The man who has them nailed

Here's the trouble with the way the media cover important new books. What matters most these days, especially in the broadcast world, is not, well, what really matters. They care mainly about getting some sexy tidbit.

Talking heads race to get an advance copy of the book; flip through it looking for a juicy part (or more likely, ask the publisher's PR staff), throw the author on camera and ask him about the pages where he or she (slept with, gave birth to, bribed) some personality (Flipper, Clinton, Lindsay, the Geico lizard.)

And on to sports and weather! Print reviewers usually read at least parts of the book, but they are under enormous time pressure to bang out a review, and often don't have enough time to reflect on any serious work.

That's been the case for eons. I always felt newspapers ought to occasionally write about nonfiction books several months after they are published, after gaining a little perspective.

Which brings me to the book everyone really ought to read in the waning days of this summer, a book that is more profoundly important than I realized when it was first published (and I myself did a quick review of it).

That book is The Assault on Reason, by Al Gore (Penguin Press, hardcover, $25.95), published at the start of this summer. Most reviews spent a lot of time analyzing whether it was meant as a platform for another presidential bid.

Today, it seems pretty certain that the man who won the popular vote seven years ago won't run for president; not this time and most likely not ever. Which makes what he has to say even more valuable. I experienced this book in sort of a unique way. My historian wife and I just spent a week driving across the prairies to visit the presidential libraries of Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, partly to compare their leadership style to the present president.

We did get some insights. Mostly, these great and near-great presidents preferred reason to pigheaded faith. None was dogmatic; all were capable of listening to advice. They could often realize when they were wrong and learn from their mistakes. They were, in short, nothing like George W. Bush.

On the way back, we bought the talking book version of The Assault on Reason and listened to it over nearly 1,000 miles. The former vice president had our full attention. What stunned me was how far he was willing to go in telling the truth about this administration.

Though he is a far better writer than most politicians, Gore is not the world's greatest prose stylist. He can be occasionally repetitious and a little too professorial. But he understands the system, all right. He grew up in it; he was part of it, he was born to a politician and went on to become one himself. He is no virgin and no political saint. Yet for all those reasons Gore understands what a radical nihilist George W. Bush is. He knows this administration has worked hard to destroy what America should be.

What is refreshing is his willingness to break the politicians' code of only going so far. Gore demonstrates over and over that we have a nightmare government, whose leader has contempt for the concept of the "public interest," and would have contempt for our Constitution, if he understood it.

"This administration has turned the fundamental presumption of our democracy on its head," he says, discussing its Stalinist wiretapping. "Its assaults on our core democratic principles have left us less free and less secure."

We are being doomed around the world by "Bush's attitude of contempt for any person, institution or nation that disagrees with him. He has exposed Americans abroad and Americans in every U.S. town and city to a greater danger of attack because of his arrogance and willfulness."

That's pretty damn candid for a politician, even a "recovering" one. The former vice president may at times annoy you, as when he refuses to admit that the occupant of the White House is stupid. ("He's plenty smart," Gore says, and then presents a vast amount of information that contradicts this.)

I did find myself wishing the former vice president would discuss his own and his administration's failings a bit more. To be sure, Gore doesn't let us off the hook. He shows how the media helped let things get where they are.

But he does think there is something we can do about it, and that the Internet might be the key to our liberation. So read this book, and think about it. Then watch one of the so-called presidential debates, and reflect that the man who wrote this book is not running, and those posturing clowns are.

Let me know when you figure out what to do about that.


The shame of the world: Can you name the one international issue where George W. Bush has been marginally better than the United Nations? The answer is what the media call Darfur. That's the crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in western Sudan, either from violence or disease. But the victims are poor, they are black and they don't control the oil.

So the world little notices or cares. To his credit, President Bush has been moved enough to call this a genocide and to threaten sanctions. The United Nations has been reluctant to do so, even though the UN estimates that as many as 450,000 have died in this African hell on earth since 2003.

They are dying today. The situation is a complex mess, but religious and ethnic hatreds are major factors. The UN's reluctance to call it a genocide is possibly due to the various hornet's nests of political, economic and other implications that would result. Some politicians may be reluctant to get involved in what is the planet's worst example of black-on-black crime.

But everyone knows people, including children, are perishing in what is clearly an atrocity sanctioned by Sudan's government. State Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, a Democrat from the Ypsilanti area, is at least trying to do something.

Her bill requires the state retirement system to sell, cash in, or otherwise get rid of any publicly traded stocks of any company that has financial arrangements with the Sudan.

Her legislation passed the House, but faces a much less certain future in the GOP-controlled Senate. Regardless of your politics, this is a bill that we badly need, if only to preserve some shreds of morality among ourselves.

What the greedheads who oppose this bill are likely to argue is that divestment might hurt our retirees more than it hurts the mass murderers. Aiding genocide would be wrong even if we did pay a price for it, but there is also no chance it will damage anyone's pension beyond pocket change.

That's because this bill has a provision under which divestment would stop if the value of state pensions falls below 99.5 percent of what it was before. Plus, it is now widely admitted that similar divestment policies in the 1980s eventually played a major role in ending apartheid in South Africa.

Ask yourself if you would want your government to have invested in the Nazi firms that made ovens for the Holocaust? Then let your state senator — and a few others while you are at it — know you expect him or her to support this bill.

And do it today.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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