It’s summertime and the reading should be easy. Or, at least, fun and educational for progressives. Here are the books I’m enjoying this summer: A double dose of Texas populism at its best in the new books by Jim Hightower, If The Gods Had Meant Us To Vote They Would Have Given Us Candidates, and Molly Ivins’ and Lou Dubose’s Shrub, The Short But Happy Political Life Of George W. Bush.

Ivins, a syndicated columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (who thankfully appears in the Free Press) and Dubose, the editor of the Texas Observer, a Freep role model, are long-time observers of the notorious Bush dynasty. A clan I personally believe to be the most evil political family in the United States history. Shrub does an excellent job of cataloging the rise of “Dubya’s” bizarre career and fabricated imagery. If you thought George W. was a drunken frat boy ne’er do well who shamelessly leveraged his father’s political power to gain preferential treatment, and a governorship, now you’ve got the facts.

Just like his daddy George Herbert Walker Bush, who became a self-proclaimed “self-made oil millionaire” by leveraging his ties to his prestigious father Senator Prescott Bush and the CIA to aid Zapata Oil in the early 60s, Dubya’s been pandering his father’s political connections since 1978. The sordid trail from Arbusto Energy, Bush Exploration, Spectrum 7 and Harken Energy provides juicy fodder for Ivins and Dubose.

Clinton’s Whitewater scandal seems like kids with a Kool Aid stand next to the worldwide antics of the Bush boys. Bush’s satanic dance with the Christian Right provides high entertainment. After all, Jesus is his favorite philosopher. I’m on a new kick myself – to create little bracelets that say “WWDD” – “What Would Debs Do?” ‘Course Dubya would think that stood for debutantes. Even more than Dan Quayle, Dubya offers the perfect target for Ivins’ rapier wit.

If you want twice the laughs, try Hightower’s book, which is twice as long and subtitled, “More Political Subversion.” Of course when you get as close to the political truth as Hightower does, it’s damn near sedition. Hightower tells us more about the real world of U.S. elections than all the talking head, millionaire beltway pundits combined.

Irresistible chapters like “Clinton’s Last Erection” where he writes: “From the mid-1995 forward, he amassed a monument of corrupt, corporate campaign monies – hundreds of millions of dollars that, if stacked together, would thrust higher into the capital sky than the Washington monument itself – Clinton’s last erection.” The book comes with nifty charts. Check out page 68 showing the 96% of Americans that give zero dollars to politicians. He follows it up by showing what the .0001% who “donate” more than one hundred thousand dollars get for their money, like the reactionary DeVos family of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Husband and wife each hand over a $500,000 check to the Republican National Committee and miraculously Provision C, section XI of the 1997 tax bill is modified to grant them a $19 million tax break.

Ohioans should pay careful attention to pages 267-272 with its revelations about he business practices of Cincinnati billionaire Carl Lindner and his Chiquita contributions to Clinton. Hightower’s final suggestion, “Hey, let’s gut it up, decamp from Washington, put our resources into the countryside, slug the corporate bastards right in the snout, and get it on with a grassroots politics that give regular folks a reason to be excited and to get involved.”

Maurice Isserman’s scholarly and long-awaited biography of Michael Harrington, The Other American, is essential and fascinating reading for anyone concerned with building a progressive electoral movement in the U.S. Isserman examines the complexity of Harrington’s personality and offers keen insights into how a Catholic boy who admired Senator Robert Taft became the successor to the legendary Ohioan Norman Thomas as America’s foremost Democratic Socialist. The architect of President Johnson’s War on Poverty had more fun than most during McCarthyism in the 1950’s as a sectarian “Shachtmanite” in Greenwich Village, drinking at the White Horse Tavern.

The details of Harrington’s political triumphs and failures in the 1960’s are ably placed in proper social and historical context. Since I was involved with many of these political struggles in the 1970’s and 80’s, including the founding of the Democratic Socialists of America in Detroit in 1982, I found myself re-arguing with Mike as well as changing my mind and agreeing with him on some issues. The book is more than a simple examination of Harrington’s past. It equally provokes questions on where we go from here and what is to be done.

After the acute heavyosity stuff, you might want to light one up and clean out your tubes with Steve Wishnia’s Exit 25 Utopia. The book’s a bizarre hybrid experiment that crosses Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Everything you suspected about punk rock life in the 1980’s on the lower east side of Manhattan, Wishnia reveals. It starts, two years after the Freep founding, with the 1972 Republican National Convention and an anti-Dick rally. A Miami cop barking, “You fucking animals don’t have any rights” should bring nostalgic tears to the eyes of early 70’s Nixon-haters.

The author’s utter disdain for Ronald Wilson Reagan – the man most likely to be the anti-Christ – Reaganomics and his “War on Drugs” comes through in road incident after road incident as Wishnia’s punk rock band tours the rotting rustbelt during the heighth of 80’s de-industrialization.

My favorite section of course is called “The Kindness of Strangers” where Wishnia sums up stops in Columbus, Cincinnati, Dayton and Cleveland. “In Columbus we played a Monday night in a gay disco, open to all-ages punk on the deadest night of the week. . . . There’s only about 25 people left when we go on. The sound is a sea of tin and no one’s dancing, but we rip anyway. . . . For an encore we do . . . Jethro Tull’s ‘Locomotive Breath’, . . . .” Summing up one heartland tour stop, Wishnia writes, “Not bad people here in Reagan country. Not cold-blooded advocates of eviscerating Central American nurses in the name of anti-Communism, but willing to not dig too deeply into investigative journalism. What they don’t know won’t disturb them.” He figured out in one stop in Ohio what it’s taken me 13 years to comprehend.

This is another savage journey into the heart of the American dream. The fact that Wishnia is alive is a minor miracle, sorta the feeling you get from reading Bukowski??. He sums up punk rock life much like a modern day Shakespeare: to be Kurt Cobain or not to be? After Wishnia’s girlfriend Courtney dumps him he offers, “Fuck it. If I’m gonna imitate Kurt Cobain, I’m better off writing three-chord punk songs, drop down on the verses and scream my guts out on the chorus. She left me for dead, but I’m still alive. And the sky is blue, and the bass amp is purring like a cat who’s about to get fed.”

Feeding the cat. Always the right thing to do.

Appears in Issue: