Briefs -- Nonfiction

April 20, 2008|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to The Sun

THE TEAPOT DOME SCANDAL: HOW BIG OIL BOUGHT THE HARDING WHITE HOUSE AND TRIED TO STEAL THE COUNTRY By Laton McCartney-- Random House / 348 pages / $27

Teapot Dome was all about oil - and perfidious politicians. In 1922, with the approval of President Warren G. Harding, Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall secretly leased vast petroleum reserves that had been set aside for the U.S. Navy at Teapot Dome, Wyo., and Elk Hills, Calif., to oil magnates Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny.

In The Teapot Dome Scandal, Laton McCartney, a freelance writer, provides an engaging account of the affair. For better - and worse - the book reads like a novel. McCartney's cast of characters jumps off the page. But his obsession with Teapot Dome as the mother of all conspiracies, with tentacles reaching into the White House, leads to assertions leaps and bounds beyond the evidence. McCartney's tale is titillating, tantalizing and often true. But his sweeping claims aren't always credible.

FOR THE RECORD - A review of David Cay Johnston's book Free Lunch: How The Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves At Government Expense (And Stick You With The Bill) that appeared in the Arts & Life section April 20 incorrectly stated that Johnston advocates federal financing of elections. He does not.
The Sun regrets the errors.

To make matters worse, the documentation in The Teapot Dome Scandal is sloppy - or non-existent. Most readers don't check sources. But assertions, ought to be traceable, especially when someone's asking, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

FREE LUNCH: HOW THE WEALTHIEST AMERICANS ENRICH THEMSELVES AT GOVERNMENT EXPENSE (AND STICK YOU WITH THE BILL) By David Cay Johnston

Portfolio / 323 pages / $25

As a reporter for The New York Times, David Cay Johnston investigated collusion between politicians, regulatory officials, lobbyists and corporate executives. In Free Lunch, a sequel to Perfectly Legal, which exposed the inequities in the tax code, he shows how fat cats use the rhetoric of free-market capitalism to shift risks and cost to the taxpayers.

Since 1980, Johnston reveals, the rising economic tide in the United States has lifted all yachts and personal luxury liners. The "ugly truth," according to Johnston, is that the rich have gotten a whole lot richer by feeding at the public trough.

Free Lunch is a call to arms. It marshals more than enough information to feed a growing sense of outrage. Unfortunately, the book tends to be one-sided and superficial.

Even more disappointing are the remedies Johnston proposes: federal financing of elections and federal funding of all activities by our elected representatives, with receipts collected monthly and posted on the Internet. These reforms, he seems to think, will make politicians public servants and move power toward the people and away from K Street and the corporations. It's thin gruel, isn't it, even for a free lunch?

THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON By Susan Jacoby

Pantheon Books / 348 pages / $26

About one in five American adults think the sun revolves around the earth. One-quarter maintain that the Constitution established Christianity as the official national religion. One-third believe in astrology.

The Age of Unreason is a spirited, if not all that original, account of the constellation of forces responsible for the dumbing down of America. Jacoby does not demonstrate that Americans are more anti-intellectual than they were 50 years ago. Nor does she adequately differentiate ignorance, unreason and "junk thought" from one another. Nonetheless, the book makes a powerful case that anti-intellectualism has substantial consequences in the 21st century.

In dissecting "the crisis of memory and knowledge," Jacoby rounds up the usual suspects: video games; trash-talking, confessional, "reality" TV and radio; and blogs, iPods, e-mails and text messages have replaced conversation (and a willingness to listen to contradictory views) with a tsunami of self-expression. Jacoby concludes, "the core problem" that remains is that we seem unable to resist the "easy satisfactions" served up by the video and digital worlds.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.

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