For civil libertarians, the inauguration of President Barack Obama augurs not only a brighter future, but a chance to shed light on the recent past. It goes almost without saying that the Bush Administration has, with its declaration of permanent war and attendant claims of executive privilege, sought to move the balance of power in this country in the direction of monarchy. Its (unsuccessful) arguments before the Supreme Court in the Hamdi and Rasul cases amounted to: "L'etat, c'est moi." Now, to judge by the op-ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, those responsible for torture, for the lawless detention of American citizens, for illegal state surveillance, and for perjury may finally be brought to justice.Such a development would not be universally acclaimed. Bush partisans, not to mention the former President himself, have suggested that once Obama gets "read in" on still-classified interrogation and wiretapping programs, he may embrace their utility in fighting terrorism. Other conservatives have argued - less tendentiously, I think - that any "truth and reconciliation" process for former White House officials would touch off a political firestorm sufficient to engulf the rest of the Obama agenda. But, in the absence of a legal reckoning, the civil libertarians wonder, how will we ever learn what went wrong?The contours of this debate, as it currently stands, obscure an important fact: that the Bush Administration's gravest depredations are already matters of public record. Thanks to Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command, George Packer's The Assassin's Gate, and Mark Danner's Torture and Truth, we know, for example, that the Vice President, the Director of the C.I.A., and the Secretary of Defense signed off on the torture of "enemy combatants." Whether or not this merits prosecution is open to discussion, but there is little need to establish a new set of institutions to expose the Bush Administration's wrongdoing. We've got an institution that works well. It's called investigative journalism.Two of the most recent and compelling books about the outgoing administration - Jane Mayer's The Dark Side and Barton Gellman's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency - argue persuasively that the Bush approach to civil liberties departed from previous presidential scandals less in degree than in kind. While Clinton and Nixon broke the law, Vice President Dick Cheney and his bureaucratic enforcers attempted to rewrite it: to place executive power on a footing other than the inalienable rights of man.Of the two books, Gellman's comes the closest to offering the satisfactions of good literature, and thus should probably be approached with the most caution. Still, at least one of those satisfactions - a rich and complex protagonist - lends Gellman's reporting the ring of truth.In its relentless detail, Angler would seem at first to bolster the leftist caricature of Cheney as merely the Machiavellian power behind the throne. Gellman uncovers several incidents with profound legal and national-security implications in which Cheney "rolled" the president. Moreover, he documents a pattern in which vast tracts of what would become the most important areas of public policy were knowingly entrusted to the judgment of the vice president. Cheney's former counselor Mary Matalin explains that he arrived in office with a 'preordained policy portfolio' that spanned 'the economic issues, the security issues - even before 9/11, we had homeland security - and the energy issues... the iron issues, I don't know what else to call them. The steely issues. Apart from those, 'we had the go-to guy on the hill' because of Cheney's Senate duties and experience in the House."That was a remarkable list," Gellman notes:war and peace, the economy, natural resources, and negotiations with Congress. Nor was Matalin's description complete. It omitted, among other things, a preeminent role for Cheney in nominations and appointments, which did not stop with the transition. Cheney's brief, all in all, encompassed most of the core concerns of any president.On the other hand, Gellman is careful to complicate his portrait. For example, he shows a connoisseur's appreciation for Cheney's remarkable gifts as a bureaucrat. The Vice President, a former White House Chief-of-Staff, evidently brought to his new office a mastery of personnel matters: whom to place where, and which jobs mattered. He also had an innate understanding for what to keep secret and what to leak, and created in his office what amounted to a parallel government, carrying out in duplicate the functions of the National Security Council (NSC), the Office of Management and Budget, and - crucially - the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC).Through the use of proxies (most notably the frightening David Addington, the hapless Alberto Gonzalez, and the delusional John Yoo); through discipline and secrecy; and through an acute sense of the vulnerabilities of his targets and opponents, Cheney would become not only the most powerful but, on his own terms, the most successful Vice President in history. Over eight years, he recast "the steely issues" in his own ideological image.To be sure, Gellman's tight focus on Cheney leaves something to be desired. A kind of foreshortening makes certain tangential objects - notably, the President - appear smaller than they likely were in real life. But Angler is no partisan hit-job; Gellman understands that Cheney is sincere in his sense of mission. The book quotes a letter Cheney wrote to his grandchildren on a day when he briefly became acting president (Bush was under anesthesia. There's a punchline here somewhere.):'My principal focus as vice president has been to protect the American people in our way of life. As you grow, you will come to understand the sacrifices that each generation makes to preserve freedom and democracy for future generations.'And were the Obama Administration rapidly to dismantle Cheney's pet programs - and were, God forbid, a terrorist attack to occur on American soil soon after, after seven years without - we might view his instincts (if not his methods) in a different light. This may strike you as simplistic. Then again, so are the moral contours of the universe in which the Vice President believes himself to be operating.Jane Mayer's book, more broadly focused on "How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals," revisits many of Gellman's sources, and essentially corroborates his assertion that, under Cheney and Addington, OVP (the Office of the Vice President) sought to eradicate rights and liberties enshrined in the Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. Because The Dark Side does not center on a single character, it lacks some of the narrative propulsion of Angler, but it probably offers a more comprehensive view of the workings of the Bush White House.That White House was not uniformly indifferent to civil liberties, Mayer shows. Her account illuminates not only the ineptitude of Gonzalez and the lawlessness of Yoo, but the supreme decency of Republican civil servants like Jack Goldsmith, head of OLC, and John Bellinger III, head counsel at NSC. Their adherence to the law - presumably a prerequisite for attorneys - comes to seem like heroism in comparison with what surrounded them. "Protect your client," one told Gonzalez, warning that torture could lead to prosecutions. Of course in the Bush White House, it was competence that rarely went unpunished.Through her meticulous sourcing and her dogged aggregation of the circumstantial evidence, Mayer persuades the reader that the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the "black sites," and foreign prisons were not only licensed but encouraged high up the chain of command. This helps to explain why patterns of abuse migrated so quickly from Guantánamo to Iraq - those two chains converge at the very top. The President himself - well-meaning, shrewd in his way, but hostage at some deep level to his insecurities - emerges as the efficient cause for his Administration's human rights abuses. "We do not negotiate with ourselves," he says at one point. As a candidate, George W. Bush was much maligned for his malapropisms, but it was these royalist flourishes - "I intend to spend [my political capital]. It is my style" - that hold the key to the Presidential personality.Ultimately, the most valuable function of The Dark Side is to shred the Cheney camp's justifications for torture. In meticulous detail, the book explains why the abuses are illegal; why they are immoral; why they were uncalled for after September 11; and why they have been ineffective. And unlike Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus or Roosevelt's internment of Japanese-Americans, they almost became the permanent law of the land.Due to the heroic work of a small and shrinking cohort of investigative reporters, they will not. Ordinary Americans, their fears and longings expertly stoked by the White House, have so far seemed willing to stop there, to quit while we're ahead. Whatever we choose to do about the Bush Administration's misdeeds moving forward, though, we are no longer entitled to claim ignorance. And should our preference for attractive illusions over unpleasant truth allow some future president to reclaim the right to arrest without charges, to hold without habeas corpus, and to inflict on human beings "suffering 'equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure... or even death,'" we will have no one to blame but ourselves.Bonus link: Vanity Fair's "Oral History of the Bush White House"
Millions contributor Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of the novella A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a 2008 New York Foundation for the Arts fellow in fiction. This year, his work appeared in the anthologies Best New American Voices and Best of the Web.When it comes to books, I'm less a gourmet than a gourmand. It's not that the slim, perfect novel doesn't excite my palate, but when I'm in the middle of a sensational meal, I want it never to end - or at least to give the illusion of infinitude. And so I hunger for big books - thousand-calorie entrees I wrap rubber bands around to keep the bindings intact.This year, as I approached my thirtieth birthday, these big books appealed to me with even greater urgency. At some point soon, the demands of family life and the writing life are going to leave me with less time for "loose, baggy monsters," and so I've been trying to get the important ones under my belt. After all, there are only so many behemoths out there, right? Well, it turns out that big books share certain Hydra-like properties with books in general. This year, I knocked off ten enormous tomes; I added about twenty to my "to-read" list.The best of the best - the book that came closest to being everything I want in a novel - was Mortals (712 pp), by Norman Rush. It's a funny book, in that it forgoes the immediate pyrotechnics of Rush's first novel, Mating (a mere 474 pp), which I also read this year. Still I'm convinced that, once you've acquired a taste for Rush's penetrating yet hugely compassionate voice - his astonishing negative capability - you will find Mortals to be one of the two or three best American novels published this decade. And it just gets better as it goes along: the 100-page climax is almost literally explosive.A close second was Roberto Bolaño's 2666 (893 pp), a novel I'm still thinking about, half a year after first reading it. As with Mortals, I hesitate to recommend diving straight into it; you might want to learn to trust Bolaño, as I did, by first reading his more trenchant performances (Nazi Literature in the Americas (227 pp including epilogue) (review), then Distant Star (149 pp), and then The Savage Detectives (still comparatively lean at 577 pp) (review)). But 2666 is a cabinet of wonders, and a landmark in contemporary letters.Inspired by Joshua Ferris' 2007 Year in Reading entry, I went on a late-period Henry James bender this year, which (to return to the food metaphor) is sort of like gorging on lobster with a heavy cream sauce. In its rich evocation of human subjectivity, The Wings of the Dove (711 pp) is a dazzling technical achievement, but it's James' deep feeling for his characters that makes this my favorite of his novels. Of course, if the representation of subjectivity is to your taste, I should also recommend Under the 82nd Airborne (230 pp in The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg) (review), in which our finest short story writer refines into deft turns of phrase what James took pages and pages to do. I think of Eisenberg and James as two-thirds of a triumvirate: Discoverers of the American Mind. The third third is Saul Bellow, with whom I spent most of June. Of the several books I read, Mr. Sammler's Planet (260 pp) struck me as the most surprising, courageous, and challenging.Ms. Eisenberg's advocacy, at a PEN World Voices panel, persuaded me to sate my appetite for German-language literature with Robert Walser's Jakob van Gunten (176 pp), a bewitching (and blessedly brief) evocation of adolescence. I also marveled at Alfred Döblin's pitch-black Berlin Alexanderplatz (378 closely printed pp). Then I turned back to the big American novel. Joseph McElroy's Women and Men (1192 pp) is the longest book I have ever read, by a good 150,000 words. It took me six weeks to finish, at least, and, python-like, I'm still digesting, but the achievements in sections like "Larry," "the future," and "Alias Missing Conversation" rank with the best of Pynchon, Barth, Gaddis, and David Foster Wallace.Speaking of Wallace, the best book I re-read this year was Infinite Jest (1079 pp with footnotes), which was fresh in my mind when news of the author's death reached his readers. IJ still looks to me like the fictional high-water-mark of a generation. I welcome debate on this point, but revisiting the book debunks claims that Wallace is too intellectual, too indulgent, or too stylized; here, he does everything the ten next-best American writers can do, and does it better (see, e.g., pp 851- 981). That we'll never get to see another novel from him is an incalculable loss.Fortunately for us, the reservoir of literary talent in his generation runs deep; following other writers as they advance the cause of fiction forward is a kind of consolation. Trance (505 pp), by Year in Reading participant Christopher Sorrentino, was the book by a young American that most impressed me this year (review). The writing - tough, funny, elegant, jive - really astonished me, as did the way the novel mobilizes the 1970s in service of the now. I guess all history really is present history.The work of nonfiction I most enjoyed in 2008 was Janet Malcolm's Gertrude and Alice: Two Lives (224 pp). Malcolm is at least as good a critic as she is a journalist; her approach to literature is refreshingly humble, nimble, curious, and delighted. (I'm reading her Chekhov book now (205 pp.)) I only made it halfway through Gertrude Stein's novel The Making of Americans this summer (it's an annual endeavor; 925 pp), but Gertrude and Alice, which I devoured in a single, lovely July day, was a welcome substitute. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Timothy Donaldson's book on the development of alphabets, Shapes for Sounds. Reading it is like sitting in on a lecture by the most brilliant professor in the department. It is also - not incidentally - a triumph of design on the order of David Macauley.Finally, I have to say something about political books, which functioned this year as quick, bitter palate-cleansers. For eight years, a small corps of investigative journalists - Hersh, Wright, Mayer, Packer - has been working to keep our government honest. I'd like to nominate Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman for inclusion on this honor roll. In addition to being a riveting, lively, and infuriating read, his book, Angler (384 pp), introduced me to one of the most fascinating literary characters I've yet encountered: Richard B. "Dick" Cheney. For pure, mysterious "lifeness" (to borrow the most useful term from James Wood's How Fiction Works (248 pp)), Cheney rivals Wallace's Don Gately, and Rush's Ray Finch, Bellow's Artur Sammler, and Eisenberg's many protagonists. We'll be chewing over (or choking on) his legacy for years to come. It's a good thing we'll have good books, large and small, to nourish us along the way.More from A Year in Reading 2008