A Review of Eliot Weinberger's What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles
reviewed by B. Renner

For anyone whose politics lean toward the left, the past four and a half years have been, for the most part, an unremitting heartache. Even the 18 months when the Democrats controlled the Senate in 2001-02 seem so far away and of such inconsequence that one can barely remember the Clinton years, when Republican excess was tempered, though not blocked, by a single moderate in a position of power. That heartache and the relentless mendacity and mean-spiritedness that occasion it are the subjects of Weinberger's collection. Most of the pieces gathered here qualify as op-ed pieces, though they were not published in major or minor American newspapers. Instead they were "written for publication abroad." In their original English, they were mostly distributed via email. Translated into various languages, they appeared in Germany, Mexico, Belgium, Croatia, Italy, France, Turkey and several other nations. The book they most closely resemble is probably Carlos Fuentes's Contra Bush [2004; not available in English]. Both titles collect essays and ruminations written over a period of several years, thus reflecting not simply a more general dismay over the path of American policy since 2001 but also particular reactions at particular points in time. A major subgroup here focuses on Weinberger's responses at increasingly lengthy distances from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 -- each headlined "New York", where Weinberger lives, followed by its dating, one day later, three weeks, four weeks, a year, sixteen months. Because these were not written to the specifications of newspaper editorial pages, they can vary from 6 to 15 pages in length, meeting their internal demands rather than the external necessities of column inches or the presumed attention span of the "ordinary" reader. Weinberger notes overarching effects of the Bush administration's response to the terrorist attacks -- the increased anxiety of average Americans, the nonsensically fluctuating terrorist threat levels, the plummeting of our reputation abroad -- as well as the effects of the broader policies -- the insane amount of money flowing to well-connected corporations, the placement of former industry bigwigs in high government positions, the removal of environmental and pollution-related restrictions. Much of the information contained here may not be new to news junkies, but Weinberger's assemblage recalls to memory the travesties forgotten in the face of newer travesties. If progressives and liberals [and, for that matter, even moderates] are to seize the initiative in upcoming elections, they will have to keep the outrage, generated in the past four and a half years, fresh in their minds. In some ways the most notable pieces in this collection are the faux collages, which are not truly cut-and-paste creations in the way that much of Paul Metcalf's work was [in fact, Weinberger cites Charles Reznikoff as his inspiration], but are rather Weinberger's annotated re-construction of discrete incidents, quotations and pronouncements, using juxtaposition to highlight inconsistencies from both the Administration and among Republican politicos in general as well as the disjunctive, depressing [and perhaps ultimately provocative] effect of having so much information at one's fingertips in bite-size portions. "Republicans: a Prose Poem" has a broader focus and aims to portray quite broadly what it has meant [and may yet mean] to our society to have Republicans at the helm. Some of the entries seem virtual parody to those of us who live in the reality-based community and believe in community in general: for example,

"Pete Coors, candidate for Senator from Colorado, is a Republican. Heir to the Coors Beer fortune, he has stated that, if elected, his top priority will be to lower the drinking age." [Luckily for Coloradan parents, drivers and pedestrians, Coors lost.]

Others are almost astonishingly casual in their racism:

"Jim Bunning, Senator from Kentucky, is a Republican. He gets a laugh at Republican dinners by joking that his opponent in the forthcoming election, Dan Mongiardo, a son of Italian immigrants, looks like one of the sons of Saddam Hussein." [Bunning won re-election.]

Others display the extent to which science is under attack:

"The Senate of the State of Texas is controlled by Republicans. They passed an "abortion counseling law" which requires doctors to warn women that abortion might lead to breast cancer, for which there is no medical evidence."

The centerpiece of the book, though, is "What I Heard About Iraq," which was published in book form in the U.K. after its appearance in the London Review of Books. Most often following the formula, "I heard [x] say," this free-form essay is a damning presentation of the untruths, shifting stances, and cruel opinions of the Administration and its friends and allies.

I heard the Vice President say: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

I heard the President say: "You can't distinguish between al-Qaeda and Saddam."

I heard Major General Charles Swannack promise that his troops were going to "use a sledgehammer to smash a walnut."

I heard that the President told the television evangelist Pat Robertson: "Oh, we're not going to have any casualties."

Detainees 27, 30, and 31 were stripped of their clothing, handcuffed together nude, placed on the ground, and forced to lie on each other and simulate sex while photographs were taken. Detainee 8 had his food thrown in the toilet and was then ordered to eat it. Detainee 7 was ordered to bark like a dog while MPs spat and urinated on him; he was sodomized with a police stick as two female MPs watched.

And on and on it goes, for almost 40 pages. New Directions' first essay into publishing Current Affairs, What Happened Here is a sobering, depressing, and powerful book.

Eliot Weinberger
What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles
New Directions, 2005