Book Review: The Electric Windmill: An Inadvertent Autobiography by Tom Bethell

Regnery Gateway, distributed by Kampmann & Co., 9 E. 40th Street, New York, NY 10016 • 1988 • 294 pages • $17.95 cloth

I first read Tom Bethell’s essays in Reason in the late 1970s. At the time, I admired his clear, fluid style and effortlessly persuasive arguments on economic issues. But in his monthly column for The American Spectator in the 1980s, he has become a first-rank critic of contemporary liberalism.

In virtually every political essay Bethell writes, there appears a one-, two-, or three-sentence epitome of some tenet or tendency of liberalism. Sometimes the point made is the major point of the piece, sometimes a brilliant aside or parenthesis. Regardless, Bethell can do to liberalism in a couple dozen words what some writers are unable to do in reams.

The Electric Windmill shows off Bethell the liberal critic in good form. This wasn’t, however, Bethell’s main intention. In fact, he says in his introduction that “It did strike me as a good idea to exclude the numerous policy-oriented articles that I have written over the years.”

On a whole, though, the book moves smoothly from “inadvertent autobiography” to, if not policy pieces, political culture pieces. But even in the early essays, concerned with the first several years of his life after arrival in the U.S. from England in 1962, Bethell sprinkles observations and comments on the political culture he observed.

The first essay is partly an account of his first months in the country, partly an account of his contrition for his “wishy-washy liberalism.” Bethell says that immediately upon entering the U.S., he “didn’t hesitate to suggest various ways in which national customs and folkways could be improved.”

If he wasn’t immediately surprised at himself for offering his advice—after all, “it was understood that [Americans] were themselves frequently aware of their shortcomings and more than willing to take self- improvement lessons from educated Englishmen”—it eventually came to him “what a lot of nonsense I had been permitted to get away with . . . . after the passage of a few months most British immigrants are to be found pensively staring down at the sidewalk . . . . recalling with embarrassment some vile rudeness and vowing not to let it happen again.”

From New England and Virginia, Bethell went to New Orleans, where he became a reporter on the weekly Vieux Carré Courier. In the essays about this period he traverses New Orleans jazz and a brilliant jazz collector, William Russell Wagner, the vicissitudes of the New Orleans real estate market, and a Kennedy assassination conspiracy investigation.

From here Bethell moves on to Washington, D.C., spelunking the Beltway culture, exploring what he calls (after Joseph Sobran) the phenomenon of “the Hive”—the liberalism of the intelligentsia.

These pieces aren’t dry political treatises, though. On the contrary, they really are principally reportage. He reports on crime from courtrooms and judges’ chambers; on abortionists and the pro-life movement from Pennsylvania Avenue; on the Hive’s vehicle, the Democratic Party, in San Francisco; on the “loyal opposition,” pragmatic, country-club Republicans, in Dallas; on AIDS and “safe sex” at Stanford University.

In each essay, though, Bethell leavens his journalistic observations with compact illuminations on the implications of what he sees or the principles informing the agents’ words and deeds. What is most impressive is that he does it on the fly, without sacrificing narrative continuity.

Thus the incident giving the book its title. Bethell reports stumbling onto ACT ‘79, the “Appropriate Community Technology Fair,” a gathering of various energy technology visionaries and bureaucrats. “I decided to take a look at the windmill,” he writes, “a large three-bladed propellor on top of a tall tower. The propellor was churning around merrily, although there was lime or no wind at ground level . . . . It would save about half your electricity bill—if you lived in a windy spot . . . . I asked the gentleman from Vermont why the blades were whining around so smoothly in such still air. ‘It’s not working off the wind,’ he said. ‘It’s plugged into the power outlet.’ It wasn’t demonstrating the production of electricity. Electricity was demonstrating it.”

(Mr. Stewart is an advertising copywriter and a free-lance writer in Rochester Hills, Michigan.)