Players of the venerable board game Clue know the moment when the party's over. A contestant may say, "Colonel Mustard in the dining room with the revolver," and be shown surreptitiously a card that kills that theory. But when the next participant says, "Mr. Bush in the conservatory with the lead pipe," and other players say, "I can't refute that," it's time to give in.
That's how I felt when reading Bruce Bartlett's Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy (Doubleday, 2006). The desire for alliteration sometimes leads to over-the-top titles, and words like bankrupt and betrayed are too strong. And yet, when Mr. Bartlett lambasts the Bush record on education, drug legislation, pork barrel spending, and other expand-the-government programs-well, I can't refute that.
The metamorphosis of "compassionate conservatism" is particularly sad. I never thought that a switch from 70 years of increasing Washington-centrism would come easily, but I hoped some decentralization was possible. There's still hope-watch movement toward the use of social service vouchers-but I can't refute the charge that this concept has become a rationale for patronage.
Moving to another book written by a stinging bee: Bruce Bawer's While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam Is Destroying the West from Within (Doubleday, 2006) is fascinating in part because its author is gay and emigrated from America largely because he hated "Protestant fundamentalism." Mr. Bawer still critiques the usual "religious right" suspects, but he admits that they don't issue fatwas or go around "telling people to murder their daughters," as some Islamic extremists do.
He is also unable to refute the contention that a naked public square won't stay naked for long: "Given what I'd seen and heard of evangelical Christianity in America, I hadn't been terribly upset that Christian belief in Western Europe had declined precipitously since World War II and that the churches were now almost empty. But I was beginning to see that when Christian faith had departed, it had taken with it a sense of ultimate meaning and purpose-and left the Continent vulnerable to conquest by people with deeper faith and stronger convictions."
Let's go to what should be a third irrefutable contention: that top-down solutions for African poverty, tried for over four decades now, have not worked; that grandiose proposals like the UN Millennium Project are unlikely to fare any better; and that hundreds of bottom-up alternatives relying on markets and emphasizing the importance of spiritual change are likely to do better.
The End of Poverty (Penguin, 2005) by economist Jeffrey Sachs, best known to TV viewers for globe-trotting with actress Angelina Jolie, makes the case for more top-down approaches. I wanted to see how he'd refute tough charges, and Mr. Sachs (through his publicist) agreed to an e-mail interview. When I sent questions, though, the interview was suddenly off, so we don't know how he reasoned his way through the clues.
For those who want to read the book and see what is refutable, here are several of the questions: With all the problems of the Oil-for-Food program and other charges of UN corruption, do you still see Kofi Annan as "the world's finest statesman"? Why did you recently present an award to Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi, accused of being a dictator and election-rigger? How confident are you that paying officials more will decrease bribery? How can the interventions proposed by you and the UN Millennium Project work in the absence of market or democratic mechanisms that let planners know whether poor Africans need the project and are satisfied by the results?
Hmmm-I can see why Mr. Sachs did not want to answer. But that's why I like a fourth book, Steven F. Hayward's Greatness: Reagan, Churchill & the Making of Extraordinary Leaders (Crown, 2005). A geopolitical game of Clue could include lines like, "The Soviet Union, with nuclear weapons, destroying the whole board"-but Reagan refuted what some said was inevitable. "The Nazi army, in your living room, with bayonets"-but Churchill spoke of fighting on the beaches and on the landing strips, never surrendering. And in the end, their adversaries were hapless, helpless, and still clueless.