'Feeling Your Pain': Ideologue hard at work

September 03, 2000|By Paul Taylor | Paul Taylor,Special to the Sun

"Feeling Your Pain: The Explosion and Abuse of Government Power in the Clinton-Gore Years," by James Bovard. St. Martin's Press. 426 pages. $26.95.

James Bovard owes his readers a book better than the one he has produced. He's a prodigious researcher and clear writer. Trouble is, he's content to tell half a story.

Make that stories. Scores and scores of them, an encyclopedia of horribles. Ranging from the IRS to HUD, from the Superfund to the Americans with Disabilities Act, from trade policy to drug enforcement, from Waco to Ruby Ridge, he delivers a compendium of examples of the way a power-hungry, arrogant, hyperactive government tramples the rights of ordinary citizens.

The stories have one thing in common. They all read like a defendant's brief. Most of them in fact are culled from court records or congressional testimony, and suffused with the indignation and moral clarity of the wronged.

In newsrooms where I used to work, we had a short-hand for such stories: "TGTC." Too Good To Check. Because you knew that whenever you made that first call to the other side, the tale you'd just heard was likely to lose some of its punch.

But of course you'd make the calls. And every now and then, wonder of wonders, the stories would hold up. Then you'd have something. For then you could give your readers both (or many) sides of the saga, knowing its narrative power had not only been preserved but enhanced by your journalistic exercise in cross-examination.

It's possible that some of Bovard's stories could survive such a gantlet. I don't know. He gives such short shrift to any perspective other than the aggrieved party's that he leaves his readers without the tools to judge.

Worse, Bovard goes out of his way to undermine his credibility as a narrator. The book presents itself as investigative journalism, dense with 52 pages of footnotes. But it's written in the language of a libertarian screed.

Paragraph three of the introduction begins: "From concocting new prerogatives to confiscate private property, to championing FBI agents' right to shoot innocent Americans, to bankrolling militarization of local police forces, the Clinton administration stretched the power of government on all fronts." The rhetoric stays at same high wattage all the way through, a bit like a neon sign that keeps flashing: "Ideologue at Work. Proceed with Caution."

My guess is that this book has cobbled together some genuine abuses with a whole of lot of TGTCs. His chapter on the Internal Revenue Service, for example, is full of by-now familiar complaints from set-upon citizens about the tactics of jack-booted agents. This has been the subject of several well-publicized congressional hearings, and in 1998 Congress passed a law requiring that the agency fire agents who harass taxpayers.

I happened to be reading Bovard's book the day an article appeared on the front page of the New York Times under the headline, "Investigations Uncover Little Harassment by I.R.S." It reported that of the first 830 complaints brought under the new law, none had been upheld. It also reported a growing concern that tax scofflaws were not being pursued because the agency had been handcuffed by the legislation.

That's a classic dilemma that government encounters: how to serve the greater good while respecting individual rights. It could make for a compelling work of investigative journalism. Unfortunately, Bovard hasn't written it.

Paul Taylor, a former political reporter and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, is the founder and director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a non-partisan public interest group seeking campaign reforms.

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