Rhetoric and Reality: Bovard Takes Apart the Bushies

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James Bovard. The Bush Betrayal, 2004, Palgrave MacMillan, 330 pages, $26.95.

For the past 15 years, beginning with The Farm Fiasco, James Bovard has been a voice of sanity in that God-forsaken wilderness known as the D.C. Beltway. His latest book, The Bush Betrayal, continues his trend of being Washington’s equal-opportunity annoyer, what George Will (perhaps to the regret of both) once called a "one-man truth squad."

As one who has gobbled up what Bovard has written — and who shares the author’s ideological perspective on political economy — I had much anticipation for this book, and it does not disappoint. As usual, it is carefully written and meticulously researched; one does not expect to see the website bovardlies.com to pop up in reaction to this latest work, as has been the case whenever Michael Moore gives us his latest political screed, whether on the big screen or in print. In other words, like Moore, Bovard is harsh in his words about the current POTUS; unlike Moore, Bovard actually cares about the truth and is not fronting for other political parties and candidates.

Visit a bookstore today, and the faces of Al Franken, Moore, Ann Coulter, Sean Hannity, or another political partisan will be on prominent display on a copy of his or her latest book. Actually, these are not books so much as they are stream-of-consciousness rants, the disgorgement of half-baked thoughts claiming to be intelligent political discourse. Thus, one cannot compare something by Coulter or Franken with Bovard’s books, which is like trying to compare one of Paul Krugman’s New York Times columns to Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action or Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State.

Bovard’s methodology is rather simple; he compares the Bush rhetoric to Bush policies. On numerous occasions, Bush has couched the "war on terrorism" as a fight for "freedom;" as Bovard points out, reality has overshadowed any claims Bush has to being the elected leader of a free country:

Bush is not to be condemned simply because the federal government failed to stop the 9/11 hijack conspiracy. The government’s antiterrorism efforts have failed many times in the past, from floundering in Beirut in 1983 to the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988, to the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the wrecking of American embassies in Africa in 1988. The 9/11 attacks might have occurred if Clinton or Gore had been president.

What made 9/11 different was the concerted effort by the Bush administration to turn 9/11 into a moral Dunkirk. Bush exploited people’s grief and fear to add new fetters to American citizens, to empower federal agents to intrude further into private lives, and to seek to change the permanent balance of power between the federal government and American citizens. (p. 9)

At this point, Bovard’s statements might not be any different from those that could be uttered by Michael Moore or even John Kerry. People on all sides of the political spectrum are familiar with Bush’s "deer-in-the-headlights" response to the 9/11 attacks, and his actions have been fair political game used by the Democrats to discredit the president. However, the comparisons stop at that point.

Shortly after the attacks, Congressional Democrats began to demand that all federal baggage screeners be made federal employees; the New York Times and other house Democratic organs took up the cry, with Democrats threatening to block any anti-terrorist legislation unless the government took over that task. Republicans pretended at first to stand up for private enterprise, but soon fell into line, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA — standing for "Thousands Standing Around") came out of the post-9/11 legislative crucible. Those of us who have flown fairly frequently since then have become quite familiar with the antics of this agency that makes flying more difficult, but no more safe than it was pre-9/11.

Bovard documents the idiotic beginnings of the TSA, but then demonstrates that once it was in place, Bush and his minions hurried to place their own stamps of authority upon the agency. The result is yet another costly Washington mess, one that has its own "mission" and logo, but is simply another black hole into which we pour money and sanity.

As one who has been especially critical of John Ashcroft, I am pleased that Bovard has given our attorney general a chapter to himself ("John Ashcroft, King of u2018Ordered Liberty,’"), and the author does not disappoint. The chapter is much too rich to go into much detail in this brief review, except to say that for a man who approved the prosecution of Martha Stewart for allegedly lying while not under oath, Ashcroft has this unfortunate tendency to tell something other than the truth after he has raised his right hand before testifying before Congress. Bovard documents one Ashcroft untruth after another, and shows how the man has turned Constitutional protections upside down in an attempt to try to convince us that a semi-police state in which people can be held incommunicado for indefinite periods actually is preservation of freedom.

The book covers the Bush record from his latent protectionism (Bush preaches "free trade" and practices something else), to outright educational fraud in his "No Child Left Behind" Act (perhaps it should be called "No Bureaucrat Left Behind"), to yet another chapter of the continuing Farm Fiasco. Bovard documents the Bush rhetoric with the legislative record of this administration, and in so doing he demonstrates the absolute cynicism with which this president governs.

I would leave the reader to discover the usual Bovard gems and zingers that he delivers on a regular basis. My only disappointment is that the author has left out the role of the Neoconservatives in developing and implementing the Bush policies. As a reader of this intense book, I find an uncomfortable disconnect between the fact that Bush really is an empty suit — something Bovard continually presents — and the various policy initiatives that come from this administration.

In other words, there is a guiding ideology to this administration, and it is not simply "stumbling along until the next election," but rather the "positive freedom" that the Neoconservatives have been offering us ever since Irving Kristol turned in his Communist Party membership card. As one who convincingly differentiated between "negative freedom" and "positive freedom" in his classics Freedom in Chains, and Lost Rights, Bovard fails to zero in on the ideology of the people who have served as the guiding lights of this administration from Day One.

This is not to say that Bovard fails to name names. All of the usual suspects — plus a few others — are present and accounted for in this book, but better ties of person and ideology could have been made, and it would have made this volume a more intellectually concise piece of work.

I wish Bovard would make a fortune off The Bush Betrayal in the same way that Moore’s Stupid White Men or Hannity’s Deliver Us from Evil have made those people wealthy. (Bovard must buy his own food, being left off the "A" list for regular Beltway dinner parties.) However, Bovard’s honest and non-partisan style will keep both Republicans and Democrats from buying this important piece of work. Democrats, after all, are still stinging from Bovard’s expos of the Clinton Administration, Feeling Your Pain. Furthermore, Democrats are going to be none-too-happy over how Bovard skewers the latest "campaign reform" laws that could be called the "Incumbents’ Protection Acts."

Toward the end of his prolific career, Ludwig von Mises wrote that while he began his work in hopes of being a social and political reformer, instead he became "the historian of decline." Likewise, in his last chapter, Bovard does not end with a "this is why you should vote for John Kerry" line or even a pitch for the Libertarian Party. He writes:

Trying to end misgovernment in Washington merely by changing the ruling political party is like an alcoholic trying to solve his problem by switching from whiskey to rum. It will take more than a change in quack doctors to solve the problems of the American Republic. (p. 278)

Bovard does call for more personal responsibility on behalf of U.S. citizens. And he ends his book with the hope that Americans will awaken to the reality of their lost liberties and find a way to reclaim them. Perhaps Bovard — and the rest of us, for that matter — might be waiting for Godot, but in the meantime one hopes that he will continue to raise hell and take names.

July 28, 2004

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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