The Electric Windmill: An Inadvertent Autobiography, by Tom Bethell, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 294 pages, $17.95
Can a man who calls his collected newspaper and magazine articles autobiography know what autobiography is? Where is the personal angle in a piece about scholarly doubters of Darwinism? What would a deadpan report on street people tell us about the life and thought of its author? These questions immediately confront the reader of Tom Bethell's first book, a lively compilation spanning nearly two decades of work for periodicals big (Harper's) and small (New Orleans's Vieux Carré Courier). The answers lie in Bethell's devotion to reporting.
Bethell is, above all, a journalist. That is, he is in no way an academic theorizer or formulator. These pieces originated in the world, not the library, and some retain the rough edges that life leaves on the borders of human events.
His treatments of controversial subjects—abortion, feminism, the "conspiracy" to kill President Kennedy—stem from firsthand experience. When Jim Garrison rubbed his hands at the prospect of arresting an aide to President Johnson, Bethell was there to catch the response of the district attorney's mother: "Oh Jim, I think that's a wonderful idea." (Bethell actually traced leads for Garrison using the code name Sam Spade.) Almost without meaning to, the incident tells more about Garrison's irresponsibility—and the unbridled power of prosecutors—than a shelf of formal essays. Such is the impact of you-are-there reporting: it convinces in a flash of discovery.
Bethell always works from actualities to generalities and, holding to the journalistic axiom that the facts speak for themselves, usually leaves the generalities unwritten. When he does intrude it is as though prodded by common sense.
In the title piece he tours something called the Appropriate Community Technologies Fair. The people staging it power boom-boxes off solar cells and call it "old-fashioned American ingenuity." When Bethell learns Uncle Sam is footing the bill, he does what any self-respecting taxpayer would do. He explodes. "Did these people ever do a day's work in their lives? Ten years ago daddy's credit card paid for everything.…These artful dodgers…have discovered that Big Daddy in Washington has the credit card now, and is ready to put it at their disposal until they decide what they want to do when they grow up." But the quiet irony of events, reported straight, provides the parting shot: a windmill billed as the death of Big Oil is plugged into an outlet.
This is by no means "objective" wire-service reporting—if any such thing exists beyond fire and accident stories from the police beat. Here, the reporter doesn't just heap facts, he suggests a pattern. Call it interpretive writing, but not as defined by the Washington Post. Most of Bethell's articles first appeared in The American Spectator, a magazine that the confused describe as ultraconservative but that only the ignorant would call liberal. He chooses subjects like an inquisitor hunting heresies, and only nonbelievers will be surprised by his barbed asides. The victims, however, hang themselves. No one could have prompted the defrocked priest at a pro-abortion bash to strip off his collar and tell a girl, "Hi, gorgeous." Bethell looks, listens, devastates.
His work will endure precisely because it is the product of a directed intelligence. Inspired by a vision of the world as it should be, he reports it as it is, with regrets. Bethell writes with abundant humor. At a barbecue thrown by Nelson Bunker Hunt he ruminates on the kind of money it takes to serve steak to 2,000: "Thank God envy is not my vice. Someone said it is the only one of the seven deadly sins that gives no pleasure at all."
Bethell is also a master of comparison. On a conspiracy theorist's chances of success, he writes: "Just as Einstein discovered insurmountable obstacles in his efforts to unify the theories of gravity and electromagnetism, so the difficulties confronting Jones Harris will prove in the end insuperable." When social historians try to understand the '80s, the poor-mouthing amid plenty, the protectionist impulse, the pursuit of change for change's sake, they will turn to these journalistic masterpieces, which they will appreciate as much for Bethell's moral sense as for hard facts.
And they will call it autobiography in spite of itself. Bethell would be the last journalist to write an advertent personal history; he is too fascinated by the uncanny way the things he sees and hears keep validating his ideals. But this commitment to reporting is self-revelation of a subtle kind. Bethell is saying that his life and work are one. His pursuit of incident also indicates a preference for verifiable evidence and a mistrust of grand designs untested by experience.
The few details we learn about Bethell's life serve chiefly to explain his choice of topics. Emigration from England (1962), apolitical years teaching high schoolers, discovery of National Review in the New Orleans Public Library: reading them, we do not wish for more. The articles themselves tell by implication the juicier particulars, right down to his suspicions about Darwinism. A consummate journalist, he is a part of all he has met. The way to know him is not to look for Bethell on Bethell, but to read him as he is here, noting and judging the life of his time.
Paul Hornak is a free-lance writer.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Moral Sense and Hard Facts".