He was just another working-class kid from the “scum end of L.A.,” the unfashionable northeastern side of the Valley, says Greg Palast. The old man sold furniture, his mom toiled in the school cafeteria, and he grew up in a pastel house sandwiched between a power plant and a garbage dump. “I was marked for cannon fodder for Vietnam,” Palast says, “and if you survived Vietnam you were supposed to come home, get your girlfriend pregnant and work for Lockheed.”
So far, it all sounds vaguely like a pitch for Paul Thomas Anderson’s next screenplay. But that scenario fails to account for how Palast, a London-based journalist with a growing transatlantic underground following, wound up writing one of this year’s most surprising and unsettling bestsellers, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” (Plume).
The 370-page paperback isn’t the type of book that normally generates media buzz and sold-out speaking gigs. Essentially a compendium of eight iconoclastic expose-essays with titles such as “The Bushes and the Billionaires Who Love Them” and “California Reamin’: Deregulation and the Power Pirates,” Palast’s book styles itself as a tart, well-informed antidote to the vapid sound bites of TV news and the lazy conventional wisdom of the mainstream press.
In it, the author lets fly with a string of bipartisan jabs at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, Newt Gingrich, Jeb Bush, the Rev. Pat Robertson, Bill Clinton, NAFTA and Wal-Mart among many, many other targets.
He dissects California’s bogus “energy crisis” of two years ago, probes the political backdrop to the Enron scandal -- “Enron was the Rosemary’s baby of the frightening coupling of deregulation and campaign cash,” he writes -- lays out the troubling details of the so-called cash for access scandal that rocked British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration, and lambastes globalization apostles who preach the overnight conversion of Third World economies without regard for the short-term social costs.
Peter Osnos, publisher and chief executive of PublicAffairs, a New York publishing company, believes that “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” which was originally printed in hardcover in Britain, belongs to a relatively recent wave of in-your-face books about politics that appeals primarily to a liberal-progressive readership, including Michael Moore’s “Stupid White Men” and Al Franken’s “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.”
“What’s interesting to me is that the left has generally felt that they had ceded that sort of populism to the right-wing talk radio people and a certain kind of anti-liberal, anti-Clinton screed,” Osnos says. “This shows there are life signs on the populist left just as there are aggressive life signs on the populist right, and I think that’s a good thing myself because the more vigorous the debate, the better.”
Since its Feb. 25 paperback publication in the United States, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” has sold more than 100,000 copies, with total worldwide sales of around 200,000. Last week, it was No. 2 on the New York Times’ paperback bestseller list and No. 3 on the San Francisco Chronicle’s. In March, it rose to No. 4 on the Los Angeles Times’ paperback list. This, despite the fact that it has yet to receive a book review in a major U.S. newspaper. Instead, sales have grown through word of mouth, and the book has received a boost by being offered as a donor premium in a number of independent-radio fund-raising drives, says Palast’s organizer, Ina Howard.
Palast’s ability to make sense of stacks of dense financial data earned him a reputation for doggedness (he holds an MBA from the University of Chicago). His caustic, analytical prose earned him a byline. These days, he makes his living as an investigative reporter for the BBC, prestige London newspapers like the Guardian and the Observer and a handful of left-progressive U.S. magazines such as Harper’s and the Nation. Able to dish out, as well as receive, tough opinions -- you should see his e-mail sometime -- he appears to thrive on Britain’s rough-and-tumble journalistic culture. “I simply cannot write in that solemn, straightforward style,” he says.
In his new book’s most publicized chapter, “Jim Crow in Cyberspace,” Palast reconstructs a story that he first broke a few weeks after the 2000 presidential election. After sifting through reams of voter rolls and other documents, he asserted that Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and his secretary of state, Katherine Harris, had ordered local election supervisors to purge tens of thousands of mostly black, Latino and poor white voters from state voting registries, ostensibly because they were felons.
Palast wrote that state officials knew, or should have known, that those lists were highly inaccurate -- among those incorrectly named as a felon was a county election supervisor. The resulting disenfranchisement of thousands of Florida voters, he maintains, may have cost Al Gore the election. Harris later responded that Palast’s reporting “distorts and misrepresents the events” in question “to support his twisted and maniacally partisan conclusions.”
The story first aired on the BBC and ran in the Guardian, then was picked up by Salon, the Internet journal. A condensed version also appeared months later in the Washington Post and Harper’s. But apart from a few U.S. newspaper columnists who praised it, Palast’s reporting barely caused a ripple west of the British Isles. Palast thinks he knows why. “There’s basically one viewpoint in America today,” he says, “pro-market, pro-free trade, limited government and definitely pro-globalization.”
Yet Palast, 50, says he’s “not following the left line. I’m following the information line.” He points out that his book has many unflattering things to say about the Clintons and Gore. His journalistic style, he says, is to let ‘er rip, regardless of whose sacred cow gets flayed. He’ll admit to one animus, though: “I’m driven by a lot of resentment, I’ll say that straight up. My daddy wasn’t Bush or Bin Laden or Kennedy.”
Not being a fortunate son, Palast earned scholarships to attend college, passing through San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge) and UCLA en route to the University of Chicago. There he did postgraduate work with Milton Friedman, whose supply-side economic theories inspired the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganomics. “What’s the point in talking with some lefty Marxist egghead with a beard who doesn’t have any information?” Palast asks, explaining why he chose to study with a conservative oracle like Friedman.
But while he was boning up on neo-laissez-faire doctrine, Palast also was working “undercover” for the United Electrical Workers Union and the steelworkers, examining corporate account books and arcane financial codes. He investigated cost overruns at the Shoreham nuclear power plant on Long Island and the rupture of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in 1989, on behalf of the indigenous Chugach people who lived along Prince William Sound. He also took a job with Union Associates, a New York company monitoring white-collar fraud, and began writing op-ed pieces and feeding story ideas to reporters. When he concluded that many of the reporters were either too faint-hearted or inept to follow up, he decided to become a full-time journalist himself.
Palast believes the U.S. media have largely given up asking tough questions and making officials squirm in favor of rewriting government press releases and swallowing press-conference pabulum -- with disastrous consequences for democracy at home and social justice abroad. When the British media beckoned to him a few years ago, he made the jump to London, uprooting Linda, his wife of 26 years, and the couple’s now 6-year-old twins. The family recently returned to New York, in part, Palast says, because his kids were starting to get “those ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ accents.”
How Palast’s own re-acclimation to America will go is another question. Currently, he’s working with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King III to petition the federal government to implement voting reforms, in line with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ scathing critique of Florida’s 2000 presidential election balloting. He’s also putting together a film about the Bush family for the BBC.
“BBC doesn’t care if I have teeth or hair,” he says, laughing. “My hope is to get back into America, but I can’t imagine doing this stuff. I certainly can’t imagine wearing a cat pelt on my head.”