Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Losing America

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, December 5, 2009

“Presidential leadership requires much, much more than an expensive pollster and God-given charisma.”

If someone were to tell you they were reading a book subtitled “Confronting a reckless and arrogant presidency” you’d probably think it was written by a right-winger, rather than a short-sighted beltway insider who can’t see out of the beltway box to save his own reputation.

RecommendationSpecial Interests Only
AuthorSenator Robert C. Byrd
Year2004
Length320 pages
Book Rating4

All political memoirs should be read after the pendulum shifts. Senator Byrd begins his book decrying the lack of background on the current president:

Presidential leadership requires much, much more than an expensive pollster and God-given charisma… gifted speechwriters… are not enough… [His] power has been wielded with arrogance, calculation, and disdain for dissenting views.

Byrd also laments the polarization of American politics and the lack of cordiality; only three pages after describing White House employees as “Bushies”. A page later, he berates the president for having no vision to beat AIDS—against a president who has done the most to beat AIDS in the known history of the disease.

Spending

We get a glimpse in the first chapter of Senator Byrd’s philosophy of government. Complaining about how reckless tax cuts are1, he reminisces back to the Great Depression, when he was in tenth grade. It’s bad to cut taxes because we might have another one. Sound almost prescient for 2004? Listen to this:

Any coal miner lucky enough to own a car jacked it off the ground and mounted the axles on railroad crossties to keep the tires from rotting until enough money could be saved for a new license plate.

Emphasis mine. That a license plate’s cost is a tax, and this tax kept his fellow coal miners from using their own property during the depression, appears to completely escape him. Taxes depress the ability of people to earn money. At least, people outside of government; inside of government taxes are (hopefully) the only way to earn money; this seems to confuse him. (There’s also the issue of coal miners owning cars being “lucky” rather than resourceful or thrifty.)

That beltway mentality follows through to his ideas on why Congress is unable to restrain “power-hungry” presidents. The reason is that Congress must investigate everything and legislate everything.

Is there a scandal? Congress must hasten to investigate it. Is there a problem? Congress must hustle through legislation to address it.

I had to read that section several times to be sure he wasn’t being sarcastic. This is a succinct description of the problem with the federal government today. It’s the mindset of a man who has been in politics far too long. Every problem is a nail that the federal government must hammer.

The worst part is that he does recognize the problems of haste. His denigration of the Patriot Act applies perfectly to the “stimulus” bill:

…a case study in the perils of speed, herd instinct, and lack of vigilance when it comes to legislation in the face of a crisis. The only thing worse than hurrying with a major and far-reaching piece of legislation… is hurrying out of a sense of panic.”

There’s no hypocrisy between his view that the Patriot Act was passed too quickly, taking at least 36 days2, and his support of the trillion dollar spending bill that passed in approximately 38 days. The problem, in his beltway-bound mind, is not that congress didn’t need to act; it’s that congress should have wrangled more on it so that he’d like the results better. Remember, he still voted for the Patriot Act, too. Congress Must Act.

There are good points hidden within the beltway mentality. Byrd knows that money is power, and Presidents want control over money. He despises the line-item veto, because it gives the president more leverage to get their own pet projects passed, by threatening to veto individual congressional projects. I’d agree that there is a danger that line-item vetoes will increase spending: because afterwards, not only will congressional projects get funded, but presidential projects will be added.

Byrd also decries unrestricted funding; “slush funds” for the executive branch. All funding should specifically state what the funding is for. This was written well before the mortgage meltdown, but a good example is the shift, after TARP was passed, from buying toxic mortgages to bailing out toxic businesses. That shift should have required going back to congress for that authority. Unfortunately, that authority would ultimately have been given in Byrd’s regime: Congress Must Act.

Fighting

In a short chapter on Afghanistan he laments the authority given to the President; sometimes I think I agree with him, sometimes I don’t; he’s mostly rambling incoherently. But he provides a perfect example of why Senators tend to make poor Presidents. They cannot take a stand. They are so steeped in compromise and collegiality that they cannot understand that true enemies exist. He can’t even bring himself to think that the President should call the 9/11 perpetrators evil. Even though “the word perfectly describes the nature of the attacks,” the use of “such raw simplicities… serves little purpose other than to divide and inflame”.

More spending

The “Homeland Insecurity” chapter is fascinating. Byrd seems to be completely clueless about his role in creating the Department of Homeland Security. Bush had wanted to keep his homeland security advisor (Tom Ridge) as a low-powered advisor rather than create a new cabinet-level department with massive power. Byrd kept trying to get Tom Ridge to submit to a formal inquiry at Congress rather than the private, informal meetings the White House wanted.

Because Ridge wasn’t a cabinet-level department head, congress couldn’t force him to acquiesce to a formal hearing. So they forced the White House to make Ridge’s position into a confirmation-requiring cabinet-level appointment. The result was the DHS and the reorganization and merger of “twenty-two agencies, involving more than 170,000 federal employees from over one hundred bureaus or branches.”

He then compares it to the 1947 consolidation of the armed forces into the Department of Defense and complains that the consolidation was going to take time and money. What did he expect? Just another Department to add to the intelligence maze?

After complaining about the civil liberties issues (which I agree with), his real concern appears to be that the new department isn’t spending as much as Senator Byrd wants it to spend, in the places Senator Byrd wants to spend it. He lists the money he tried to spend, and one item is 2.5 billion dollars for the White House to choose to spend by designating an “emergency”. Bush never designated the emergency. He seems utterly surprised that a politician would be given 2.5 billion dollars to spend at his discretion and choose not to spend it. “Fiscal discipline” is incomprehensible to him. He talks about “funds” as if the money was the congress’s alone.

More fighting

His chapter on the leadup to the Iraq war is mostly incomprehensible. On the one hand, he uses the standard trick of saying Bush “claimed” something in order to make it sound as if that thing didn’t happen, for example, “They charged that Hussein had gassed his own people.” He also spends pages going on about how Bush didn’t have the authority to go to war with Iraq, that he had to ask Congress for the authority. Then after going on to another subject, the chapter ends with the single sentence that Bush then asked Congress for authority. So what was the point of those other pages? I get the sense that the real problem isn’t that Bush doesn’t defer to Congress, it’s that Bush doesn’t defer to Robert Byrd.

Summary

He’s definitely a senator: he can’t stop talking. His afterword, at 46 pages, is nearly 50% longer than his longest chapter (32 pages). A couple of those pages, detailing his and Ted Kennedy’s attempts to stump for Kerry in West Virginia after Kerry pulled out, are the most interesting in the book. But then he returns to his near-sighted analyses3. He treads dangerously close to trutherism, especially when he talks about Condoleezza Rice. He creates straw-men and then flames them gleefully, imagining motives and plans from no evidence4. He argues vociferously in favor of principles that he jettisoned—for legislation literally ten times worse—within weeks of a Democrat entering the White House.

Overall, this is Byrd trying to atone for voting in favor of the Patriot Act (everyone in the Senate voted for it except Russ Feingold). Some of the things he writes here, I agree with, but he mostly blunders into them. Byrd’s shortsightedness and his inability to escape the beltway mentality that brought us the Patriot Act, and later monstrosities such as the trillion dollar spending bill (which he also voted for) mean that his book offers no solutions nor even any real insight into the problems. His philosophy can be summed as “Congress must act; sometimes it ignores me and acts wrong. It shouldn’t ignore me.” He never questions the base of his philosophy, which is that no matter the problem, Congress must act.

  1. Specifically, tax cuts for the rich, but his definition of “rich” appears to include me—most of the items on his list of tax cuts that only apply to the rich also apply to me.

  2. The exact starting date depends on which of the initial bills you use; the final Patriot Act incorporated portions of several previous bills. I’m here using Senator Byrd’s statement that “the bills came to Congress on September 19” as the starting point. (p. 46) Other bills in the history of the act came in as early as September 13.

  3. Probably the funniest, which also shows up in one of his speeches, is from that election. He complains that the Republicans used tactics in West Virginia that could only work if his constituents are “gullible, ignorant fools”. He later complains that such tactics worked.

  4. He does cite his own ability, since childhood, to tune into the vibrations of miners who plan to skip out on a bill.

Losing America

Senator Robert C. Byrd

Recommendation: Special Interests Only

If you enjoyed Losing America…

If you enjoy political, you might also be interested in Being There, Bulworth, Wag the Dog, and Taking Heat.