A week or so before the 2004 election, I let loose on Larry Beinhart’s novel, The Librarian, a thriller that follows a mild-mannered bookshelver thrown into deadly intrigue when he discovers Homeland Security agents have instigated race riots and faked terrorist attacks on the Statue of Liberty and a nuclear power plant to keep incumbent Republican President Gus Scott (who bears a striking resemblance to — surprise! — George W. Bush) in office after he loses to the Democrats’ uber-virtuous candidate.
I suppose my review was what one might call “uncharitable.” Specifically, I recommended the book to readers “who found the twists and turns of None Dare Call It Conspiracy too tame for their tastes.” Yet, despite my churlishness, Larry Beinhart sent me a gracious note (“Under the theory of any mention is a good mention and notice is better than being ignored, I thank you for it”) relaying a couple legitimate gripes with my review (I’m definitely more careful with my use of the word “canard” now, for example), as well as some other issues we agreed to disagree on.
Thus, I was pleased to accept Beinhart’s recent offer to send along a copy of his first nonfiction book Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin, and intrigued when he promised, “all that you hated in The Librarian, you will find in here without the buffer of comic chase scenes and a hot babe.” In truth, as a fast, witty polemic on behalf of a liberal worldview, Beinhart strikes gold.
Alas, as with so many deconstructions of the excesses of state power, Beinhart’s insistence in Fog Facts on arguing not for the diminishment of state power but simply the transfer of that power into another set of hands more to the author’s liking renders much of the point moot in a haze of partisanship. Although I agree with the essential premise of Fog Facts — that truth has become so obscured in the swirling mass of media, spin and government secrecy that, as Beinhart writes, “nobody seems able to focus on it anymore than they can focus on a single droplet in the mist” — in its execution the book lacked the balance to live up to its subtitle. As Pete Townsend might say, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
Early on, Beinhart spills a lot of ink transcribing the definition of “big lie” political theory Adolf Hitler laid out in Mein Kampf. Basically, the bigger the lie, the less questioned it is. Such lies, Beinhart believes, explain how Bush was able to steal the 2000 election, invade Iraq, win the 2004 election on national security grounds running against a combat veteran, all the while continuing to have some success with a morally bankrupt series of economic and social policies.
There are some problems with this thesis, of course: First of all, I won’t start pointing out the clouds in the sky I think are shaped like black helicopters with UN logos on them, but Beinhart’s estimation that every moment of the Bush presidency has been portentously nefarious, while the idyllic yin to this darkened yang is always just somewhere over yonder in the Clinton years — sans a few minor incidents of allowing a certain intern to be overly reverent in the Oval Office — simply rings false. While Beinhart offers salient, sometimes persuasive points on the post-9/11 encroachment on civil liberties and the diplomacy (or lack thereof, in his opinion) during run-up to the war in Iraq, there’s no pesky talk of the lack of any UN resolution for the massive bombing campaign against Serbia, no worries about an administration that gave the green light to sending tanks with incendiary devices to burn down a building filled with children in Waco or the hasty 1998 bombing campaign on Iraq.
Beyond that: Are we really a nation made up of 51 percent zombies and 49 percent enlightened critical thinkers? Do philosophical differences account for none of this? Your political persuasion really just who is duped and who sees through the veil?
FOG FACTS DEFINITELY HAS its moments, though. It’s hard not to find the discovery that Beinhart had the good taste and sense to use Byron York’s brilliant, much-overlooked 1999 American Spectator article, “George’s Road to Riches,” in his section on Bush’s business dealings perfectly delicious. In that same section — albeit probably to prove Bush more evil genius than puppet — Beinhart also takes to task liberals who “tend to revere a ‘literate’ style so much that they confuse that style with intelligence itself.”
“Indeed, just as the right-wing critics of the academic and media elites claim, those elites do have contempt for unliterate styles of smarts,” Beinhart writes. “The literature professor looks down on the car dealer, however rich. The artist looks down on the businessperson, even as he asks for a grant. The woman with the Ph.D. looks down on the football coach. And all of them are baffled when Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush get to be president. And then get reelected. I maintain that nobody gets to be president without being very, very smart.”
Unfortunately, Beinhart has a habit of making a good point — and then frittering it away with gross generalizations. For example, his criticism of Bush as a “cut-and-spend Republican” whose profligacy will eventually lead to unavoidable tax increases is one that will certainly resonate with many advocates of limited government. Yet when he then turns around and explains that economic conservatives “believe that government should be destroyed and bad economic policies are the way to do this,” or gives space to the argument of Justin Frank, M.D., author of Bush on the Couch, that the president’s, “deepest wish is to destroy, that Bush is a sadist who takes particular delight in hurting those who need help and compassion, and that this budget process is ultimately designed to do that,” his credibility with those not already in his camp is reduced to zero.
“THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT had been around for a long time,” Beinhart writes. “But right up through 9/11, they still appeared to be a radical fringe group.” Really? And what of the eight years Reagan spent in office? What of his reelection after instituting massive tax cuts during his first term? What of the 1994 Republican takeover of the House? And the steady gains since? Is this denial or more fog?
Beinhart is obviously a very smart, talented writer, and, from my limited personal experiences, a great guy to boot. But Fog Facts does not actually seek to clear the heavy mist away. Rather, it just blows it around until it suits a certain worldview. Who can blame him? That’s what most of us do. Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin? Well, yes, but it’s a very specific truth, which, we all know, is shorthand for “not really quite the whole truth.”