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The Flaming Moderate

LiberalOasis Interviews Eric Alterman

"The Book On Bush," by Eric Alterman and Mark Green, is true to its title. It's a comprehensive indictment, issue by issue, of the Bush presidency.

The book methodically combs through the specifics in the Bush record regarding the environment, energy, health care, economics, poverty, civil liberties, race relations, education, the judiciary, crime, labor and foreign policy.

It looks to be the ultimate reference book for 2004.

"The Book On Bush" will be the LiberalOasis Book Of the Month for March. On Feb. 11, 2004, Mr. Alterman joined LiberalOasis for an exclusive interview. The following is an edited transcript.

LiberalOasis: There have been a number of good books published about George Bush recently. What does "The Book on Bush" add to the canon?

Eric Alterman: We knew about all these books...As far as we could tell, none of the books did the one thing that we thought was necessary, but also that we both knew how to do.

Which was to systematically go through all of the significant policies of the Bush Administration and explain what they are doing, both to and for, the country.

You can't get that anywhere. You could get in the newspaper if you read the newspaper every day, and remember everything you read, and lots of newspapers, and put it all together, but nobody does that...

...So we thought it would be useful to paint a comprehensive picture...in part, because there's a great deal of power...to the argument that this is an incredibly extreme bunch of people, and...you see it in policy after policy after policy.

...I couldn't have written this book alone. I don't have the expertise to cover health care policy and civil liberties and so forth. I don't know many people who could have...

...The fact that you have two different views, coming to a single conclusion on what the meaning of these policies are, is particularly valuable...

...It's hard to fathom just what an extreme group of people [they] are, how little regard they have for what we think of as the public interest, until you examine the details.

And in this case, the devil really is in the details.

LO: Are there a few specific things that he has done to country that most people are not particularly aware of?

EA: I think most people are not particularly aware of most things. Most people have jobs, most people have lives...

...I wasn't aware of all of it. I'm still not aware of all of it. I still can't remember everything that's in this book.

So I think you can't know. Do you think you understand the No Child Left Behind story? Or the Medicare story? Or the health care story? I don't understand them all.

One point I want to make about this book is: you don't have to sit down and read the thing.

You can skip around and read the parts you're interested in, then have a reference point for the parts you may one day be interested in, but you're not right now. It's not written as some kind of narrative.

LO: In going through all this research, did you get a sense of what really drives Bush? Is it power, ideology, sincere belief that he's doing what's right?

EA: We say in the introduction that whatever the policy is, Bush asks three questions. What does big business want? What do the conservative Christians want? What do the neoconservative ideologues think?

And on a lot of these issues, they may not care. Neocons don't care about the environment or gun policy. Conservative Christians might not care about tax policy, although though they may.

Now the question of what does the president think and feel about these things is not something I feel qualified to answer.

I think that he's probably pretty comfortable with both big business and conservative Christians, but I also think Karl Rove's political planning has something to do with those calculations.

And the question of how the neoconservatives managed to take over foreign policy is really complicated, and nobody really understands what Bush's relationship is to them at all.

It seems like it's much more important what Cheney thinks there than what Bush does.

LO: So is Bush fully subscribing to the Paul Wolfowitz foreign policy vision? Is it that simple?

EA: I'm very reluctant to ascribe thought to George Bush beyond anything he actually says, and even then, I don't often believe him.

I don't know what's in his heart. He says he has a good heart, he's a good man. Let him think that if he wants. I'm interested in the results of his policies.

We don't call him a liar in this book. We don't ever say he's lying, because we don't know what he's thinking. We don't know what his consciousness is.

I do think that a man [that] tells us over and over again, "I'm 100 percent positive they have weapons of mass destruction." And then instead of saying, "Oh I'm wrong and I'm sorry," says "I'm 100 percent sure they have weapons of mass production" -- whatever that phrase was, isn't someone who's primary concern is that he always is scrupulous to the truth...That's a kind of giveaway.

But I really couldn't give a shit what Bush thinks or feels. I care what the results for the country are...

...I'm called a Bush-hater by the Wall Street Journal, but I don't really have any feelings about Bush personally.

I never met him [but] when I watched that movie "Journeys with George," I found him quite charming, to tell you truth. I understood the charm of the guy.

But I don't care if I like him or not. I don't care if I like Clinton or not. I don't care if I like Cheney or not.

I care, as a patriot and as an intellectual, what are the results of the policies for the country and the world.

And my view is that they are all uniformly disastrous. I can't tell you a single good thing the guy has done for the country.

LO: So what is the status of their foreign policy? With Iraq arguably a muddled picture right now, are they still on track to continue implementing a pre-emption strategy, or do they have to reassess?

EA: The one bright spot of the complete and total lack of responsible planning for the entirely predictable aftermath of the invasion of Iraq is that they're not in a strong position to take this show on the road.

I do think that the Rumsfeld military planning was short on troops because they wanted to have the option of going elsewhere: Iran, Syria, possibly North Korea, possibly even Saudi Arabia -- some of these people, not Bush.

And they screwed up so badly in terms of handling the aftermath that that's not a live option right now.

And they're on the record, and I have quotes [in the book] from [Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas] Feith, and other people, saying this is why the troop levels were kept so low. It was to retain their foreign policy options...and they mean other invasion options.

Certainly if you read the [Richard] Perle-[David] Frum book ["An End To Evil"], they're all about that.

Right now, they're not willing to come clean about the costs of these things, just as they weren't in Iraq.

But we didn't have the experience of Iraq before, and now...I can't imagine Congress being willing enough to give them a blank check, and also the Democratic Party is not laying down and dying.

LO: Do you think Democrats are even more afraid of a second Bush term than they were of a second Reagan term in 1984?

EA: They should be.

First of all, Reagan, he wasn't that determined. Bush is quite determined.

Reagan wasn't that energetic...He might even had Alzheimer's in the second part of his term. He wasn't that threatening.

You know, Nancy was quite liberal in the second half of Reagan's term. And there were all kinds of forces like Jim Baker in the White House, the Congress was divided, the courts had not been thoroughly taken over. There were all kinds of brakes on Reaganism that don't exist...

...Fear has its uses. I am genuinely afraid for my country, for my daughter's future of the consequences of a second Bush term. I am genuinely afraid of it. And it's energized me...

...I think there's a real healthy understanding among all sensible people right now that there is only one hope for the future of this country and that is to get rid of this man, no matter who replaces him.

I would be very happy to vote for Bob Dole or George Herbert Walker Bush. He is the most dangerous man ever to occupy the American presidency in the past 100 years.

When I took my oral, for my doctorate in 1993, I studied for six months for them, did nothing else, and I had to know absolutely everything that had happened on the North American continent since people were here.

I'd forgotten a lot of that, but I remember...most of my history of the United States.

And I tell you, I can't remember another president at any time in American history who was more ideological and less interested in the public welfare than this man.

And I think the fact that Mark and I had to fill a whole book of this stuff -- that's tagged as a liberal critique of the president, but I don't think it's terribly liberal -- is an indictment of the media's willingness...to roll over for this guy, in a way that is truly shocking.

It's an incredible victory for the far Right that they've bullied the media with their attacks for 40 years, calling them liberal when they're not, in order to prevent them from fulfilling their duty to the Constitution of simply calling this man to account.

LO: Are you sensing in the past couple of weeks that the media have started to become more skeptical and more aggressive towards Bush?

EA: No.

Mike Tomasky and I just wrote a cover story for the American Prospect where we say that the media has come to life a bit in the past month.

But I think that comes and goes.

I think that [during] the month that Saddam was captured, you read an awful lot of crap. And something else will happen that they'll spin and there'll be another lot of crap.

I don't think anything fundamental has changed. I think the media reflects the fundamental forces in the country.

And the Right has a very very strong pressure group movement. And the Left had nothing for decades, and it's now finally looking up.

That's the one bright spot -- that the Left has learned what bad shape it's been in all these years, and it's just beginning the hard work necessary to try to even up the field a bit.

Click here to order a copy of "The Book On Bush."

Share your thoughts about this interview at the LiberalOasis Soapbox.

(NOTE: A minor typographical edit was made to this transcript on Feb. 17, 2004, 11:30 AM ET)

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