The appeal of Rachel Maddow lies in her ratio of comedian to wonk. On TV, she dives into charts and graphs and long, winding fact trails, unafraid of geeking out because she can depend on her funniness to save her. She connects the dots from fact to fact, or statistic to policy, and along the way a parachute of jokes opens.
So, sure, I’m a fan. But I worried that Maddow wouldn’t be as sharp on the page. After all, she’s a big enough celebrity that she could outsource the hard work to a half-dozen MSNBC interns and a ghostwriter, sit back, and reap the royalties. Or she could crank out a polemic that’s light on evidence, make some jokes along the way, and call it a day.
In her new book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Maddow takes neither shortcut. Instead, she takes her readers on a biting, bracing tour of the rise of American military bloat. Maddow wants us to confront the size and heft of the national security complex we’ve built, and also to understand how its gargantuan growth is tied to the wolfish executive branch’s usurpation of the sheeplike legislature’s war-making powers. Plenty of legal scholars and others have been here before Maddow. But they didn’t bring along a joke parachute.
Drift starts with Thomas Jefferson and his distrust of the standing army. Seven pages later, we’re in the thick of Vietnam, and Maddow’s making the case that Lyndon B. Johnson changed the rules for American armed conflict. Unlike presidents before him, LBJ refused to call up the U.S. Army Reserve and the National Guard to fight his war, mostly because “he didn’t want to get Congress and the rest of the country all het up and asking too many questions.”
Maddow has two problems with Johnson’s decision. First, it divided the military from the rest of the country in a way that previous wars had not—and that the end of the draft has perpetuated. Since 9/11, Maddow writes, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population has been called on to serve. This has drastically altered how presidents tally the cost of going to war. “We’ve never been further from the ideal of the citizen-soldier, from the idea that America would find it impossible to go to war without disrupting domestic civilian life,” Maddow writes.
LBJ also set a precedent for sidelining Congress in the decision about whether to go to war—a decision that the Constitution explicitly gave to the legislature, not the president. In 1973, Congress tried to hit back with the War Powers Resolution, written to reassert its constitutional prerogative. But, as Maddow shows, that idea has been kicked around by every president from Ronald Reagan (Grenada) to Bill Clinton (the Balkans) to the Georges Bush (Saddam) to Barack Obama (Libya). Congress doesn’t declare war, and the president sends the troops anyway.
Maddow is very good on the master of executive-branch high jinks, Ronald Reagan. We first meet him starring in World War II propaganda films for the Army Air Corps’ First Motion Picture Unit, better known as Fum-Poo. Forty years later, as president, Reagan seems like he’s still in a movie when he tilts at the windmill of “Soviet-Cuban militarization” by attacking Grenada. Maddow reminds us just how thin the justification for bombing that small island really was: In an Oval Office speech, Reagan made Grenada’s new airfield sound like Castro’s personal launching pad when in fact it was built for tourists with funds from the British government. These are details that I’d forgotten. By making us remember, Maddow doesn’t just send up Reagan. She reminds us how easy it is for the government to make claims that are utterly ridiculous only in retrospect.
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.
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