Why is it that You Can't Be President feels about as fresh as a 4,000 year-old tin of fruit cocktail? In this hyper-oxygenated post-electoral moment, I was looking for something to acidify an overwhelming sparkles, hearts, and rainbows feeling. I needed someone to tell me something bad about America, before unicorns began grazing in Dolores Park and bluebirds stopped by and offered to clean my apartment.
Instead, reading it is like taking a rocket ship back... back in time, to that brief window between September 11, 2001 and Bush's second term. It was perhaps the only moment in the history of the world that bookshops couldn't get enough of Tariq Ali. I would look up while riding MUNI, and everyone would be reading Don't Think of an Elephant by the Berkeley linguist George Lakoff. I would then look down and realize that I was also reading it. It felt like we were all cramming for a final examination that we would never be fully prepared for.
If only we educated people about Middle Eastern geopolitics. If only we matched conservative buzzwords like "strong defense" (bombing other countries to make them feel impressed by us is the "authoritarian parent" model, which is NOT our demographic) with ones like "strong America" (maintaining our levee system is the "nurturant parent" model, which IS our demographic). If only we convinced people how bad everything was, then we would have a chance at changing the way that the country and its foreign policy were being run. Perhaps that's why You Can't Be President feels like a message from the past. At some point in the last year, someone found the last person in America who didn't realize that things weren't going very well, and told them.
You Can't Be President is best when it lives up to its title, dwelling on the impressive divide between how politics play out in elementary school textbooks and how they play out in the real world. Candidates with genuinely populist views are often blocked by the existing power structure of both parties -- a "professional political class" that will pass over an electable candidate for one with fundraising prowess or favors to cash in. Howard Dean might have won the presidency in 2004 if not for his own party, in much the same way that another anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy was maneuvered out of the Democratic nomination, despite his being a more saleable candidate than their eventual choice, Hubert Humphrey.
The history scattered throughout the book is interesting too. The word "republic," author John R. MacArthur writes, meant different things to different founders. To some, like Samuel Adams, it meant that the dialogue between a candidate and their elected official never ended, and to others, like James Madison, it meant that dialogue ended the minute a politician was elected -- the electorate was to politely shut up and not ask for anything until the next round of campaigning. Most curiously, Abraham Lincoln almost did in his career as a Congressman by taking a stand against going to war with Mexico in 1846. Lincoln pointedly described it as "trusting to escape scrutiny by fixing the public gaze upon the exceeding brightness of military glory -- that attractive rainbow that rises in showers of blood." He advised instead the very Alice Waters-y policy of "keeping our fences where they are, and cultivating our present possession, making it a garden."
Unfortunately, most of the book is not devoted to political analysis or historical insight, but instead to the author whinging about Wal-Mart, the state of American journalism, the lack of good independent pharmacies around the country, the Espionage Acts of 1917 (and 1918), the electoral college, the Clintons (Bill and Hillary), the North American Free Trade Agreement, the mayor of Chicago, campaign financing, under funding in the public school system, the rolling back of affirmative action laws, and the diminishing variety of candies available for purchase at chain-owned retail outlets. Let's be honest: anyone who picks up this book is going to already be aware that there are problems with all of the above (the last being a possible exception, but Steve Almond's Candyfreak makes such a passionate case for candy diversity in America that MacArthur's brief rant pales in comparison.)
Even pessimists, like your reviewer here, appreciate fresh things to be discouraged by. Especially in these strange new times of outright giddiness and...dare I say it...hope. Even if I'm looking for a little salt to sprinkle on my post-electoral cupcake, I'm looking for solutions, as well as problems. Especially solutions that might one day turn into problems. Like turning the Clintons and Wal-Mart into the fourth and fifth members of NAFTA. Or turning our under-funded schools into candy factories. Or establishing an affirmative action based program for building a life-sized statue of the mayor of Chicago out of nougat. These are the kinds of problems your reviewer can get behind.