Readers of this magazine have noticed for months that something has been missing. They are connoisseurs of the printed word and recognize that this magazine stands almost alone in defending good prose, careful argument, and claptrap. The latter we celebrate from our distinctive position as anthropologists of the absurd.
For months our readers have missed a feature that they prize. They have looked for it with increased frustration. Many have gone back to the March, April, May, and June issues of The American Spectator and pored over every page for a hint, but all was for naught. They have not been able to find a trace of the J. Gordon Coogler Award for the Worst Book of the Year, and they know that there were many promising candidates in 2010 for this hallowed recognition. The New York Review of Books was full of them. In fact, ever since the J. Gordon Coogler Award Committee began sponsoring the award back in 1975, it almost seems that the Review has been serving as a referral service to assist our learned judges in their laborious work. Though this was by indirection: the Review’s editors exalt those books they find admirable and even heroic; the Coogler Committee has its short list of trash.
Well, dear readers, you were right in your premonitions that something had gone wrong, terribly wrong. Here is the problem. In February 1980 we awarded “The Worst Book of the Year Award” to the British writer William Shawcross for his Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. The late and gifted Peter Rodman reviewed the book in The American Spectator and took issue with its narrative and methodology, for instance the maps were off according to his calculations; and yes, the New York Review of Books had done cartwheels over Sideshow. We had our worst book of the year. Our problem arose because in the years since then Shawcross has become increasingly sound, an admirer of George W. Bush (though with qualifications), a friend of America, a proponent of America’s special relationship with the UK, and even a defender of Israel. Some members of the Coogler board began to grumble that we should strip Shawcross of his 1980 award, cruel as that might sound.
Actually, even when we gave him the award he did not act like the ordinary knavish Liberal. We sent him Rodman’s review, and he responded to it, politely but for the most part negatively; and Rodman answered, not so politely but intelligently. The exchange took place in our July 1981 issue. But that was not all. Shawcross published the whole exchange in the paperback edition of his book. He relished the debate! He encouraged his readers to witness the exchange. I should have known then that this fellow Shawcross was not your normal run-of-the-mill intellectual antagonist. He believed in the give and take of ideas even then. It is very rare. Most intellectuals run and hide, except perhaps for misanthropes like Paul Krugman who really should run and hide.
Moreover, Shawcross has not flinched from standing up for those that defend Western values. On Israel he recently wrote that the country “is an imperfect society (like any other), but it has extraordinary social, scientific, and scholastic achievements. Despite living under endless threats, it is far closer to the liberal ideal of a free society than any other in the Middle East. But it gets scant credit.” In his book on the Iraq war, Allies: The U.S., Britain, Europe, and the War in Iraq, he concluded, “Hatred of America is a powerful and a very destructive force in the world today. Some of that hatred is caused by America’s mistakes, though that is not true of the rage of the Islamic nihilists, a minority that nothing can assuage. I believe that the bottom line is this: For all its faults, American commitment and American sacrifice are essential to the world. As in the twentieth century, so in the twenty-first, only America has the power and the optimism to defend the international community against what really are the forces of darkness.”
More recently he leapt to the defense of the sainted Rupert Murdoch in the Spectator of London and in the correspondence section of the New York Times, where he challenged the Times‘ reporter for suggesting “that Mr. Murdoch was losing his grip at 80” because of his halting diction. Shawcross wrote that Murdoch spoke that way 20 years ago when Shawcross was writing his biography. Since then Murdoch has created a diverse media empire, and it is the Times that has aged and grown monotonous.
So I flew to London late in June to demand the Coogler laureate give us our Coogler back. He seemed agreeable on the telephone but cagey. He promised a meeting on neutral ground. We would meet over lunch at the London Spectator‘s offices, which proved to be astonishingly plush and just a short distance from Number 10 Downing Street. Fraser Nelson, the magazine’s talented and energetic editor, presided along with several Spectator staff members, one allegedly betrothed to the playboy Taki. There were no security personnel present, at least none that I could see. I told Fraser that in the States only a pornographic magazine could afford such amenities. We were offered Pol Roger and before lunch took a walk in the magazine’s garden.
As for Shawcross, he is rather large. This posed an immediate consideration. What if he did not see the amusing aspect of my project? What if he did not agree to let bygones be bygones, acknowledge that a lot of water had flown under the bridge — that sort of thing? In the entire history of the award we have never rescinded it from any Coogler laureate, and in the case of Jimmy Carter we have given it to that anile little scamp three times. Jimmy has not even thanked us once.
Of course, William Shawcross proved to be the embodiment of a gentleman. He actually arrived bearing a gift for me, an obscure book: Barack Obama: The Greatest Story Ever Told by none other than J. Gordon Coogler himself, who I thought died in 1901 in Dung Heap, South Carolina. Well, you learn something new every day. And so I took Shawcross’s gift back to the United States. The U.S. customs agents made no objections when I brought it into the country. My guess is that will not be possible a few more months into the Obama Renaissance. As for Shawcross, he has uttered such good sense for years across a whole range of vital issues that I cannot fathom why we did not strip him of his award years ago. Not only that, but he writes commendable prose. So after lunch I headed off to Paul Johnson’s house to inform this illustrious member of the Committee that I had accomplished my task. We had a good laugh, and Shawcross promises to write for us in the months to come…but he is keeping his statuette. Probably he has an honored spot for it in his London home, perhaps on a mantle piece, possibly with other literary and humanitarian awards that he has won along the way. I can understand his pride. Still, let us remember 2011 as the year the J. Gordon Coogler Award Committee flip-flopped.