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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are. --Pablo Neruda

Sunday, July 22, 2007

35 years on, why does it feel like nothing's changed?

Flame-Haired Angel and I were watching All The President's Men last night. It's a creepy movie for all the reasons that it should be creepy. I first saw it years ago, and that feeling of everything being rigged, everything being dirty, in Washington made me want to take a shower.

What struck me last night, however, was the difference between what went on in the Nixon administration -- the administration's obsessive secrecy and flagrant disregard for the law and, in particular, parts of the Constitution, of which Watergate was only a symptom -- and what's going on in the current administration. It's a pretty clear case of lessons learned. Sadly, not as we might have hoped.

As is often quipped, it wasn't Watergate that undid Nixon, it was the cover-up. That can be taken a leap further. On a profound level, it wasn't Watergate that toppled the Nixon administration, it was their belief that in order to subvert the democratic process (Remember: Watergate was all about bugging the Democratic Party national headquarters), they had to carry on covert, secret operations.

The genius of the current administration's modus operandi is that it carries on its ravaging of the Bill of Rights in full daylight. Rather than being caught out doing whatever the hell it wants in secret, it declares that what it wants to do is legal, regardless of how much it flies in the face of reason to claim so, and pushes ahead.

Some of the best, but by no means only, examples of this are:

  • Torture. Just claim the Geneva Convention doesn't apply to this particular conflict, and further claim that all sorts of "enhanced interrogation techniques" that the US government has legally prosecuted as torture since World War II are perfectly legal.
  • Suspension of habeas corpus. In the "war on terror" you have to break a few eggs. Just pass a law that says you can hold people, including citizens, as long as you like without due process or trial and, voila, you can.
  • Wiretapping without a warrant. This one's my favourite. Just say it's legal, though it never has been and it's a clear violation of the laws on the books. Then do lots of it and act surprised when folks get all up in your face about it. Then, say your critics obviously want the terrorists to win.
Of course, this administration hasn't given up the idea of doing things in the shadows. "Extraordinary rendition", which is fancy speak for flying people from prisons in countries with strong human rights records to countries where you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want in secret CIA prisons in countries with more "liberal" notions of what the law allows.

I reckon the administration's most impressively sophisticated practice, however, is neither so dramatic as the dead-of-night secrecy of rendition, nor as blatantly ballsy as just claiming legality where there is none. It's the perfectly legal gutting of the government that happens when you stack the bureaucracy with ideologues. The administration has been doing this for years unashamedly, of course, and it's perfectly legit, even if morally corrupt. The easiest examples are the placing of oil lobbyists in high positions at the energy agencies. Or appointing former mining executives to top jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency. Or placing anti-birth-control/abstinence only zealots in charge of the family planning portfolios at other agencies. Or sending John Bolton to the UN.

The recent Department of Justice scandals, about the firing of US Attorneys who weren't loyal enough to the White House, were just usual daily business for this approach to changing the government wholesale. Was it illegal? Maybe, but probably not. Was it beyond the pale of what any previous modern administration considered legitimate practice? Of course. Was it a corruption of the separation of powers ensconced as near holy in the Constitution? You bet.

I'm glad I didn't have broadband during the moment a couple weeks back when Bush commuted Scooter Libby's sentence for lying to a Grand Jury about the outing of a CIA operative. The layers of disgust were so enveloping, I was hardly able to utter a coherent sentence about it. This administration, which has so wrapped itself in the flag and portrayed itself as as our troops' most stalwart redoubt, essentially said that Libby didn't deserve such strong punishment for compromising US intelligence forces by exposing a covert agent.

Their argument: all he did was fib a little to a Grand Jury. And is all that time in prison really a fair sentence? Bush commuted the sentence because he thought it "excessive".

Seems I recall another Washington insider who, in lying to a Grand Jury, so incensed the justice-minded Right Wing, that they voted to remove him from office. All the while there was much made of the need to make Washington a place for people of higher moral standards. Ultimately, the Right Wing failed to remove that perjurer from office, but only because they didn't have quite enough votes in the Senate. The guy had lied about a blowjob. The guy was Bill Clinton.

Lie about a blowjob, and you deserve to be removed as President of the United States. Lie about compromising US intelligence forces and you deserve not to be punished at all.

To quote from The Washington Post:
Bush did not discuss his reasoning in depth yesterday. "It's been a tough issue for a lot of people in the White House, and it's run its course and now we're going to move on," he said.
I'm sure W wasn't being ironic. It's been tough. It's been a tough having to ask for so long: "How do we make this go away?" Of course, none of this is about reason. The Valerie Plame affair, as it will go down in history, was just one of untold numbers of political hatchet jobs that are the stock in trade of party operatives who are paid to keep their guys in power, no matter how far into the ditch they have to crawl.

(In fairness, Bush didn't commute Libby's considerable fine. In counter-fairness, however, it would be naive to suggest Libby is going to pay a dime of that from his own pocket.)

In the movie, last night, a long-haired Dustin Hoffman and an un-lined Robert Redford, playing Woodward and Bernstein in another era, convinced me that the Watergate story almost didn't happen. Few news outlets stuck with the early inklings of the story very long. Even "Woodstein" weren't sure what they had. It might easily have become a virtually unnoticed bungled burglary. It could easily have gone away. As I'm sure dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of politically-motivated acts on the wrong side of the law just fade into the unknown all the time. On all sides.

But we seem to have forgotten what Watergate really meant. It's become such shorthand for an iconic cultural-political moment of history, we don't hold it with us as a reminder of what happens when any political agenda is made more important than the job of governing. And more important than the ideals on which this particular nation was founded.

Democracy takes a knife in the stomach. And the mugger says they've done nothing wrong.


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