THE STRANGE DEATH OF REPUBLICAN AMERICA
Chronicles of a Collapsing Party
By Sidney Blumenthal, Union Square Press. 340pp.
Reviewed: 28 May 2008
Sidney Blumenthal, a committed Democrat and senior adviser to both Bill and Hillary Clinton, makes no pretence of impartiality in this chronicle of the U.S. Republican Party under the Bush Administration. The back-cover blurb quotes a New Yorker reviewer praising this book as “an unparalleled running history of the ideological and moral squalor of the George W. Bush Administration”, so don’t expect much generosity toward Bush and his Republican Party supporters.
The book is an anthology of Blumenthal’s polemical columns from May 2006 to November 2007, as published weekly in The Guardian and online at Salon.com. The first has the satirist Stephen Colbert scandalizing the staid White House Correspondents’ Association annual black-tie dinner with a devastating attack not only on the guest of honour (President Bush) but also on the White House Press Corps (the “embedded audience”) for alleged complicity in the Administration’s deceitful information management.
The last column ponders how the Republican Party will choose a candidate for the 2008 Presidential Election, in the context of the Bush regime having identified Republicanism with “an unaccountable imperial presidency”.
Between lie seventy short, topical and punchy essays on the trials and tribulations of the Bush Administration. Blumenthal is a ferociously energetic columnist and the pieces are uniformly informative and entertaining, though the polemical tone can become somewhat relentless if read at a stretch.
George W Bush is always in the cross-hairs, but Blumenthal does distinguish between those surrounding the Republican Administration who are simply misguided (such as Colin Powell, James Baker, Condoleeza Rice and George Bush senior) and those he considers to be irredeemably malevolent, dangerous to US democracy, and thus dangerous to the world.
The principle demons to emerge are Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, with a large cast of supporting trolls headed by Karl Rove, Paul Wolfowitz, George Tenet, and others whose names have passed through the headlines and, in most cases, to eventual ignominy.
Blumenthal is particularly venomous toward his supposed colleagues of the press, whom he generally dismisses as having failed in their duty to keep the Administration accountable. A whole column and references in other columns are devoted to attacking Bob Woodward, the hero of Watergate, alleging he allowed himself to be seduced by the Bush clique for a time (even though Woodward’s more recent work has been high critical of Bush).
It emerges that Woodward’s crime was not in praising Bush, but in lending his prestige to a Republican-inspired “investigation” of Democrat Al Gore in 1997, which Blumenthal asserts damaged Gore’s Presidential campaign against Bush in 2000. Ten years later, Blumenthal has not forgiven. But how many individuals can you blame for an election outcome?
Filtered of the party political rage that nags at Blumenthal, the themes running through this book are consistent and important. Blumenthal is passionate about the ideals of an American Democracy that he believes is being corrupted by power-hungry cynics. The exemplars are Cheney and Rumsfeld, both veterans of the Nixon Administration, where Blumenthal locates the roots of a Republican Party ethos that despises accountability and the rule of law.
The Bush Republicans, asserts Blumenthal, have worked to overthrow America’s democratic institutions and substitute a monarchical Presidency. Nixon had said, in an interview after Watergate and his resignation, that nothing he did as President was a crime because “when the President does it, it’s not a crime”.
Blumenthal quotes numerous Bushites saying similar or even more extreme things about the monarchical rights and powers of the Presidency. He nominates this ambition not as a consequence of the USA going onto a “war” footing since 9/11, but as a key motivation for Cheney, Rumsfeld and cohorts to push the impressionable Bush into constructing himself as “War President” and “Commander in Chief” above the law.
Some of the murkiest incidents tracked here concern the corruption of America’s intelligence system and the sidelining of any experienced or well-informed advisor who stood between the NeoCon clique and their pre-determined objectives. “We make our own reality, and that becomes the truth”, Rumsfeld is quoted.
Internal politics of the Republican Party play a smaller role than the book’s title might suggest, but it is enough to understand how those surrounding George Bush worked assiduously to neutralise less radical elements of the Republican establishment (including the President’s father George H W Bush), to manipulate moral and social conservative voting blocs, and to seek to distance themselves from the parade of Bush supporters who, one by one, became scandalous headline liabilities.
As columns, each of these pieces was written to be read in a specific moment of history, and in context of the daily media buzz rather than in context of the author’s earlier or later columns. They have been collated in their original forms, with dates, and no editing in hindsight. Earlier pieces may speculate about future events that in later columns become past events. Reading them in sequence becomes almost a cinematic experience, the author’s monologue reflecting times and places that change as the narrative reveals what will later be back story.
Editors have offered a rather arbitrary structure to this free-form chronicle with “Parts” colorfully labeled “Implosion”, “Repudiation”, and “Delusion”. But the real value added to the sum of these parts is a thorough index and a solid 13-page introduction that outlines Blumethal’s thesis that the Republican Party has tried, but will fail, to build a “reigning party” incompatible with everything America is supposed to stand for.
Australian readers will appreciate that Blumenthal gives plenty of attention to the effect of all this on the United States’ role in global politics. Many may share his view that recent policies have been catastrophic for America and all but America’s most implacable enemies.
The chronicles end in November 2007 – too early to shed much light on the current topical issue of American politics: the coming Presidential election. His final column speculates on the candidacy of Rudi Giuliani, who has by now faded from the scene, and Blumenthal has had little to say about John McCain, the actual Republican candidate.
Blumenthal is open enough to pay some attention to the problems faced by the Democratic Party in choosing a Presidential candidate in a political climate polarized, in some respects poisoned, by the rhetoric and manipulation of the Republican Party he despises.
At the close of this chronicle only six months ago, Barack Obama had not even been mentioned as a possible Democratic candidate. With so much to play out before November 2008, we still don’t know whether Blumenthal’s call on the Death of Republican America will prove accurate or wishful thinking.
In any case, this is a very good read and a long-term resource for those with an interest in where the United States may be heading, and how things are done in Washington.
Richard Thwaites has been a journalist and has served politicians of many colours.