In “The Assault on Reason” Al Gore excoriates George W. Bush, asserting that the president is “out of touch with reality,” that his administration is so incompetent that it “can’t manage its own way out of a horse show,” that it ignored “clear warnings” about the terrorist threat before 9/11 and that it has made Americans less safe by “stirring up a hornets’ nest in Iraq,” while using “the language and politics of fear” to try to “drive the public agenda without regard to the evidence, the facts or the public interest.”
THE ASSAULT ON REASON
308 pages. Penguin Press. $25.95.
The administration’s pursuit of unilateralism abroad, Mr. Gore says, has isolated the United States in an ever more dangerous world, even as its efforts to expand executive power at home and “relegate the Congress and the courts to the sidelines” have undermined the constitutional system of checks and balances.
The former vice president contends that the fiasco in Iraq stems from President Bush’s use of “a counterfeit combination of misdirected vengeance and misguided dogma to dominate the national discussion, bypass reason, silence dissent and intimidate those who questioned his logic both inside and outside the administration.”
He argues that the gruesome acts of torture committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq “were a direct consequence of the culture of impunity — encouraged, authorized and instituted” by President Bush and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. And he writes that the violations of civil liberties committed by the Bush-Cheney administration — including its secret authorization of the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a court order on calls and e-mail messages between the United States and other countries, and its suspension of the rights of due process for “enemy combatants” — demonstrate “a disrespect for America’s Constitution that has now brought our republic to the brink of a dangerous breach in the fabric of democracy.”
Similar charges have been made by a growing number of historians, political analysts and even former administration insiders, and President Bush’s plummeting approval ratings have further emboldened his critics. But Mr. Gore writes not just as a former vice president and the man who won the popular vote in the 2000 election, but also as a possible future candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 2008 race for the White House, and the vehemence of his language and his arguments make statements about the Bush administration by already announced candidates like Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton seem polite and mild-mannered in contrast.
And yet for all its sharply voiced opinions, “The Assault on Reason” turns out to be less a partisan, election-cycle harangue than a fiercely argued brief about the current Bush White House that is grounded in copiously footnoted citations from newspaper articles, Congressional testimony and commission reports — a brief that is as powerful in making its points about the implications of this administration’s policies as the author’s 2006 book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” was in making its points about the fallout of global warming.
This volume moves beyond its criticisms of the Bush administration to diagnose the ailing condition of America as a participatory democracy — low voter turnout, rampant voter cynicism, an often ill-informed electorate, political campaigns dominated by 30-second television ads, and an increasingly conglomerate-controlled media landscape — and it does so not with the calculated, sound-bite-conscious tone of many political-platform-type books, but with the sort of wonky ardor that made both the book and movie versions of “An Inconvenient Truth” so bluntly effective.
Mr. Gore’s central argument is that “reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions” and that the country’s public discourse has become “less focused and clear, less reasoned.” This “assault on reason,” he suggests, is personified by the way the Bush White House operates. Echoing many reporters and former administration insiders, Mr. Gore says that the administration tends to ignore expert advice (be it on troop levels, global warming or the deficit), to circumvent the usual policy-making machinery of analysis and debate, and frequently to suppress or disdain the best evidence available on a given subject so it can promote predetermined, ideologically driven policies.
Doubts about Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction were sidestepped in the walk-up to the war: Mr. Gore says that uranium experts at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee told him “there was zero possibility” that aluminum tubes acquired by Saddam Hussein were for the purpose of nuclear enrichment, but felt intimidated from “making any public statement that disagreed with the assertions being made to the people by President Bush.”
And the Army chief of staff Gen. Eric K. Shinseki’s pre-invasion recommendation that several hundred thousand troops would be needed for a successful occupation of Iraq was similarly dismissed. “Rather than engaging in a reasoned debate on the question,” Mr. Gore writes, administration members “undercut Shinseki for disagreeing with their preconceived notion — even though he was an expert, and they were not.”
Moreover, Mr. Gore contends, the administration’s penchant for secrecy (keeping everything from the details of its coercive interrogation policy to its National Security Agency surveillance program under wraps) has dismantled the principle of accountability, even as what he calls its “unprecedented and sustained campaign of mass deception” on matters like Iraq has made “true deliberation and meaningful debate by the people virtually impossible.”
Mr. Gore points out that the White House repeatedly implied that there was a connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and Iraq, when in fact no such linkage existed. He observes that the administration “withheld facts” from Congress concerning the cost of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, which turned out to be “far higher than the numbers given to Congress by the president.”
And he contends that “it has become common for President Bush to rely on special interests” — like those represented by the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi before the war, and ExxonMobil on the climate crisis — for “basic information about the policies important to these interests.”
When Mr. Gore turns to the larger cultural and social reasons behind the decline of reason in America’s marketplace of ideas, his arguments become fuzzier and less convincing. His argument that radio was essential to the rise and reign of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini (“without the introduction of radio, it is doubtful that these totalitarian regimes would have commanded the obedience of the people in the manner they did”) is highly reductive, just as his argument that television has enabled politicians to manipulate mass opinion while preventing individuals from taking part in the national dialogue seems overly simplistic.
As for his conviction that the Internet can help re-establish “an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish,” it plays down the more troubling aspects of the Web, like its promotion of rumor and misinformation alongside real information, and its tendency to fuel polarizing, partisan warfare.
Part civics lesson, part political jeremiad, part philosophical tract, “The Assault on Reason” reveals an angry, impassioned Al Gore — a far cry from the carefully scripted, earth-tone-wearing Al Gore of the 2000 presidential campaign and the programmed “creature of Washington” described in the reporter Bill Turque’s 2000 biography of him, “Inventing Al Gore.”
Much the way that the movie “An Inconvenient Truth” showed a more accessible Al Gore — at ease with himself and passionate about the dangers of global warming — this book shows a fiery, throw-caution-to-the winds Al Gore, who, whether or not he runs for the White House again, has decided to lay it all on the line with a blistering assessment of the Bush administration and the state of public discourse in America at this “fateful juncture” in history.