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The rhetoric and the research all target Bush -- the jokes too

Special to The Times

GREG PALAST begins, “ ‘So Osama walks into this bar, see? ... and Bush says, “Whad’l’ya have, pardner?” and Osama says....’ ”

With that, and a tongue-firmly-in-cheek aside that “security is no joking matter,” Palast is off and running into the world of “Armed Madhouse,” taking readers headlong on a tragicomic, picaresque ride of war-for-oil foreign policy and war-on-the-poor domestic policy, of Bush Republicans who, although savvy enough to systematically disenfranchise minority voters in two national elections, nevertheless demonstrate remarkable ineptitude in actual governance.

Palast, a tough-talking, fedora-wearing corporate fraud investigator turned intrepid journalist, has a habit for finding actual documents and then using them in edgy exposes for BBC’s “Newsnight” and the Guardian newspapers in Britain (though too edgy, it would appear, for American audiences). “You want something heartwarming ... ?” Palast warns. “Buy a puppy. But if you want just the facts, ma’am -- facts rarely cuddly or cute -- here’s your book.”

As crusading reporter-narrator, Palast is salty and likable, especially when confronting harebrained apologists and flacks who, here, are always up to no good. For example, in the lead-up to the 2004 election, Palast stumbles upon a file sent out by the Republican National Committee called CAGING.XLS. Turns out, it’s a list of voters in poor African American neighborhoods in Florida. “Why would the campaign chiefs want that?” Palast asks rhetorically. In Tallahassee, he confronts Republican Party spokesman Joseph Agostini, who tells him it’s actually a list of potential donors. “Do you get a lot of major donors from poor, African-American neighborhoods?” Palast asks.

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The list, Palast tells us, is a challenge list, part of what he describes as a Republican strategy to disenfranchise poor minority (read: Democratic) voters, thus helping to ensure a Bush victory. In New Mexico, which Bush won by 5,988 votes in 2004, Palast uncovers 21,084 ballots with no vote registered for president, 89% of which just happen to come from nonwhite voters. In closely contested Ohio, Palast finds that a remarkable 14.4% of votes in predominantly black Cleveland precincts were “spoiled” versus 1.6% of votes in predominantly white precincts. A Freedom of Information Act request for voting-machine backup logs in Columbus, Ohio, gets a very suspicious reply: “The backup tapes have been destroyed so as not to conflict with the official tally and create confusion.”

Palast is also hot on the trail of why we went to war in Iraq. “There are kooks and cranks and conspiracy nuts out there who think George Bush, from the moment he took office, had some kind of secret plan to invade Iraq and grab control of its oil,” writes Palast. “They’re wrong. There were two plans. I’ve got them both.”

What Palast labels “Plan A” and “Plan B” are two of the many policy reports that were floating around Washington prior to the invasion of Iraq. Plan A, drafted soon after Bush’s election in 2000, “under the weighty aegis” of a joint task force on strategic energy policy of the James A. Baker III Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations, argued that Saddam Hussein was having a “destabilizing influence” on the oil markets (much to the displeasure of major oil companies). The solution: Put Iraqi oil in trusted, stabilizing American hands.

Plan B, also drafted before the war, came from the Heritage Foundation, “the madrassa of neo-con fundamentalism,” and called for rampant privatization of natural resources in Iraq, including oil -- logic being that if privatized and free from OPEC controls, Iraqi oil fields would produce enough black gold to effectively undermine OPEC and, hence, Saudi Arabia. Problem is, the supposed patron saints of Plans A and B (the State Department and the Pentagon, respectively) just can’t seem to get along over there.

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Sure, Palast will admit he’s a “conspiracy nut.” But even if you don’t always buy his Bush-and-company-are-destroying-America-and-the-world shtick, you’ve at least got to give him credit for trying to track down some actual evidence -- and for serving up a droll diet of waggish one-liners (like the one about Pat Robertson’s difficulties with the separation of “church and hate”).

Robert Scheer’s “Playing President,” by contrast, lacks that zing. Scheer, who was a longtime national correspondent and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has assembled a collection of his profiles and interviews covering all the presidents from Nixon to Clinton, as well as a selection of his columns over the last decade. The (very) loose thread here appears to be using history and context to show that George W. Bush is the least qualified, most incompetent president Scheer has witnessed. “As opposed to those who preceded him to the highest office in the land,” Scheer writes, “Bush affected a deliberate air of diffidence from an early age ... interpreting each challenge in turn as more of a bother than an obligation.” Yup, that would appear to be the rap on him.

No doubt, Scheer is a hard-hitting interviewer (he’s the guy that got Carter to utter the “committed adultery in my heart” line in a Playboy interview), and his lengthy profiles nicely tease out some compelling complexities in running for and being president. Problem is, the book feels thrown together, a series of historical documents in search of an excuse to be reprinted.

If you are a fan of Scheer or simply want to revisit Carter’s foreign policy stances in 1976 or Bush I’s churlishness in 1980, great. But those looking for a fresh argument or a cohesive narrative are probably better off elsewhere.

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Lee Drutman is the co-author of “The People’s Business: Controlling Corporations and Restoring Democracy.”


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