Rachel Maddow proposes solutions to decades of American military bloat.
The set piece of Drift is Iran-Contra, or as Maddow calls it, the “single hyphenated mega-scandal” that “created a crisis from which we still have not recovered.” The lingering wound is the theory of nearly unlimited executive power made by then Attorney General Edwin Meese. It went like this, as Maddow puts it, “ ‘Fuck Congress,’ only in Latin.” Meese’s ideas should have died with the credibility of Oliver North, but instead, they are still with us. For this we have Dick Cheney to thank. As a member of Congress, Cheney insisted that “Iran-Contra was no crime,” because nothing in the Constitution or anywhere else in America “could constrain a president from waging any war he wanted, however he wanted.”
When Cheney got a chance to make that argument once again as George W. Bush’s vice president, he took it. On her show as in Drift, Maddow has refused to let this go. Cheney is Maddow’s favorite in absentia target on air, her “white whale of Republican politics.” Regular Maddow viewers will recognize and especially enjoy the book’s dedication: “To former vice president Dick Cheney. Oh, please let me interview you.”
I wish Maddow was as scrutinizing of President Obama, not because he’s as accountable for the imperial presidency as Bush and Cheney—he’s not—but because he hasn’t killed it off either. Maybe Maddow didn’t feel she could write an Obama chapter in the middle of his first term, but she lets him off in a way that could read as partisan. It’s true that Obama has reined in some of Bush’s excesses. But on national security and executive power, he has disappointed, acting far more Bush-like than he promised on the campaign trail. Maddow could have done more with this gap; she mentions that Obama has more than doubled the number of drone attacks in Pakistan, but little else.
Maddow does the work to more than earn her central observation that American policy is no longer about guns vs. butter, but “butter versus margarine—guns get a pass.” We’ve eroded the constitutional safeguards that kept guns in their place. Maddow shows us how we’re the weaker for this. Then she closes by outlining, in handy bullet points, how to fix it. Make going to war painful for the whole country again. Get rid of the secret military. Quit privatizing war. Destroy the imperial presidency once and for all.
The ideas in the bullet points could have gotten a chapter each, of course, but in prose as on TV, Maddow is more about tearing down broken institutions than she is about building them back up. In the space she gives them, her fix-it ideas aren’t facile or smiley-faced. They are a coda to the serious project she’s taken on—a project that both plays to her persona and gives it new gravitas. Now I hope she becomes the peacenik of MSNBC. Rachel, if you can get those ideas a serious hearing, you will be much more than TV’s funniest wonk.
See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.