Summary: An eviscerating critique of how the Republican party has won elections by obscuring actual issues with phony controversies, aided and abetted by a shallow and insipid media. At times Greenwald’s denunciations are repetitive, but he provides more than enough infuriating examples to amply justify his evident anger.
Glenn Greenwald‘s third book, Great American Hypocrites, is an expose of the invented controversies and character-based myths that Republicans use to win elections. Even though public opinion polls show that Americans consistently favor the Democratic party’s position on all or nearly all issues, the Republicans have been winning elections for the past twenty years through ad hominem attacks and the creation of a political mythology – portraying themselves as strong, rugged, manly, salt-of-the-earth regular joes, while their Democratic opponents are demonized as weirdos, elitists and effete freaks. In this endeavor, they have been assisted by the media, which has largely abandoned its duty to inform the public in favor of obsessing over phony, invented non-stories and irrelevant trivialities. (Does Michael Dukakis look silly in a helmet? Did Al Gore claim to have invented the Internet? Does John Kerry like windsurfing? Is Barack Obama a secret Muslim who refuses to wear a flag pin?) As Greenwald shows, not only do these character myths obscure the real issues that matter to Americans’ lives, in most cases they are the polar opposite of the truth.
Greenwald’s paradigmatic example of a Great American Hypocrite is John Wayne. Famed as the all-American actor, the swaggering cowboy whose steel and grit is often invoked by Republican politicians, Wayne’s personal life tells a different story. When his fellow Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable and Henry Fonda volunteered to fight in World War II, Wayne squirmed out of the draft and stayed home (and largely built his career on the movies he made in the absence of competition). To make up for that cowardice, he spent the rest of his life advocating jingoistic right-wing politics – supporting McCarthyite policies, championing the Vietnam War, and loudly attacking anyone who opposed these things as cowards and subversives. He also adopted the stance of a right-wing moralizer, denouncing films that he thought undermined traditional values. Meanwhile, Wayne himself had three marriages, all of which were plagued by adultery and allegations of spousal violence; in both of his two subsequent marriages, he married his mistress almost immediately after divorcing his then-wife.
The second chapter of the book targets the press, which Greenwald labels “vapid [and] easily manipulated”. He outlines the tactics by which right wing character assassination is amplified by the media: sleazy right-wing tabloids, most notably the Drudge Report, publish rumor and innuendo which is then loyally picked up and regurgitated by more mainstream press outlets. Most media outlets, of course, proclaim themselves as above this sort of thing, but they claim they have to report on it, because that’s what “the public” (by which they mean themselves) wants to know about. The press has become obsessed with these petty manufactured scandals to the extent of almost completely pushing out coverage of actual issues – to the extent that, in 2006, more people knew about John Edwards’ haircut than knew Saddam Hussein was not responsible for 9/11.
The next three chapters concern the media narratives pushed by the Great American Hypocrites. First and foremost is the way Republicans depict themselves as tough, resolute warriors, while casting aspersions on the courage and patriotism of their opponents. If you’re like me, you’ll find this chapter the most infuriating of the book – because, as Greenwald chronicles again and again, conservatives who pulled out all the stops to avoid military service when they had the chance spent much of their subsequent political careers dragging their Democratic opponents – who often did serve honorably – through the mud.
As but one example, conservatives cheered when the U.S. military named an aircraft carrier after Ronald Reagan, but mocked and taunted when a submarine was named after Jimmy Carter. This, despite the fact that Reagan was a Hollywood actor who never served in the military in his life, while Carter is an actual veteran who served with distinction on a real nuclear submarine. Similar examples are easy to come by: the vicious demonization of Senator George McGovern, an Air Force veteran who flew 35 combat missions and won the Distinguished Flying Cross, as weak and lacking in courage. Another is the smears against John Kerry, who volunteered for some of the most dangerous duty in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, a truly incredible array of right-wing idols and conservative pundits – such as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh, Joe Lieberman, Bill Kristol, Norman Podhoretz and many more – all avoided military service when they had the opportunity. Today, these right-wing warriors sit comfortably at home in cushy jobs and proclaim their own courage because they are willing to send other people into combat. They view war as an exciting spectacle, like a video game, one that gives them opportunity to brag about their masculinity. As Greenwald notes, it’s the ability to playact as a tough guy, rather than actual evidence of toughness, that the Republicans and the media are obsessed with.
Next up is the Republicans’ depiction of themselves as wholesome, moral Christian family men. This is an especially laughable claim in light of the adulterous relationships, broken marriages, drug-abuse and prostitution allegations, and other scandals that typify the leaders of the conservative movement: Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Rudy Giuliani, Dan Burton, Henry Hyde, Mark Foley, David Vitter, Ted Haggard, and others. As one example, Greenwald quotes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich blasting current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s “San Francisco left-wing values”. By way of illustration, Pelosi has been married to her husband Paul since 1962, and have raised five children. Gingrich, meanwhile, famously dumped his first wife while she was in the hospital for cancer treatment, refused to pay child support after the divorce, then later divorced his second wife Marianne after having an affair with one of his congressional aides.
Finally, Greenwald deals with the supposed conservative position of favoring limited government. Many conservatives said this during Bill Clinton’s presidency, but when their own side got into office, that principled stance vanished in a flash. It was replaced with enthusiastic support for all the radical claims of unlimited executive power advanced by the Bush administration – secret wiretapping without warrants, torture of detainees, arbitrary and indefinite detention at the executive’s discretion, the claimed power to violate laws passed by Congress, and more. John Ashcroft, for example, during the Clinton years strongly opposed government eavesdropping powers far less expansive than the ones he would actually go on to implement as Bush’s Attorney General.
The book closes with a discussion of John McCain. Other than his atypically honorable military service, Greenwald argues that McCain is the very image of the Republican party: his support for unchecked presidential power, his open advocacy of preemptive war as a tool of American imperialism, his support from a fawning and uncritical media, and last but not least, his personal life – in which he divorced his first wife, who raised their children while he was captive in Vietnam, to marry a young, wealthy heiress whose fortune he used to launch his political career.
I have only two complaints about this book. First is that, while Greenwald’s targets are fully deserving of the scathing condemnation he heaps on them, the language does get repetitive at times. There are places where I think it could have been edited down without in any way detracting from the point. If anything, the behavior of these Republican hypocrites is so self-evidently outrageous as to require little in the way of additional condemnation to drive the point home.
Secondly, and more seriously: This book has no footnotes! Although there are copious quotes from blogs, newspapers and TV shows, there’s nothing to indicate where any of this source material was drawn from. I don’t understand the reason for this omission. I have no reason to believe any of his quotes are inaccurate, but it would be better to verify that for myself. Their omission weakens an otherwise superb book, but does not undercut the righteous anger of Greenwald’s argument.