Journalistic compilations are a crucial part of America’s literary, intellectual and political heritage. They enjoyed a golden age in ’60s and ’70s trade publishing: Gazing over the library of books I am using to write my own history of the years 1965 to 1972, I see collections by Joan Didion, Garry Wills, Jack Newfield, Steven V. Roberts, Jonathan Schell, J. Anthony Lukas, Tom Wolfe and Michael Herr, compiled from Esquire and the Nation, National Review and the New Republic. Without them, our understanding of postwar America would be much the poorer.
Well, we are without them now. Trade publishers today rarely print such compilations – and our understanding of the years we are now living through has suffered for it. Thus it is altogether fitting and proper – though, in the grand scheme of things, a little sad – that university presses should pick up the slack.
It fell to Princeton University Press to publish How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Régime, a compilation of articles from the (London) Guardian and Salon by the great Sidney Blumenthal, a former Clinton aide and a longtime journalist who did some of his important early work for In These Times. The best of the classic journalistic compilations draw out common threads that lie scattered across occasional pieces, often tied together in an introductory essay. This gives the compilation a twofold purpose, as both a document of an era and an argument about that era. In this regard, How Bush Rules is exemplary, convincingly arguing that George W. Bush is “the most willfully radical president of the United States,” by documenting in real-time the episodes that have made up his presidency.
Equally impressive is how Blumenthal’s columns stand the test of time. Even the oldest pieces aren’t dated: Developments that other journalists, in their will to innocence towards the régime in power, were either ignoring or downplaying at the time, Blumenthal was reporting as outrages. Colin Powell knew much of what he was spewing to the United Nations back in January of 2003 was crap. Bob Woodward, apparently, has recently just learned this. Sidney Blumenthal wrote about it two-and-a-half years ago.
Speaking as a historian of political culture in the age of Richard Nixon, I can testify that one of the biggest challenges is answering this question: What did the public know and when did they know it? It won’t be hard for historians of the Bush régime – they can just pick up this book. They’ll find out, for example, that a year ago at least someone was reporting on the highly relevant fact that Susan Ralston, the aide who fell on her sword and resigned in October after FOIA revelations of close ties between Jack Abramoff and the White House, had worked as Abramoff’s assistant before she became Karl Rove’s.
Also worth noting is the erudition with which Blumenthal contextualizes and sustains several of his key themes. One of those themes, which I’m convinced more and more historians will be converging upon, is the “Oedipal” interpretation of the Bush presidency. Everyone knows Bush Jr.’s re-invasion of Iraq has much to do with manfully completing the job Bush Sr. was supposedly too girlish too stomach. But Blumenthal has the depth to go beyond the frequent banality of such comparisons. He notes, for example, “Just as the elder Bush picked someone [as vice president] who might have been one of his sons, young Bush chose a version of his father.” I’d never thought about that. Now, when I look at Dick Cheney, I can think of little else. Not only has our sad, neurotic president punished his father by disdaining his policies; he’s twisted in the knife by palling around with such an ostentatiously manly surrogate father.
Another key theme here is the role of Catholicism in American political coalitions. Making working-class Catholic immigrants into Democrats was one of FDR’s key political accomplishments in constructing his New Deal majority. Blumenthal has the erudition to understand how self-consciously Karl Rove stripped their Catholic progeny from the Democrats to cement a permanent Republican majority. His framing of the Catholic Hierarchy’s motivations in all this – “Politics in Red Robes” – is particularly fine. It is “part of a crusade against their own declining moral authority,” he writes, in the context of the pedophilia scandals and the rejection of church teaching on abortion and stem-cell research, and I am thoroughly convinced.
Blumenthal is also original and illuminating – again owing to his lively grasp of the psychological transit between the old and new Bush regimes – in his account of the bureaucratic battle between the neoconservatives and Colin Powell. Likewise his point that Reagan owes his place in history to his rejection of his foreign policy hardliners. Few journalists have the historical incisiveness to make these kinds of arguments.
Too bad for all the trade presses: it’s Princeton that’s first out of the gate with a comprehensive and convincing interpretation of the meaning of George W. Bush’s presidency. How Bush Rules is a book comprised of timely interventions that is destined to stand the test of time.
Rick Perlstein, an In These Times board member, is the author of Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976 – 1980 (2020), The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan (2014), Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008), a New York Times bestseller picked as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by over a dozen publications, and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Award for history.