Mything In Action: An Interview with Glenn Greenwald

Random Lengths News | April 4, 2008
Great American Hypocrites: Toppling The Big Myths of Republican Politics.

By Glenn Greenwald, Crown Publishing

320 pages, $24.95

Publication Date: April 15. Preorder Now.

Glenn Greenwald, a former constitutional lawyer, began blogging in October 2005, shortly before the New York Times revealed the program of illegal NSA wiretaps begun shortly after 9/11. He wrote about the program and the lawless philosophy behind it in his first book, the Times bestseller, How Would A Patriot Act. Shocked as he was at the Bush lawlessness, he became increasingly shocked at the media’s indifference, and seeming inability to even grasp either significant details or the profound moral and political issues at stake. His ongoing analysis of Republican misrule and the complicity of the media in either ignoring or misreporting it has grown deeper, and drawn increasingly more attention, particularly since his blog moved to Salon in February 2007.

His focus in Great American Hypocrites is the national scene, where an adoring press lionizes one would-be conservative moral giant after another, following the template created by John Wayne– -- a thrice-married, alcoholic, drug-addicted draft-dodger, considered a heroic figure because of the roles he played, particularly during WWII when bigger stars than he were fighting overseas. In California, we have our own John Wayne knock-off as governor, and equally ga-ga press that never seems to notice the enormous plot-holes in his script, such as his continued alliances with polluting industries against the health and environmental welfare of harbor area communities. By illuminating the larger, national pattern, Greenwald's new book illuminates a great deal about state and local politics as well.

By Paul Rosenberg

RLN: You're not the first person to notice the predominance (not monopoly) of hypocrisy on the Republican side of the aisle over the past several decades. How is your perception/conception of the role and function of hypocrisy in Republican politics different from those who have come before you?

GG: The book is about far more than mere hypocrisy. That Republicans and politicians generally are hypocrites is nothing new. There'd be no point in writing a book to demonstrate that.

What I do think is new and requires focus is the vast gap between the Cult of Personality the Right uses to win elections and the reality of their leaders. Our elections are almost completely devoid of any examination of consequential issues or fundamental political problems. They are driven by what [journalists] Mark Halperin and John Harris have aptly described as the Drudgian Freak Show -- a series of petty, personality-based attacks and demonization campaigns designed to build up the GOP leaders into honor-bound, masculine and strong men of courage and moral fiber, regular guys of sterling character. Democrats and liberals, by contrast, are gender-warped, weak, culturally bizarre, elitist freaks.

That our elections are shaped by such petty and warped themes is bad enough, as it ensures that our leaders are chosen based on frivolous sideshows. But it's far worse than that. These themes are not just petty and warped, but also profoundly deceitful, because the personality attributes which the media uses to build up GOP leaders into Great Men of Strength and Character bear no relationship to the reality of who they really are. The outcome-determining themes are not just petty but false. And that huge gap, and how it's peddled to the American public, is what the book examines.

RLN: You begin your analysis with the example of John Wayne as a prototype of the hypocritical would-be hero of the right. What, specifically drew you to him, and why does he stand out?

GG: To this day, John Wayne is the prototype of the uber-patriotic, uber-masculine, uber-courageous Moral Republican Warrior. His imagery is the template that pioneered the brand and that the Right uses to this day to build up their political leaders.

In 1995 -- 18 years after his death -- he remained the most admired film actor in America. The Los Angeles Times said that, even years after his death, his image "exmplified the ideal American fighting man." After 9/11 Peggy Noonan wrote a column hailing the return of "the Duke" -- of real men who bellow: "Yer in a whole lotta trouble now, Osama-boy."

Yet John Wayne was one of America's biggest and most repugnant frauds -- in exactly the way that modern Right-wing leaders are. At a time when virtually nobody avoided combat, Wayne did exactly that, using the most dishonorable means imaginable, throughout all of World War II. Because the most successful male actors, including older ones, went to fight, he was able to stay in Hollywood and become extremely rich playing war heroes. He spent the rest of his life glorifying every American war and accusing war opponents of being cowards, Communists and traitors. He crusaded for traditional American morality, attacking others whom he perceived to deviate, while he engaged in compulsive womanizing and adultery, repeatedly breaking up his own family, and wallowing in pill addictions.

Before there was Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Newt Gingrich, George Bush, Bill Kristol, David Vitter and even John McCain -- there was John Wayne. One finds key parts of Wayne in each of them. To this day, he's the role model for how the Right conducts itself and the methods they use to swindle the American public.

RLN: You point to Rush Limbaugh and Matt Drudge as prominent examples of depraved moral scolds who started out as fringe figures but have become dominant fixtures at the center of Republican politics. You later talk about Ann Coulter and how the conservative movement cannot live without her. She, too, followed a similar trajectory. She got her start as a bit player in the Clinton dramas. How did this happen?

GG: What Limbaugh, Drudge and Coulter do is easy, shallow and cheap. The methods they use are those of the low-life gossip -- wallowing in the most depraved and twisted controversies as a means of attracting attention. People like them, and other figures on the Right -- such as Laura Ingraham and Jonah Goldberg -- were spawned by a filthy, titillating sex scandal involving public discussions of cigar sex and distinctive spots on Bill Clinton's penis. That's when they entered the public arena, and that's who they are to this day -- bottom-feeding sleaze merchants.

What happened is that the establishment press saw that there was great benefit in replicating their methods and joining them in the sewer. The establishment press did more than anyone to elevate the Clinton sex witch hunts to a matter of grave national importance, and formed enduring alliances with the Right's prime movers of those scandals. They joined forces with the lowest elements on the Right. And they haven't stopped since, so that now, Drudge Rules their World.

RLN: One way you talked about this dynamic was in terms of high-school social pecking orders. Indeed, you even offer some quotes in which media figures explicitly use such language themselves. What does this tell us about how the media are functioning?

GG: The establishment media, and particularly the traveling press corps which covers the presidential candidates, are adolescent from start to finish. They travel around in incestuous packs, chattering with nobody other than themselves and they create their own mores and social codes designed to reinforce orthodoxies. All sorts of people have written about that dynamic for quite some time, from Hunter Thompson to Matt Taibbi. Most importantly of all, most of these journalists admit this, continuously writing about our national politics using the most stunted junior high archetypes.

Like all adolescent cliques, personality and popularity dominates everything they do, how they think, what their goals are. They worshipped George Bush, the towel-snapping Frat Boy and the rest of his faux-high-school-star-quarterback comrades, while detesting and mercilessly ridiculing a whole string of nerdy, overly earnest Democratic nominees, from Mike Dukakis to Al Gore to John Kerry.

And John McCain, the Bad Boy Fighter Pilot, is the ultimate icon who generates this sort of love and reverence among adolescents looking to re-live and improve upon their high school standing. Hence, the coverage of McCain is more blindly reverent than anything we've seen since George Bush pranced around in his fighter pilot costume on Mission Accomplished Day.

RLN: You point out a strange disconnect on "moral issues" where gay marriage is elevated to a high obsession as a threat to the traditional family, while those who crusade against it routinely have records of dysfunctional family life, with multiple marriages and divorces as well as adulterous affairs. Why is this such a contradiction, and why does it go almost unnoticed?

GG: Opposition among "values voters" to gay marriage is based in the claim that gay marriage violates Christian doctrine, but serial divorces, adultery, out-of-wedlock sex and cohabitation, and "second and third wives" are at least as un-Christian as gay marriage is. One finds explicit and numerous injunctions in Scripture against those. Beyond that, those heterosexual sins are far more common, and have far more of an impact, than homosexuality, for obvious reasons. Worse, while homosexuality in most cases does not involve children, these un-Christian heterosexual behaviors typically impact the lives of children.

Yet the pious leaders of the "values voters movement" have little interest in having the law ban such un-Christian institutions as multiple marriages and no-fault divorces. The reason is obvious. Many, if not most, of their flock -- and they themselves -- take advantage of these un-Christian institutions and want to continue to be able to do so. If the values voters movement was focused on condemning those far more common heterosexual behaviors, they would be condemning a huge portion of the voting public -- and demanding of them sacrifices. So instead, they feel pure and elevated by preaching against something -- homosexuality -- that requires no sacrifice or cost. It's cost-free moralizing, the most worthless and exploitative kind.

One of the most amazing spectacles is watching politicians with extremely untraditional and un-Christian relationships -- such as John McCain, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, etc. -- talk about the importance of preserving "traditional marriage," all while demanding that the law recognize their own extremely untraditional relationships as valid marriage. They give a speech on how critical it is that the law only recognize "traditional marriages" and then they return home to their second and third wives (former mistresses), step-children, half-siblings, and the latest girlfriend.

RLN: In the last chapter, you point out a number of parallels between Bush and McCain -- both as individuals, and in terms of how the media covers for them. This is, potentially, particularly damaging, since the American people have grown sick and tired of Bush, and many seem to think that McCain somehow represents a change from him. Could you quickly highlight the similarities?

GG: Just as was true for Bush in 2000, McCain is running at a time when the Republican brand is sullied (in 2000 because of the ugly Gingrich/impeachment crusades and in 2008 because of the destructive Bush years). Thus, McCain is being politically marketed in exactly the same way that Bush the presidential candidate was (he's a uniter not divider; a new kind of Republican; you always know where he stands; he's a conservative who deviates from dogma and appeals to Democrats; he transcends partisanship; we're going to be a more humble nation, etc. etc.). It's exactly the same wrapping. And the media believed all of that about Bush and they now believe it all about McCain.

RLN: What's the most important take-away from your book? What do Democratic politicians need to do? What do journalists need to do? And what do ordinary Americans need to do to take our country back?

GG: Democrats have been extremely poor at engaging these "character" and personality-based electoral tactics. Many liberals are squeamish about using these lowly and ignoble tactics and think they should be ignored, so that they'll "rise above" them.

That's an understandable sentiment, but it has to stop, because it's fatal. Until it does, the Right in this country will wield a huge electoral advantage, and will be able to win elections completely irrespective of the fact that their policies and positions are despised by majorities, even large majorities of Americans.

The point isn't to start lowering oneself to that level and copying the worst parts of the Right's behavior. The point is to neutralize what they do so that it's no longer one-sided. If one country possesses nuclear weapons, a rival country wants to obtain them not to use them, but to render their use irrational, impossible. That's what Democrats and liberals must start doing with these election rituals.

Like most right-wing leaders, the life of John McCain is chock full of dishonorable, ugly behavior. Huge numbers of female voters would be disgusted by the details of how and why he dumped his first wife, after she was in a disfiguring car accident that caused her to gain much weight and lose several inches of height, in order to marry his much younger, prettier and extremely rich mistress with whom he had been committing adultery while his first wife raised his three children. His public life is filled with corruption, deceit, lobbyist dependency, and a complete lack of principle. He holds himself out as a principled torture opponent but is, in fact, the single greatest enabler of legalizing torture in this country, from his 2005 bill which exempted the CIA from torture prohibitions to his 2006 leadership in enacting the Military Commissions Act to his opposition this year to the waterboard ban.

McCain's character is extremely vulnerable to the sort of demonization campaigns that have destroyed one Democrat after the next. That is true for the right-wing as a whole. Substantial parts of the book are dedicated to demonstrating that in order to undermine, once and for all, the deceitful though potent marketing packaging which the establishment press uses to glorify and put into power right-wing leaders in this country.

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