Before he morphed into one of the few real leftists still taken seriously by the mainstream press, author Thomas Frank had an even lower profile.
A University of Chicago-trained academic and now-Washington, D.C.-based journalist, Frank founded a clever journal in the early '90s called The Baffler. His 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool, exposed how corporations created and profited from the faux-rebellion that was "grunge."
But what really put Frank on the mainstream radar was What's the Matter with Kansas?, his 2004 book that asked why Americans in the heartland vote against their economic interests by electing conservatives over liberals. And this year, for reasons known only to its right-leaning opinion editors, The Wall Street Journal recruited Frank to write a weekly column.
Why talk to him now? Book tour, of course. Frank has a new book out this election year called The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule, an entertaining history of right-wing rogues like the lobbyist-cum-convict Jack Abramoff, who got mixed up with the apartheid regime in South Africa before he started ripping off Native American tribes. Frank will be discussing his book Thursday, Aug. 14, at 7:30 pm at Powell's City of Books.
WW: Ever spend much time in Portland?
Thomas Frank: I have relatives there. I go to Powell's. There's this restaurant called the RingSide I really like.
I always expect to see the Rat Pack in there.
That's my style. In Kansas, they had a steakhouse like that in every city. That whole form of restaurant is dying out.
After reading your book, I thought, isn't it showing up a bit late? It's subtitled "How Conservatives Rule." But Bush is gone in a few months.
First of all, I'm a historian, and so technically nothing is ever too late. Second of all, these people are still in control of the executive branch—and there's plenty of conservatives running for office. Things look real bad for them in the poll numbers. But you shouldn't count these people out. Conservatism is an organic expression of the business community, which is the most powerful element of American society. The movement isn't going to die. The time when it would've died would've been in 1933. And it didn't.
So do you see maybe one term with President Obama—and with the economy and Iraq being so fucked up, he can't fix them—followed by more conservative presidents?
Are you going to print that in your newspaper?
We're not a family newspaper.
The economy is so obviously the issue right now. I wish Obama would address it more forthrightly.
Is Obama a liberal?
That's a tough question. Obama was my state senator; I used to live in Hyde Park [in Chicago]. I always thought he was [a liberal] back then. He's certainly being attacked as one. He's really talking a sort of free-market line these days. I really don't know. Obama is one of the people in the Senate who knows the most about contracting issues. One of the others is John McCain. I'd love to hear them debate it. I don't think they will.
What do you think about "public-private partnerships," which are big in Portland?
Those work great, don't they? Those really kick ass. A lot of people get really rich.
Is the West Coast "green" thing getting any traction in D.C., or is it a joke there?
A lot of my neighbors are very environmentally conscious. I'm sure the day I finally get run down by a car, it's going to be a Prius.
You write that former Seattle Times editorialist Michelle Malkin is "a pundit with the appearance of a Bratz doll but the soul of Chucky." Which Beltway pundit has the darkest soul?
I'm not going to go there. Some of these guys have a good sense of humor.
Bob Novak argues that "Obama is a modified Thomas Frank."
Wouldn't that be swell?
What does it say about the left that you—a guy who wrote a few books—are seen as the mastermind?
(Laughs.) Look, I try my best. What does it say about the left? There's something wrong, obviously. The founder and the editor of The Baffler is the guy you're going to? That's it? That's what you got? That's really pathetic. I like being successful. I think it's nice that the world says, "Good job, Tom." They don't really say that so much.
Michael Moore gets the same treatment.
No one compares him to Obama.
Here is Frank describing what it felt like to learn Susan Dudley, the author of a wild-eyed pamphlet arguing against food inspections, wetland protections and airbags, had been appointed to a federal regulatory post: "The effect is...like learning that they've put a 10-year-old Quaker lad in charge of the Strategic Air Command."