"American politics has often been an arena for angry minds," the great historian wrote in a 1964 issue of Harper's magazine. He called the expression of that anger "the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."
White House, and What Their Influence Means for America" -- surely deserves a place among its classics.
Baker begins this dispiriting tome with a couple of reasonable questions that probably are on a great many minds as George W. Bush's disastrous presidency sputters to a close: "What did the ascendancy of this frighteningly inadequate man signify? Could anything be learned from the George W. Bush phenomenon that would help us understand how we Americans choose our leaders and chart our collective course?"
It's all downhill from there -- though hardly in a straight line, since clarity and direct exposition are anathema to the wheels-within-wheels school of thought, in which Baker really should be given an endowed chair.
"One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows" is a characterization of Hofstadter's that might have been tailored to fit Baker's book. "It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency . . . [that] all but obsessively accumulate 'evidence.' . . . The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent -- in fact, the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world."
Baker's coherent explanation of the world purports to be "a secret history" of a vast conspiracy stretching back more than a century in which a cabal of rich, interconnected men -- mainly involved in oil and gold extraction -- have used, first, private intelligence agents and then, later, the government spy agencies they helped found to manipulate . . . well, just about everything. Along the way, readers with enough stamina to wade through the mind-numbing accretion of names, dates and places will discover heretofore "hidden" explanations for the American entry into World War I, the formation of the CIA, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Watergate scandal (which, by the way, turns out to have been a secret coup engineered by the petro-intelligence access).
Here it's necessary to declare a personal bias. I regard the belief that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone as an important indicium of mental health. In fact, I think there are three things that every serious American needs to believe about our recent history: Kennedy was killed by a lone lunatic, Americans really did land on the moon and the Twin Towers were destroyed when they were struck by two fully fueled airliners that had been hijacked by Islamic extremists organized by Al Qaeda. People who do not believe in these things are, within reasonable limits, entitled to sympathy. They are not entitled to a seat at the table where serious discussions occur.
Lack of seriousness is not this book's real failing, however. What makes Baker's book singularly offensive is the way he recklessly impugns, in the most disgusting possible way, the reputations not simply of men and women now dead, but of the living. The great Satan in this fevered schema is not the current President Bush but his father, President George H.W. Bush, whom Baker alleges has been a covert intelligence agent since his teens. According to Baker, he also was at the very center of a successful plot to murder John Kennedy that included, among dozens of others, former CIA Director Allen Dulles, then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, the usual Cuban émigré suspects, a clutch of White Russian exiles living in Dallas, Sen. Prescott Bush and assorted Texas oil and money men.
By Baker's reckoning, there seem to have been about as many people involved in the plot as there were on Omaha Beach. With that many people involved in the conspiracy, it's a miracle it remained a secret long enough for Baker to "uncover" it. The elder President Bush is a public figure and, therefore, practically libel-proof. But using the tissue of innuendo, illogical inference, circumstance and guilt by tenuous association -- as Baker does in this book -- to indict rhetorically anyone, let alone a former chief executive, of an infamous murder is a reprehensible calumny.
The nadir of this particular chapter in the author's "secret history" may be the paragraph in which he rounds up all his key suspects and then darkly muses that each had an alibi that put him at a distance from Dallas on the day of JFK's assassination. What does Baker deduce from the consistency of his perpetrators' absence? Why, conspiracy to create cover stories, what else? One can't help but be reminded of the Crown prosecutor who argued that failure to produce a shred of evidence linking the Jesuits to the Gunpowder Plot simply was proof of how diabolically clever they were.
Baker does something similar to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, whom he accuses of being an intelligence agent who, with master co-conspirator John W. Dean, were the prime movers in a coup to remove Nixon for opposing the oil depletion allowance. Woodward's legendary work habits are cited as evidence of how engrossed in the plot he was.
We could go on, but why? Life is short and real problems are pressing.
In the meantime, we can avoid Baker's "Family of Secrets" and console ourselves with another of Hofstadter's wise observations: "We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."