to “make it”.  In Matt’s glory-filled daydreams, he will champion smaller government and greater self-sufficiency, lower taxes and stronger defence — and, by the force of his youthful passion, eradicate do-nothing boondoggleism and lead America to new heights of greatness.

But first he has to find a job.

Latimer chronicles his descent into Washington-hell, as he snares a series of increasingly lofty — but unsatisfying — jobs with powerful figures on Capitol Hill. One boss can’t remember basic facts. Another appears to hide from his own staff, barricading himself in his office. When Fate offers Matt a job as chief speechwriter for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Matt finds he actually admires the man (causing his liberal friends to shake their heads in dismay), his youthful passion is renewed. But Rummy soon becomes a piñata for the press, and the Department of Defense is revealed as alarmingly dysfunctional.

Eventually, Matt lands at the White House, his heart aflutter with the hope that, here at last, he can fulfil his dream of penning words that will become part of history — and maybe pick up some cool souvenirs. But reality intrudes once again.

More like The Office than The West Wing, the nation’s most storied office-building is a place where the staffers who run the country are in way over their heads, and almost everything the public has been told about the major players — Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Rove — is wrong…

As always, one approaches a book like Speech-Less with some caution and no preconceived expectations. The synopsis might suggest a tell-all gossip-volume, and given the subject matter – the Bush administration – a reader will probably come to this expecting something lefty and self-righteous. Perhaps something on the lines of Scott McClellan’s What Happened – a tell-all piece from a disgruntled former employee who sees a Bush-critical publishing environment ripe for exploitation. However, Speech-Less is a different type of memoir. For one, Latimer is a proud conservative and Reagan Republican. Speech-Less is also far better written and amusing than most other books written about the Bush years.

Latimer, after a short introduction about the approaching 2008 economic crisis, offers a chapter that explains his Republican coming-of-age story – growing up in the Liberal bastion that is Flint, Michigan, and his attraction to Reagan’s style and approach:

“I found appealing his belief that government was not the solution to our problems. I was attracted to his philosophy of responsibility, accountability, and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Yes, government had a certain duty to help those who couldn’t do it for themselves. But as a last resort. I was suspicious of sending more money to government to create bigger programs that didn’t really solve anything.”

For the young Latimer,

“The Republican Party may not have been hip, but they were the responsible, competent grown-ups. At least, that’s what Republicans were supposed to be.”

Unfortunately, as he would come to discover, this was not the case when many of them were elected to office, or ‘doing the work of government’.

The author describes his rather manic time at the 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego. He seems to have been very much a geeky fanboy (the book also contains a couple of Star Trek references), in awe of the politicians he was seeing – in the flesh! – and meeting and getting his photo taken with. It’s an amusing chapter, filled with wry self-deprecation and plenty of amusing comments. There is, however, one rather cutting jab at Colin Powell:

“Colin Powell... had considered a run for the GOP nomination that year but decided against it. He was the most popular man in the country. Why muck that up by governing? That night Powell was proudly Republican—and he stayed that way every single day that it suited him.”

Throughout the book, I was surprised by some of the criticisms Latimer has for some Republicans: for example, Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and John McCain, among others – all considered not proper conservatives, and Latimer’s criticism seems to be rooted in their willingness to work with Democrats. This was a little disappointing. His criticisms of Rice do, however, echo those of Scott McClellan – both write about Rice’s incredible ability to deflect blame and responsibility for blunders and poor decisions on to others (particularly when the issues in question were entirely her responsibility).

The Senate & Congress

Latimer’s first job was with a forgettable Michigan Senator, Abraham Spencer, who seemed afraid of not only his constituents but also his own staff. Latimer quickly came to see Spencer as a dead-end employer, and quickly became disillusioned by the work:

“it started to occur to me that my entire job in the Senate was to abet a series of deliberate frauds. We were reading letters the senator never read, writing responses he apparently didn’t review, and now even signing his name. Abraham didn’t even have to buy postage stamps. His signature was all that was required on the top of the envelope. And that signature was printed by some machine too.”

The author’s second job on the Hill, however, proved far more entertaining and long-lasting, if a bit unpredictable: he became Congressman Nick Smith’s press secretary. He writes fondly of the Congressman, sparing few details of the fraught office environment and the unpredictable, unreliable, but completely sincere and well-meaning Congressman. When Latimer was appointed to manage his campaign for re-election, he offers a succinct summary of their strategy that looks as though it would have sufficed for his whole experience: limiting the congressman to “one catastrophic gaffe a week”.

After working for Smith, Latimer was hired as press secretary for Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who he clearly respects as one of the few competent members of the upper house. He was working for Kyl on 9/11, and writes glowingly of the Senator’s dedication and poise in the face of not only the September attacks, but also the anthrax scare at the Hart Senate Offices (where Kyl’s office was based) and the botched government response (a funny episode in the book). Indeed, this chapter has a number of funny descriptions and critiques of the Senate and the Senators.

The second senator Latimer worked for was Arizona Republican Jon Kyl, who Latimer still respects as one of the few Senators able to actually govern properly.

“Every day, Andrew and I struggled to get the media’s attention. Senator Kyl didn’t have time for long palling-around sessions with reporters.”

I found Latimer’s comments about the difficulty he had in getting media attention for Senator Kyl particularly interesting, given the media attention Senator Kyl is currently getting thanks to his opposition to the Obama administration’s New START policy with Russia (see here and here, for example).

Ultimately, however, Latimer felt that he was not getting any closer to his dream of becoming a White House speech-writer, and therefore started to look further afield in Washington.

Luckily for Latimer, when his career felt stalled, a speech-writing position at the Department of Defense caught his attention, and he caught the attention of the Secretary of Defense...

The Pentagon

Latimer’s years at the Pentagon were a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he was working for Rumsfeld, who he admires. On the other hand, the Pentagon was another dysfunctional workplace, as well as exemplifying the government profligacy that the author opposes. The chapters about his time working for Rumsfeld are certainly interesting. We get to see a different portrayal of the contentious Secretary, and Latimer writes of Rumsfeld fondly. It is clear that he valued the experience, and respects Rumsfeld a great deal. But, ultimately, he was disappointed in the way the Pentagon worked: it was clubby, Machiavellian, posturing, totally lacking in media savvy, and too easily affected by outside political operatives.

In a long, amusing indictment of the Pentagon procurement system, Latimer offers a number of examples of waste. They are almost all absurd, and anyone with even an iota of common sense should understand that this is no way to run anything, let alone the department in charge of the world’s most expensive military machine.

“Our office once ordered a shipment of Hi-Liters. The Pentagon supply store sent us five thousand, and not a single one was yellow. We received boxes and boxes of printer cartridges that didn’t fit any of our printers. And, of course, we never gave anything back. Instead, we lined up the superfluous items along one of the office walls until we could find a way to barter with another office for them.”

Because the Pentagon’s staff was, in part, chosen with the ‘advisement’ of the White House liaison office, it was a victim of politics. This is one area where the ‘cronyism’ that many believe characterised the Bush administration (and, to varying degrees, every administration that preceded it) was most apparent, and also blatant. Writing about his own experiences working for Rumsfeld, the author observed some “extraordinary” criteria for employment:

“They tended to possess one or more of the following characteristics: they were just out of college (usually an evangelical one), they had no relevant work experience, or they had been home-schooled. It made no sense.”

The speechwriting department, Latimer remembers, was “one of the few areas of the department actually trying to help Rumsfeld communicate” but the White House personnel system was “working constantly to deny us what we needed”.

Latimer is quite scathing in his descriptions of the press officers who worked at the Pentagon, laying a lot of the blame for Rumsfeld’s and the Pentagon’s poor reputation firmly at their feet. This was a section of the book that was of particular interest to me, as the subject of how foreign policy decision-making has been effect by the 24-hour news cycle forms a good part of my own research. Rumsfeld, the author tells us, was “determined to fix our public affairs operation”, and particularly disappointed with the Pentagon’s inability to keep up with media outlets (perhaps an outgrowth of the most incredible example of the CNN-Effect, when President George H.W. Bush relied on CNN for news of the the Gulf War’s progress). The Pentagon’s public affairs team was made up of about 30 civil servants who “in a 24/7 world the department too often showed a nine-to-five mentality”.

“At night, that giant room was so deserted that tumbleweeds blew by desks. A sizable number of them lacked any sense of urgency or interest in what the administration was doing. One Pentagon reporter compared prying information from them to going on an Easter egg hunt. Sometimes you’d want to put a mirror under their noses to see if they were breathing.”

After Rumsfeld resigned in the wake of the 2006 midterm elections, Latimer failed to click with his replacement, Bob Gates – who he includes in the ‘not a real Republican/conservative’ box as Powell, Rice and McCain. Thanks to another fortuitous turn of events, a job opportunity opened up in the White House speech-writing staff.

The White House

Finally, Latimer got his childhood wish: becoming a White House speech-writer. His early days were a blur as he admits to being rather swept up by the perks and trappings of working in the West Wing. He is clear that he is proud of the work he did for President Bush, but at the same time, he was not blind to the faults and failings of the system. It is in these chapters that we see the real problems inherent in the Washington and White House systems of ‘getting things done’. Instead of it being the idealistic building of his youthful hopes and dreams, “The Bush White House itself was run like most agencies in the federal government: haphazardly and with inconsistent rules.” It was also a bureaucratic nightmare for the speech-writers, especially one like Latimer, who likes to sprinkle jokes into his writing.

The White House was also, unfortunately, filled with fragile egos. Latimer mentions the “notorious... buddy system” that existed, through which “everyone wanted to be friends with everyone else”. While this first appeared like good team relations, it quickly became clear to Latimer that it was both insincere and also potentially dangerous: in such an environment, “it was hard to know what was really good or helpful to the president and what was just being praised out of politeness.” With all this meaningless, knee-jerk praise, any honest criticism (such as a Condoleezza Rice “Boring” comment on a speech) was met with incredulous offence.

When it was explained to Bush that his concept of the bailout proposal wasn’t accurate, the president was “momentarily speechless”. In frustration, he asked, “Why did I sign on to this proposal if I don’t understand what it does?” Latimer remembers being speechless in response.

Latimer mentions George W Bush’s tendency to bestow nicknames on certain staffers, acquaintances and others in his orbit. However, contrary to some people’s belief, Latimer writes, “President Bush didn’t behave like a deranged frat boy, walking around the White House handing out nicknames to everyone.” While this is undoubtedly true, there is something rather sophomoric about the nicknames he did hand out. I’ll admit I am being a snob here, but it’s not exactly presidential, is it? It would be stupid to assume presidents don’t have a sense of humour (Abraham Lincoln and even ‘Silent’ Calvin Coolidge had quick wit and wielded it openly), or have nicknames for certain prized or favourite staffers and advisors. Perhaps the reason such a negative impression of Bush’s nicknames exists is because it spilled into the official record (who can forget, “heckuva job, Brownie”?). In the stand-out cases given in Speech-Less, a speechwriter is known as “Horny” and a pair who worked together known as “Chi-Chi” and “Choo-Choo”...

In general, Latimer’s portrayal of George W Bush is that of an affable, well-meaning and good-hearted president who was nonetheless a little disengaged and not entirely on the ball, and not considerably interested in getting to know those people who worked for him below the Special Assistant level. Equally, his White House is portrayed as quite a mess of egos and territorialism by the various agencies, councils and advisors who worked in and around the White House. The President also appears to be easily handled by his staffers, who seemed too eager to use their ‘initiative’ when interpreting instructions and orders. This would be particularly problematic in Bush’s final two years in office.

Rove is blamed for a lot of the politics involved in decision-making, as well as hiring (those members of the White House liaison office who made political purity tests part of hiring practices are described as Rove’s “minions”). Despite this, however, in the first six years of the administration, Rove appears to have enough influence and power to say no to Rumsfeld. This won’t exactly assuage the concerns that Rove was some sort of puppet-master, or “Bush’s brain”. Latimer came to the White House expecting Rove to be a political genius, but very quickly he came to a different conclusion:

“Karl was not the hero of the Bush White House, the brilliant behind-the-scenes strategist. He was what all the liberals said he was: the villain. And to make matters worse, a clumsy one at that. He employed ham-handed tactics, put forward obviously unqualified subordinates, and stubbornly defended them.”

His political ‘genius’ also doesn’t bear scrutiny, when you consider that “after Karl was promoted to run domestic policy in the second term, not a single major bill proposed by the White House passed through a Republican Congress”.

The 2008 Economic Crisis

It’s worth singling out the events surrounding the Wall Street implosion in 2008, and what effects it had on the White House and its staff. This is predominantly dealt with in the first and last chapters of the book, and are quite damning for all concerned – none more so than Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. Latimer characterises the plan Paulson proposed sceptically:

The plan, like the secretary himself, seemed to have come out of nowhere – as if it had been hastily scribbled on the back of a couple of sheets of paper in the secretary’s car on his way to the White House. Basically, it could be summed up as: Give me hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars and then trust me to do the right thing, even though 99.99 percent of you have no idea who I am.”

The real problem in 2008 was not that the president didn’t understand what his administration wanted to do. Rather, “It was that the Treasury Secretary didn’t seem to know, changed his mind, had misled the president, or some combination of the three.” Latimer characterises the bailout plan as a complete deception. Paulson, the author writes, “used scare tactics to get us all to act quickly – and then did exactly nothing with the money he’d said he urgently needed to save the economy”, spending the next few weeks changing priorities and guidelines:

“Incredibly, he’d been given the power to do with that money virtually anything he pleased. All thanks to a president who just wanted to act boldly and a Congress that didn’t stop to think.”

Effectively, the White House ceded all control and input on the bailout plan to the Treasury Secretary, who was ultimately not being wholly forthcoming.

Speech-Less is a rare behind-the-scenes look at the (dys-)functional working environments of Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and the George W. Bush White House. The author names many opportunistic and/or feckless scoundrels, and laments the apparent death of the principled conservatism he believes in. Towards the end of the book, he wears his conservatism and Republicanism on his sleeve, but thankfully – and unlike some liberal authors – keeps policy suggestions, explanations and ideological proselytising to an absolute minimum. Latimer is far more interested in getting across a sense of what the environment and denizens of Washington are like, and how idols of all stripes frequently disappoint, rather than ramming policy and politics down our throats. This automatically grants Speech-Less very wide appeal, in an otherwise increasingly-polarised publishing environment. Interestingly, the author also has a conservative’s distrust of the media – they are frequently blamed for Bush’s and Rumsfeld’s poor reputation, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. This, despite the obvious influence that FOX News and conservative talk radio has on the national debate (admittedly, it appears to have increased since Obama won election). In his own words,

“As I knew from my previous tours in Congress, Republicans were always at a disadvantage when it came to communicating in Washington. Most thought, not without justification, that the mainstream media were either frivolous or biased and therefore a waste of their time.”

Over the course of the book, a number of themes reappear, regardless of the department or branch of government about which he is writing. He bemoans the Washington phenomenon he refers to as “recycled losers”, and how for some Washington lifers, “No matter how badly a person screwed up, sooner or later he’d turn up somewhere else, with everything forgiven and forgotten.”

There’s a sense of distaste running throughout the book, aimed at those Republicans who are not considered “true” conservatives; those who have deviated from the sacred texts and positions held by the Gipper (despite the disconnect between a lot of the conservative ideals espoused by Reagan and what his administration actually did) and William F. Buckley. This is strange for two reasons: First, because Latimer’s general demeanour in the book is one of disappointment with how government works, and not a strident political or policy-heavy screed – indeed, the absence of political discussion in the book will no doubt form a great deal of its appeal to a broad audience. Second, it’s peculiar because he strongly criticises the White House liaison office for having a political purity test for aspiring employees. It would seem that he is only comfortable with a certain type of conservative purity, and the Bush administration failed.

Latimer’s conservatism also explains his concerns during the 2008 presidential election. After already becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party, he found the fanfare surrounding McCain’s nomination ludicrous. He was sceptical of Palin (and describes a similar scepticism coming from Bush), as well as the reaction she received, offering this cynical observation:

“The overall reaction to Palin at the White House, however, was almost frenzied. I think what was really going on was that everyone secretly hated themselves for supporting McCain, so they latched on to Palin with over-the-top enthusiasm.”

With the Republican Party effectively in disarray, however, the election season was a very sorry time for the GOP. “All we beleaguered Republicans had left, it seemed, were personal attacks.” For Latimer, a strict fiscal conservative, he also found criticising Obama on policy grounds extremely difficult:

“we’d abandoned our own principles. How... could we credibly claim Obama would be a liberal big spender when we’d spent more than any administration since LBJ’s?

For Latimer,

“The Republican Party I believed in—smaller, smarter government—was unidentifiable. We’d thrown it all away amid excessive spending, corruption, dishonesty, and petty partisanship.”

Understandably, and also rightly, the author is particularly disappointed and even angry about the Washington work-ethic, particularly that of Senators and Congressmen. While he is generalising, his points are well-made and important, and there is ample evidence to support his criticisms. For example,

“The only thing I’d ever seen people in Washington do was spend money. I’d never seen them actually solve a problem in my life.”

And on the tendency of former- and current-officials to shirk responsibilities and hard work, he describes how sometimes their approach can be to “look busy and wait for someone else to do the hard stuff.”

“Professional Republicans no longer cared, it seemed, about supporting candidates who believed in our ideals. They were more interested in keeping their cushy houses in Georgetown or Cleveland Park, and their contracts with the revolving door of Republican bigwigs. It was all about being close to power for the sake of power.”

A speech-writer by trade, it should come as no surprise that Speech-Less is very well written, and the author’s prose flows freely and quickly across the pages. He has also filled the book with a self-deprecating humour and witty and cutting impressions of Washington and those who work there.

I really enjoyed reading this book, and I definitely recommend it to anyone who wants a Bush-administration memoir that is a bit lighter and more entertaining, without resorting to the tired and all-too-common Bush-bashing volumes. Latimer’s insights into the broken methodology of the Washington press machine are very useful, intelligent and frequently witty, though his complaints about ‘impure’ conservatives are a little disappointing – not to mention highlight his (self-confessed) naïveté about those who work in Washington.

A good, mostly non-ideological book about Washington, D.C., Speech-Less will make you chuckle, frown, and also disappointed that things still don’t appear to be on the mend in US politics.

Also try: Matt Taibbi, Smells Like Dead Elephants (2006); Charles Peters, How Washington Really Works (199?); Robert Schlesinger, White House Ghosts (2008); Scott McClellan, What Happened (2009)

Latimer-Speech-LessPBPaperback Edition

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

“Decision Points”, by George W. Bush (Virgin Books)

Bush-DecisionPoints

A Controversial President, a Run-of-the-Mill Memoir

Since leaving the Oval Office, President Bush has given virtually no interviews or public speeches about his presidency. Instead, he has spent almost every day writing Decision Points, a strikingly personal and candid account revealing how and why he made the defining decisions in his consequential presidency and personal life.

In gripping, never-before-heard detail, President Bush brings readers inside the Texas Governor’s Mansion on the night of the hotly contested 2000 election; aboard Air Force One on 9/11 in the gripping hours after America’s most devastating attack since Pearl Harbor; inside the Situation Room in the moments before launching the war in Iraq; and behind the Oval Office desk for his historic and controversial decisions on the financial crisis, Hurricane Katrina, Afghanistan, Iran, and other issues that have shaped the first decade of the 21st century.

The former President offers intimate, unprecedented details about his decision to quit drinking, his discovery of faith, and his relationships with his family. He writes honestly and directly about his flaws and mistakes, as well as his historic achievements in reforming education, providing life-saving treatments for HIV/AIDS and malaria for millions of people in Africa, safeguarding the country from another terrorist attack, and other areas.

Decision Points was always going to be a difficult book to review. First, as someone who was never a fan of Bush, I knew my opinion would be biased from the get-go. Second, many didn’t have high hopes of it being more than a puff-piece, or as one reviewer described it, “The rehabilitation of George W Bush starts here”. I, on the other hand, did have high hopes that President Bush would take the opportunity to explain properly how and why certain policies were pursued and implemented, in addition to addressing the criticisms that were levelled at the time and since. Sadly, the former president has not met my hopes.

Bush’s writing style is breezy and accessible, making this certainly one of the easier presidential (auto)biographies I’ve encountered. There are amusing anecdotes that will raise the occasional smile, and one thing that comes across loudest of all is his affection for his family. All of the main hot-topics are addressed, at varying levels of detail: his two presidential campaigns, Medicare reform, Social Security, immigration reform, the prescription drug benefit, his AIDS policies, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Surge, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, and a handful of other issues. Bush accepts that certain events and policies are forgotten, on purpose, in order to structure the book around the specific, “most consequential” decisions of his presidency.

One ‘revelatory’ chapter in the book deals with Bush’s decision to stop drinking. He deserves credit for not turning what is, ultimately, a rather mundane decision, into something grander than it was – he himself admits that he wasn’t chemically dependent on alcohol, he just seemed to find himself in situations when drinking was acceptable and perhaps expected. He begins the book with this decision because, as he puts it, no further decision or success would have been possible without quitting drinking.

Even though the book clocks in at over 450 pages, Decision Points is more a summarised description of the Bush presidency than actual memoir. I felt that I’d read everything in here already, in one form or another, making the reading experience rather unsatisfying. I was expecting far more self-analysis and explanation of why, not just a summary of what.

GWOT, Afghanistan, Iraq & the Surge

Bush offers semi-detailed descriptions of the lead-up to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq which are good and easily digested. However, if someone really wanted to know what went on, I’d recommend Bob Woodward’s Bush At War series – they’re infinitely better written, and far more detailed. I didn’t feel that there was much new here, and therefore Bush’s accounts add very little to the picture readers will probably already have from journalism and other books. It’s not that he’s presenting an opposing perspective, there’s just simply nothing new here.

Except for the comments he’s made on waterboarding and enhanced interrogation techniques. These have been mentioned quite widely in the media, but I thought I’d include them here. It’s a subject Bush shows the most passionate defence of, so it’s one area where the book offers some considerable value. In the wake of 9/11, Bush “grappled with three of the most critical decisions I would make in the war on terror” – specifically, where to hold captured terrorists, how to determine their legal status, and how best to learn what they knew about other plans and potential attacks. When the CIA presented him with enhanced interrogation briefings, he recalls,

“the choice between security and values was real. Had I not authorized waterboarding on senior al Qaeda leaders, I would have had to accept a greater risk I was unwilling to take. My most solemn responsibility as president was to protect the country. I approved the use of the interrogation techniques.”

The techniques were “highly effective”, Bush writes (he offers a few pages of examples of high-value targets who were caught or killed through waterboard-interrogations), and he is utterly unrepentant for approving them. One interesting statement he makes, is his assertion that only three captives were subjected to waterboarding – this is considerably different to the impression given by almost everyone else who’s written on the subject, but I was unable to confirm this in any greater detail.

“The CIA interrogation program saved lives. Had we captured more al Qaeda operatives with significant intelligence value, I would have used the program for them as well.”

After discussing the impact of 9/11, the government’s and his own response, he moves on to the invasion of Afghanistan. Most accept the necessity of going into Afghanistan, but there was one thing that struck me: “We were acting out of necessity and self-defence, not revenge.” While the first bit may well be true, I think it is disingenuous to claim there was no element of revenge involved. It would be impossible for a country to go through such an attack and not want revenge – even Bush’s words later in the chapter paint a picture of a Congress rather eager for some form of revenge. Ultimately, Bush was intent on showing to the world that the US would not shrink from confronting terrorism, as it had in the past.

“Dropping expensive weapons on sparsely populated camps would not break the Taliban’s hold on the country or destroy al Qaeda’s sanctuary. It would only reinforce the terrorists’ belief that they could strike us without paying a price. This time we would put boots on the ground, and keep them there until the Taliban and al Qaeda were driven out and a free society could emerge.”

Bush concedes that the administration’s plans in Afghanistan required a considerable break with his promises during the campaign, specifically those involving his strong opposition to nation building.

“Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.”

The president also accepts minor responsibility for the mess that followed – although, it’s half-hearted and comes across as perfunctory.

“in retrospect, our rapid success with low troop levels created false comfort, and our desire to maintain a light military footprint left us short of the resources we needed. It would take several years for these shortcomings to become clear.”

I think unintentionally, Bush vindicates Colin Powell’s recommendations by acknowledging where the administration’s strategies went wrong – particularly in the case of Powell’s insistence on overwhelming force as opposed to Rumsfeld’s stripped-down, shock-and-awe strategy. Also, just to pick up on the “several years” before shortcomings became clear – concerns were raised very quickly (again by Powell, but also by many others within and outside of government).

After detailing both the frustrations (specifically the role of Pakistan) and the under-reported successes of Afghanistan, Bush moves on to Iraq. For those who relish any signs of conspiracy behind the decisions to go into Iraq, you might be disappointed. In the scenes describing the Afghanistan strategy meetings, Bush indicates that Paul Wolfowitz posited going after Saddam, but pretty much everyone else (save Rumsfeld) was opposed to this idea. Colin Powell, in particular, made it very clear that the US didn’t “have linkage” to 9/11 and any move against Iraq “would be viewed as bait and switch” which would lead to an evaporation of support. CIA Director George Tenet agreed that “It would be a mistake”. Even Cheney, everyone’s favourite Bush administration bogeyman, was opposed to going after Saddam at that point.

In the wake of 9/11, Bush writes, “we had to take a fresh look at every threat in the world”. This conveys a rather slippery-slope attitude to the international environment – one attack (with no significant follow-up) should not have resulted in the fortress-mentality that rose from the ashes of 9/11. Bush offers a description and explanation of how bad Saddam’s regime was – something that nobody doubts. But he seems to not fully grasp why people opposed the invasion. He has a genuine complaint against those who supported it until it was politically expedient not to, but he seems to be unaware of (or perhaps uninterested in) the legitimate concerns about opening up a second major warfront at that time. The way he writes it, I am led to believe the post-9/11 environment was perfectly suited to others planting the seed of invasion in a president whose mind was entirely open to the idea.

Two elements of the chapter bothered me. First, his frequent insistence that he wanted diplomacy to work, without putting much presidential heft behind this apparent desire. The impression one gets from most other sources is that while the diplomatic track was supported by some (again, my favourite Bush appointee, Powell), for the main it was considered a nuisance to be dispensed with as soon as possible. Second, his frequent mention that he didn’t want to deploy troops – in either Afghanistan or Iraq – and yet he gives no indication of ever having seriously considered other options.

There are occasional comments that make perfect sense, even if they are written in a rather smug or smart-ass way. He’s right that opposing the Iraq invasion on grounds of human rights was perhaps myopic, as the intention was to stop Saddam’s long list of human rights abuses – which Bush includes in the chapter.

“With diplomacy faltering, our military planning sessions had increasingly focused on what would happen after the removal of Saddam. In later years, some critics would charge that we failed to prepare for the postwar period. That sure isn’t how I remember it.”

In response to which, the only conclusion to be drawn is that those Bush employed to find and implement solutions were utterly incompetent. (See Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City.) He addresses some of the fumbles Bremmer’s CPA made while running Iraq, and includes a handful of excuses – none of which change the debate or will likely change the reader’s mind. Eventually, the administration was set on toppling Saddam’s regime, and Bush remembers Cheney asking him in late 2002, “Are you going to take care of this guy, or not?”

Bush addresses a number of events that arose from his two wars. For example, the botched PR stunt that focussed on the premature ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on the deck of an aircraft carrier:

“My speech made clear that our work was far from done. But all the explaining in the world could not reverse the perception. Our stagecraft had gone awry. It was a big mistake.”

And also the frequent, oft-shrill accusations of administration lying:

“Nobody was lying. We were all wrong. The absence of WMD stockpiles did not change the fact that Saddam was a threat.”

Unfortunately, President Bush does not acknowledge that the lack of WMD seriously changed the nature of the actual threat that Saddam presented, and certainly the urgency of this threat. Realising this may well have made Iraq a deferrable problem for a future administration, when it could have been done right, possibly (and preferably) without a concurrent war in Afghanistan.

About the lack of WMD, Bush has plenty to say:

“When Saddam didn’t use WMD on our troops, I was relieved. When we didn’t discover the stockpile soon after the fall of Baghdad, I was surprised. When the whole summer passed without finding any, I was alarmed… No one was more shocked or angry than I was when we didn’t find the weapons. I had a sickening feeling every time I thought about it. I still do.”

Bush’s account of the Surge and the decision processes involved is concise and readable, but again, there’s basically nothing new here. I would recommend Bob Woodward’s account, Linda Robinson’s Tell Me How This Ends, and also Thomas Rick’s The Gamble.

Bush says a great regret is that “we did not respond more quickly or aggressively when the security situation started to deteriorate after Saddam’s regime fell”, in part a result of the draw-down in troops (which was one reason for approving the Surge).

“the other error was the intelligence failure on Iraq’s WMD. Almost a decade later, it is hard to describe how widespread an assumption it was that Saddam had WMD. Supporters of the war believed it; opponents of the war believed it; even members of Saddam’s own regime believed it.”

One interesting inclusion, for students of American foreign policy, is an explanation of the Bush Doctrine in the man’s own words:

“First, make no distinction between the terrorists and the nations that harbor them – and hold both to account. Second, take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us again here at home. Third, confront threats before they fully materialize. And fourth, advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy’s ideology of repression and fear.”

Historical References

Bush frequently makes reference to former presidents – particularly Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower. I’m not sure if this was intended to make readers locate Bush in the same ranks, but this is not what it does. It’s too leading, and unconvincing, and will probably have the opposite effect.

“Leading”

I thought this chapter was quite good, but it really could have done with expansion. All too often, anything written about the Bush administration focuses on Afghanistan and Iraq. This is not entirely surprisingly, of course, but it does mean that other events and issues of the Bush presidency are forgotten. The chapter is broad in scope, somewhat episodic, as it looks at Bush’s successes in No Child Left Behind, faith-based initiatives, the prescription drug benefit and Medicare reform – all of which he writes of fondly, and you really get the sense that he is proud of these achievements. Bush brings up the fact that some of his policies have been lambasted by both sides of the aisle, and certainly he was unafraid to add expensive programs, despite his conservative anti-deficit mentality. (The chapter on the financial crisis addresses the surplus he inherited, and in my opinion does not manage to defend his extravagant tax cuts.) He also addresses his failure to get immigration and Social Security reform passed – he puts almost all the blame on politics and the media, which was disappointingly shallow, but in some ways understandable. Bush also (rather smugly) comments on the 2004 campaign and Kerry’s gaffes and mistakes.

Political Naïveté?

There are a couple of passages in Decision Points that really rang false for me. Both of them are comments Bush makes about political tactics.

“I was skeptical of politicians who touted religion as a way to get votes.”

He writes this, with apparently no realisation that the Republican party has been running as the ‘religious party’ for years, and takes any opportunity to tout the religion of its candidates (including George W Bush). This extends into the ‘culture war’ issues that are so frequently fired up around election time. He states that he couldn’t care less about Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation – I believe him entirely, but then why did he sit back while Republican operatives used homosexuality as a wedge issue? He’s right to admonish both Kerry and his running mate Edwards for bringing her sexuality up in the debates – it’s very bad form.

At another point in the book, Bush discusses the PATRIOT Act’s name, and how he never liked it, because it suggested that those who voted against it were unpatriotic. Again, I must point to a Republican Party strategy – which Bush fully benefited from, and never did anything to stop – which painted the Democrats as the unpatriotic party.

Katrina

This is actually another very good chapter. Again, it doesn’t really contain anything new, but President Bush does address some of the ‘gaffes’ and misunderstandings of the time – particularly his feelings when Air Force One flew over the devastation and he was portrayed (unfairly, I’ve always thought) of being detached and disinterested in the plight of those below. The response to Katrina was bungled, there’s no other way of looking at it – that New Orleans is (oh-so) slowly coming alive again is more testament to those who live there and those who have helped with rebuilding.

Bush is quick to say how disappointed he was with the response and reaction to Hurricane Katrina. Much of the fault cannot be laid at Bush’s feet – under federal law, the governor of an afflicted state must request assistance before the president can order in the National Guard. There are a couple of laws that can supplant this (the Insurrection Act, for example), but Louisiana Governor Blanco was insistent that they could handle the response themselves. Where Bush is at fault, is his praise and belief in what turned out to be incompetent appointees – the same problem as in Iraq. If proper plans were made, they got lost or distorted on the way down from the White House and through the bureaucracy.

“The response was not only flawed but, as I said at the time, unacceptable.”

Bush accepts some of the blame for the difficult aftermath:

“I should have recognised the deficiencies sooner and intervened faster. I prided myself on my ability to make crisp and effective decisions. Yet in the days after Katrina, that didn’t happen. The problem was not that I made the wrong decisions. It was that I took too long to decide.”

One could argue, of course, that deciding to leave things to the states was a wrong decision, as was his dithering over whether or not to send government resources into the region.

This chapter is one of the few in which Bush’s character really comes through. He does come across as genuinely concerned about the plight of New Orleans, and he takes particular offence at the accusation of racism that followed quickly in the hurricane’s wake – particularly from Kanye West, Jesse Jackson and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“the suggestion that I was a racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low. I told Laura at the time that it was the worst moment of my presidency. I feel the same way today.”

Impressions

Friends and colleagues have asked me why I expected any more from a President Bush memoir. I guess I was hoping he’d take the opportunity to explain what he did for those who weren’t there, and for those who don’t understand his rationale; to show us why his decisions were the right ones. Instead, the book seems to frequently offer the mere fact of a decision being made as justification for it being right. This, frankly, is not good enough.

Decision Points is disappointing because it fails to reveal as much about the president and his decision-making as one might have hoped. I was never expecting a tell-all piece, filled with gossip or revelations (we have plenty of other books for that), but this memoir is almost not even a memoir: President Bush gives us a run-down of certain events from his presidency, with most of which we are already familiar from the wealth of published material and journalism already in existence. There are some glaring omissions in the book, and these usually revolve around Bush’s decisions to run for president. We simply don’t get a decent explanation of why Bush wanted to be president in the first place, for example. (Jacob Weisberg has written a good book on this subject.) Without dwelling on this, even for a short while, we don’t really get a sense of his driving force – he’s not a president who came into power with a specific agenda, or wrong that he needed to right. More detailed accounts of his two electoral campaigns – a not to mention defense or condemnation of some of the tactics that were used in 2000 and 2004 (we get the slightest comment about the South Carolina tactics used against Republican primary challenger John McCain; and no mention at all about the Swift Boating of John Kerry). Some major foreign policy decisions are ignored (the India nuclear deal, for example), and while he mentions a couple in the epilogue (only positive foreign policies), this is not enough. On a personal note, I think the four pages he spends on China is inexcusable – considering the events that took place between 2000 and 2008, and especially the integral part China plays in the international system and particularly its role in funding American debt. I do not know why Bush thought it was preferable to ignore these issues, but one can’t help wonder if he just wasn’t interested.

Explanations of decisions feel incomplete – there’s very little passion, actually, which is a considerable failing of the book. Only when discussing his family, meeting with wounded veterans, and Katrina does the former president evince much passion or emotion. This might also account for the rather flighty structure – clear chapter titles will be followed by clear introductions before the chapter veers off into random segues. For example, the ‘Stem Cells’ chapter wanders off into Bush’s account of how he decorated the Oval Office and some of its history.

Supporters and loyal employees are mentioned and thanked, but often opponents go nameless – this seems rather petty, and was certainly irritating. Opposition to Bush’s policies or proposals is frequently put down solely to politics or, in a rather Palin-esque way, the influence of the liberal media. Paul O’Neill, the Treasury Secretary who was a considerable source for Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, is given a short mention and quickly dismissed, with clear animosity and not even a vague attempt to address what Suskind (and many others since) wrote about.

More a thank you note to supporters, and a letter of love to family, Decision Points could have been so much more. Sadly, however, I feel it falls short of what President Bush could have produced and perhaps should have written – as someone who so frequently suggests future historians will redeem him, it is disappointing that he gave them so little to work with. A proper account of his perspective would have been invaluable to students of American history, the presidency, the early 2000s, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

To sum up, there are better books to read on the Bush presidency – from both positive and negative perspectives – all of which offer more and greater understanding of George W Bush’s eight years in office.

These include:

Robert Draper, Dead Certain (2007); Ron Suskind, The Price of Loyalty (2004); Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy (2007); James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans (2004); Bob Woodward, Bush At War (2003), Plan of Attack (2004), State of Denial (2006), The War Within (2008); Thomas Ricks, The Gamble (2008); Linda Robinson, Tell Me How This Ends (2007)

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

“Griftopia”, by Matt Taibbi (Spiegel & Grau)

Taibbi-GriftopiaWall Street, the land of Crooks, and those who enable them: The dramatic story behind the most audacious power grab in American history.

The financial crisis that exploded in 2008 isn’t past but prologue. The stunning rise, fall, and rescue of Wall Street in the bubble-and-bailout era was the coming-out party for the network of looters who sit at the nexus of American political and economic power. The “grifter class”—made up of the largest players in the financial industry and the politicians who do their bidding—has been growing in power for a generation, transferring wealth upward through increasingly complex financial mechanisms and political manoeuvres. The crisis was only one terrifying manifestation of how they’ve hijacked America’s political and economic life.

Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi here unravels the whole fiendish story, digging beyond the headlines to get into the deeper roots and wider implications of the rise of the grifters. He traces the movement’s origins to the cult of Ayn Rand and her most influential—and possibly weirdest—acolyte, Alan Greenspan, and offers fresh reporting on the backroom deals that decided the winners and losers in the government bailouts. He uncovers the hidden commodities bubble that transferred billions of dollars to Wall Street while creating food shortages around the world, and he shows how finance dominates politics, from the story of investment bankers auctioning off America’s infrastructure to an inside account of the high-stakes battle for health-care reform—a battle the true reformers lost. Finally, he tells the story of Goldman Sachs, the “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.”

In Griftopia, Taibbi combines deep sources, trailblazing reporting, and provocative analysis to create a lucid, emotional, and scathingly funny account of the ongoing political and financial crisis in America, and those characters who helped send America (and the world) to the brink of financial ruin – not to mention, continue to do everything to save and benefit themselves at the expense of the American taxpayer. The book is premised on the following, depressing reality that Taibbi has come to observe:

“[America is] no good anymore at building bridges and highways or coming up with brilliant innovations in energy or medicine. We’re shit now at finishing massive public works projects or launching brilliant fairy-tale public policy ventures like the moon landing. What are we good at? Robbing what’s left. When it comes to that, we Americans have no peer.

Griftopia does not paint a happy or hopeful picture of the current state of American politics and economics. He is not confident that the status quo will – or can – be changed in the near future, if at all. But, in a book surprisingly accessible despite the considerable amount of economic jargon, he lays bare the faults, flaws and flagrant illegality and dishonesty of the power players in the Wall Street-Washington nexus. [As always, Taibbi is eminently quotable, so please forgive the large number of pull-quotes I’ve included.]

It is quite the indictment that in order to get the clearest explanation of the crisis, one has to look to Taibbi – he’s not an economist, an academic, or politician. He’s a highly gifted journalist who sees things as they are, and has an uncannily strong bullshit detector. It’s early in the review for me to say this – but this is an essential book for anyone wanting to understand the state we’re in today.

Election Politics

To begin with, Taibbi takes a look at the 2008 presidential election, and the Tea Party/populist movement that quickly arose thanks to the rise of Sarah Palin. Taibbi is unsparing in his contempt for the electoral process in America, and particularly of the changes that arose during the 2008 cycle, which was

“a campaign marked by bouts of rage and incoherent tribalism on both sides of the aisle. After eighteen long months covering this dreary business, the whole campaign appears in my mind’s eye as one long, protracted scratch-fight over Internet-fuelled nonsense.”

In retrospect the campaign, Taibbi writes, was “a lot of noise about things that… had nothing to do with anything at all.” Indeed, when later discussing President Obama, he offers this shot: “Barack Obama was at his oratorical best when he was talking about nothing at all”.

The author’s appraisal of the Tea Party and its celebrity leaders is well-balanced. One might assume that Taibbi would let his scathing wit free, but despite his incomprehension of the movement’s popularity, he does concede that for many who follow it, their disappointment with Washington is understandable. He is relatively easy on those who support the movement (without holding back from highlighting the many inconsistencies and hypocrisy of the movement), but he does not hold back when discussing those politicians and ‘celebrities’ who have come to lead the movement. For example, about the Tea Partiers, he writes,

“They’re not all crazy. They’re not even always wrong. What they are, and they don’t realize it, is an anachronism. They’re fighting a 1960s battle in a world run by twenty-first-century crooks. They’ve been encouraged to launch costly new offensives in already-lost cultural wars, and against a big-government hegemony of a kind that in reality hasn’t existed — or perhaps better to say, hasn’t really mattered — for decades. In the meantime an advanced new symbiosis of government and private bubble-economy interests goes undetected as it grows to exponential size and robs them blind.

On Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, Taibbi doesn’t hold back at all. Palin, he writes, is basically out for herself, and she used her election appearances not to win an election, but to give birth to a new celebrity. Bachmann, on the other hand, is just an imbecile, and Taibbi calmly rolls out a record of “every day publicly flubbing political SAT questions” and dreaming up wild and impractical, irresponsible policy proposals. It is, for an outsider, utterly astonishing that she is employed, let alone continuously elected to government.

Whenever he mentions the 2008 Presidential Election, Taibbi is usually taking a swipe at one or other of the candidates. He doesn’t give preference to either, equally pointing out Obama’s progressive populism and McCain’s conservative pandering (personally, I found McCain’s swing to the right insulting and highly disappointing). The author also demonstrates, over and over, how politics and political talking-points got in the way of proper policy recommendations, as well as proper understanding of the root cause of problems (particularly the oil price hike of the summer of 2008 – see later).

Wall Street, Land of the Grifters

Moving on to the state of America today, Taibbi draws a comparison with ghetto predators. In today’s America, however, rather than drugs killing neighbourhoods, it’s “the nightmare engine [of] bubble economics, a kind of high-tech casino scam”, and instead of crack or heroin, the product is cheap credit.

“It concentrates the money of the population in just a few hands with brutal efficiency, just like narco-business, and… the product itself, debt, steadily demoralizes the customer to the point where he’s unable to prevent himself from being continually dominated.”

The really scary fact about America, however, is the skill with which people can be duped into voting or fighting for other people’s interests that are so far removed from their own. I do not mean this in a liberal way – fighting for the needs of the poor and needy. Rather, the skill with which those at Fox and CNBC are able to convince such a considerable swathe of the American population that it is in their interest to fight for policies that support and benefit those who are screwing them over.

“If you want to understand why America is such a paradise for high-class thieves, just look at the way a manufactured movement like the Tea Party corrals and neutralizes public anger that otherwise should be sending pitchforks in the direction of downtown Manhattan.

Instead, a large portion of the American electorate have been convinced that they should support policies that ignore that what the bankers were doing was “gambling, pure and simple”, and support the governments reaction that rewarded their reckless fecklessness with the “most gargantuan bailout in history”. The Wall Street activity was “irresponsibility on a scale far beyond anything any individual homeowner could even conceive of”, and not only that, but it was invisible: “When the economy tanked, the public knew it should be upset about something, that somebody had been irresponsible. But who?

America is a country in which almost everyone has been “hoodwinked” into thinking he’s on course to become rich himself, and therefore Americans often believe they are invested in rigging the system to protect the rich. This is something also covered well in an episode of The West Wing, when Bartlett points out that the people vote for tax cuts for the rich because they think they are protecting their future, rich selves. The pro-rich system is so well-entrenched, Taibbi argues, that the economic elites have become, effectively, the most protected minority in America:

“What’s accelerated over the last few decades, however, is just how thoroughly the members of the grifter class have mastered their art. They’ve placed themselves at a nexus of political and economic connections that make them nearly impossible to police.”

Even if were possible to police the grifters, there aren’t even laws in place to deal with the kinds of things that went on at Goldman Sachs and other investment banks in the run-up to the financial crisis. What has taken place over the last generation, Taibbi argues, is “a highly complicated merger of crime and policy, of stealing and government.” Far from taking care of the rest of us, America’s financial leaders and their political servants “have seemingly reached the cynical conclusion that our society is not worth saving and have taken on a new mission that involves not creating wealth for all, but simply absconding with whatever wealth remains in our hollowed-out economy. They don’t feed us, we feed them.

America is fast becoming a “vast ghetto” in which all Americans, conservatives and progressives, are “bled dry by a relatively tiny oligarchy of extremely clever financial criminals and their castrato henchmen in government, whose main job is to be good actors on TV and put on a good show.” These high-class criminals stays in business simply because, when America is not completely distracted and exhausted by work and entertainments, it prefers not to ponder the dilemmas that its faced with, especially why, “when we do the right thing by saving money, we keep being punished by interest rates that hover near zero, while banks that have been the opposite of prudent get rewarded with free billions.”

In Griftopia, Taibbi aims to get to the bottom of these issues. And he does it very well.

No Fan of Greenspan

In one particularly damning chapter, Taibbi dissects the career of former Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, who he describes as “that one-in-a-billion asshole who made America the dissembling mess that it is today”. The chapter doesn’t hold back at all, and details all of Greenspan’s flubs, failings, mistakes, and thirst for the limelight, that it would be very hard for even Greenspan’s mother to read this and come away with her impression of Alan unscathed and intact.

“a system that preaches sink-or-swim laissez-faire capitalism to most but acts as a highly interventionist, bureaucratic welfare state for a select few. Greenspan pompously preached ruthless free-market orthodoxy every chance he got while simultaneously using all the powers of the state to protect his wealthy patrons from those same market forces…”

Not only that, but instead of letting nature take its course (the destructive side of capitalism), Greenspan “came to the rescue every time some juiced-up band of Wall Street greedheads drove their portfolios into a tree.

On Greenspan’s unerring ability to misrepresent the economic climate, not to mention uncanny ability at failing to predict its future course, and Taibbi writes, “Greenspan’s errors were often historic, idiotic blunders, evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of problems that led to huge disasters.” The author goes on, pointing out that,

“if you dig under almost every one of the major financial crashes of our time, you can find some kind of Greenspan quote cheerfully telling people not to worry about where the new trends in the economy were leading.”

The chapter also allows for a quick run-down of “demented” history of the school of economic thought (rational objectivism) that arose around Ayn Rand – who Greenspan considered a mentor. According to Taibbi, “this lunatic religion that should have choked to death in its sleep decades ago” would, thanks in large part to Greenspan, go on to provide “virtually the entire intellectual context for the financial disasters of the early twenty-first century.

Taibbi goes on to describe how the housing bubble came about, and the labyrinthine cons and gambling strategies that were taking place throughout Wall Street. It’s a very detailed description, and while at times the jargon was flying thick and fast off the page, I managed to more-or-less easily follow Taibbi’s explanations and descriptions of what was taking place. This is certainly one of Taibbi’s gifts – conveying complexity through clear, concise language, tinged with his own dark, scathing humour.

Commodities Casino

Taibbi takes a look at the broad effects that hikes in commodities’ prices can have. Using a wide range of examples (from students to building contractors), the author shows how something as simple as hikes in gas prices can turn plans that looked perfectly feasible and sensible become prohibitively expensive – from cancelled internships to sky-rocketing costs for energy and delivery, steep fluctuations in energy can be devastating on the national scale. (While I would say this is certainly a bad thing, some of the solution has to be more efficient energy consumption – be it through car engines or more efficient machinery. This would also benefit the environment, and ultimately make cars and so forth cheaper to run…) What is most surprising, however, is who Taibbi blames for the considerable energy price hikes of summer 2008. “Most people assumed it had to do with some combination of shortages and/or increased demand from the Chinese industrial machine”, and the media did nothing to dissuade this perception. Amazingly, Taibbi reports, Senator John McCain “spent all summer telling us reporters that the reason for the spike in gas prices was that socialists like Barack Obama were refusing to permit immediate drilling for oil off the coast of Florida.” At the same time, Obama goes on about the evil that is SUVs and the US addiction to foreign oil. It soon became clear to Taibbi and the other reporters covering the election that, put simply, nobody had a clue what was causing the prices hikes.

The truth was actually very different to the explanations trotted out by both the Democrats and Republicans. “What really happened was that Wall Street had opened a new table in its casino”: commodity index investing. Basically, oil price-bets became the hot commodity of Wall Street, and traders bet the cost through the roof. Without anyone realising it had happened.

Taibbi delves into the history of commodities trading (offering as well a very clear, useful explanation of how the commodities market works), all the way back to 1936, when the “gamblers disguised as Wall Street brokers” destroyed the US economy, and FDR passed the Commodity Exchange Act, designed to prevent speculators from screwing around with prices of day-to-day products. Over the course of two decades, the rate of speculation on commodities ballooned to about 80% of market activity, and many of the exceptions (which created favourable circumstances for a handful of traders) handed down to companies like J.Aron were kept secret. The main reason for secrecy seems to have been that the activity pursued by Goldman and other major corporations was unavailable to the common trader/speculator. Individuals were simply unable to take part in this trading.

This section of the book isn’t the most interesting, but it does highlight Taibbi’s ability to make complex systems and financial transactions clear and accessible to the lay-reader.

Obamacare & the Insurance Industry

Taibbi is unsparing in his contempt for the health care bill passed by the Obama administration this year, which he describes as “a coldly cynical political deal” consisting of:

“massive giveaways to Big Pharma in the form of monster subsidies, and an equally lucrative handout to big insurance in the form of an individual mandate guaranteeing a few already-wealthy companies 25-30 million new customers who would be forced to buy their products at artificially inflated, federally protected prices.”

In this instance, too, I think Taibbi is spot on. I have always been skeptical in the order in which Obama’s administration has decided to take on the health care/insurance issue. The number one reason families and individuals seemed to not have healthcare was not a lack of coverage – anyone could buy it, of course, save those with existing conditions – rather, the biggest concern was the cost of health insurance. Sure, Obamacare prevents companies from prejudice against existing conditions (which is superb), but it did nothing to confront the cost issue.

The author goes on to explain how the fears of both sides of the political spectrum, be they Tea Partiers or raging lefties, were not entirely unfounded: it is a form of redistribution (just not the one they’re ‘afraid’ of), and the “crypto-fascist” fusing of government and private enterprise is also in there for good measure. Taibbi characterises the government’s plan (after taking a swipe at Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s now-former Chief of Staff) as:

“buy[ing] the insurance and pharmaceutical industries’ acquiescence to the gentlest of regulatory regimes by giving them back the one thing they had to trade: the power to tax the public.”

Obamacare was basically, a “straight money trade” – millions of new “involuntary customers” for the insurance companies, in exchange for future campaign contributions.

After discussing Obamacare, Taibbi moves on to an indictment of the American healthcare system as a whole (“a Kafkaesque parody of corporate inefficiency” and cruelty). It’s not necessarily a new argument, and you may well know a lot of the argement he includes, but here again Taibbi manages, through his journalistic style and gift, to put the human face to the problems – from patients and exasperated doctors and administrators fighting against an insurance system that has no interest in their side of the insurance obligation (thanks in part to the expensive mountain of paperwork that is always required), and is protected by – predominantly Democratic – supporters on Capitol Hill. He includes perhaps one of the most damning litanies of incomprehensible failing by comparing the US to other OECD countries (too long to quote here).

Discussion of the insurance companies also allows Taibbi to give us a capsule history of anti-trust laws and those who have worked so hard to undermine government regulation and fair treatment of the American people. Not only that, it’s another opportunity to take Obama and the Democrats to task for being spineless when it came to governing and reform – “they didn’t even attempt to broadly outlaw unfair anticompetitive practices”, Taibbi reports. In this chapter, the author makes a very good case that

“The whole style of Obama’s health care ‘initiative’ was to try to smooth the bill’s passage by neutralizing the opposition of the relevant industries by giving way on key issues.”

In other words, by caving to lobbyist and special interest pressure and giving them pretty much everything they could possibly want or ask for, “surrendering completely as an opening strategy”. Way to go. What Taibbi describes can be summed up effectively in an SAT-style statement: the health insurance industry is to the Obama administration as the energy industry is to the Bush/Cheney administration. While Taibbi reserves most of his healthcare shots for the Democrats, he finishes with an indictment of the “absurdly hypocritical objections from stammering jerks” on the Republican side of the political aisle that helped ruin the whole thing further, not to mention the obstructionist, petulant, and ultimately childish tactics they used throughout the process.

This is a particularly excellent chapter in the book, marked by Taibbi’s scathing wit, passionate and angry disbelief, and detailed reporting.

Goldman “Vampire Squid” Sachs

Since 2008, a favourite whipping post for Taibbi has been Goldman Sachs, the über-bank of Wall Street and, in Taibbi’s words, the “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”. I thought it was worthwhile to specifically separate commentary on this section of the book. To refer back to the above section about commodities, Taibbi traces the beginning of the commodities debacle of 2008 to Goldman’s 1981 purchase of commodities trader J.Aron – followed by strong lobbying of the government to “lighten the hell up” about the trade. Goldman even created its own Commodities Index, through which it profited from commodities speculation.

Taibbi details the role Goldman played in the demise of AIG. While AIG was, indeed, run by utter incompetents, its demise appears to have been a coordinated effort to kill a rival institution. Certainly, Goldman was ruthless in its pursuit of what AIG ‘owed’ it from securities loans (despite the fact that the securities Goldman was holding were actually still quite valuable).

“Basically what was happening was that Blankfein and the other Goldman partners wanted the money AIG… owed them so badly that they were willing to blow up the other end of AIG, if needed, to make that happen. Even though they weren’t really in danger of losing any money by holding on to [their] securities, they were returning them anyway, just to force AIG into a crisis.

When a meeting between federal officials and leading bankers met at the Fed to decide on how to deal with the AIG crisis, Taibbi continues, there was only one real option that could save the system from going into freefall. Either the state pours massive amounts of taxpayer money into the debt hole, or the unexpected Goldman Sachs-led run on AIG’s securities-lending business would spill out into the real world (more institutions would jump on the bandwagon after Goldman started receiving chunks of money from AIG).

“In essence, the partners of Goldman Sachs held the thousands of AIG policyholders hostage, all in order to recover a few billion bucks they’d bet on… plainly crooked sweetheart CDS deals.

Overall, Taibbi paints a picture of an institution uncannily good at what it does. From its prophetic predictions of commodities changes, to aggressive trading in CDOs and other toxic financial entities, its reach seems endless, and its influence concrete. Everyone wants to work there – seemingly only because it wins. All the time. This is partly the result of their superb marketting strategy, through which they convince investors to take positions they themselves hold, thereby taking the risk out of their own bets, as they guarantee the outcome they want.

The most depressing argument Taibbi makes in Griftopia has to do with the overall cost of the various bail-outs that the Bush and Obama administration have unrolled for the banking industry. It’s a long quote, but Taibbi’s explanation is perfect:

“the final result is that we all ended up picking up the tab, subsidizing all this crime and dishonesty and pessimism as a matter of national policy. We paid for this instead of a generation of health insurance, or an alternative energy grid, or a brand-new system of roads and highways. With the $13-plus trillion we are estimated to ultimately spend on the bailouts, we could not only have bought and paid off every single subprime mortgage in the country (that would only have cost $1.4 trillion), we could have paid off every remaining mortgage of any kind in this country—and still have had enough money left over to buy a new house for every American who does not already have one.

The final chapter before the epilogue, “The Great American Bubble Machine” is an extended version of one of Taibbi’s articles on the financial crisis for Rolling Stone. It’s very good, and charts the “vampire tentacles” of Goldman Sachs. I think it works as a good taster of the book. [Click on the title, above, to go through to Rolling Stone and have a read of this and other articles by the author for the magazine.] In Griftopia, the author provides a new, long introduction to the piece, followed by the article itself. To summarise, Goldman Sachs is reviled on Wall Street by its other denizens, and almost all examples offered by Taibbi’s sources for sordid scams and crooked behaviour included Goldman employees in the mix. Taibbi also discusses the media-reaction to his article when it first appeared, flying in the face of the media’s golden impression of the investment bank. The story of Goldman Sachs, Taibbi concludes, “is the story of the great lie at the center of our political and economic life.” Goldman Sach is not a company of geniuses, but rather a company of criminals. Far from being the “best fruit of a democratic, capitalist society”, it is actually

“the apotheosis of the Grifter Era, a parasitic enterprise that has attached itself to the American government and taxpayer and shamelessly engorged itself on us all.”

Griftopia is, in my opinion, essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the labyrinthine inner workings of and connections between politics and finance in America. Taibbi, in his superb, scathing style, offers the clearest analysis and explanations of the methods used to get us to this point, unsparingly critical characterisations of those politicians and bankers who flaunt the law and treat taxpayer money as their own casino budget.

“We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it — who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust these people to do the right thing, but we can’t, because, well, they’re scum. Which is kind of a big problem, when you think about it.”

Economists and academics might not like Taibbi’s style, but anyone interested in the subject, certainly those without expert knowledge, should welcome Taibbi’s account of the crisis and appraisal of those who brought it into being.

I could have made this review so much longer, but then there might be no reason to buy the book for yourself. Taibbi discusses the impact of Sovereign Wealth Funds, the outsourcing of American infrastructure (including all the parking metres in Chicago…), the endless circle of profits/profiteering that exists for investment banks, and other elements of the “frictionless machine for stripping wealth out of the heart of the country”.

For those who think Griftopia sounds too much like a lefty attack on business, it’s important to point out that the author is unfailingly bipartisan in his shots at politicians, poking fun at and also decimating the positions of a number of prominent and also under-the-radar Republican and Democratic operators. Taibbi is particularly disappointed by Obama, who he clearly had very high hopes for, and accuses the President of simply, flat-out lying about his campaign healthcare promises.

In Griftopia, Taibbi has written an engaging, intelligent and accessible book on one of the most important issues (economics and finance) facing America, and the world, today. His anger at the state of economic/financial affairs in the US is palpable throughout, but he never allows it to interfere with the facts (of which he offers tons), and his arguments are well-reasoned and cut right to the heart of the matter: the American economy is run and abused by brazen, government-backed crooks. Pure and simple.

Superb, Griftopia is very highly recommended to all.