Festival of Books: Documenting high-profile scandals and failures


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The works of the authors at the Sunday afternoon Festival of Books session ‘American Breakdown’ had little in common except for one thing: failure. Failure of institutions, failures of a family, failures of a society.

The session moderated by L.A. Times senior editor Scott Kraft included authors John Nichols (‘Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, From Madison to Wall Street’), Laurie Sandell (‘Truth and Consequences: Life Inside the Madoff Family’), David Willman (‘The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America’s Rush to War’) and Tom Zoellner (‘A Safeway in Arizona: What the Gabrielle Giffords Shooting Tells Us about the Grand Canyon State and Life in Arizona’).


Willman, an investigative reporter in the L.A. Times Washington bureau, covered the twists and turns of the investigation into the anthrax attacks that began in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He examined how mistakes by federal investigators and the media ruined the career of Steven Hatfill, a government scientist, originally accused as the man behind the attacks, and then how the investigation ultimately led to Bruce Ivins, who was set to be indicted before he killed himself.

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Sandell, a freelance magazine writer and a memoirist writing about her own pathological liar father, spent hundreds of hours with the Madoff family for her book, which chronicled their struggle after patriarch Bernard Madoff was caught running an elaborate Ponzi scheme.

She said Bernard Madoff — who, for various reasons, she didn’t interview for the book — tried to protect his sons while also using them as a shield from his crimes. While reporting the book, she said, she built up a kinship with Andrew Madoff. She connected with him because of the similar issues she has with her own father, whom she hasn’t spoken to in eight years. After the time she’s spent with the sons, she has concluded they didn’t know about their father’s schemes.

Zoellner, a former journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Arizona Republic who became a speechwriter for his friend Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, wrote about the various events in Arizona history that led up to Giffords being shot by a deranged man in a grocery store parking lot.

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He acknowledged that it was just one troubled individual, Jared Lee Loughner, who pulled the trigger that Saturday morning, but those who have schizophrenia, he said, are ‘highly susceptible to their surrounding environment.’

And the environment in Arizona, he said, has become toxic. Giffords’ previous campaign was a good example of that. ‘Terrible things were said about Gabrielle during that season,’ he said. ‘It made me very uncomfortable.’

It’s a state that has become fractured by the bursting of the housing bubble, over immigration issues and hostility toward the federal government. Arizona’s ‘a state built on federal largess,’ he said, ‘and we love to forget that.’

‘Arizona’s a state where it’s easy to be lonely,’ he said.

Nichols is a Washington correspondent for the Nation magazine and a native of Wisconsin. He wrote about the failure, in his view, of the government in Wisconsin — and one man in particular, Republican Gov. Scott Walker — and the uprising that it spurred: College students occupied the Capitol, and at one demonstration, 8,000 people attended the protest. He also noted one sign that stuck out to him, written in Arabic: ‘If Egypt can get rid of Hosni Mubarak, Wisconsin can get rid of Scott Walker.’

The recall campaigns that followed, and remain ongoing, are a monumental event in the pursuit of what the founding fathers wanted, he said. ‘It does not protect your rights,’ Nichols said of the 1st Amendment. ‘It tells you what to do when bad guys are in charge.’


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