This special, forty-page issue is one of two the Observer devotes each year (summer and winter) to what is now defined in cyber-slang as “treeware,” or “dead tree editions”: those cheaply produced, highly portable, energy efficient, user- and eyesight-friendly, completely self-contained, miniaturized knowledge storage devices also known as “books.” Although we are told incessantly that, any day now, printed books will be rendered obsolete – no doubt replaced by some instantaneous message processing system that will enable well-heeled and soft-headed “users” to download several volumes of priceless information, quickly and effortlessly, directly into their brains – for most of us, that day remains a good way off. Authors go on writing, and at least a few of us go on reading.
And at the Observer, we still give thanks for both. In compiling these Book Issues, we try to bring together reading and writing of special and eclectic sorts: Texas subjects and Texas authors, certainly, but also books for those interested in national progressive politics as well as new cultural movements, reviewers with an eye for pettifoggery as well as excellence, young writers alert to the latest thing and experienced authors wary of ephemeral fads – and always, original writing of all kinds, bringing its energy and attentions to these pages, whatever the immediate subject.
What you will find in this issue, among other things, is Robert Sherrill turning his practiced journalist’s eye to the encyclopedic work of a couple of fellow journalists, Joe Conason and Gene Lyons. Conason and Lyons have been covering the Clinton Witchhunt for several years, and their new book is an impressive analytical history of the unlikely cabal of small-town hustlers, bitterly frustrated ideologues, and big-money cranks who spent more than a decade trying to destroy one U.S. politician, by any means necessary. The intern named Monica doesn’t even enter the story until it’s nearly concluded, and that oddity in itself reflects the extraordinary, almost surreal strangeness of the last eight American years. Sherrill calls The Hunting of the President the most “disgustingly fascinating” political book he’s ever read, and his recounting of the record of our recent national disgrace makes tangible both the fascination and the disgust.
In a selection a little unusual for a Books Issue, we also include a news feature that just wouldn’t wait for another month: Lucius Lomax’s “The Plot to Hijack the Alamo Flag.” Lomax has made a specialty of the out-of-the-way stories that, but for his dogged legwork, would remain hidden in the records of important but largely obscure state agencies. In “The Plot,” he has pieced together from state archive documents, interviews, and open records requests a historical mystery tale: the curious and shameless attempt to bring back to Texas the legendary Alamo Flag, captured and still held by Mexico, by means of a combination of diplomatic seduction and arrogant dishonesty that should shame its designers – but probably won’t. We only hope that the Observer’s exposure of their hypocritical (and frankly comic) shenanigans will make it a little more difficult for this particularly rum bunch of foreign-service players to continue their childish and embarrassing international subterfuge.
Having taken on backroom national politics and foolish foreign policy, we don’t neglect old-time religion. In her review of books on, respectively, voudou and fundamentalism, Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton manages to suggest thoughtful connections between downhome spiritual traditions that more usually maintain a wary and not always respectful distance. American Voudou, we should note, was written by a distinguished former Observer editor, Rod Davis. And Ann Rowe Seaman, the biographer of Swaggart, is also a sometime Austinite. (That fact may at least suggest that the state capital is not entirely, as some would like to maintain, a spiritual desert.)
Another Observer contributor, Bill Adler, passes by in honor, as the author of Mollie’s Job, one of the best (and most compulsively readable) of the current crop of books on NAFTA and its aftermath. We excerpted Mollie’s Job earlier in the year, but wanted to give a fuller sense of the range and vitality of Adler’s achievement. James Sledd, who last issue delivered an insightful commentary upon the life of Michael Harrington, returns here with a reflective essay on “Ebonics,” a linguistic invention that has a good deal to say about the continuing racial divisions of our persistently color-struck nation. Readers of Texas detective fiction will have noticed a regional cottage industry beginning to collect around San Antonio (Rick Riordan, Jay Brandon); Clay Reynolds takes a close look at the latest hometown thriller from novelist Jim Sanderson. And there’s more: James Hoggard on William Harrison, Bill Adler on Cuban baseball, George Reiter on technological arrogance, and a “Back Page” romance that involves a certain former President in the role of Hunk of Burnin’ Love.
In her Afterword, poet and teacher Jenny Browne recreates the art of bringing the language of poetry to the elementary school classroom, in this instance to children for whom English may still be both a fearful and magical endeavor. As always, poetry editor Naomi Shihab Nye has chosen a special Books Issue offering by Fran Hillyer and Daniel Durham.
Finally, as an unexpected and delightful bonus, El Paso writer Elroy Bode returns to the Observer with a group of “Summer Sketches,” remarkable examples of the brief, lyrical meditation that he has made his signature form. In combination with the photographs of Alan Pogue and the design by Julia Austin, Bode’s sketches provide a philosophical oasis in the long Texas summer.
Inevitably, summer and winter, more than a few books we’d like to read and review still get away from us. One additional volume we’d like to call attention to just now is Frances FitzGerald’s extraordinary Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War. A comprehensive history of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, Way Out There is more broadly a fascinating study of U.S. defense politics over the last two decades, as seen through the truth-revealing prism of the space weapons program (of many incarnations) popularly known as “Star Wars.” As FitzGerald meticulously documents, Reagan’s Folly is an enormously expensive, military-toy fantasy with little or no relation to practical weaponry, borne of paranoid politics compounded by bad science, and nursed by defense contractor greed. It violates our current treaty obligations, and rather than make the nation safer, it will create both greater risk of catastrophic accident and an incentive for pre-emptive enemy attack. Yet despite all this – having survived endless practical failures throughout the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations – it will probably be built in some form, as a permanent monument to imperial military waste and bi-partisan political stupidity.
On July 8, a few days before this issue went to press, the Pentagon announced that yet another test of its anti-missile system had failed (as most have done, for a system that requires perfection to make sense). “This is a very difficult, challenging job,” explained Lieutenant General Ronald T. Kadish. “This is rocket science.” On page 494 of Way Out There, Fitzgerald recounts that in the spring of 1997, Lieutenant General Lester Lyle was trying to explain to Congress why that season’s particular incarnation of Pentagon anti-missile missiles had (again) failed all four of its tests. “This is really rocket science,” said Lyle. Yup, they really say this stuff.
Asked for a response to the most recent failed test, Vice President Al Gore said he would wait for further information. Governor George W. Bush announced, “I remain confident that given the right leadership, America can develop an effective missile defense system.… Development of a missile defense system will be a priority in my administration.”
As Yogi used to say, it’s déjà vu all over again. – M.K.