The veteran screenwriter William Goldman’s much-quoted nostrum about Hollywood—“nobody knows anything”—would stand up well if transferred to Washington. How anything gets done between schmoozing the halls of Congress, taking vacations, uh, “working trips,” glad-handing and working the phones for reelection is remarkable; compared to our system of democratic government with its meetings upon meetings upon postponements upon further deliberations, Hollywood executives do not look so bad. All their meetings and abundance of notes start with a concept and eventually, ideally, come to fruition on the screen. In politics, the real action (and the money) is hidden from the public; a movie made in the Capitol would simply show a pair of closed doors for ninety minutes.
Perhaps we have reached a point of no return. It is not only in Washington, D.C. that our political fundamentals of play have come down like New Orleans levees. In New York state, the government in Albany recently came to a stand-still for several days after a wealthy Republican persuaded two Democrats to switch parties and somewhere along the wacky way the senate chambers were locked so no one could enter; in Kansas City, the Mayor spent months fending off complaints that his wife was more than his wife but less than a paid employee; in Washington state, well, that is an entirely other story, possibly for Hollywood.
Still, there is a difference between keeping the trains running on time and dismantling the system. It is the latter, as represented by the past thirty years of conservative shenanigans that has drawn the ire of Thomas Frank. A native of Mission Hills, Kansas (and a Shawnee Mission East graduate, class of 1983), who went on to start a small, smart journal called “The Baffler” out of Chicago, Tom Frank continued his progressive liberal reporting in national magazines and in two books, “One Market Under God” and “The Conquest of Cool,” both of which critiqued contemporary American culture and business. His third book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” (after the scathing 1896 editorial of the same title by Emporia’s legendary journalist William Allen White), generated national debate over his scrutiny of conservative cons and other political pony tricks. The book’s attention-grabbing style, half-Tom Wolfe, half-H.L. Mencken, brought both verve and nerve to the topic of political persuasion.
In 2008’s “The Wrecking Crew” (Holt), just published in paperback with an updated Afterword that takes in the economic crisis still with us, Frank examines the corruption that inevitably came with the successful persuasion of the public. Reading most political histories and commentaries written in real time sometime later is often disappointing; so much was wrong, so much unknown. Reporting and publishing, though, as they undergo their overlapping revolutions, allow for more immediate response time. “The Wrecking Crew” still reads like the morning’s headlines, with all their shock value intact.
Politics operates on the desire for immediate gratification and the hope of short memories. In the conservative tsunami that washed over the country since Reagan’s reign (and spread to other countries like Britain, with the union-thrashing Margaret Thatcher), the full-bore rapaciousness and speed in which operatives, lobbyists, and hired officials both dismantled numerous government regulations and paid themselves off quite handsomely is, to this day, incompletely understood by the public. Whether it was the FDA or the EPA, ideology ruled. But wait, as the TV commercial goes: there’s more! Regulations undone were minor crimes compared to the major rules simply ignored, from Oliver North’s funding the Contras to the mass ideologue-first view of George W. Bush’s administration, when big things were done secretively, yet so many routine actions were brazenly tilted toward the self-serving—most infamously, young Monica Goodling who habitually vetted and rejected Justice Department hirings dependent on their politics.
Tom Frank approaches this widespread Disneyland-like fantasy with his deep reading in conservative literature. Throughout his writings he enjoys looking back to conservative theorists (and sometimes plain quacks) as instruction to contemporary polemicists. For example, there is the bizarrely titled “A Day in the Life of a Regulated American Family,” by one Susan Dudley. With its title pillaged from Solzhenitsyn’s classic novel of Soviet gulag life “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Dudley’s pamphlet extrapolates on American life “tainted by the hands of government.
It regulates the radio stations, inspects our food, fiddles with our cars, restricts what we can do with our employees, and it might,” Frank continues, “just declare our backyard a wetland if we don’t look out.” He adds, “Each of these examples is meant to terrify, and when the totalitarian threat isn’t immediately obvious…Dudley sticks in an extra sentence establishing its awfulness (‘John…is not made safer by the airbags’).” The punch line to this joke? “A few years after excreting this thing, Susan Dudley…was our government’s chief regulatory officer.” It is as if Disney’s film of, say, “Sleeping Beauty” were revised years later so as to make the evil fairy Maleficent into the princess.
Frank’s reconstruction of how conservatives spent years scheming and coordinating their efforts to demolish liberalism—one of the most influential, Grover Norquist, readily (and apparently blindly to the irony therein) compared conservatives’ approach to consolidating power to Stalin’s—reads like one of Philip K. Dick’s alternative-universe novels where everything is normal until one peers closer.
Consider the first President Bush’s “Council on Competitiveness, a secretive executive branch office empowered to review, alter, or overturn any regulation it chose.” Frank notes that such duties, as with so many agencies neutered by conservative manipulation, “would kill regulation but leave the regulatory agencies themselves intact and, apparently, on the job.” And he goes one further with a personal anecdote: years earlier, while in graduate school he attended a big party in Washington; whenever he told a guest he was studying history he was spurned “before I could finish the sentence.” A Republican friend “suggested a better strategy: Tell them you work for the Council on Competitiveness, he advised, a federal agency I had never heard of before. For reasons I did not understand until I came to write this book, the line made me an instant social success.”
The degree to which conservatives live by their paranoia and express it tenfold (witness the casual Nazi references in recent Town Hall health-care debates) is not a latter-day mutation. “The Wrecking Crew” goes to great lengths to trace the history and genealogy of American conservative thought. (One of my favorites is the anger of Barry Goldwater and others when they discovered the CIA had secretly funded left-wing organizations from the Forties through the Sixties: their anger was directed at, of all things, the CIA itself which they accused of being liberal.) The inadvertent humor of so many incidents does nothing to negate the real damage done, however, by emasculating the FDA and the SEC over many years. Forsaking the obvious targets for the labyrinthine matrix that makes up what the better-known higher-ups espouse, Tom Frank reveals the real power behind the throne. When Disney decides to remake “Sleeping Beauty,” Monica Goodling will be waiting for her close-up.
Thomas Frank will discuss and sign “The Wrecking Crew” at the Kansas City Public Library, at 14 West 10th St, KCMO, on Tuesday, September 15, 6:30-7:30 pm. (A reception begins at 6 p.m.)