by Greta Van Susteren and Elaine Lafferty
Reviewed by Barry Perlman
Van Susteren first made a name for herself in the early '90s as a legal analyst on CNN, weighing in on the O.J. Simpson murder trial and other high-profile cases. Now, she reigns as the most-watched female broadcaster on cable news as host of Fox News's On the Record, a primetime news and interview program. And just as her Fox pundit counterparts like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity did, Van Susteren has used her TV-made high profile for entrée into the publishing world, collecting various views of hers in My Turn at the Bully Pulpit, which was co-authored by Elaine Lafferty (editor of Ms. Magazine).
From Bully Pulpit's subtitle - Straight Talk About the Things that Drive Me Nuts - the reader gets a fairly accurate snapshot of the tone Van Susteren aims for in her writing. "Straight talk" refers to the common sense approach she takes throughout the book, which she attributes to the "Midwestern Catholic middle-class sensibilities" she inherited from her Wisconsin upbringing. (The "things that drive me nuts," meanwhile, gives her an unspecific umbrella under which to gather her comments on unrelated topics into a single tome.) Van Susteren's writing is clear and simple, even when more complex subjects are involved, and we never doubt where she stands on the issues she addresses.
To Van Susteren's credit, the views she presents often eschew the simplistic liberal/conservative dichotomy we've come to expect from popular political commentators. She writes, "I believe that too many of us are caught up in old definitions of left and right that no longer apply. If I favor the death penalty in some cases, does that make me right-wing? [These definitions] rarely apply anymore, except for the most extreme elements of our society." In the case of the death penalty, for instance, Van Susteren leads us on her journey from staunch opponent to tentative advocate in extreme situations, with details that include her eyewitness account of an execution and her coverage of the Timothy McVeigh trial. She is unafraid to admit changing her mind and actively denounces absolutism, remarking, "It is this nutty which-side-are-you-on mentality that has poisoned all careful thinking…"
Another issue Van Susteren takes on in Bully Pulpit, of particular interest to legal enthusiasts, is the debate surrounding tort reform. She takes a position she presumes will categorize her as "a lefty trial lawyer," rejecting the idea that Congress has a right to propose an arbitrary liability limit for pain and suffering damages in tort cases. Van Susteren reviews the popular McDonald's hot-coffee case as an example, taking readers below the sensational headlines to reveal lesser-known facts on the company's prior awareness of its coffee's dangers (they kept it hotter than normal to stretch the time they could keep it) and the outcome of the trial (millions of dollars were not awarded). She calls out the insurance industry, "hourly-rate lawyers," the judges, and the media as the main culprits in the tort game and comes off as an outright populist in her defense of the jury system: "We are neither too stupid to understand a case nor likely to overcompensate a plaintiff with unreasonable damages. As citizens serving on a jury, we are doing our job and do not need to be 'reformed' by the power of influential money."
Still, we can't forget that Van Susteren is employed by Fox News, an aggressive competitor in the cable-news ratings game (currently number one, in fact) and a hardly-subtle partisan mouthpiece. She speaks candidly about her own competitiveness and the news industry's strategies to draw viewers by getting the "get" (i.e., the most desired guest at the center of a big story). Loyal to her network, Van Susteren peppers Bully Pulpitwith defenses of Fox's "fair and balanced" motto ("We talked for many hours, and I got it that Roger [Ailes, head of Fox News] meant what he said… The news shows are about the news, and opinion plays no role."), while critiquing CNN (her previous employer of a decade) for "being no fun at all" since the AOL Time Warner merger. While Van Susteren avidly upholds the right to question leaders' policies without being branded a traitor and while she maintains that lively disagreements on issues "should never, ever turn personal," it's hard not to note how the behaviors of peers at her organization habitually fly in the face of these beliefs.
Of course, readers would hardly be satisfied if Van Susteren neglected to comment on one of her most well known exploits, going under the knife for a little eyelid lift. In fact, she devotes an entire chapter - "How I Became the Poster Girl for Plastic Surgery" - to the media spectacle surrounding the facial touch-up she underwent during her transition from CNN to Fox. Reading Van Susteren's account, it is startling to learn how a well-educated, hard-working, and thoughtful woman received the most attention to date for making a personal decision to alter her physical appearance. The details she provides, including comments lobbed at her from both supporters (for being "courageous") and critics (for "selling out the sisterhood"), are amusing, if not a startling commentary on our love/hate relationship with the superficial. In the midst of it, Van Susteren succinctly stands her ground: "How you look is your business and nobody else's… Make your appearance and your choices a totalitarian regime - you are the boss."
Throughout the rest of Bully Pulpit, Van Susteren takes fairly safe stands on matters such as improvements in the education system (she's in favor of them) and fraudulent corporate accounting practices by greedy executives (she's against them). She distinguishes between pro-war and pro-military stances in her discussion of patriotism. She raises an interesting point about the secrecy under which the Supreme Court carries out its work, and she entertains a strange recurring fascination with Ozzy Osbourne. All the while, she sprinkles in email correspondence with her Fox viewers for those warm personal touches we love to receive from celebrities. In the end, My Turn at the Bully Pulpit is an engaging, if somewhat light, read, perfectly in line with what we've come to expect from smart, accomplished professionals who end up in careers on mainstream TV.