4. Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right, Ann Coulter
This is the era of the Id Conservatives, right-wing shock troops whose rage betrays the dark underbelly of conservative thinking. They call Democrats “traitors” and feminists “whores” and say they wish the hijacked jets had killed everybody at The New York Times (this is what they term a joke). The queen of the pack is, of course, Ann Coulter, the kind of baleful, leggy blond you expect to see in bed with James Bond just before he kills her. Although Slander (Crown) was only one of the recent best-sellers attacking our supposedly leftist media — Bernard Goldberg’s slipshod Bias sold over 400,000 copies — it was so virulent in its anger that it made Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh look positively mainstream. And its sales marked something of a sea change in publishing. In the past, such books tended to be brought out by right-wing houses such as the lamentable Regnery (which is still releasing books attacking Bill Clinton). But after the success of Slander, the Crown Publishing Group (a division of Random House) got hungry for those right-wing dollars. It didn’t merely sign Coulter up for another hot-button jeremiad, Treason: Liberal Treachery From the Cold War to the War on Terrorism, it launched a whole new imprint, Crown Forum, devoted exclusively to tossing conservative readers their ideological red meat. In the process, Slander became the first book in history to radically change its publishing house without managing to change a single reader’s mind.
Mayflies enjoy a single day of adulthood, pass on their genetic message and promptly die. The publishing equivalent of this may well be Kenneth Pollack’s The Threatening Storm (Random House), which became obsolete the moment the Coalition of the Piddling (as Jon Stewart dubbed it) actually did invade Iraq. Still, during the six months after its release last September, Pollack was as inescapable as cheeping cell phones; you couldn’t turn on NPR or CNN without hearing someone intone the book’s portentous, pseudo-Churchillian title (this storm wasn’t just gathering). While some of Pollack’s success was historical serendipity — one can’t imagine making a best-seller out of “The Case for Invading Grenada” — its strength lay in his increasingly rare knack for coming off as a calm, honest broker with no hidden ideological agendas or talking-head vainglory. (I kept waiting for the customary debunking profile from inside the Beltway, but none ever appeared.) His evident fairness helped The Threatening Storm define the whole debate over Iraq by appealing to readers on both sides. Liberal hawks (such as The New Yorker’s David Remnick) used the book to justify toppling Saddam; skeptical doves used its arguments to show how the Bush administration was racing into things without thinking them through properly. It’s a measure of Pollack’s skill that, even today, both pro- and anti-war people can still think he was right.
One hallmark of Bush-era culture is the explosion of what Nietzsche called ressentiment— a twisted feeling of envy that comes mixed with moral superiority toward those one is envying. Such emotion has rarely taken a breezier form than in The Nanny Diaries (St. Martin’s Press), where Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus depict the comical horrors of working for the Boss From Hell — in this case, a chilly, narcissistic Park Avenue wife better acquainted with Prada than with her own son. This is the kind of book that people describe with crushing accuracy as “very good for what it is.” Yet what makes it so influential is the ease with which its appeal can be duplicated. While it would be nearly impossible to sit down and emulate a novel like Atonement— where exactly would you start? — The Nanny Diaries offers a simple formula for success. You take a bitchy rich employer, add an endless retailing of status details, and filter it all through a heroine who, despite her innate decency and modest prep-school training, clearly wants to own those upper-class accouterments herself. Do all this and you have the latest ressentiment best-seller, the egregiously ill-written The Devil Wears Prada, whose infernal fashion-magazine editor actually snaps at her beleaguered assistant because her latte is too cold. Can you imagine such wickedness? Much of America obviously can and takes no small pleasure in hearing that Manhattan socialites and fashionistas are shallow, selfish and mean. But reading about their bad behavior out here in the Hollywood of Scott Rudin and Joel Silver, where the term “you stupid cunt” is an accepted form of address, these books’ idea of a really bad boss feels positively quaint.
7. Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Robert Kagan
The terror attacks of September 11 were soon followed by a second assault: the Attack of the Foreign Affairs Pundits, from beaming William Kristol and Bernard Lewis to Robert Kagan and Fareed Zakariah (whose “Bollywood” charm was recently hailed by Tina Brown). Suddenly these guys weren’t just turning up in the third slot on Charlie Rose, their books were hitting the best-seller list and defining The Conversation. Of the bunch, none has carried as much impact as Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power (Knopf), which has been excessively celebrated for its elegance (meaning it’s only 103 pages) and for its explanation of why America and Europe see things like the ä invasion of Iraq so differently: Even as Old Europe (to use the Rumsfeldian formulation) is busy building a “Kantian” community of laws and collective action, the U.S. inhabits a “Hobbesian” world where we must exert our might even at the risk of employing double standards. One could argue for hours against Kagan’s justifications for neo-imperialism (and his gratuitous sneers at European social programs), but that would in no way diminish his book’s influence. It offers the clearest statement of the new conventional wisdom behind the Bush administration’s cocky attitude toward the rest of the world.