Articles and Reviews

Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times   

Following a winner

August 20, 2006


Some book reviews will lead grateful readers to an author they may have passed by; others, like this one, will not necessarily affect a book's success. A few books come with audiences already in hand -- and if you are willing to read Lou Holtz's autobiography, you are already lining up for a copy.

When Father Edmund P. Joyce hired Holtz at Notre Dame in 1986, Joyce told him the rules, concluding, "And finally, the head football coach will never make more than the president of the university." Holtz adds, "I gulped at the last one."

Well, times have changed. The coach and the president are on different pay scales. But changing times is what Holtz's book records -- not only at Notre Dame, but in college sports generally, from shortly after World War II till the present day.

It's a sad fact that universities have been drafted in the American economy to entertain as well as educate. Sports are Big Business and notice of higher education is more often found in the sports pages than on front pages.




By Lou Holtz

William Morrow, 336 pages, $25.95.

Lou Holtz's coaching style was a combination of blind obedience, patriotism (aka school spirit) and honed aggression. This affinity to all things military was adopted by a lot of kids who grew up too young to be in World War II, but nonetheless were shaped by it. Holtz, born in 1937, revered his relatives who were part of the greatest generation: "Not long after Pearl Harbor, the men in my family volunteered for service. Within a year, they had all marched silently away to war."

Holtz's autobiography tells a rags to riches story -- though he's much clearer on the rags than he is the riches. We never get any figures on his income as he prospered at Notre Dame (successful coaches have income streams other than what a university pays them.) The funny stories of Holtz's youth found herein have been rehearsed many times during his well-paid motivational speeches.

Holtz's father did not spare the rod, but Lou was spoiled in a number of ways. He had a loving uncle who ended up being his first football coach; in fifth grade at St. Aloysius his uncle had him playing with the seventh- and eighth-graders.

Older men, authority figures, loom large in Holtz's life, but none larger than the profane and brutal Woody Hayes, famous for hitting an opposing team's player, an act that ended his career. Hayes was both a military man and a coaching model; the drill-instructor style fit Holtz well. All who coached for Hayes' 1968 Ohio State national championship team went on to what Holtz calls "great careers." Holtz climbed on board the winners' bandwagon early.

And Holtz had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. At Arkansas in 1977 he had to suspend three star players for a crime that still dares not speak its name. Holtz writes, "It took a half hour before I got the full story. I was floored." It involved a girl who wanted action taken, but no one in authority wanted to press charges.

"The state of Arkansas went into an uproar when the news broke" -- the news of the suspensions, that is. Holtz himself was dragged into court; but the young attorney general of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, defended him. The rest, as they say, is history. Arkansas won its bowl game without the suspended players and Holtz gained a reputation for doing the right thing.

The book covers the various controversies of Holtz's time at Notre Dame, though most of them are skimmed over: steroid-use allegations; recruiting scholar athletes who were more athletes than scholars. Holtz mentions, but does not discuss, the 1993 expose, Under the Tarnished Dome. But it was during Holtz's years that all the Notre Dame rules began to bend: Red-shirting became acceptable, star players bolted early, other players were cast aside, all playing havoc with the university's high football graduation rates, a statistic dearly loved at ND.

Post-Holtz saw the end of the university honoring its Father Ted Hesburgh-era contract commitments; Scott Eden's perceptive 2005 book Touchdown Jesus details Tyrone Willingham's financial bottom line-inspired firing; by then it was no longer Father Joyce's rules, it was corporate rules.

At Notre Dame, Holtz was a very human presence around campus -- his autobiography also swells with it: a nice guy, unless he isn't; a good friend to have, as long as he doesn't turn on you. Indeed, the only news in the book is that Holtz plans to be buried at Notre Dame, a tourist attraction ad infinitum. As a coach, Holtz would make even games he won easily frustrating to watch, but he did win; very few losing coaches write autobiographies. I enjoyed the games. And I enjoyed Holtz's account of his full, contentious life. It's a winner's game and a winning book.

William O'Rourke, a former Sun-Times columnist, is a professor at Notre Dame. His latest book is On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir.

Originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times

The enemy is us

March 12, 2006


Kevin Phillips, who informs us he has been "studying and writing about the emerging Republican presidential coalition for half a century," calls his last three books "indictments" of his subject. The first two are Wealth and Democracy, concentrating on how democracies are stressed when income gaps widen, and American Dynasty, his dissection and exploration of the Bush family. The newest is American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century.

Using the word "indictment" was something he never would have imagined back in 1966, when he started writing his first book, The Emerging Republican Majority. Since then he has evolved from a staunch Republican who served in Republican administrations into a reluctant Republican critic.

In American Theocracy, the defendants are legion, or, as Walt Kelly's "Pogo" would have had it it, they are us. Of course, there are some specific bad actors in this latest indictment, but all the rest of us appear as enablers: "Reckless dependency on shrinking oil supplies, a milieu of radicalized (and much too influential) religion, and a reliance on borrowed money -- debt, in its ballooning size and multiple domestic and international deficits -- now constitute the three major perils to the United States of the twenty-first century."






Viking. 480 pages. $26.95

Much has been said and written about the ascendancy of fundamentalist religions across the world, the dominance of oil politics, and the growth of both debt and the income gap between the rich and everyone else. What hasn't hitherto been done is to show how all these subjects are interconnected, making clear not only the what, but also the why, how and who.

American Theocracy serves as an invaluable resource, given its marshaling of facts and figures, as well as the breadth and depth of its historical analysis. Phillips employs a historian's measured perspective and clarity of expression, though it is likely he will be accused of rank partisanship by those most stung by his analysis, those he labels "The Erring Republican Majority."

Phillips moves easily from academic scholarship to the popular press for information supporting his theme, which is that no explanation for the current state of affairs "can ignore the Republican party and its electoral coalition's" encouragement of "U.S. oil vulnerability, excessive indebtedness, and indulgence of radical religion."

The Bush administration claims the Iraq war is not about oil, but Phillips makes the case that of course Iraq is about oil -- since quite a bit of the world's history is about oil, or its larger category, energy. He explains -- perhaps more than some readers may want to know -- how the Spanish, Dutch and English lost their pre-eminence among, and domination of, nations: "Over generations, the world's energy leaderships -- seventeenth-century Dutch ingenuity with water, wind, and wood, British aptitude with coal, and the U.S. cleverness with oil -- have invariably developed related infrastructures of corporate, government, and cultural commitment. One generation's innovations become another's entrenchments."

As Phillips does with energy's role, he provides an exacting examination of religion in America, its precedents, factions and movements. Indeed, given the three-panel aspect of this book -- oil, religion, debt -- Phillips is able to make use of his own scholarship of the last five decades. He takes from his earlier books the pertinent parts -- and elaborates upon them -- to reinforce his new arguments. American Theocracy is, in this way, a capstone to his life's work.

Phillips has been able to see over the passage of time which of his notions and predictions have taken hold in the world. And he appears truly alarmed by those that have. What was barely mentioned in his first book, The Emerging Republican Majority,40 years ago becomes in this one an entire section: "The Southernization of America." He admits that hitherto he had written "little about southern fundamentalists and evangelicals," and, by way of correction, they appear front and center in this volume. Phillips painstakingly shows how the Civil War may also have been a religious war as well as a war of emancipation, and how our current electoral map of Red and Blue America is just as accurately a depiction of America's church-going habits as it is of its political allegiances. They are, in Phillips view, one and the same: Even the "battleground or 'new border' states can also be located by a religious calculus."

There is plenty of calculus in American Theocracy. Phillips loves numbers and he supplies a lot of them as well as graphs and charts, each startling in its own way. Though he makes use of grand terms such as "Southernization," "Financialization" and "Disenlightment," he takes pains -- and pages -- to explain how each works. Phillips has braided his three unwieldy subjects into a forceful and provocative rhetorical whip. And he does lash out: "Never before has a U.S. political coalition been so dominated by an array of outsider religious denominations caught up in biblical morality, distrust of science, and a global imperative of political and religious evangelicalism."

Democrats are not spared: "The inadequacy of the Democrats -- every four years they seem to resemble the Not Ready for Prime Time Players who made "Saturday Night Live" a byword three decades ago -- complicates things but hardly excuses what the Republican party has become."

Over-all, Phillips' book is a thoughtful and somber jeremiad, written throughout with a graceful wryness. Its brilliance is so abundant even its asides are insightful: Phillips points out, speaking of evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal churches, "Broadcast, publishing, and direct-mail empires have grown up around these fellowships and communities, creating umbrellas against the effects of secular communications. The viewpoints of so-called sophisticates have little access to the minds of the faithful." Our Age of Information has become a new Tower of Babel: Individuals can pick and choose what they want to believe and still find many adherents to agree with them.

It will be a shame if Phillips' timely and important book is restricted to "so-called sophisticates." Everyone should have access to what American Theocracy so powerfully tells us about our country at this critical time.

William O'Rourke, a former Sun-Times columnist, is a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. His new book, On Having a Heart Attack: A Medical Memoir, will be published in April.

Originally appeared in the National Catholic Reporter

Ellsberg charts change from insider to activist

by Daniel Ellsberg
Viking, 498 pages, $29.95

The history of the Vietnam era antiwar movement has been written in layers, often through autobiography. In Secrets, Daniel Ellsberg adds an important, compelling contribution. Its focus, not unsurprisingly, is on what Ellsberg saw and did during the 1960s and early 1970s, but bits and pieces of what others were doing can be glimpsed throughout. After nearly 40 years, the whole story is finally taking shape.

Apart from that history, Ellsberg’s valuable book offers a portrait rarely sketched, especially by a critic, of the defense policy, think-tank insider. Indeed, Ellsberg had been such an insider that he never questions the breed or how he became one. He went to Harvard, got a doctorate in game theory, lectured to Professor Henry Kissinger’s class on “The political benefits of madness” (a tact Kissinger endorsed), and voila, the insider was born.

Ellsberg joined the economics department of the Rand Corporation, a California defense-consulting firm that came to harbor one of the few extant copies of the Robert McNamara-ordered study of the Vietnam War that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers. A copy went to Rand because of Ellsberg’s urging and the well-founded fear that the study might be destroyed or left inaccessible forever to the prying eyes of historians.

Ellsberg paints this culture of secrecy and exclusivity vividly. He was forsaking many things when he gave the Pentagon Papers (he authored a section on President Kennedy’s decision-making of 1961) to the press. Most of all, he was giving up forever his membership in the elite world of insiders, those who run the government, especially its foreign policy.

Unfortunately, this book is almost too pertinent today, given the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy in all things. It is difficult to imagine Donald Rumsfeld ordering a comprehensive study of America’s involvement in the Middle East generally and various countries specifically. One can only fear that the blunders made and lies told will be kept forever from public view, because no one in the Bush orbit will grow too sick at what is being done to defect and tell all.

Ellsberg did become sick of what he had been seeing and doing in Vietnam. Sick enough that he describes what can be only considered a breakdown at an antiwar conference he attended. He sobbed for over an hour in a bathroom and decided then to cast his “whole vote” to stop what he concluded was an “immoral” war.

His establishment credentials were hard to ignore or belittle: a former officer in the Marines, a defense department specialist on nuclear weapons first, and then the Vietnam conflict second, one of the few men in the room who had actually been in Vietnam during the early stages of American involvement, a respected analyst, someone praised by Henry Kissinger after Kissinger began working for Richard Nixon. Kissinger eventually called Ellsberg the “most dangerous man in America.”

Ellsberg’s conversion to the antiwar movement was assisted by a woman, Patricia Marx, the toy heiress, who eventually became his second wife. She led him from the elite inner circles of government to elite inner circles of the antiwar movement. Ellsberg does not play down, or play up, her influence. Indeed, this memoir is decidedly more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Go to Tom Wells’ aptly titled biography of Ellsberg, Wild Man, published last year, for that side. Ellsberg, in Secrets, wants to be taken seriously again.

But he can be maddeningly self-centered in his depictions, somewhat forgivable in a memoir. The publication of the Pentagon Papers did help to bring about the end of the war, but it also brought about other beneficial changes Ellsberg doesn’t mention. For one, it changed journalism for a decade or more, leading newspapers to become true papers of record by printing lengthy documents themselves, rather than summaries. The Pentagon Papers were followed by trial transcripts, congressional hearings and the Watergate tapes.

Robert McNamara provided us with historical analysis in the form of the Pentagon Papers, but Richard Nixon gave us history in the making in the form of his taping system. The release of the Pentagon Papers strengthened the public’s aversion to the war, but Nixon’s own taping did him in and, subsequently, the war. Though Ellsberg, too, credits overmuch our withdrawal, rather than the North Vietnamese winning, for the war’s end.

Ellsberg himself, in a most touching way, believes deeply that the truth will set you free. He wanted the true history of the war to come out and felt then that Congress and the public would do the right thing. Evidently, he still believes that lessons learned from history will make our leaders think correctly and behave accordingly. In the case of the Vietnam War, they needed to see its folly. That, if nothing else, makes him a patriot. Unfortunately, this was continued because both Johnson and Nixon wanted to demonstrate Cold War determination rather than good sense. It wasn’t micro reasons, it was macro reasons. And they would sacrifice young Americans to do so.

Ellsberg’s trial in 1973 was stopped because of the egregious conduct of the White House, which burglarized his psychiatrist’s office, wiretapped Ellsberg, offered the trial judge a job and so on. And the issue his attorney Leonard Boudin (the Boston Five and Harrisburg Seven lawyer) raised -- that what Ellsberg did was not against the law -- was never adjudicated. He was tried under the Espionage Act, but he hadn’t given the papers to a foreign government; he gave them to Congress and the American people.

Given the Bush administration’s adoption of a preemptive war doctrine, Ellsberg’s truth-telling book about our earlier wrong-headed making of war is a must read for anyone who cares about peace and justice.

William O’Rourke, the author of The Harrisburg Seven and the New Catholic Left, is a professor at the University of Notre Dame. His most recent book is Campaign America 2000: The View From the Couch.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002


Originally appeared in the electonic book review
Christopher Hitchens 
No One Left to Lie to: 
The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton,
Verso, 1999 
Michael Isikoff 
Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story, 
Crown Publishers, 1999 
Andrew Morton 
Monica's Story, 
St. Martin's Press, 1999 
George Stephanopoulos 
All Too Human: A Political Education, 
Little, Brown, 1999 
Bob Woodward 
Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate,
Simon & Schuster, 1999 
There are blow jobs and then there are blow jobs. The volumes at hand deal with both figurative and literal examples of the genre. And they manage to range over, as well as map, the landscape of what is loosely called print journalism in book form. They reveal not just hidden agendas, but the transformation journalism has undergone at the end of the twentieth century.
One might first note the obvious: they are all written by men. There are books written by women inspired by Bill Clinton's life and loves (Gennifer Flowers, Dolly Kyle Browning), but these are, in the main, reminiscences. Ann Coulter, the author of High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton, who can be called a journalist (if not being called something else: lawyer, elf, part of the right wing conspiracy, etc.), would doubtless be the best seller of the small journalistic sorority mining the Clinton lode, her contribution being in the attack biography genre, with Elizabeth Drew standing in as the more respectable, though stodgier, contender, her Clinton books lagging behind in sales. The skewed proportions of male versus female authors writing about Bill Clinton at book length would not matter much, except that one can readily detect the very mano a mano tone the male authors share. Bill Clinton is the representative generational male figure; he is the norm from which their standard deviations are measured.
But it is journalistic practice that is chiefly under consideration and on display here: we have Bob (and that Bob is the only informal thing about him) Woodward's sui generis sort, in the sense that he (along with Carl Bernstein) is credited with inventing it. During the heady days of the mid-seventies, when there was a New Journalist lurking behind every mailbox, there came to be the hugely successful hybrid example of All the President's Men, which was taken as a subset of the form by most commentators of its time. Of course, the most substantial difference went unmentioned: New Journalists were almost all freelance writers. Thumb through Tom Wolfe's 1973 anthology The New Journalism and look at the names. Almost none were staff writers of well-established publications (of the 23 listed, only Rex Reed, Richard Goldstein, and "Adam Smith" would be the exceptions - Gay Talese had worked for the New York Times, but freelancing, by and large, went with the territory.)
As the years have gone by, Woodward's name alone has graced the cover of his successive books, co-authors having been long discarded, though the reader is usually treated to a fulsome thanks for a remarkable underling, (from the example Shadow provides) one (Jeff Glasser) who serves as Bob's "assistant and collaborator for the last three years," one who "tirelessly and resourcefully" labors in his behalf.
A reader can be forgiven if he or she is reminded of the acknowledgments prefacing a politician's ghosted recollections when encountering such gratitude for able staff assistance, because Woodward over the years has become a Senator of the 4th Estate, and as the voice of official Washington, he is now more politician than journalist. And who would deny him the luxury of a staff?
By never letting go of a position at The Washington Post, Woodward has fashioned himself into a pillar of the establishment. In the old days, his and Bernstein's information collecting technique was, by necessity (with the large exception of "Deep Throat"), bottom up. For a number of books now (Veil, The Commanders, The Agenda, The Choice) his interviewing has been top down. The ditch, the rough patch in the road, that brought about the permanent change was Woodward's one non-Washington book, Wired, his excursion into the life of the actor John Belushi, Bob's first book without a co-author in tow. That scary experience (bad reviews, fewer sales, tagged as an outsider) appears to have taught him a number of lessons.
One might have been to listen more carefully to his long-time editor, Alice Mayhew, who suggested the topic that turned into Shadow. Woodward writes that Mayhew "rekindled" his interest in the subject of the presidents he had written about. Mayhew was interested in book making and, taking away the pomp from Woodward's description of the process, showed him how to put together a book from the parts he left out of the other books. Woodward, though, doesn't make clear what he already knew and what he has newly learned, but one can assume he missed a number of things in his original investigations of the same ground. To do so would have required Woodward to critique himself, which he is loathe to do. Nonetheless, we are treated to a reprise of the Nixon years, the brief Ford tenure, Carter's single term, then Reagan and Bush, all accomplished in 223 pages, less than half the length Part Five takes, the Bill Clinton years. But the premise of Shadow's subtitle created one problem, a real stretch for Woodward.
If there is a "legacy" of Watergate, how does one discuss that if the author himself is a large part of that legacy? Woodward did not go away; he has become an institution himself. Beyond the trademark you-are-there transcript recreations that have been his narrative style and device (producing results which always sound like high school actors badly reciting sententious historical drama), he would finally have to step out from behind the curtain and analyze, or, at least, draw some conclusions from his amassed gab fests, tell us just what the legacy, the lesson, of Watergate is. So he tries mightily. Here it is, Woodward's summation, his lessons hard learned that future presidents need heed: "First, if there is questionable activity, release the facts, whatever they are, as early and completely as possible. Second, do not allow outside inquiries, whether conducted by prosecutors, congressman or reporters, to harden into a permanent state of suspicion and warfare."
It may be hard to see the forest from the trees, if one is a tree oneself, but Woodward does seem to miss the point. His books nourished leaks into more than plants; he left the emperor without any clothes and then complained that the ruler was naked. In Sixties-speak, one doesn't have a solution if one is part of the problem and Woodward doesn't see himself as part of the problem.
It is not so much Woodward's use of anonymous sources that is bothersome, as it is his wooden use of the "omniscient" point of view. Such a literary device begs for sophisticated abilities, abilities which Woodward lacks almost totally. In that regard he appears amateurish. But it is not just Woodward's use of "fictional" techniques that's the problem, it's the unreality of the world his style produces. If he wrote fiction he might be judged the equivalent of the romance writer Danielle Steel; but she doesn't improve either, no matter how many books she publishes. The impact of the "new journalism," at least for the fiction writers who produced it, was substantial, because they were very good writers of fiction to begin with. In an age of recorded speech (from the Watergate Tapes to Linda Tripp's), Woodward's age, there is endless proof that no one ever talks like Bob Woodward has people talk.
Be that as it may, in Woodward World the style is not the point. It is the information, or the attribution, which is important. He has long become the establishment's Linda Tripp, recreating over the years so much "conversation" thought once upon a time to be private. He said that? She said that? Official Washington wants to know.
It was clear in the seventies that even though a number of so-called progressive journalists could have explained Watergate and its players to the country with remarkable precision, it required a powerful corporate entity to "uncover" it: "...of the Washington Post" was the Siamese twin label attached to both Woodward and Bernstein's names and it was that "inc," not printer's ink, that was opening doors.
It is the point that Michael Isikoff, a self-described child of Watergate, makes - well, he doesn't actually make it, he lets it be made - in his contribution to Clinton studies, Uncovering Clinton.
Isikoff relegates it to a footnote: "Tripp also claimed I'd told her that, while I doubted she'd find a publisher 'in the present climate,' she should work with me to 'allow some of this to get out into the mainstream media' in order to create a more favorable environment. This, too, is ridiculous." What is ridiculous, Isikoff argues, is that he would have settled for part of the story, not the bit about the power of the "mainstream media."
The lesson learned, by the nineties, had become subliminal: if some important publication doesn't run with your news, it will have no legs. Goldberg and Tripp had absorbed the truth of that, which is why they left so much room on their dance card for Spikey (their affectionate name for Isikoff.) Given the example of Matt Drudge (the other reporter, other than Isikoff, who made a national name for himself on the back of Lewinsky), some have concluded that there is now an openness of information, a healthy flow from high to low, but one has to consider if Drudge himself would have made such a noise if his website headline had been "National Enquirer spikes story of Clinton Oval Office affair...."
One of the many things that all the books under discussion here have in common is their open obeisance to caste and status. Woodward, in Shadow, describing the Clinton White House trying to decide where to leak documents, writes, "Fabiani didn't want to give the material to some pro-Clinton reporter or someone who covered politics. Instead, he selected Michael Isikoff, a hard-nosed junkyard-dog investigator who worked for a publication, Newsweek, with wide national circulation." There are a number of interesting things to point out in that second uninteresting sentence. One is that if Woodward did write it he might have felt obliged to mention that Isikoff was his former colleague at The Washington Post. And, at the Post, Isikoff was the "investigator" who worked the Clinton scandal beat, not so much for the delectation of the public, but for the personal gossip-hungry knowledge of the Post's editors. They wanted to be in the know, even if they didn't intend to pass on the information to the paper's readers. But, Woodward, at least, is being forthcoming with his depiction of Isikoff as an "investigator." Nowhere in Isikoff's book do you learn from Isikoff what the writing process is at Newsweek. He and other field reporters file reports, reams of material, much like the FBI field agents' 302s, full of raw data and sporadic narrative. Editors, or writers, at Newsweek's New York office, turn the material into stories. The only time Isikoff refers to that process is in his acknowledgments: "Assistant managing editor Evan Thomas lent his considerable writing talents to all that appeared in the magazine and gave wise counsel at every stage."
So, Woodward labels Isikoff correctly, an investigator, while at the same time disowning any human connection to him. Such admissions don't come easily to Woodward, and one of the strangest excursions is his description of his and Ben Bradlee's meeting with Jimmy Carter: "Carter had lied about his meeting with us." The sentence before that declaration is: "I called Powell to complain and told him that we felt sandbagged, summoned to an off-the-record meeting, led to believe one story and now confronted with a well-publicized version - Carter's own interpretation apparently - that conveyed a rather different impression."
Yes, I might not admit that I know and work with the people I write about, but I am pissed when the President puts his own spin on a meeting that was supposed to be off the record, one that we were "summoned" to! The idea that the President would waste our time, have the nerve to summon us.
Well, you see the pecking order Bob swears by. They needed to be summoned to a meeting; not that they would bother to talk to the Prez privately unless they had nothing more important to do. This meeting was about whether or not CIA payments to King Hussein had stopped under Carter's watch.
Woodward is still having trouble with the analysis thing; with the exception of, say, his death-bed conversation with the old CIA Director William J. Casey, he doesn't like to be out on the paper stage himself.
Given the history of Woodward's methods, he is something of an "investigator" himself, more of the Isikoff school and tradition, than, say, the one-man-bands of I. F. Stone, or Murray Kempton, or A. J. Liebling, or for that matter, David Halberstam, or J. Anthony Lukas (after they left The New York Times.) Yet, Woodward is more powerful than any of that brethren. He might be a naif when it comes to using the first person, but he isn't as naive as George Stephanopoulos appears to be.
Now, I'm not saying George Stephanopoulos is naive: he's made his way in the world by being very savvy indeed. But, he is naive when it comes to employing a literary form. All Too Human is just that, a bildungsroman, a growing up book that has yet to reach grownup stage. But it is not without its savvyiness. From its "Note on sourcing": "I did not keep a diary while I worked in the White House, but on about a dozen weekend afternoons at that time, I had a series of conversations with my friend Eric Alterman. Eric, who was working on his dissertation in American history at Stanford University, taped and stored these talks to create a historical record. After I left the White House he allowed me to use this material for my book." George is being Clintonian in the extreme. That this taping does not fall under the legal definition of a "diary" would be convincing only to a lawyer. But, hey, he's the altar boy, the keeper of Clinton's secrets. And he was certainly blown away by Bob Woodward. George was so taken with Woodward he gave carte blanche to him for Woodward's book, The Agenda. Here are his first thoughts about the Bobster: "In the summer of 1993, several months into his project [The Agenda], Wooodward's first call to me had sparked two simultaneous thoughts: Oh, no! and I have arrived."
Seduced by Woodward's "stature," George "encouraged friends and cooperate with Woodward." But Stephanopoulos shares more with Monica Lewinsky than the willingness to be seduced (and their books' similar glossy, white, innocent covers, graced with flattering photographs.) Any number of times in All Too Human is this sort of depiction of his relationship with the president: "But, at that point, doing the president's bidding was my reason for being; his favor was my fuel."
There has been a major shift in the career paths of most reporters during my lifetime. During the early sixties, when I was in college, journalism schools were the educational capstone for young reporters to be. The idea of a Neiman Fellowship was as close to a post-doc as any one could hope for. But, around that time, there was talk, as the post-WWII "professionalization" of the profession became complete, of having lawyer-reporters covering courts, economists covering the economy. But, like the maps one sees of how a virus can quickly spread, what was once the exception soon became the rule.
Now, reporting is largely conducted by what I term creatures of the event. Especially in video land. As Eisenhower long ago pointed to the revolving door of the military-industrial complex, there has long been a government-journalism complex at work. First one worked for someone on the hill, or for some failed campaign, or as a speech writer for brain-dead politicians, and then one became a journalist. Watching cable news today is like visiting a hiring hall full of former campaign consultants.
The smaller world of campaign books also provides an apt illustration. There was Teddy White for many years, then Joe McGinnis, then Hunter Thompson, then Carville and Matalin. In 1994 their jointly written book became the new model: creatures of the event who give their own self-censoring versions of history. And their book, All's Fair, because of their celebrity status, became the most prominent one on the '92 campaign. (Joe Klein, an actual journalist, felt it necessary to retreat into fiction [in Primary Colors] to tell the "truth" of the campaign as he saw it. Anonymity became a stand-in for objectivity. Because one couldn't immediately tell the bias at work, the agenda that was being worked out. And, who knew, the author could be someone famous!)
The O. J. trial became the final straw in the complete transformation of late-twentieth-century America journalism, at least in television. The one profession that has grown disproportionately since the early seventies has been the number of lawyers let loose in the land. That has something to do with it. But journalists were shunted aside when lawyers were ordained as the priests of cable news commentary.
Creatures of the event rule now, especially in political reporting. Take, for instance, Dick Morris, Clinton's buddy and bete noir (and the only person he immediately told the "truth" to about Monica Lewinsky), whose disgraceful fall only added to his notoriety, hence his fame. It's as if Bedlam has produced the talent pool. Morris has the most painful smile ever seen on television. He knows he must smile, but it hurts so much. Much more than a wince.
Television news, especially the cable outlets, is now staffed by former campaign consultants and lawyers. At the heart of both professions is the need to mask the truth from outside observers. Or, more bluntly, both groups are paid to lie. This is what journalism has come to: the messengers, at the most, are converts to the straight and narrow, repentant sinners, asking for our trust.
(And print journalism is only marginally better, as these books all attest. Isikoff, who in a more tawdry way than Woodward has become part of the story [his subtitle: "A Reporter's Story"]. Which is why we are reading his story. Isikoff understands the difference between print and television all too well. Given the opportunity to listen to the Tripp tapes, he at first declines. Among the reasons he offers is this: "And I was in a bit of a hurry to make it to Hardball." Why, I've only been working this Clinton sex beat for years now, but I am booked on TV and I have my priorities straight!)
Stephanopoulos follows in the tried and true Iron Triangle tradition (Lobbyists, government worker, journalist): Boot camp in politics, and onto the television set thereafter. It is much like former badly-paid prosecutors who become far richer defense attorneys: first they must get to know a lot of criminals personally. George quotes Clinton complaining, "...I never should have brought anyone under forty into the White House." And, after reading All Too Human, one tends to agree, noting that would have left Monica out in the cold, too.
Which brings me to the two Brits, both tilling different forms of celebrity journalism. These books are all subsets of celebrity journalism. Forget old or new journalism; in fiction there are two forms: one sort about people who will never read about themselves, the other about people who will read about themselves, who are readers. In journalism, there are also two sorts today: about the famous and the unknown, and by the famous or the unknown.
Andrew Morton and Christopher Hitchens are the purest writers under consideration. One writes about celebrities, the other has attempted to become one. But what both men can do first and foremost is write, whereas writing comes unnaturally to George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodward, and Michael Isikoff. What that group does best is investigate, interview, fawn, serve or berate, but when actual writing is the subject, they huff and puff.
But not the Brits. Doubtless it has to do with education and tradition. I was surprised by only one book in this batch and it was Morton's. His control of the material was impressive. All that time spent with Princess Di did not go to waste; he knows how to package and he knows what real people (such as himself) might raise as objections to his subject. Like George talking to Eric Alterman's tape recorder, Monica avoided various gag orders (of the legal sort) by having Morton pen her tale. The weakest aspect is his flight to decorum when it comes to the physical aspects of Monica's trysts with the boy from Arkansas. Morton doesn't even ascend to the heights of Barbara Cartland romanticism in the little recounting he does do. Ah, more's the pity. Perhaps Monica wished to save something for her memoir, other than the depictions in the Starr Report. Choosing an English author was not necessarily a stroke of genius, but it was certainly smart. Any American author would have had a difficult time keeping a straight face. But it did not keep me from speculating on what, let's say, Joyce Carol Oates could have done with the material, or Robert Stone, or, for that matter, Bret Easton Ellis; or the hearse-chasing Lawrence Schiller, once Norman Mailer's collaborator. In fact, it could have been Mailer's swan song: first Jesus' Story, then Monica's! One can only imagine.
Morton does presume (as I do, also) that most readers of his book will have already looked to the Starr Report for the gamey details; he steers any reader not familiar with them to that amazing document, in any case. (The Starr Report must be the apotheosis of what has been taught in law schools for the last decade and a half, a low bow to Stanley Fish and the narratology he has inspired in the legal profession, though one of the Report's principal assemblers had the additional benefit of fiction writing workshops, another influential stream in the academic culture of the last twenty years.)
Morton has Monica muse about her years in the White House as effectively as George Stephanopoulos, certainly as insightfully:
In the taxi on the way to the airport to return to Washington, she burst into tears. It truly hit home that her dream of working at the White House was over. She had lived with the idea for so long, had had her hopes of a return raised and then dashed,...Now, seeing another office in another city, and being considered for a post involving a wholly new line of work, that hope had finally been extinguished. "I realized then that no office atmosphere would ever compare to the White House," she says. "It was very painful to come to terms with that bitter disappointment."
Here is George on the same subject, visiting for the first time after he left the White House, a visit that does not include seeing the president:
...a uniformed agent reached into the room to close the four-inch-thick door facing the Oval's formal entrance. The president was in. My heart beat more rapidly. My stomach floated with butterflies....I didn't know what to do. Walking in on the president during one of his rare moments alone seemed presumptuous. Walking by without saying hello seemed rude. I was suddenly shy, and slightly afraid. This was not my place anymore. Clinton was still president, but I could no longer maintain the illusion that he was somehow my president in some special way. Not knowing what to do at that moment was the surest sign that I didn't belong.
All these authors have something to hide and reading them all is one way to see what that might be for each individual case. Woodward hides his all too often personal involvement, his hope to be above the fray, though by now he is his own Heisenberg principle. As I wrote in my book on the '96 presidential campaign   , Woodward has always been the oddest kind of "investigative" reporter: an ardent supporter of the status quo.
Isikoff hides, though none too well, his function as a sewer system, which only channels information, rather than his preferred image of the guy with his hands on the shut-off valves. George hides what he knows, self-censors, in the tradition of Matalin and Carville, and tries to find a way to be the supposed conveyor of "inside" information, usually couched in the same circumlocutions of his explanation about his non-diary, not-under-personal-control tape recordings. Morton may have the least to hide, though he scurries behind decorum whenever it suits him, though most of his role is to burnish his image, to gild the lily that is Monica Lewinsky.
What Christopher Hitchens has to hide is perhaps more than he has put into his small book. Though his distaste for the Clintons appears so fundamental it seems to be a case of old-fashioned visceral prejudice, the sort I usually hear from educated Brits about, say, the Irish after enough liquor has been poured.
As an expert on all Clinton sins it is unfortunate that at the start of his book Hitchens gets something wrong, in his description of the Willey affair. On page 16 he writes: Willey
had been a volunteer worker at the White House, had suddenly become a widow, had gone in distress to the Oval Office for comfort and for a discussion about the possibility of a paying job, and had been rewarded with a crushing embrace, some cliched words of bar-room courtship, and the guiding by the presidential mitt of her own hand onto his distended penis.
He gets the sequence wrong. Willey did not know she was a widow when she went to the White House that day, did not know until later, after Clinton's embrace, that her husband had killed himself. No one contests that time line. I know even Homer nods, but given his need for authority, Hitchens should avoid nodding off at all.
And, at the book's end, in his brief discussion of his 11th hour involvement in the Senate trial, when he disclosed Sidney Blumenthal's fraudulent flacking on behalf of the president, he complains, "It was instantly said of me that I did what I did in order to promote this very book - still then uncompleted," as if the fact that it was unfinished made such a charge superfluous, even though his publisher had been advertising the book and it had been announced some time before. As if the manuscript's incompleteness absolves him of any thoughts to the book's future notice.
Hitchens is in line with a number of expatriate British intellectuals who have taken up outposts here in the States for decades. It's part of the brain drain. And being bright as he is, Hitchens has been doing as much as he can to be, if not in the public eye, in the private high-society scene, securely on the D.C. journalist A-list. Once someone has been part of the McLaughlin Group it's hard to claim too much remove from that madding crowd. In fact, he is maddeningly upfront about all that, in the same manner his fellow countryman, Alexander Cockburn, has been often in the past, telling of being happy to find more wealth and power so conspicuously available to suck up to. Now sucking up to may not be the same thing as blowing out to, though the phrase itself, blow job, has always been a curious one. It isn't quite right, isn't really descriptive, though it does capture something more metaphoric than literal.
So, in all these books, we observe the wonderful daisy chain, of different sorts of sucking up and blowing out. Bob Woodward and his charmed or complaisant interviewees; Michael Isikoff and his talkative cache of ladies, including the boundary-ignoring Kathleen Willey (Isikoff writes: "We walked to my car. 'All I want to do is hear your story,' I said again. She understood. She said good-bye. As she did, she was standing just a tad closer than I was accustomed to standing to a source."); George and the President that caused so many butterflies, who drove him to counseling and anti-depressant drugs, the same sad cycle to which Monica had been driven by the President; Monica herself, the only one who got to be real, not virtual, or figurative, with the president. And Andrew Morton's courtship and knee-bending service to her (and good service it was!). And Hitchens, more self-lovingly, perhaps, more onanistic (if that can be), than the others, being, as he is, the most postmodern of them all, the one most likely to be aware of all the theories of writing as forms of masturbation.
Given the sorry state journalism has come to, one might ask what any reader might learn about Clinton that is new from these books, news that a cable news watcher wouldn't have picked up by now. Well, not much. But one does learn that the presidency is not what it once might have been. It is now middle management and that, as a friend said, is why we don't get the best people these days applying for the job.
Now that the world is dominated by international corporations and global financial firms, the president's role is little more than that of the attractive account executive, the good looking fellow who handles rich people's money. When Robert Rubin was Treasury Secretary his nickname was President Rubin. Clinton was merely the crown prince, the smooth underling sent out to speak at fund-raising dinners and ceremonial occasions.
When, long ago, John Dean testified in the first go-round of televised hearings leading to the possible impeachment of Richard Nixon, Dean reported he said to Nixon that "there was a cancer - within - close to the Presidency." Well, Dean was guilty of understatement, since there was much more wrong with Nixon's presidency than that. But Dean could have been speaking about Bill Clinton. Since it is the presidency itself that has been diminished and more readily exposed since Watergate (its real, continuing legacy), it is a much more superficial world there, insofar as the surface now counts for everything. And that is why Clinton's personal failing, his taste for women on their knees, has had such a large consequence. If Clinton was a man of parts, not a hollow shell, one of singular vision, of true confidence and fixed goals, such conduct as these books outline could have been seen as minor, an aberration rather than a trait. But since all Clinton's many virtues are so much on the surface, such a cancer on that surface was truly unsightly.
Given the old sort of triangulation, reading these books together is healthy and helpful, since each of them checks the other, gives a reader a true multiple point of view; not fake omniscience, but something that feels like the actual story.
If Watergate was, as its perpetrators like to call it, "a third-rate burglary," Bill Clinton's impeachment was brought about by a third-rate conspiracy. As was true with Watergate, Clinton's sex scandal - its revelations, the momentum of disclosures could have been stopped at any number of points. But Clinton, like Nixon, did receive bad medical care for the cancer on his presidency. It was small, but it was persistent and no one who had noticed it wanted to remove it before it was too late.
Clinton's often-cited recklessness, though, wasn't reckless as he saw it: Monica wouldn't have been a problem if it hadn't been for the linkage, however forged, of Monica, Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, and the right-wing legal elves looking to bring Clinton, if not down, to heel. Because of that linkage, unknown to Monica and the president, the country got to see all that these volumes recount. It wasn't the film-version Deep Throat's advice to young Bob Woodward, "Follow the money," coming back again to haunt the nation, it was just an accommodating Deep Throat and all that then inexorably followed.

The Massachusetts Review, Winter, 2009



Grace Paley’s opening lines in her story “Wants” would always echo in my mind when I would see her walking up to me on Sixth Avenue.  Hello, my life.  I was a young writer then, residing in Milligan Place around the corner from Grace and her husband Robert Nichol’s apartment on 11th street.  Donald Barthelme lived across the street from her building.  Stanley Kunitz’s townhouse was a block away. They’re all dead now. 

     It was the early ‘70s and Milligan Place’s gate swung open freely back then.  These days it is locked and one needs to be buzzed into the small, precious courtyard.  The ‘70s were a good time in New York City, paradoxically, since there was a recession going on.  The reverence for the rich hadn’t begun to fill the air as yet.  The rich were still there, but they weren’t preening about in the 1970s.  That bred a certain kind of equality, one that began to disappear in the ‘80s.

     I had been told the three-story Milligan Place building that contained my one room apartment was once Theodore Dreiser’s house. The Village was always a literary place.  I had just published my first book and its subject, if not the book itself, was a favorite of Grace’s; it was about the case of the Harrisburg 7, priests and nuns, anti-war activists, government oppression, all the usual topics that preoccupied her.   

     Jean Boudin had introduced us. I spent a lot of time with the Boudins, Leonard and Jean, during those years.  They are gone, too. Often I would be standing outside the chi-chi grocery store next to Milligan Place on Sixth Avenue, where I had just bought a container of yogurt, my dinner and Grace and Robert and I would chat. Of course, then, none of this seemed as extraordinary as it does now.  Grace was literal.  She was grace. Given my Catholic background, I put much stock in grace, not “gracious living,” as it was called when I left the City to teach at Mount Holyoke, in South Hadley, Mass., but grace right out of the mysteries of the spirit, the lifting up, the filling up. 

     Grace was especially kind to young writers; she herself was empty of bitterness and radiant with hope and good fortune to come and share.  The last time I saw her was at her place in Vermont, in the company of Jean Boudin who was staying at the MacDowell Colony.  I was about to leave Mount Holyoke and return to the Midwest to take a teaching job at Notre Dame and Jean and I went calling on a visit. 

     The Vietnam war was over; it was 1981 and the decade that had past had certainly raised Grace’s public renown, but it hadn’t cut into her modesty.  Jean and she were roughly the same generation; both were indomitable: I never saw a sour look on Grace Paley’s face.

     Departing, she wished me well, as she always had.  My new novel, which wasn’t so much to her liking, the title certainly, Idle Hands (hers were never idle), gave a rather jaundiced portrait of the women’s movement of the 1970s.  Grace devoted so much of her life to making the world better, though what I thought more remarkable was how well she thought of it, letting no anger or disappointment sway her from her belief of the wonderfulness of the people who lived in it. 

Broadcast on WVPE-FM on 5/14/07


Like so many writers of my generation, I have spent a lot of time in classrooms, teaching creative writing. In my case, over thirty years. Being a child of the Sixties, I don't have many rules,  but I do have one, at least for undergraduates. In my fiction writing classes, the first day, I tell them my one and only rule: I don't want them to write about anyone they wouldn't spend five minutes alone with in a room. That would spare me, I thought, from chain-saw wielding stories, tales starring psychotics of the popular culture sort.

But when Virginia Tech Professor Lucinda Roy talked about Seung-Hui Cho, her creative writing student who carried out the campus killings of 32 people, those of us in the academic creative writing community were particularly and personally affected.

Cho was an English major, a student of creative writing, one of ours. Roy and her fellow creative writing teachers took some appropriate measures. Unfortunately, for her and them, those prudent steps are likely to become the stuff of lawsuits.

One of Cho's classmates from a playwriting workshop has put Cho's writing on the internet and recalled speculation amongst fellow students that some day Cho could turn into a "school shooter." In one of Cho's posted plays, a chain saw makes an appearance.

Unlike the deaths in 1999 at Colorado's Columbine High School, school shootings at the college level share more similarities with work place incidents. In California, Arkansas, Virginia, graduate students in 1996, 2000, and 2002, killed professors who had supervised them. There are very few teachers over the last ten years who have not joked about students showing up with Uzis and taking revenge over some grievance, imagined or real. "Going postal" has become a too familiar cliché.

Semi-automatics have been a weapon of choice for most of these events. Universities are work-places. Disgruntled employees of a variety of businesses sporadically shoot their coworkers or bosses around the country. But Cho's number of victims has never been reached before. Classrooms serve as the barrels you can shoot the fish in. But "locking down" a campus as large as Virginia Tech may be futile, yet nothing is easier than canceling classes. That kind of news travels fast, since it pleases both the teachers, as well as the students.

Such work-related incidents prompted cynical comments from the professoriate, protective humor. But undergraduates weren't, until now, lethal. Suicides, yes; killers, no. Cho is a home-grown version of a suicide bomber. Americans remain stubbornly individualistic to the end; even our killers like to kill one at a time. But, the result is the same. The suicide bombers of the Middle East we hear about so often murder as many or more, but it is collective, impersonal. Cho looked at everyone he killed. The media package Cho sent to NBC was his version of a "martyrs" video.

Creative writing is unlike other courses universities offer. It isn't just the writing, but the writer, who is judged. Another thing I tell my undergraduates on the first day of class is that, counter to what they are often told, many people write badly on purpose. Because writing is revealing – of who they are. I ask for a writing sample that they have already written to read, because as soon as I read it, I will know something about them. In fact, quite a bit. Out in the world, away from the island culture of a university, a lot of people decide they don‚t want to reveal themselves that way and bad writing is often the mask they choose.

Yet, most students, like Cho, often reveal who they are. But it is difficult for a teacher to think a young person is a monster and it wasn't only Cho's writing that has been exposed that showed that, but his lack of contact, his absence of speech, his signing his name as a question mark, his aloneness.

It would have been difficult for Cho to make himself any clearer to one and all, but it is the nature of an institution of higher learning to think that the job of a university is to educate the young, make them better, improved.  The 32 who died will haunt the consciences of many university teachers -- and, perhaps, most of all, creative writing professors. It is a hard blow for all of us to be taught this terrible way just how serious what we do is.



My rap problems--and yours?

William O'Rourke teaches English at the University of Notre Dame

July 30, 2006

First off, I am an OAF, an Older American Father. I considered creating an organization, OAFS USA, but I decided I didn't want to spend a lot of time with geezers like myself. I got married late, in my early 40s; back then, my wife-to-be kept pointing out that less than 10 percent of men had never been married by age 40. She is an economist, a fan of numbers. A few years after we were married we had a boy, Joe.

Joe is now 15 (and I am 60) and he is overscheduled, which I don't mind, except that it makes me overscheduled. I often drive him around and he plays CD compilations consisting mainly of rap tunes on the car's player.

"I'm gonna get my gun!" Around our neighborhood here in South Bend, Ind., young folks do often go and get their guns.

I, of course, dislike Joe's taste in music, but can't keep from recalling that my parents abhorred my music. The Beatles? Janis Joplin? So, I try to temper my criticism--I don't want to sound like too much of a hypocrite. So, I let Joe listen to his music of choice. The sexual content and language of a lot of it shocks me--me, a child of the '60s! Petey Pablo's "Freek-A-Leek" is one of the worst offenders.

We live in what's called an "urban" neighborhood, which translates into poor black people living within shouting distance of the white college professors. So I make Joe listen to my anti-rap tirades. My tirades sound pretty much like the anti-rap speech the character played by the rap star Ludacris makes in the film "Crash." Oh, the irony, Ludacris' character sounding like Bill Cosby, or for that matter Bill O'Reilly, attacking rap for what it does to black culture, shortly after he and his buddy have carjacked a monster luxury sport-utility vehicle. I wondered, after "Crash" won the Oscar for best film this year, if a white screenwriter had penned that anti-rap monologue, or if a black writer had done it. In any case, the gangsta rap group Three 6 Mafia won the Oscar for best song, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." Pick your irony.

Joe has forced me to listen to Eminem and his band D12, and after a while I began to realize M&M (my preferred spelling) has some talent.

But, most often, I just listen and think perennial parental thoughts: What is the world coming to?

Joe is an only child, so he gets a lot of attention--and slack. I encourage him to listen to the Public Radio jazz station (he is in a jazz band), but, no, he wants to listen to hybrids like Linkin Park, Black Eyed Peas, and other rap-lite groups, which I criticize less.

But, everything is more of the same. When I was a teenager, Norman Podhoretz made a splash with an essay titled "My Negro Problem--and Ours," writing about the pervasive racism he and his white friends weren't able to shake, though they often denied its existence.

Here I was, some 40 years later, denouncing rap music, being superior to all its parts, ranting on about how its commercialization was as cynical and as damaging as McDonald's diets to poverty-level blacks. My son's generation doesn't think like mine and whatever is racist in his cohort doesn't look like it did in the 1950s or '60s, even if the results might be the same for so much of black youth: separation of the races, lower test scores, higher dropout rates and the chance of being jailed.

"I'm gonna get my gun!" bounces again from the car's CD player. When I was a kid, my father would have changed the station on the radio. I do shut off the CD player every once in a while when I can't stand it any longer. But the technology made things a lot easier in the 1950s. Now we all make our own music, carry it with us. I choose to listen along with Joe--instead of him listening alone on his iPod. His world: a mystery to me, his liking what he likes, as it makes him who he is, who he is to become.