This book review was written just after the 1988 elections, but the book itself remains all too timely. I fact, I can't recommend the work of the late Mr. Karp highly enough. All his studies of American history help to shed light on our current situation. See especially Indispensible Enemies and/or The Politics of War, or try a package deal.
By Walter Karp, 1988; Henry Holt & Co., $19.95, 255 pages
Now that George Bush is left holding the tab for Reaganomics, we all need an antidote to the maddening banalities of this election year. This slim volume of polemics may do the trick. In it, one Walter Karp, a contributing editor to Harper's, lays out an inspired 250-page rant against the forces of Oligarchy and Reaction (always capitalized) that have dominated our politics in the last dozen years. He describes, with an almost ferocious indignation, how the powers that be determined to reverse the reforms that grew out of the civil rights and anti-war movements.
In the second half of the book, "The Rule of the Right," Karp details the sorry litany of their successes thus far: the unenforced enviornmental laws, the erosion of civil liverties, the renewed influence of big money on elections, rising official secrecy and censorship, the waning progressiveness of our tax code, and the massive transfers of wealth represented by the deficits. There has even been some degree of success in combating the dreaded "Vietnam Syndrome," the elite term for the perplexing unwillingness of the populace to support interventions abroad.
None of this is unfamiliar terrain. It is in the first half of the book, "Destruction of a President," that Karp argues that the above-mentioned goals - crucial though they were to the forces of Reaction - paled in importance next to the task that really got their backs up: regaining control of the nominating process of the Democratic party.
Events slipped out of the party leaders' control after the debacle of Chicago in 1968. At war with their rank and file both inside and outside the convention hall, they annointed a nominee who had not won a single primary. After Humphrey's defeat, they were confronted with an inexorable clamor for reform. Instead of opting for open defiance, writes Karp, the party leaders decided that "timely concessions to the democratic spirit could always be taken back once that spirit had abated." The first nominee under the reformed party rules, George McGovern, was simply hung out to dry. The second (and last), the self-professed "outsider" who actually captured the Presidency, had a more exacting fate in store for him.
For the sake of his argument, Karp must take Carter's outsider persona and populist rhetoric at face value, without examining his background, which, arguably, offers some evidence to the contrary. Still, he makes a convincing case that Carter, like McGovern, was nomininated by the voters, and not by the party bosses, who gleefully set about sabotaging him from day one.
Karp describes, in some detail, the meticulous dismemberment of Carter's legislative program while his own party controlled both houses of Congress: the SALT II and Panama Canal treaties, the Sorensen and Warnke nominations, the much-ballyhooed National Energy Program, and a slew of proposed reforms. In the case of the Consumer Protection Agency, the Congress reversed itself to kill a bill it had passed earlier over a Republican President's opposition. Of Carter's renowned ineptitude in dealing with Congress, a large measure must be ascribed to underestimating the depth of their rancor for him.
While cheerfully decimating the interloper, the Legislative branch set to work constructing their laughable post-Watergate campaign financing reforms. The bills contained loopholes large enough to fly a B-1 bomber through, and resulted in unprecedented infusions of corporate funds into Congressional campaigns. Thus armed, both policitical parties continued to kick the supine Carter into submission, in order to prove, retroactively, that the selection of Presidents is best left to the professionals. If we are to believe Karp, even the election of Ronald Reagan was not too steep a price to pay for the leading Democrats to regain control of their recalcitrant flock. Witness, after all, the spectacle of the conservative wing of the party backing Ted Kennedy, of all people, against the hapless Jimmy.
Karp does not raise the possibility, explored by others, that the Reagan/Bush campaign - aided by moles in the Carter White House - may have cut a deal with the Iranians to prolong the hostage crisis past Election Day. Nor is the failed Desert One mission, whose participants included Oliver North and Richard Secord, examined at length. Incredibly, it almost doesn't matter. There is scandal enough in the Reagan years, and Karp is less concerned with conspiracy than with collusion.
In any case, a second Carter term would have differed from Reagan's first, mainly in scale and tone. A massive military buildup was planned, the groundwork laid by years of lies about Soviet "superiority" and American "weakness" from the Committee on the Present Danger. Foreign policy under Brzezinski (whose treachery is amply delineated here) could have been only marginally more humane than under Schultz, if that. And the Democratic Congress had already paved the way to huge deficits with tax breaks for the wealthy - however miniscule compared to Reagan's. A victorious Carter would still have been a beaten man.
Still, the Reaganauts were set loose to pillage the body politic, and differences in scale and tone turned out to be more surreal than any of us could have imagined. Karp enumerates their high crimes, misdemeanors and their failure to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." He makes his argument with such vehemence that even the mose jaded amoung us will be left wondering afresh at their audacity.
The author's focus throughout is on the common interests of both party's leadership, and in particular on the perfidy of the Democrats. His account of the implementation of Reagan's contradictory campaign promises- what Karp calls the "Crime of '81" - is exemplary. It is clear that the twin pillars of Reaganism - grotesque tax cuts for the wealthy (including negative taxes for major corporations) and the impossible $2 trillion military package - could not have been achieved without the acquiescence of the Democrats. It is also clear that the resultant tripling of our national debt was not only foreseen but intentional. Stockman and Watt have admitted as much, and Reagan unwittingly corroborated them in a recent Time Magazine interview, saying they knew the numbers wouldn't add up, but "we wanted to see what would happen." Here, too, the complicity of the Democrats was crucial. Karp accuses them by name: O'Neill, Wright, Rostenkowski, Byrd, Nunn (and though unmentioned, the name Bentsen comes to mind). Throughout the second half of the the book, their service to Reagan's agenda matches their hostility to Carter's in the first.
This sad tale is told in dozens of books, from Stern's The Best Congress Money Can Buy, and Brenner's The Lesser Evil, to Gervasi's Myth of Soviet Military Supremacy, and Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee. It is augmented, albeit unintentionally, by the various self-serving memoirs of the Reaganauts. What makes this tome unique is its urgent morality and biting wit.
Karp may well be preaching to the converted here. Though his thesis is unlikely to convince, say, Jeanne Kirkpatrick of the error of her ways, chapter fifteen alone would give a twinge to anyone with a semblance of conscience left. Karp tends to cap off a well-argued paragraph with exclamations like "What loathing of democracy lurks in these hearts!" or "From these lips does anything issue save lies?" The air of derision for the politicians he describes, coupled with a fervent tone that gives new meaning to that abused word "patriotism," makes this book a delight to read.
Liberty Under Seige is likely to be ignored or reviled in the mainstream press, but it has the capacity to fire up even the most apathetic among us with righteous rage. It certainly deserves wider attention in the wake of this pathetic campaign. As Noam Chomsky has noted, "even small differences translate into large effects for our victims, and judgements have to be made accordingly within the political system." Therefore, as Bush presides over economic decline and the Democrats lunge for each other's throats, the informed citizenry have got their work cut out for them.