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Book Box


Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches

As an exercise in masochism, I continue to read books about Bush and company. Perhaps it is an attempt to numb myself to reality, but the wounds remain forever raw. So, I still flinch when John W. Dean seconds the opinion of many that "Bush and Cheney represent the worst example ever of the American presidency." Since Dean was the White House legal counsel to Tricky Dick Nixon himself, he ought to know. Perhaps as a way of expiating his own sins, Dean has written several studies of how wrong things have gone since the 2000 "election." Broken Government cements his thesis that the conservative movement has broken the rules by which Congress operates and empowered the presidency to a degree not imagined by the founders. Dean notes that much of today's problem can be traced back to the Nixon era, because Dick Cheney took all the wrong lessons from the Watergate scandal. Instead of a president run amok, Cheney saw a chief executive crippled. The result is the pernicious notion of the "unitary executive," a dubious theory that the president "controls the entire executive branch, including all of the independent regulatory agencies created by Congress." Relying on what Dean says is a misreading of the Federalist Papers, conservatives tout "energy in the executive," a concept that basically means

president's prerogatives override all checks and balances, especially when it comes to national security. As Dean writes, "It is presidential autocracy." Dean's analysis is spot on, but he puts undue faith in Nancy Pelosi and the new narrow margin in Congress to begin to redress the worst excesses. Just last week, for instance, Michael B. Mukasey, Bush's nominee for attorney general, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that (as quoted in The New York Times) "the president's authority as commander in chief might allow him to supersede laws written by Congress."

(By John W. Dean; Viking; 332 pages; $25.95 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant


Being Shelley: The Poet's Search for Himself

Eric Stoltz once played Percy Bysshe Shelley, the ultimate Romantic poet—all wrong. Closer to the mark was Julian Sands, scary, snakily intense in Ken Russell's Gothic. The real Shelley, in the words of biographer Ann Wroe, "with his willowy, low-stooping walk and his glittering eyes ... made a natural serpent." Shelley's short life (1792–1822), with his multiple societal outrages—free love, atheism, vegetarianism, radical politics—has been well documented. Wroe focuses instead on Shelley's intellectual ferment, crafting a poet's portrait from chunks of his verse, his notebooks, even his strike-throughs and doodles. Wroe dances crazily across the years, but her writing never fails to intrigue, even when she makes up various Shelley personae: "Monster-Shelley ... took the title 'Atheist' and blazoned it on his forehead like the cross of the Wandering Jew." Elsewhere, Shelley is a "fire-spirit" and a "shining seraph" who "senses his own fire" in "the act of making poetry." Wroe shows that Shelley was an irresistible dreamer with a grandiose sense of his own ability to change the world with his words: "Men would simply meet, talk and spread the truths he had printed for them." And the words poured forth, not just in the familiar short pieces like "Ode to the West Wind" and "To a Skylark" but in strange, mystical epics like "Prometheus Unbound," "The Cenci" and the half-crazed "The Revolt of Islam." Wroe's real accomplishment is to make these poems sound worth reading after all.)

(By Ann Wroe; Pantheon; 452 pages; $30 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant

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