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Nonfiction in Brief

October 09, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

THINKING TUNA FISH, TALKING DEATH:Essays on the Pornography of Power by Robert Scheer (Hill & Wang: $18.95) Growing up in the Bronx, Robert Scheer saw his mother push the gas company man out the door to keep him from shutting off the heat. It was an experience that nurtured Scheer's skepticism about the automatic right to power and prosperity assumed by the upper class, and it helps explain his approach to journalism. The essays collected here, published from 1965-88 in journals ranging from the now-defunct Ramparts to The Times, where he is a reporter, show why Scheer has acquired a national reputation for being street smart ("I want in any story to know who's getting screwed and who's doing the screwing"), but they also reveal a degree of respect for the American people that will surprise readers who have called Scheer cynical. "We're all smart," Scheer writes. "We're all as smart as 'they' are, and where have you been if I have to tell you who 'they' are? They had names like Binky and Missy, and inheritances." Bolstered by this confidence, Scheer approaches politicians as equals, debating them until their values and ideas emerge from behind the platitudes and promises of the stump speech.

These essays question authority in a variety of ways, from direct attacks on the arrogance of American leaders during the Vietnam War to more subtle criticism of Ronald Reagan and Nelson Rockefeller. Scheer displays considerable respect for the fearlessness and wit of these two leaders even as he highlights Reagan's blurry and unrealistic thinking ("There was no blacklist of Hollywood," he tells Scheer) and Rockefeller's condescension ("Society is a web," Scheer writes, "in which he is the chief spider").

While Scheer is perhaps best known for his interviews (He "can catapult an exchange into the shouting stage quicker than anybody since Huey Long," William F. Buckley Jr. has said), the most moving pieces collected here illustrate Scheer's reportorial sensitivity to subtle social and political trends. "The Jews of Los Angeles" eloquently captures the dilemmas of a community isolated from itself, fragmented between lower-middle class factory workers "eking out an existence on $100-a-month union pensions," wealthy Jews working out deals at "power lunches," and a new, apathetic generation dreaming of "cars, girls, alcohol, and money (which) also happens to be Jewish." In the collection's most powerful essay, Scheer returns to the Bronx, finding little more than "a maintenance culture hooked on welfare and government-subsidized housing." Scheer's first sentence captures the prevailing mood: "The Good Humor truck circles aimlessly through silent blocks of burned-out buildings hunting the occasional waif still playing in the rubble who might yet desire a Popsicle."

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