In his first two books, How Would a Patriot Act? (2006) and A Tragic Legacy (2007), Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald took aim at the Bush White House. In his new book, Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics (Crown, 2008), he goes after both the party and the mainstream media that propped up Bush. Rail editor Theodore Hamm recently asked Greenwald to outline his critique.
Theodore Hamm (Rail): As one of many examples of right-wing hypocrisy, you observe that “In today’s America, war advocacy is a means of feeling tough and strong without having to actually be either.” In that sense, you see the neocons and other warmongers as heirs to John Wayne. Can you explain?
Greenwald: To this day, John Wayne is the prototype of the uber-patriotic, uber-masculine, uber-courageous Moral Republican Warrior. His imagery is the template that pioneered the brand and that the Right uses to this day to build up their political leaders. In 1995—18 years after his death—he remained the most admired film actor in America. The Los Angeles Times said that, even nearly two decades after his death, his image “exemplified the ideal American fighting man.” After 9/11, Peggy Noonan wrote a column hailing the return of “the Duke”—of “real men” who bellow: “Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama-boy.”
Yet John Wayne was one of America’s biggest and most repugnant frauds—in exactly the way that most modern right-wing leaders are. At a time when virtually nobody avoided combat, Wayne did exactly that, using the most dishonorable means imaginable, throughout all of World War II. Because the most successful male actors, including older ones, went to fight, he was able to stay in Hollywood and become extremely rich playing war heroes. He spent the rest of his life glorifying every American war and accusing war opponents of being cowards, Communists and traitors. He crusaded for traditional American morality, attacking others whom he perceived to deviate, while he engaged in compulsive womanizing and adultery, repeatedly breaking up his own family, and wallowing in pill addictions. Before there was Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, George Bush, Bill Kristol, David Vitter, and even John McCain—there was John Wayne. One finds key parts of Wayne in each of them. To this day, he’s the role model for how the Right conducts itself and the methods they use to swindle the American public.
Rail: You argue that the political coverage of the mainstream media has been “Drudge-ified—that is, completely taken over by right-wing dirt-peddling and twisted gender-based caricatures,” and cite several examples of sleazy innuendo being treated as fact (e.g., the phony story in the 2004 campaign about John Kerry’s alleged affair with a staffer). No matter whether Obama or Hillary becomes the candidate, we can expect more of the same garbage. What’s going to lift our politics out of the gutter?
Greenwald: I think there are two primary tactics Democrats must start employing if they’re to undermine this right-wing/establishment-media monster. First, they have to confront it directly. Americans have increasingly come to despise the establishment press. They knew that they are serving no good purpose. They know that our political culture is broken—not on the margins but fundamentally—and the vapid, trashy political press plays a big role in that. Whoever the Democratic candidate is, when confronted with tidal waves of petty personality stories from the media, he or she has to argue that the media’s fixation with these issues is destroying our political process, preventing it from fixing the fundamental political problems plaguing our nation. While America is in a recession, mired in an endless occupation of Iraq that is devastating on all levels, and plagued by a Washington elite corrupt at its core, our political press spends its time asking about Obama’s bowling, Hillary’s cleavage, and John Edwards’ hair. Americans understand how stupid that is.
Second, Democrats have been extremely poor at engaging these “character” and personality-based electoral tactics. Many liberals are squeamish about using these lowly and ignoble tactics and think they should be ignored, so that they’ll “rise above” them. That’s an understandable sentiment, but it has to stop, because it’s fatal. Until it does, the Right in this country will wield a huge electoral advantage, and will be able to win elections completely irrespective of the fact that their policies and positions are despised by majorities, even large majorities of Americans. The point isn’t to start lowering oneself to that level and copying the worst parts of the Right’s behavior. The point is to neutralize what they do so that it’s no longer one-sided. If one country possesses nuclear weapons, a rival country wants to obtain them not to use them, but to render their use irrational, impossible. That’s what Democrats and liberals must start doing with these election rituals.
Rail: So it’s the job of progressives to challenge the media script regarding McCain—i.e., instead of “war hero,” portray him as a warmonger; instead of a “maverick,” show that he’s really just an opportunist; instead of incorruptible, that he’s been quite corrupt, etc.
Greenwald: Like most right-wing leaders, the life of John McCain is chocked full of dishonorable, ugly behavior. Huge numbers of female voters would be disgusted by the details of how and why he dumped his first wife, after she was in a disfiguring car accident that caused her to gain much weight and lose several inches of height, in order to marry his much younger, prettier, and extremely rich mistress with whom he had been committing adultery while his first wife raised his three children.
His public life is filled with corruption, deceit, lobbyist dependency, and a complete lack of principle. He holds himself out as a principled torture opponent but is, in fact, the single greatest enabler of legalizing torture in this country, from his 2005 bill which exempted the CIA from torture prohibitions to his 2006 leadership in enacting the Military Commissions Act, to his opposition this year to the waterboard ban. McCain’s character is extremely vulnerable to the sort of demonization campaigns that have destroyed one Democrat after the next. That is true for the right-wing as a whole. Substantial parts of the book are dedicated to undermining, once and for all, the deceitful though potent marketing packaging which the establishment press uses to glorify and put into power right-wing leaders in this country.
Rail: Rather than suffer any consequences, Ann Coulter only increased her stature on the Right by calling John Edwards a “faggot.” But in the book, you say that Maureen Dowd is really not that much different in her gossip-mongering approach than Coulter. Can you explain?
Greenwald: For years, Maureen Dowd has been using her columns to denigrate the character and personality of Democratic candidates along the exact lines as Ann Coulter does. In 2000, she ran one column after the next impugning Al Gore’s masculinity, culminating in her disgusting insult that he’s so effeminate, he’s “practically lactating.” She did much the same with John Kerry, and throughout 2007 and 2008, has depicted Barack Obama as something less than a man, calling him “Obambi,” casting him as the meek and submissive slave to the domineering, emasculating Hillary Clinton. She writes on the most valuable and influential punditry real estate in the nation—the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, and yet her commentary is virtually entirely devoid of substance. It’s filled with the same trite though ugly themes which drive Ann Coulter’s similar gender-based, twisted attacks on Democrats and progressives.
Rail: One of the most provocative arguments in your very provocative book concerns your attack on the right-wing figureheads who “personify the sexual sleaze and amoral hedonism against which they endlessly sermonize.” The list is headed by Limbaugh, Gingrich, Giuliani, and McCain. In the acknowledgments section of the book, you mention your same-sex life partner. Right-wing smear merchants would instantly attack your credentials as a moralist—how would you respond?
Greenwald: I don’t hold myself out as a moralist. My purpose in pointing to the decadent, degraded personal lives of those individuals isn’t to suggest that, for that reason, they are immoral and thus beyond the pale. It’s to highlight the grave inconsistency between the standards they invoke for political gain and how they actually live their lives.
Just consider McCain’s family life. Last year, an Iowa intermediate court ruled against same-sex marriages, and McCain praised the decision, emphasizing how vital it is that the law only recognize what he called “traditional marriages.” Yet McCain is currently in a marriage to his so-called “second wife,” which, using any metric of “traditional marriage,” would be deemed to be adultery. Yet he demands that the law recognize his highly untraditional family life and “second marriage” while pretending to believe in “traditional marriage” values. Obviously, that applies even more so to people like Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, and the whole slew of moral polemicists who give speeches about the supreme importance of Traditional Marriage and then go home to be with their third wives and their various step-children, half-siblings, live-in girlfriends, and the like.
Rail: Both Reagan and the current Bush completely playacted the role of “war hero,” and in the book you provide several revealing, unintentionally hilarious examples of media figures like Chris Matthews and many others gushing about Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt. McCain, of course, can back up his support for war by pointing to his own war record. Does this make him more dangerous as both a candidate and potentially as a president?
Greenwald: Yes, it makes him more dangerous as both a candidate and a president. Our nation generally, and our media stars particularly, have a paralyzing reverence for the swaggering war hero icon. That was why it was so vital for the GOP in 2004 to ensure that John Kerry wasn’t perceived that way. Once someone is perceived as such, it is very difficult to challenge them, particularly in the area of foreign policy. There are, of course exceptions—Bob Dole was a horrible, failed candidate despite his combat heroism, although the perception of external threats was far less then than it is now—but particularly when the candidate comports with the war hero stereotype, as McCain deliberately does, the level of reverence that can be erected is almost impenetrable.
John McCain has been born and bred into a militaristic, imperial class. He believes in war. It is in his blood. And he has become more ideologically inclined to support the use of military force in circumstances far beyond those where our nation is under attack or the threat of imminent attack. There is a reason he’s so ardently endorsed by bloodthirsty neoconservatives such as Joe Lieberman and Bill Kristol. He believes in the wisdom and justification of starting new wars, and the fact that he’s a “war hero” makes it that much harder to challenge him on those grounds.
Rail: Given that all three current candidates are media superstars, is there any way to make the election a referendum on substantial issues—like Iraq, health care, the economy, etc.—rather than on bios, images, and personalities?
Greenwald: The way for that to happen is for people to demand it. I think polls demonstrate rather conclusively that Americans perceive fundamental problems with our political culture and our institutions. They are extremely worried about economic insecurities and our disastrous Iraq debacle and generally have virtually no faith or trust left in our political class. For that reason, I think their tolerance level for listening to the media prattle on about Obama’s bowling score and lapel pin or Hillary Clinton’s laugh will be quite low. The intensity and rapidity of the backlash against the inane ABC Debate a couple of weeks ago reflects that shifting sentiment.
Rail: Your last two books, A Tragic Legacy and How Would a Patriot Act?, both became New York Times bestsellers, yet received scant mainstream media (MSM) coverage. Your current book, Great American Hypocrites, is already selling like hot cakes, but is unlikely to receive much MSM attention. How would you explain this situation?
Greenwald: There are several reasons for this. First, I expend substantial time and energy criticizing establishment media organs and their media stars in a very specific and personal way. Anyone who does that, by definition, is going to be the target of exclusion efforts. Second, media outlets continue to view “bloggers” as competition, and the last thing they want to do is promote them or their work. Third, I purposely avoid forming social connections and friendships with people in the establishment media because I want to remain as objective as possible in my critiques. Those types of social contacts are an important tool for generating media coverage. Fourth, the media tend to promote ideas and advocates which fit comfortably into the narrow confines of the orthodoxy they spew. Those who write from a different perspective can’t be and typically aren’t accommodated.
In just a couple of years, I’ve managed to build a large audience for my work without having to rely in any way on the establishment press. That’s how I want it. It’s inevitable that as soon as one starts to rely on them, one starts thinking about how to curry favor, shape one’s message to ensure broader coverage, etc. That’s the last thing I want to be thinking about. Technology, particularly the Internet, now allows people to find a large audience and continuously build it without needing anything from the establishment media. They’ve lost the ability to monopolize our public discourse and they know it. The more that process is advanced, the better.