Talking Heads

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Four new books by media personalities reflect their very different reporting styles, from the passionately engaged to the politically detached. -- Alan Cooperman

MOYERS ON DEMOCRACY By Bill Moyers | Doubleday. 404 pp. $26.95

Like many media celebrities, Bill Moyers occasionally gives speeches. Unlike many, he pours out his heart. And his heart, as PBS fans know, beats with a rare combination of unabashed liberalism and the fervor of the deeply churched. So the electricity pulsing through this collection of 28 addresses to conventions, awards dinners and the like is the sensation (at least for those who agree with him) that he is engaged in truth telling: saying what cannot be said, yet must be said.

Moyers's main topics are democracy, money and media. "Money is choking democracy to death," he says, while the "compliant establishment media" look on. Huge disparities in wealth have turned our shining city upon a hill into a "gated community whose privileged occupants. . . are removed from the common life of the country." While ordinary citizens watch their pensions and job security evaporate, the top 1 percent of households now has more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. "Freedom in America," Moyers says, "has come to mean the freedom of the rich to get richer even as millions of Americans are thrown overboard."

RIGHT IS WRONG By Arianna Huffington | Knopf. 388 pp. $24.95

Blog impresario Arianna Huffington says the Republican Party has been taken over by its "lunatic fringe" and America has been hijacked "by the Right." Like Moyers, she blames the media, and "not the Fox News pseudo-newsmen or the talk radio blowhards, but the respectable, mainstream media." Without "their obsession with 'balance' and their pathological devotion to the idea that truth is always found in the middle," she says, "nea-conservatives" (as in Neanderthal) "would have been laughed out of the court of public opinion long ago."

As she savages the Bush administration on page after page, the editor in chief of the liberal Huffington Post is clearly preaching to the converted. But she also hints at the recentness of her own conversion on some issues. Until just a few years ago, she drove a Lincoln Navigator, "basically a comfy Sherman tank." Then she swapped it for a Prius, Toyota's "sexy hybrid." Now she says that tax credits for SUV buyers are "the kind of deranged public policy . . . that makes you want to slam on your brakes and scream out your car window."

TRAIN WRECK By Bill Press | Wiley. 248 pp. $24.95

If Republicans were a restaurant, "they'd have been closed by the Board of Health," Bill Press says. "If they were a Hollywood starlet, they'd be in rehab."

On the first page of his new book, the former host of CNN's "Crossfire" announces that "the conservative revolution is finally over -- and it was a total bust." He pounds away at that theme with relentless derision for 200 more pages, recapping recent scandals in a section titled "The Congressional Hall of Shame" and delving into education policy in a section called "No Bureaucrat Left Behind." "From historic deficits to preemptive wars," he argues, President Bush has "delivered the exact opposite of what conservatives had always promised."

Only in the last three pages does Press propose an alternative. What liberals want, he says, is "not a dogmatic agenda, but a pragmatic one": environmental protection, balanced budgets, universal health care, protection for U.S. jobs and "strong antiterrorism measures with no erosion of our fundamental constitutional rights."

It's "really not rocket science," Press writes -- which sounds a bit like what conservatives were saying at the beginning of their revolution.

50 YEARS FROM TODAY By Mike Wallace | Thomas Nelson. 241 pp. $24.99

Maybe rocket science will save us, after all. That's the message one gets from Mike Wallace's collection of short essays from 60 of the "world's greatest minds," ranging from Nobel Prize-winning scientists to the founder of Craigslist.

Surprising optimism dominates many of these predictions about life in 2058. "In cities, people will get most of their vegetables from rooftop gardens," writes Sandra Postel, an environmentalist at Mount Holyoke College. "Computers, clothes, cars, and other goods will be made in factories that recycle and reuse all of their water and discharge no pollutants to the environment."

Some visions are plausible (atheist Richard Dawkins says "science will have killed the soul"). Some are not (economist Thomas Schelling imagines whole years going by without a front-page story about Israel in the New York Times).

Valli Moosa, president of the World Conservation Union, predicts that parts of London and New York will be permanently under water. But, on the plus side, "religious fundamentalism" will have waned around the world, thanks to "a new spirit of cooperation that emerged after the pandemics."

So cheer up.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company