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Making Smoke & Mirrors: an interview with Dan Baum

During the two years that Dan Baum spent researching and writing Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, he walked around with a pin stuck ironically to his hatband which read "William Bennett for President." "I want to debate him on Nightline," Baum would say of the nation's quintessential Drug Czar. "No, I want to debate him on Letterman." Baum may get some part of his wish. Three weeks ago, The New York Times called Smoke and Mirrors "devastating" in a glowing piece that appeared on page one of the Book Review Section. Last Sunday, the Los Angeles Times devoted the entire front page of its Book Review section to Baum's book. It has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize -- a rare accomplishment for a first book. And Baum just returned from a twelve-city national book tour, where he appeared on numerous radio and TV shows--including Gov. Jerry Brown's syndicated talk show. Bennett is bound to hear about it. And he's bound to be pissed. Smoke and Mirrors shows exactly how Bennett, and the drug warriors who came before and since, used the War on Drugs to further their own political aims. Convincingly and thoroughly, it shows the War on Drugs to be "a policy as expensive, ineffective, delusional and destructive as government gets."Baum started to pay attention to the War on Drugs in 1991, after several or his neighbors in Missoula, Montana were caught up in its sweep and jailed for growing or selling pot. A former reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the Atlanta Constitution, he and his wife, Meg Knox, had been freelancing for two or three years, filing stories for several dailies. He took a break from newspaper reporting to write a few magazine-length articles on the drug war, and in that process learned something that blew his mind. "Usually, when you're a reporter, you know what the story is before you go out to cover it," Baum says. "You just need to get quotes and numbers and fill in some blanks. It's rare that a reporter gets surprised. "Halfway into to this story, I'd still come home and say 'Meg, you won't believe what the government can do!'" "I was amazed that as a fairly well-informed citizen, I had no idea about the terrifying police apparatus that had been set up, or about how dramatically the rights and protections in the Constitution had been diminished. "But more than that, I was amazed that nobody was writing about it." After receiving an assignment from the American Bar Association's ABA Journal and another from The Nation, Baum decided to pursue the subject to its source. "I realized that the War on Drugs didn't just happen," he says. "I realized that the people who did it had names and addresses." Baum set out to find them, and when he did, he found two distinct kinds of drug warriors. Some of the people he interviewed "thought exactly the same way in 1994 as they did in '70." Others were reflective, analytical and even regretful about the roles they played in re-writing the lawbooks, reinterpreting the Constitution, and filling the nation's prisons. Amazingly, everyone involved in crafting the War on Drugs, from Don Santarelli (who first saw the political wisdom of drug enforcement) to John Ehrlichman (a quiet drug warrior before his Watergate notoriety) spoke openly with Baum for the book. Everyone, that is, except William Bennett.Reading Smoke and Mirrors is a bit like watching a movie. It is composed of brief "scenes" -- half-page to three-page long sections which follow events chronologically, beginning in 1969 in Richard Nixon's White House. Each scene features one of the architects of the drug war, whose vivid accounts gave the book its immediacy and its authority. They also support the book's profoundly critical thesis. "The people who invented the drug war were aware of its political nature," Baum says. "It really was a political construct. These people had thought about the political advantage to be gained, and then did certain things to achieve that advantage." The political aims of the War on Drugs are shown to be two- fold. First, it allowed politicians to demonize a group which, Baum reports, Nixon and his cohorts referred to "as though it was one word: theyoungthepooorandtheblack." "Polls showed that whites were mad at the hippies and campus revolutionaries, and they were afraid of the blacks," Baum says. "Drugs, in 1968, was a code for hippies and blacks. It was a way for the Silent Majority to register its hatred." "This is not my analysis," Baum insists. "The people who designed this policy told me themselves that the drug war was initiated for that reason." Ultimately, however, the War on Drugs is shown to be at the heart of a more significant political transformation: "Americans each year redefine more and more of what used to be considered social ills as failings of personal character. Since Nixon's "law and order" campaign of 1968, the War on Drugs has walked point for a national retreat from handling crime and drug abuse as symptoms of larger problems -- racism, exclusion, injustice and poverty -- for which all Americans bear some responsibility." The philosophical sea-change which began with the War on Drugs has a shorthand name, of course -- this is the "values" debate being forwarded by none other than William Bennett. Smoke and Mirrors brings a new and valuable perspective to that debate.

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