What We’ve Lost

By Graydon Carter

Over the last twenty years voter turnout for US presidential elections has rarely gone much above the 50% mark. In 1996, it actually dropped below. This is an important point to keep in mind when trying to interpret American public opinion. The winner of any of the last several presidential elections has been the party of apathy.

That may change this year for a couple of reasons. In the first place there is the memory of the 2000 election being decided by the narrowest of margins. There has also been a rise in rhetorical and ideological temperature following America’s plunge into two unnecessary and as yet unresolved foreign conflicts.

Graydon Carter, an ex-Canadian “American by choice” who has been editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair since 1992, begins What We’ve Lost by reminding us that it wasn’t supposed to be this way. George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign sold the candidate as a “uniter and not a divider”, a “compassionate conservative.” Nothing could have been further from the truth. The compassionate conservative and great uniter has declared that any foreign country not with him is against him while pursuing “a harsh, far-right-wing effort to roll back decades of liberal legislation” at home, including efforts to reduce or eliminate the right to abortion, affirmative action, environmental protections and various civil liberty safeguards.

Critics of the Bush administration have a tendency to fall into a trap. Aghast at the spectacle of a non-entity like George W. Bush being the leader of the most aggressively militaristic nation on the planet, they can see only folly in his administration’s policy. Folly there has been, but this is not a White House, as Carter phrases it, “without judgment or foresight”. There is an agenda. That such an agenda is geared for disaster – from a train wreck of a federal budget that will leave little standing in the way of non-defense spending, to an apocalyptic Rapture in the Middle East – doesn’t mean it is without foresight.

Coming out just weeks before the election, What We’ve Lost is very much an occasional book. It is most valuable in its discussion of what is being lost in terms of environmental protection and legal safeguards. One doesn’t hear enough about these things. The environment is almost certainly the most important issue facing us today, and in many immediate ways, but it rarely finds its way to the top of the news broadcasts. Administration secrecy and spin (both well documented here) play a part. But it may be that few people care. The majority party of apathy rules. As a result, many Americans now seem willing to support economic policies like tax cuts for corporations and the super rich that are clearly to their own detriment. Meanwhile, we are told that almost 60 percent of American women don’t consider abortion to be a major issue. In the face of such indifference it’s easy for radicals full of passionate conviction are able to force the debate onto pseudo-issues like security.

Even by the standards of a book-of-the-moment, What We’ve Lost is not well-written. Indeed, it is hardly written at all. It has been compiled. Carter has simply drawn up a report card, most of it in point form and heavily sauced with media quotes, on various key issues like the environment, health care, education, and the military. One chapter is made up entirely of statistics, Harper’s Index-style. There is no human insight or historical perspective. Disasters like the Bush administration have happened before. Why?

Long after it is out of office, after the investigations have run their course, after we examine the wreckage to our land and to our fragile but enduring democracy, only then will we fully comprehend all that the Bush presidency has done.

That may be too late.

Review first published September 25, 2004.

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