restricted access Joe Conason: Big Lies
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It is now a truism that there is no liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh broadcasting progressive commentary across the radio airwaves; at least, no liberal with Limbaugh’s vast, national audience. Likewise, in the world of books, there is no liberal Limbaugh, or, for that matter, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, or the half-dozen other right-wing polemical authors of the last decade whose anti-Clinton, anti-liberal rants have hit bestseller lists. Indeed, one of the rare “liberal”writerstoreachthosesalesfiguresisDavidBlock,whose2003 book Blinded by the Right is an apology for once having been a rightwing , best-selling author. These conservative writers are not the muckrakers of the early 1900s, so many Ida Tarbells going after the oil trusts. No, they are mudslingers, chiefly partisan ideologues who do a type of reverse PR: instead of puffing up individuals (the Clintons), or groups (liberals), they try to incinerate their targets. Such books are talk radio and cable TV yell-fests brought to the page. Withouttheamplificationofapopulisttelevisionorradionetwork to champion them, few left-leaning authors have captured similarly large readerships. Two lefty authors who have produced best sellers, Michael Moore and Al Franken, were already celebrities, though in other fields. Joe Conason: Big Lies 146 147 But Joe Conason is straight out of the liberal muckraker tradition, a journalist (not a radio personality, a filmmaker, an actor, etc.) who sets out to expose corruption in big business and government. And, unlike Moore and Franken, Conason doesn’t heap on humor and exaggeration to make his points. He deplores the “spiteful, malignant discourse that became so common during the Clinton era. . . .” Nonetheless, Big Lies is being marketed as a corrective to all the successful right-wing attack books of the last few years. It is that, but it also is a rigorous and devastating portrait of the last three Republican administrations, and the “crony capitalism” they have supported and encouraged. ConasonwritesfortheNewYorkObserverandSalon.comandisthe co-author of The Hunting of the President (with Gene Lyons, 2001), an account of the hounding of the Clintons by a cadre of radical Republicans who considered Bill Clinton an illegitimate president. In Big Lies, Conason takes on the reigning conventional wisdom preached by the right-wing media publicists. Conason’s counter-claims are not the sort that can be shouted out as sound bites on a TV talk show. They need the quiet patience of print, andhisbookcomesarmoredwitheighteenpagesofnotesandsources. Even those familiar with the history Conason recounts will be freshly appalled seeing it all put down in one place. For liberals who do want to shout on TV, Big Lies will be an indispensable reference. Conason begins by comparing “Limousine Liberals and Corporate Jet Conservatives.” Conason writes, “Bush is a modern master of pseudopopuliststyle.WhatthatstyleblursistheprofoundRepublican cynicism toward the same people he embraces and cajoles.” Though Conason thoroughly rakes over Enron and the Bushes dealings with Ken Lay, he also describes earlier, relevant examples. Conason quotes David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, describing Rea- 148 gan’s broad tax cuts as a “Trojan Horse” to reduce the top income tax rate paid by the wealthiest families. “Working families saw their tax burden continue to rise, while the rich enjoyed tax breaks on capital gains, personal investments, estates, depreciation, and profits. Under Reagan’s plan, a family earning $30,000 a year would suffer a slight increase in taxes, while a family with an annual income of $200,000 would enjoy a cut of ten percent. There were even some special tax breaks for the owners of oil leases.” Sound familiar? The chapter on the Republicans’ “family values” reads as if it was torn from the pages of the fifties-era exposé of sin and sinners in the nation’s capital, Washington Confidential. Conason replays the Clinton -era scandals, and the sorry record of Clinton’s chief antagonists in the Congress, but he also fills in various sideshows, like the GOP homosexual-baiting campaign against the Democratic Speaker of the House (1989–95), Tom Foley, launched by Newt Gingrich’s lieutenants . Conason reports, “When openly gay Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts warned that he would begin outing gay Republicans if the attacks on Foley continued, they ended overnight.” By chapter’s end, the amount of Republican hypocrisy exposed would chokeanelephant(andConason’sbookstopsbeforeWilliamBennett’s immoderate gambling habit was in the news.) Likewise,Conason’schapteronracemattersisanignominiousparade of Republican racial demagoguery and continuing opposition to, among other things, the Voting Rights Act: “To anyone familiar with this shabby history, the inescapable question is not why more minorities...


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