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John McCain as a Hood Ornament

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The New York Times has William Kristol on its opinion page, and the Wall Street Journal now has Thomas Frank. What Kristol writes could be called scholarship only if Mary Matalin got to define the term; with Frank, his work is the real thing.

In a recent WSJ column, Frank argues that attacking John McCain

"is pointless. The man no longer stands for anything. He has transformed himself into a cipher, a hood ornament on a hit-and-run machine."

Don't rail against the hood ornament, Frank advises; take on the entire conservative machine and the destruction it has wrought for all these many years that it has been in power.

The full case for rising up in revolt against the conservative movement is in Frank's latest book, "The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule."

I know the cliché I'm supposed to use when I love a book: I couldn't put it down. I COULD put this book down. In fact, I had to. What I was learning was so appalling that at regular intervals I'd have to take a time out and walk it off.

For example, Frank argues that to conservatives, government-produced debacles, from Katrina to Baghdad to Monica Goodling-style justice, are not cause for shame or remorse or repentance. They are not just cronyism gone awry. They are triumphs! In winger world, the fault is not in the ruling party who installed Brownie and the numskulls from Pat Robertson U in positions of power, but in the inherent uselessness of government. We don't need competent people in charge of FEMA; we just need to privatize.

The Joke is on Me

In 1999, Rush Limbaugh held up a copy of an article I had written for an academic journal. He then insinuated to his snickering television audience that perhaps my research was "coordinated with the Clinton administration." I still consider that my best piece of cocktail party fodder ever - kind of a poor person's version of having a place on Nixon's enemies list.

For someone - even Rush Limbaugh - to think that serious social science could be coordinated by an administration or bought by a politician seemed so outlandish. How could it be anything other than a silly story told to amuse friends and influence no one?

The research of mine that Limbaugh was lampooning was on the place of lying in everyday life. I also do research on the science of marital status - for example, on the links between marital status and health, and on the implications of single parenting for children's well-being. In media appearances, I am sometimes paired with a representative of the right. One of my sparring partners was Maggie Gallagher. She is the co-author, with Linda Waite, of an intellectually shoddy but widely-cited book making "the case for marriage" (though for Gallagher, the case only applies to straights). She strikes me as stunningly inept in her command of scientific findings or principles.

I'm less surprised by that than I once was. Not just because her highest degree is a Bachelor's in Religious Studies; people can be self-taught. No, it is more because I have long since learned that conservatives actually do buy science and statements of scientific "findings." The 2005 headline, "Third Journalist Was Paid to Promote Bush Policies," for instance, referred to Maggie Gallagher, along with Armstrong Williams and Michael McManus.

By the time I finished reading "Wrecking Crew," these random threads from my own life, together with so many other seemingly miscellaneous observations, all fit together in a systematic and totally appalling whole.

It's About the Writing

I realize that in nonfiction, the point of a book is supposed to be the points in the book, but I also fell hard for Frank's voice and style. Here are a few of my favorite quips:

Lobbying "reform," during the Gingrich revolution, "was a form of idealism in the way that poison ivy is a form of ornamental backyard shrub."

The EPA was once "the government's largest regulatory agency, and its mission was broadly popular, as people generally dislike being poisoned."

Conservatism "is a movement that adores bullies, [from] Bill O'Reilly to George Allen to Michelle Malkin, a pundit with the appearance of a Bratz doll but the soul of Chucky."

Spoiler Alert: Here's the Ending

"We can now say of that philosophy which regards good government as a laughable impossibility, which elevates bullies and gangsters and CEOs above other humans, which tells us to get wise and stop expecting anything good from Washington - we can now say with finality that it has had its chance. Whenever there was a choice to be made between markets and free people - between money and the common good - the conservatives chose money. It's time to make them answer for it."

Uses for "Wrecking Crew"

I don't know Thomas Frank except to have said hello to him when he came to UC Santa Barbara to talk about his previous book, "What's the Matter with Kansas," so this post is not an insider's blurb. I won't get any kickbacks if you buy copies of "Wrecking Crew." Buy them anyway. We lefties need to support our own.

Buy copies and hurl them at every person who proudly quotes Gipperisms such as "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Buy some more copies and pitch them, fastball-style, at those who proclaim that every perversion of the right is practiced equally by the left.

Then buy one more copy to keep for yourself.

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