It was quarter-past-seven on Mother's Day at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Hillcrest and Greg Palast-hailed by some as the most important investigative journalist in the world today-was still outside signing copies of his re-released best seller, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.
San Diego poet Theresa F gyrated on stage. A heavy bass line reverberated through the hall, informing a sequence of arresting African dance moves. A buzz of anticipation swept through the packed house.
After a thunderous applause for the poet, church provost Tanya Winter introduced Palast by way of the words ascribed to him by comrades and detractors.
Leftist philosopher Noam Chomsky says "he upsets all the right people." The former Secretary of State of Florida, Katherine Harris, summed him up in three words: "twisted and maniacal." A Cleveland newspaper has called him "the most important investigative reporter of our time," and a Baltimore writer said that "no one has uncovered more about the Bush dynasty than Greg Palast and lived to write about it."
The San Fernando Valley native spoke for nearly two hours, covering the gamut of modern-day conspiracies and high-level corruption. Though the systematic fraud of the 2000 presidential election was the glue that held the presentation together, Palast started in another direction.
His tour into the heart of American darkness began with the regime's most pressing current debacle: Iraq. Holding a copy of a thick document pinched from the U.S. State Department (he's a magician at appropriating important papers), Palast detailed the U.S. plan for the post-conflict re-building of Iraq-one that was written "about a year before we were told there was going to be a conflict." The plan-privatization of six of the top state banks, zero tariffs, flat taxes and 100-percent foreign ownership of industry-amounts to a democratic nightmare, he said.
"Not only a free-fire zone, but a free-trade zone as well," Palast quipped.
In Europe his reports are often top of the nightly news, but they rarely see print in major media outlets on this side of the Atlantic. He says he's been blacklisted in the press here. Stories he's broken in London's Guardian and Observer newspapers, and on the BBC, seem to stop short of U.S. borders.
Here in San Diego, he seemed at home-perhaps that's his way. He's certainly at ease behind the podium. His humor is bitingly sarcastic at times and often underplayed. It's the same light and wily tone that pervades his book and much of his writing.
In an era that finds the American media cowing to the country's war machine, he's a journalist with the balls to not only expose a growing oligarchy that's snatching up an alarming amount of the world's globalized wealth, but to call them out by name.
In no small way, he is David in a world of politico and gas company Goliaths.
His book-tour manager granted me some time with him after the presentation-precious time. It was nearly 10 p.m. and they still had to drive back to L.A. The modern-day Mencken had a 6 a.m. meeting. With coffee shops closed, we were forced to take the interview to the Los Panchos taco shack on Washington Street.
I expected him to be erudite and stuffy, but the truth is Palast is as pedestrian as crossing the street. There's a proletarian sensibility about him. Direct and straightforward, his stories are funny and his sentences are sprinkled with colorful expletives.
"I grew up in the Valley, L.A., in a real shit-hole neighborhood," he said over an order of Spanish rice. "It was dull, it was poor. I was going to be cannon fodder for Vietnam. With my sister, we kind of fought our way out; the only way we really had was street smarts. So I got some degrees and spent my time hunting corporate bad guys."
In an ironic way, this poor Jewish kid from the Valley-who's directly assaulting some of the most established families in the country-is the embodiment of the American dream. He pulled himself up by the bootstraps, and made an international name for himself, without compromising his values.
After making his bones as an investigator, taking companies like Exxon and Long Island Lighting to task for environmental disasters and nuclear irresponsibility-to the tune of billions of dollars-he realized the power of the media.
"I got to the point I couldn't get the stories of my investigations into the press, so I said, "Fuck it, I'll write them myself.'"
In 1997 he wrote a letter to London's Guardian-a paper that doesn't accept submissions. They wrote him back, calling his revelations "explosive," and one thing led to another. Palast was soon investigating scandal in the Tony Blair government.
We talked about the conservative climate of post 9/11 America-of the pendulum that's swung to the right with nationalistic fervor. Despite the chilled climate of censorship in the country and all the dishonesty and sleaze he's uncovered, Palast remains upbeat. "It swings back," he says. "You can only land on the aircraft carrier so many times. You can only go "Boo' so many times [and] "they're coming to get you,' so many times, before you say, "How come they're still coming to get us, asshole, I thought you're supposed to prevent that instead of foment it.'"
He points to 1950s McCarthyism and the high body count of Vietnam as evidence that things have been much worse in America."That's a sign of my age," he says. "I've seen worse. But there's more media control [now] than there's ever been. The mainstream media outlets are far more locked up, controlled and brain-dead than they've ever been.... That's therefore creating the alternative press... [about] which they're saying, "Oh, don't look at the Internet, you can't trust what's out there.' As opposed to what I just read from the Associate Press-a complete piece-of-shit propaganda pack of lies? And then I'm supposed to worry about what I read on the Internet? Give me a break."