SHELF LIFE-What's going on? Suskind wants hard truths

The One Percent Doctrine

By Ron Suskind

367 pages, $27

Simon & Schuster

"Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government."– Thomas Jefferson

It's not surprising that the epigraph to Ron Suskind's new nonfiction bestseller, The One Percent Doctrine, is a quote from the sage of Monticello. A UVA alum (class of '81), Suskind has fashioned his career as a journalist after the ideal of a free press– dogged, independent, dynamic– that Jefferson found so important to self-government.

On Friday, June 23, Suskind spoke to a full house at the Miller Center of Public Affairs on the subjects addressed in the book: the complex challenges the U.S. continues to face in this new kind of war, the new attitudes and measures being adopted by government officials to ensure national security– and, most importantly, the social and cultural implications of these changes.

Before he began his talk in earnest, Suskind mused about the valuable lessons he said he learned as a college student. Without a trace of irony, he presented the audience with another quote that has stayed in mind: "For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." incidentally, also the mission statement of the Cavalier Daily, UVA's student newspaper.

Even the burden of an insider's knowledge and experience, it seems, cannot erase the memory of an impassioned idealism. But it can certainly temper it.

In the book, Suskind illustrates the details of the months leading up to and following the attacks of September 11, 2001. He includes some uncomfortable and politically contentious facts in his account: this is the most secretive administration to date; plans for an invasion of Iraq began long before September 11, 2001; only a small coterie of top government officials are aware of the military's many covert projects. 

No matter how one receives Suskind's version of the truth, no one can deny his credibility in the media establishment. A reporter for eight years with the Wall Street Journal, he has been called by the New York Observer "a genuine insider." In 1995 he won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

The title of the new book, The One Percent Doctrine, refers to a statement by Vice President Richard Cheney in private conversation, which indicates a new outlook on the part of administration officials. The relevant quote is given in the first part of the book: "If there's a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response. It's not about our analysis... It's about our response."

In other words, even top officials are plagued by doubt and uncertainty. Consequently, our leaders are acting swiftly and aggressively-– on mere suspicion. The subtext of the book, and what was implied throughout Suskind's talk at the Miller Center, is "We cannot separate the personality [of our leaders] from the policy." This, Suskind believes, is cause for concern.

In illustrating how this "real war on terror" plays out in government practice and procedure, Suskind makes a distinction between the main players, between the invisibles (the men and women in the various agencies and organizations who are actually fighting the fight) and the notables (those, like Bush and Cheney and Tenet, who are the figureheads).    

 "To understand America's actual response to 9/11," Suskind claims in the Preface, "you have to talk to both groups, and hear them talk to each other, an often tense dialogue." 

As he made clear in his talk, Suskind's intention is to get the facts straight, to inform the uninformed about what is actually going on-– so that "they [the American people] can be trusted with their own government."  

One would not necessarily need to know that to appreciate his effort. The book reads like a John Grisham novel, with vivid characters and structure built on a strong, linear narrative. As Suskind himself describes it, "The so-called ‘war on terror' is about unlikely twists, strange alliances, about things you least expect."  

As gripping as the story is, there's no glossing the facts or hard truths. "This is a harrowing time," Suskind said frankly to the Miller Center audience. And there was something more than just his loyalty to the Jeffersonian ideal that made him believable.