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What We've Lost
By Graydon Carter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 352 pages US$25/C$34.95
ISBN: 0-3742-8892-5

The day the sky darkened

By Steven Martinovich
web posted September 27, 2004

What We've LostIf the presidential election were to be decided by the publishing industry, George W. Bush would lose convincingly this November. Somewhere in the neighborhood of six dozen books will be released by the time the election rolls around that are critical of Bush versus an embarrassingly meager collection singing his praises. Disappointingly most of these efforts, pro and con on the administration, fall into the category of being unconvincing ideological rants that preach only to those already converted.

Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter's What We've Lost is one of those unsatisfactory efforts. Attacking the Bush administration on a wide range of issues that include the environment, Iraq and the economy, Carter attempts to prove that the United States has been tangibly diminished over the past three and a half years. What We've Lost, however, is a disheveled mess thanks to Carter's lack of even the pretence of honest inquiry, his selective picking of sources, and data that in some cases been dismissed as inaccurate long ago.

Carter's analysis of the Bush administration's record on environment is one such case. Although you probably didn't notice it, on January 20, 2001 America's skies were darkened by pollution, the amount of arsenic in your water skyrocketed and every tree in the United States was felled, at least that's the impression Carter wants the reader to come away with. Despite the fact that by every conceivable the United States is cleaner today then it was four years ago, following a trend that dates back decades, Carter argues that Bush is actively working to increase pollution through sweetheart deals with industry, all of whom heavily donated to his 2000 campaign.

His analysis of Bush's nominations to the judiciary is even more bizarre. Despite the fact that dozens of his nominations have been blocked through an unprecedented number of filibusters by Senate Democrats, Carter argues that vacancies are in fact Bush's fault. It's also outrageous, according to Carter, that Bush nominates qualified conservatives to the bench because they believe in the same things that the president does, a charge that ostensibly only applies to a Republican president's nominees. Apparently Bill Clinton's near universal nomination of liberal judges was a stroke for moderation, not the same thing that every president done since the founding of the republic.

Even where Carter's criticisms are more justified – and to be fair there are more than a few, such as some aspects of Bush's economic record, Carter weakens his own case. He fairly takes aim at the massive spending hikes, increasing debt and growing trade imbalance, arguing that they are "not only injurious to the U.S. economy in the short run but may prove catastrophic over time." He falters, however, when it comes to attacking Bush's record on jobs. Despite the fact that the current unemployment rate under Bush is about the same as it was under Clinton – a period the media described as a vibrant job market – Carter argues under Bush it is otherwise. Remarkably, he also claims that any job growth during the first part of this year is a result of the war in Iraq.

Although What We've Lost is less venomous than anything Michael Moore has written in recent years, Carter is no less convincing than his less capable peer. Rather than even attempt a balanced exploration of Bush's record, Carter merely throws everything he can against the wall in the hopes of something sticking. The bulk of his data seems to come from two or three sources -- the Brookings Institution should have been listed as a co-author -- and a great deal of it has either already been proven inaccurate by reporting that Carter had access to or is so transparently ideological that its valueless.

To paraphrase a criticism A.J. Liebling made of Joseph Alsop, with What We've Lost, Carter is a little like the moon orbiting the earth, descending from his lofty perch at Condi Nast's corporate headquarters to lecture George W. Bush on his failures. There is plenty to reprove about the Bush administration regardless of where one stands politically but it behooves a critic to build a reasonably competent case if he is to prove the charges that Carter lays out. It's hard, however, to take Carter seriously, not simply because of his demonstrated animosity to Bush or his questionable research, but because he apparently allowed his anger to prevent him from fulfilling the first responsibility of the critic: genuine scrutiny.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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