Joe Conason's Journal

A few fine books. Plus: The night Trent Lott "did the right thing"; who is the Eli Lilly Bandit?

By Salon Staff
Published December 19, 2002 5:23PM (EST)

A few fine books
As a writer, my personal inclination at this time of year is to give books as gifts -- a prejudice that I naturally hope others share. I don't believe in "10 best" lists but I want to recommend three important books I've been reading recently.

In addition to his other skills, Mark Green is a formidable investigator and lucid, engaging writer. "Selling Out: How Big Corporate Money Buys Elections, Rams Through Legislation, and Betrays Our Democracy" (HarperCollins) is the most insightful of many books on this vexing subject, filled with passion as well as prescription. Green has seen the problem from every side now, as citizen, advocate and politician. Now that everyone understands the limitations and problems of the McCain-Feingold law, he points toward deeper reform as the answer to popular cynicism -- and shows how such reforms are already working both here and abroad.

Another issue that seems certain to rise in salience is this country's foolish, destructive policy toward a certain island off the coast of Florida. The twisted history of that policy comes alive, with all its amazing characters and events, in "Cuba Confidential: Love and Vengeance in Miami and Havana" (Random House). There is simply no reporter who has worked this story with the talent, diligence and enterprise of author Ann Louise Bardach. She is fearless and funny -- and so is her book. But don't give it to the president or any of his relatives.

Many books have been written about Sept. 11. Several of them are quite good, but I have yet to read a book as comprehensive and timely as "The Age of Sacred Terror" (Random House). The authors, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, both served on the counterterrorism staff of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. This is the real story, based on what we know to date, of the origins of Islamist fascism, the slow response of the civilized world to its aggression, what was done and what wasn't done that might have prevented that movement's most horrific plot from succeeding. It is a useful corrective to many of the myths propagated for political advantage in the aftermath of that crime.
[2:32 p.m. PST, Dec. 19, 2002]

The night Lott "did the right thing"
One beneficial aspect of the Lott furor is a revival of interest in the historic struggle for civil rights, when a rising political generation had to choose sides. One reason that black Americans feel such deep affection for Bill Clinton is that they know he stood up publicly at an early age against segregation, without being able to predict how that would affect his future political career in Arkansas.

Trent Lott was a more typical young white Southerner. In September 1962, he was a popular student leader at Ole Miss during the rioting against James Meredith's integration of the university. Rioting is actually an understatement of what happened there, as William Doyle's extraordinary book, "An American Insurrection," recalls so vividly. Right-wing extremists, led by Edwin Walker, a cashiered general and stalwart of the John Birch Society, encouraged the violence in hopes of fomenting an uprising against the Kennedy administration. They managed to get a couple of people killed and many wounded before a force of more than 20,000 federal troops put the rioting down.

Doyle's indignant yet remarkably fair account, now available as an Anchor Books paperback, examines the role of Lott and the Sigma Nu fraternity he headed, most of whose members stayed away from the rioting. Lott, then an ardent segregationist, was singled out for praise by Sigma Nu's national board for keeping his frat brothers away from the fighting. And Doyle reveals that federal authorities seized two dozen firearms in a raid on the Sigma Nu house on the second day of the insurrection. No charges were ever lodged against the fraternity or its members.

Yesterday, the author sent an e-mail about the Republican leader's conduct at Ole Miss:

"Lott reportedly spent the night of the riot ordering his Sigma Nu brothers away from the scene of the fighting ... I have never seen this account contradicted (at least not yet, anyway). In four years plus of research on the riot, including reviewing thousands of pages of FBI and police reports and lists of prisoners, suspects and detainees, I have never seen other references to Lott, positive or negative, beyond the mystery of the Sigma Nu gun seizure by Army troops ... He is not quoted at all in any of the thousands of pre-riot news clippings I've read.

"Bottom lines: He was definitely not a riot leader or a rioter, or ever accused of advocating violent resistance. He was not a visible or publicly notable advocate of 'peace' prior to the riot. He was, by his own admission, then against integrating the university, like the vast majority of Mississippi whites. On the night of the riot, however, he reportedly did something important -- he pulled his 100-plus fraternity brothers away from the riot, successfully, too, as only one Sigma Nu guy was briefly detained. In the context of that time and place, in this case Lott did the right thing, in the sense that he persuaded his fraternity brothers not to attack and kill federal law enforcement officers. Faint praise, I suppose, but it's something."

Perhaps he did more than that. Did Lott know about the arms cache in his fraternity? Does he know who tipped off the feds so that they could come in and seize those guns? (He has said very little about the Ole Miss riots, and declined Doyle's request for an interview.)

Yet the hideous violence and subsequent mistreatment of Meredith at his alma mater don't seem to have affected Lott's views at all back then. Doyle's account of the mindless bigotry and violent harassment inflicted by fellow students upon Meredith after he enrolled is truly sickening. There's no record of Lott doing anything to stop that. He would do himself and the nation a favor by explaining honestly -- with or without further grinning apologies -- how and when his racial attitudes changed during the four decades since that revolting episode.

Ten grand for the truth
The White House and congressional Republicans might be better off if Bill Frist replaced Trent Lott, but would anyone else? As bloggers Nathan Newman and Hesiod have pointed out, the Tennessee Republican is essentially a representative of the health insurance, HMO and pharmaceutical industries, which already exercise far too much control over the legislative process. Was Frist responsible for sneaking the notorious Thimerosal provision into the homeland security bill? His office has denied it, but I don't believe their alibi. With any luck, someone on the Hill will snitch to collect the $10,000 reward offered by for proof of the true identity of the "Eli Lilly Bandit" behind that amendment.
[10:52 a.m. PST, Dec. 19, 2002]

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