Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.
Molly Ivins and Lou Dubose have written the best damn book of the 2000 election season. As such, Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush is a dangerous text. This tale of the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee's political foibles is so thoroughly reported, so well written, and so consistently convincing that a casual reading could turn even the most radical critic of the Vice President into a rabid Al Gore partisan.
Outright fear of a Bush Presidency is the rational reaction to Shrub. One need not be particularly progressive to feel intestinal discomfort upon digesting the details of the "compassionate" conservative's record.
On the poor: "Bush proposed to `git tuff' on welfare recipients by ending the allowance for each additional child--which in Texas is $38 a month."
On the environment: "According to the trinational North American Commission on Environmental Cooperation, set up by NAFTA, Texas pollutes more than any other state or Canadian province."
On his religious intolerance: "Ever since his 1994 race against Ann Richards, the story has followed Bush that he believes only Christians are granted God's grace."
On his a-little-to-the-right-of-Reagan approach to economics: "We can find no evidence that it has ever occurred to him to question whether it is wise to do what big business wants."
Ivins, a favorite writer for The Progressive for the last fourteen years, is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Dubose is the veteran editor of the scrappy Texas Observer. Only a pair of credentialed Texas populists--the toughest breed of progressive this side of Idaho gay rights activists--could understand the necessity of a full-fledged Bush burning. And Shrub leaves no branch unscorched.
What is striking, however, is that the damage is inflicted without resort to the Ken Starr Rules of Political Engagement. Sure, George W. is the Republican Bill Clinton--a too-slick-by-half politician prone to weasel-word responses to persistent questions about his alleged cocaine abuse, draft dodging, and womanizing --but Shrub does not go there. "No sex, no drugs, no Siggie Freud," is how the authors put it, before wondering whether a review of the Lone Star State's battles over tort reform and property tax-abatement is "a by-God recipe for bestsellerdom."
The answer is yes--and not just because Shrub is infused with the slice-and-dice humor that has made Ivins America's most widely read progressive commentator. What makes Shrub so darned readable is the delicious realization that the authors are doing Bush in with no greater weapon than the man's own resume.
The Bush that emerges is, indeed, a shrub--and a scraggly one at that. For instance, the account of Bush's experience as a "Texas oilman" would be hilarious if it were not for the fact that this man is rated an even bet to take charge of the free world. If Bush brings his business expertise to the task of governing the United States, the nation is surely in trouble.
Ivins and Dubose laugh off any suggestion that Bush was a competent businessman. The only lingering mystery is whether he was a crook. "The governor's oil-field career can be summed up in a single paragraph," they write. "George W. arrived in Midland in 1977, set up a shell company, lost a Congressional election in 1978, restarted building the company he'd put on hold, lost more than $2 million of other people's money, and left Midland with $840,000 in his pocket. Not bad for a guy who showed up with an Olds and $18K. Not good for investors who lost $2 million--unless they were speculating with the son of the Vice President of the United States."
Shrub, which is marred only by the lack of an index, does give Bush credit for attempting to improve the miserable excuse for an education system that has made Texas synonymous with big high school football stadiums and small SAT scores. They recognize, as well, that despite the difficulty Bush had in prevailing over John McCain, he is an able pol who cannot be written off as the dimwitted son of privilege as his Democratic critics are prone to do.
Bush's strengths, however, pale in comparison to his weaknesses, most particularly his eagerness to execute people. Ivins and Dubose title their chapter on criminal justice "We're Number One," and Bush has, in fact, made Texas the nation's leader in state-sponsored life-taking. In this area, Bush's refusal to take government work seriously becomes deeply troubling. When a legislator suggested that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles might want to hold public hearings when prisoners under death sentence requested commutation of their sentences to life imprisonment, Bush rejected the proposal. "He said public hearings would cause people to `rant and rave' and get all emotional," recall Ivins and Dubose.
Of course, that little Bushism is only a prelude to the governor's mockery of condemned Christian Karla Faye Tucker's plea for mercy: "`Please,' Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, `don't kill me,'" as Tucker Carlson reported.
The case that Shrub makes against Bush is so overwhelming that the reader is left longing for a similarly unencumbered assessment of Al Gore.
Inventing Al Gore, by veteran Newsweek political writer Bill Turque, is not that book. A traditional treatment of America's agonizingly ambitious Vice President, Turque's book hits Gore hard in the predictable soft spots: One of the chapters is entitled "Moneychangers in the Temple." The book contains some original reporting on the veep's uninspired educational career: The grades were shaky, and, in the words of the former headmaster of the St. Albans National Cathedral School, "his classmates found him a bit stuffy." Turque also muscles up the well-accepted theory that Junior's entire political career is pretty much an attempt to avenge the defeat of Al Gore Sr. in a bitter 1970 Tennessee U.S. Senate race.
The problem with Turque's text is that it lets Gore off too many hooks. When all is said and done, Inventing Al Gore is a well-reported and well-written biography of Al Senior's boy. What's missing is what Ivins and Dubose deliver in Shrub, an unsparing accounting of what the Senator's son has done with the prominence, the power, and the potential he inherited.
The other thing that is missing from Inventing Al Gore--and most other recent political tomes--is a realistic explanation of how a democracy founded on the rejection of royal families has produced a contest between a pair of princes. Ivins and Dubose, to their credit, do examine the question, weaving a fine class analysis into the section of Shrub that reveals the strings that were pulled to keep George W. far from Vietnam.
But the best answer comes in Jim Hightower's If the Gods Had Meant Us to Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates. Like Ivins and Dubose, Hightower is another bare-knuckled Texas populist. He served two terms as Texas Commissioner of Agriculture before moving on to hosting a nationally syndicated radio talk show. He knocks both Bush and Gore as "sons of privilege whose idea of `hardscrabble' is to run out of vowels." Taking a dim view of the bizarre experiment in "social promotion" that has placed Bush and Gore at the top of the political heap, Hightower lets them have it.
"An upscale upbringing is not enough to explain Al and George's fealty to the rich and powerful," he says. "After all, this is America, where the handicap of privilege need not bar anyone from becoming a useful citizen. It can be overcome, even by those entering the political realm, if only they have the gumption and the intestinal fortitude to do it (Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt being a couple of handy role models here). Serving special interests is a choice, and these two Presidential aspirants willingly and eagerly made that choice right from the start of their careers. Rather than using their birth advantages to buck the system on behalf of those who get trampled by it, they joined in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who are similarly advantaged, realizing that they could move up by buddying up with business executives, investment bankers, Washington lobbyists, and other money players who could be valuable to them personally and politically."
The great strength of Hightower's book is his recognition that Bush and Gore are lost causes. For this reason, he spends a lot more ink writing about the corporate elites who pull the strings of both major-party Presidential campaigns, as well as profiling Americans who are working at the grassroots level to cut some of those strings. Granny D, the ninety-year-old woman who walked across America to protest campaign finance abuses, figures in Hightower's pantheon of modern-day patriots, as do college students like Eric Brakken and Suzanne Clark, who have battled against sweatshops. He also praises anti-corporate activists Richard Grossman and Ward Morehouse, Santa Fe Greens, Missoula New Partyers, and just about everyone else who agrees with the line, "Some say we need a third party, I wish we had a second one."
Hightower advises us to stop "quibbling over which of the namby-pamby corporate suck-ups running for President will do the most for `the cause.'" As an alternative, he says, "Let's gut it up, decamp from Washington, put our resources into the countryside, slug the corporate bastards right in the snout, and get it on with a grassroots politics that gives regular folks a reason to be excited and to get involved. Why not start the new century and millennium with a political crusade that is worthy of all of our energies and capabilities, a fight that is big enough, important enough, and bold enough to rally the workaday majority? It's the fight to take our government back, take our economy back, take our environment back by taking our sovereignty back--taking back our constitutional right as a people to be in charge of our own destinies."
All of this begs the question: If Jim Hightower knows so much more than George W. Bush or Al Gore about what's really going on in America, then how come he isn't running for President? As it happens, Hightower is advising Ralph Nader's Green Party run this year.
John Nichols, the editorial page editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, writes frequently about electoral politics for The Progressive.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2000|
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