My Turn at the Bully Pulpit

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					WEEKLY BOOK REVIEW                                                                                                           1. 800. 973.1177

                           My Turn at the Bully Pulpit
                           [by Barry Perlman]
                           At, we try to show our readers a wide cross-section of the professional avenues available to
                           them throughout the legal industry, from traditional practice to government-sector positions to job oppor-
                           tunities in public-interest organizations to academia. Alas, we rarely mention “TV commentator” as a likely
                           point on the legal-professional career path, though that’s exactly where Greta Van Susteren ended up after
                           years as a public defender, private-practice lawyer, and adjunct professor at Georgetown.

Van Susteren first made a name for herself       me right-wing? [These definitions] rarely          ployed by Fox News, an aggressive competi-
in the early ‘90s as a legal analyst on CNN,     apply anymore, except for the most extreme         tor in the cable-news ratings game (currently
weighing in on the O.J. Simpson murder           elements of our society.” In the case of the       number one, in fact) and a hardly-subtle
trial and other high-profile cases. Now,         death penalty, for instance, Van Susteren          partisan mouthpiece. She speaks candidly
she reigns as the most-watched female            leads us on her journey from staunch op-           about her own competitiveness and the news
broadcaster on cable news as host of Fox         ponent to tentative advocate in extreme            industry’s strategies to draw viewers by get-
News’s On the Record, a primetime news           situations, with details that include her          ting the “get” (i.e., the most desired guest
and interview program. And just as her Fox       eyewitness account of an execution and her         at the center of a big story). Loyal to her
pundit counterparts like Bill O’Reilly and       coverage of the Timothy McVeigh trial. She is      network, Van Susteren peppers Bully Pulpit-
Sean Hannity did, Van Susteren has used          unafraid to admit changing her mind and ac-        with defenses of Fox’s “fair and balanced”
her TV-made high profile for entrée into the     tively denounces absolutism, remarking, “It        motto (“We talked for many hours, and I
publishing world, collecting various views       is this nutty which-side-are-you-on mentality      got it that Roger [Ailes, head of Fox News]
of hers in My Turn at the Bully Pulpit, which    that has poisoned all careful thinking…”           meant what he said… The news shows are
was co-authored by Elaine Lafferty (editor of                                                       about the news, and opinion plays no role.”),
Ms. Magazine).                                   Another issue Van Susteren takes on in             while critiquing CNN (her previous employer
                                                 Bully Pulpit, of particular interest to legal      of a decade) for “being no fun at all” since
From Bully Pulpit’s subtitle - Straight Talk     enthusiasts, is the debate surrounding tort        the AOL Time Warner merger. While Van
About the Things that Drive Me Nuts - the        reform. She takes a position she presumes          Susteren avidly upholds the right to question
reader gets a fairly accurate snapshot of the    will categorize her as “a lefty trial lawyer,”     leaders’ policies without being branded a
tone Van Susteren aims for in her writing.       rejecting the idea that Congress has a right       traitor and while she maintains that lively
“Straight talk” refers to the common sense       to propose an arbitrary liability limit for pain   disagreements on issues “should never,
approach she takes throughout the book,          and suffering damages in tort cases. Van           ever turn personal,” it’s hard not to note how
which she attributes to the “Midwestern          Susteren reviews the popular McDonald’s            the behaviors of peers at her organization
Catholic middle-class sensibilities” she         hot-coffee case as an example, taking read-        habitually fly in the face of these beliefs.
inherited from her Wisconsin upbringing.         ers below the sensational headlines to reveal
(The “things that drive me nuts,” meanwhile,     lesser-known facts on the company’s prior          Of course, readers would hardly be satisfied
gives her an unspecific umbrella under           awareness of its coffee’s dangers (they kept       if Van Susteren neglected to comment on one
which to gather her comments on unrelated        it hotter than normal to stretch the time they     of her most well known exploits, going under
topics into a single tome.) Van Susteren’s       could keep it) and the outcome of the trial        the knife for a little eyelid lift. In fact, she de-
writing is clear and simple, even when more      (millions of dollars were not awarded). She        votes an entire chapter - “How I Became the
complex subjects are involved, and we never      calls out the insurance industry, “hourly-rate     Poster Girl for Plastic Surgery” - to the me-
doubt where she stands on the issues she         lawyers,” the judges, and the media as the         dia spectacle surrounding the facial touch-up
addresses.                                       main culprits in the tort game and comes off       she underwent during her transition from
                                                 as an outright populist in her defense of the      CNN to Fox. Reading Van Susteren’s account,
To Van Susteren’s credit, the views she          jury system: “We are neither too stupid to         it is startling to learn how a well-educated,
presents often eschew the simplistic lib-        understand a case nor likely to overcompen-        hard-working, and thoughtful woman re-
eral/conservative dichotomy we’ve come to        sate a plaintiff with unreasonable damages.        ceived the most attention to date for making
expect from popular political commenta-          As citizens serving on a jury, we are doing        a personal decision to alter her physical ap-
tors. She writes, “I believe that too many       our job and do not need to be ‘reformed’ by        pearance. The details she provides, including
of us are caught up in old definitions of left   the power of influential money.”                   comments lobbed at her from both support-
and right that no longer apply. If I favor the                                                      ers (for being “courageous”) and critics (for
death penalty in some cases, does that make      Still, we can’t forget that Van Susteren is em-    “selling out the sisterhood”), are amusing, if

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WEEKLY BOOK REVIEW                                1.800. 973. 1177

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 sys-
tem (she’s in favor of them) and fraudulent
corporate accounting practices by greedy
executives (she’s against them). She distin-
guishes 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 recur-
ring fascination with Ozzy Osbourne. All the
while, she sprinkles in email correspondence
with her Fox viewers for those warm per-
sonal touches we love to receive from celeb-
rities. In the end, My Turn at the Bully Pulpit
is an engaging, if somewhat light, read, per-
fectly in line with what we’ve come to expect
from smart, accomplished professionals who
end up in careers on mainstream TV.


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