Off with their Heads: Traitors, Crooks and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business

“The strength of a writer lies in his direct action upon the public, in the anger, the enthusiasm and the reflections which he stirs up by his writings.”

John-Paul Sartre

Conservatives have been gearing up for 2004 since the beginning of the year. Pundits Mona Charen, Sean Hannity, Mike Savage and Ann Coulter have all had their turn at bat with recently published books. Fox News Channel political analyst and New York Post columnist Dick Morris takes his swing at the cabbage with Off with their Heads: Traitors, Crooks and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business.

At first blush, the book appears to be a jumble of topics. Morris takes on in turn The New York Times and also the media in general, neocon-devil-incarnate Bill Clinton, celebrities and France in Part I, “The Obstructionists,” and then elected officials and government bureaucrats, Big Tobacco and the nursing home industry in Part II, “Our Other Assailants.” From this angle, the first half of the book comes off as more sharply focused than the second. One commentator has gone so far as to assert that Off with their Heads might represent a new publishing form, the “blook,” fusing stream-of-consciousness ruminations of the weblog with more traditional narrative. Yet when looked at more closely, Off with their Heads is a compact if seemingly free-ranging primer on the message points of the conservative agenda.

Part I deals with American foreign policy and its discontents. In the wake of September 11, the imperative is absolute support for the war on terror in all of its forms. For Morris, no element of dissent is too trivial to chide and no Bush Administration abuse of power too great to rationalize.

He begins by accusing recently ousted New York Times managing editor Howell Raines of slanting coverage of the war on terror to help the Democratic Party regroup after the midterm election. Ironically, Morris employs many of the same analytic techniques (story placement, headline prominence, content organization, coverage frequency, number of column inches, opinion polling, etc.) Noam Chomsky has long used to show that, as a rule, the Times usually toes the line when it comes to reporting foreign policy.

This was generally the case after Sept. 11 and leading up to the invasion of Iraq in spite of Morris’s assertions to the contrary. Nowhere does Morris cite the numerous front-page stories by Judith Miller, for example, and other Times reporters, which appear to have simply recounted the unconfirmed allegations of Bush Administration sources in making the case for Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction.

The same holds true for Morris’s criticism of the rest of the so-called liberal media. The true scandal is how the U.S. media, led by Morris’s own employer Fox News and extending virtually across the entire print and broadcast spectrum, rolled over like hungry puppies in the roll up to war.

The chapter on Clinton follows the Republican strategy to campaign against the former president regardless of who is actually on the Democratic ticket in 2004. Morris claims that Clinton is responsible for Sept. 11 and its aftermath. Here Morris plays Dr. Phil, citing Clinton’s “white trash” upbringing and draft-dodger guilt complex for keeping him from acting more resolutely after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. What psychology may have prompted President George W. Bush to take a month-long vacation in Texas after receiving reports in July 2001 of impending al Qaeda plans to hijack American jetliners Morris doesn’t presume to speculate.

One of the book’s more persuasive sections is the one describing France’s policy of appeasement as a kind of psychotic fear of engagement rooted in the trauma of the carnage in the trenches of World War I, additionally warped by a deep streak of anti-Semitism. It’s also pretty much cribbed, as Morris himself acknowledges.

J’Accuse Morris-style lays out France’s dealings with Saddam Hussein in supplying arms in the war with Iran and in negotiating for oil. (Russia and China are given byes, but then they’re tremendous new markets for U.S. investment, while the French already have McDonald’s and Euro Disney not to mention a modern culture of their own.) That the United States was also courting Iraq (with then Middle East special envoy Donald Rumsfeld representing construction contractor Bechtel) at the same time isn’t mentioned.

Part II of Off with their Heads is about the domestic agenda. The mission in this regard is to convey the idea that government is severely dysfunctional and beyond any hope for recovery. This strategy cuts both ways.

For conservatives, behind-the-scenes details of legislative procedures and the alleged mismanagement of the public trust in regulating corporations and political redistricting reinforce the belief in the evils of big government. As to the evils of big business, while Morris documents contributions to (mostly Democratic) politicians, he is silent on the pervasive influence of corporate money power in the political process and on the need to reform campaign financing.

And in a downsized democracy, where broad-based consensus has steadily eroded and special interests now rule, discouraging voting by the opposition is as important as rallying the support of believers. Rural areas generally vote Republican and urban areas generally vote Democratic, so the fight for the swing vote in 2004 will be in the suburbs.

Suburban women tend to vote Democratic. Thus the last two chapters on how government at all levels has utterly failed to protect our kids from the health risks of tobacco and our parents from the physical, mental and economic abuses of “nursing home nazis” have that demographic in mind.

The book concludes with thoughts on the corrosive effects of power according to Lord Acton (i.e., that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely). Earlier in the book and again in the epilogue, Morris chastises “Hollywood apologists” for acting as if they had political standing in the same way they pretend to be the characters they portray onscreen or in song. But with his motives so plainly in view, the opinions espoused by Morris, former Trent Lott and Clinton campaign advisor and now Rupert Murdoch operative, have no more weight than those of whom he so vociferously denounces.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.