The Land Of Bush And Cheney

May 9, 2014


Is it too soon to examine the White House of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney? Their tenancy is hardly ancient history, after all. We’re still mired in an unfunded war and struggling through a crippling financial crisis which both began on their watch. The plutocracy that they personified still rules American electoral politics and grows more powerful every Supreme Court term. And it will take decades to establish whether their overriding priority, a “global war on terror,” was an aberrational reaction to a temporary climate of shock and fear or the new, amoral chapter in world history they perceived.

Still, nearly all the key players have already weighed in with self-serving memoirs: both Bush and Cheney themselves and a warehouse pallet’s worth of others, including Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, John Ashcroft, Paul Bremer, Tommy Franks, Karl Rove, George Tenet, John Bolton, Douglas Feith, Ari Fleischer, Paul O’Neill – even John Yoo, the lawyer who attempted a legal justification for our country’s use of physical torture on its “detainees” who had (and in some cases still have) yet to be charged with a crime. Of course, a memoir can only represent its author’s particular point of view, meaning only as much as the author can or cares to “remember.” What we need instead is a dispassionate narrative with no particular axe to grind, and here is the first one: DAYS OF FIRE by Peter Baker, the New York Times reporter who did a similarly non-judgmental job in THE BREACH, the definitive fly-on-the-wall account of Bill Clinton’s impeachment and trial.

If you have any presumptions about the two featured men, either as an admirer or a critic, you’ll likely find corroboration here, beginning on page 3, where Mr. Baker lays out the impressive Bush-Cheney record of accomplishment (if he’d done nothing else, Bush would still be the best friend Africa has ever had in the White House, one reason accusations of racism stung him so), and then in the following paragraph recounts the “misjudgments and misadventures” that “left them the most unpopular president and vice president in generations.” What impressed me throughout, though, was how the author was calmly able to disabuse me of some assumptions I personally held that just aren’t true.

George W. Bush is not an unintelligent man, though he’s aware that he can come across this way and over the years has found it useful as a bit of jujitsu against opponents: it gives him a negotiating advantage whenever he’s “misunderestimated.” Rather than dim, what he seems to be instead is incurious and impatient, probably after having lived a life that found its way down prescribed and predictable paths (with one notable exception). He has always had the benefit of mentors, friends, guides, some of them inherited. You can gauge your personal prejudice by considering the chilling five minutes on 9/11 after Andy Card told the president the country was under attack and he didn’t move from his chair in that Florida elementary-school classroom. Some will see a steely gaze on Bush’s face as he silently vows to bring the evildoers to justice. Others will note the same expression and see a man desperately hoping for somebody to tell him what to do. Mr. Baker suggests that Bush had thrived on, insisted on order, punctuality, and disruption-free schedules since he changed his life by giving up alcohol at age forty, and his temporary paralysis may have indicated he was coming to grips with the enormity of the desperate, uncontrolled, improvisational days to come.

Contrary to popular opinion, Dick Cheney was not Bush’s puppet master, and that was the notion which most rankled “the Decider” personally, particularly as he became more confident of his footing in the second term (to the eventual detriment of both Donald Rumsfeld and Scooter Libby). Cheney was certainly adept at behind-the-scenes manipulation, and served as the final gatekeeper regarding what the president saw on his desk, but none of Mr. Baker’s many sources can remember a single instance in which Cheney talked Bush into doing something against his will. Cheney’s genius was in understanding how Washington operates – most of it alien to his less experienced boss, even after having observed his father’s long federal career – and in encouraging inevitability. The perfect example was his own selection as vice president; as candidate Bush’s designated point man assigned to find a running mate (after first being asked if he would like to be considered himself), Cheney vetted nine potential veeps in such grinding detail that he possessed valuable information about each of them that precluded perfection in any of them. When the governor finally implored Cheney to run alongside him, the irony wasn’t lost on anyone. Dick Cheney had long said he’d love to be president if the job were simply handed to him; it was all the required baby-kissing and money-grubbing by the figurehead in an actual campaign that he disdained. Now, here was the closest anyone could ever get to that wish. Colleagues who served with Cheney as far back as the Nixon administration were later heard to mutter, this isn’t the Dick Cheney I thought I knew. But anyone who bothered to check his Congressional voting record, so radically conservative that it fit right in with early 21st-century smash-mouth Republicanism, wouldn’t have been so surprised. Except nobody did bother. Cheney, the great inquisitor, was himself never vetted as a V-P prospect. The job was simply handed to him.

Cheney was particularly attractive to Bush for another reason besides his long experience in government and business: uniquely among modern vice presidents, he did not aspire to the top job. As noted, he found running for national office odious, and that became doubly apparent during the campaign. There would be no sniping or second-guessing, no positioning or ass-covering for some future race. Halfway through the first term, Cheney mused aloud: “In this White House, there aren’t Cheney people versus Bush people. We’re all Bush people.” He was being overly generous to the president: of course there were Cheney people, led by chief of staff Scooter Libby and bulldoggish attorney David Addington, and his cadre quickly found itself at odds with the likes of Secretary of State Colin Powell and, less frequently, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, particularly during the runup to Iraq. But as a potential competitor to the boss, Cheney didn’t compute at all – and Bush liked that, both as candidate and as president. The deference extended to official meetings: Cheney never opposed the president in public and tended to either keep silent or ask an occasional question. They held private weekly lunches, but all we know about them is what they told us or their aides.

Having served in the Nixon administration and as President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff before being elected to Congress, Cheney witnessed firsthand what he felt to be a dangerous swing of the pendulum of power from the Presidency toward the legislature – an overreaction, in his view, to the Watergate scandals. When it came to authority, Cheney was a Nixonian (“When the President does it, that means that it is not illegal”) and felt no more need to “ask permission” for extraordinary rendition and CIA black-ops than Ronald Reagan had for the Iran-Contra affair. Cheney’s world was black and white, populated by heroes and villains, and from this he never wavered during all his years in office.

Address to the Nation on Immigration. Oval.

Conventional wisdom about the self-described “compassionate conservative” was that George W. Bush was basically a nice guy who got in over his head, but that isn’t accurate either. It’s a notion held over from his fairly successful service as Texas governor, a constitutionally weak position in which he was forced to work alongside Democrats in the state legislature. But family observers had long noted that Bush personally took after his tough, no-prisoners mother over his more conciliatory father. He had been the senior Bush’s doctrinaire enforcer and hatchet man during the 1992 campaign; it was George W. who informed chief of staff John Sununu that he should resign. Upon losing the popular vote and gaining the presidency by its fingertips when a Florida recount was halted in a highly controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the Bush administration – particularly in the form of Cheney – proceeded to govern as if it had won a landslide. There would be no compromise, divided electorate or not. Advisor Karl Rove, who comes off in this account more important in his own mind than he is to day-to-day governance once the elections are done, famously admitted as much early in the first term: it doesn’t matter how close the margin, just as long as you win. The first concrete indication that these people weren’t all that compassionate was a private-sector task force convened by Cheney a few months after inauguration to advise on federal energy policy: not only were outsiders barred from the meetings and their conclusions, we weren’t even allowed to know who had attended. One name appearing on everybody’s speculative list was the doomed Enron’s doomed Kenneth Lay, whom Bush affectionately called “Kenny Boy.” But we don’t know for sure. Transparency was for wimps.

One thing the satirists did get right was Bush’s tendency to receive a first impression and then stick with it, to “go with his gut.” He “loathed” Kim Jong Il of North Korea, but after meeting Vladimir Putin, pronounced him “honest, straightforward.” “I looked the man in the eye,” said Bush, and “I was able to get a sense of his soul.” When Cheney looked Putin in the eye, he thought, KGB, KGB, KGB. Unlike the hard-charging 1992 campaign worker, the presidential Bush was more likely to shy away from personal conflict. He hated firing people, particularly those who had been loyal to him. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’s head came on the block, he insisted on a personal meeting, and only after a reluctantly hosted and uncomfortable lunch at Bush’s Texas ranch did it become clear to the General that longtime fealty was no longer a basis for appeal.

Bush’s complicated relationship with his father almost surely colored his entire presidency, partly in ways we’ll never understand. For most of George W.’s pre-political life, it was his industrious younger brother Jeb of whom their parents expected great things; the eldest son was wasting himself in frivolity and desultory attempts at business. It was a strange inversion of the Kennedy family history, in which golden boy Joe Jr. self-abdicated in a premature WWII bomb explosion, and younger freewheeling playboy Jack ascended to the Senate and presidency instead. When George W. Bush sobered up in 1986, he was still the “black sheep” of the clan, and he had lots to prove, both to his father and to himself. When he unexpectedly beat Ann Richards in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race on the same night that Jeb lost his first election for Florida governor, Bush asked his father over the phone, “Why do you feel bad about Jeb? Why don’t you feel good about me?”

There were two main lessons “43” took from “41”’s presidency. First, breaking the elder Bush’s famous “read my lips: no new taxes” pledge cut him off at the knees among hard-line conservatives, who use a Mad Hatter-like formulation regarding taxes and the economy. If there’s a deficit, businesses are being taxed too heavily and are disinclined to hire and grow. If there’s a surplus, as “43” inherited from President Clinton, then taxes are still too high because the government is taking in more than it spends. (Never mind the national debt; that only clouds the issue. As Cheney said one day, “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” That is, unless a Democrat is in the White House.) “This is not only no new taxes,” Bush proclaimed during a January 2000 debate. “This is tax cuts so help me God.” He made good on his promise barely four months into office.

Bush Attends Ceremonial Swearing In Of Veterans Affairs Secretary

The second lesson emerged only in retrospect. When the Persian Gulf War liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army in February 1991, “41”’s popularity was the highest of his presidency: even Democrats approved of his performance by a four-to-one margin. He looked unbeatable for re-election. But less than two years later, he was defeated by a deteriorating economy and the Clinton campaign’s unerring focus on it. The tax issue was probably the dealbreaker, but “43” and Cheney detected another chink in the armor: with the world’s most powerful ground force deployed only kilometers away, “41” had not completed the job by deposing Hussein with military muscle. There were many good reasons to simply accomplish the stated mission and leave, which is exactly what happened, but Bush and Cheney felt Saddam had only been emboldened to continue terrorizing his people and developing nukes. A disrupted 1993 car-bomb plot to assassinate Kuwait’s emir and “41,” purportedly traced back to Saddam, was a particular burr. “After all, this is the guy who tried to kill my dad,” Bush said at a 2002 fundraiser. If generals had seized the day and marched on Baghdad, that might never have happened. At one of their weekly lunches, as Bush was wrestling with the decision to extend his own war into Iraq, Cheney even goaded him on a personal level, one cowboy to another: “Are you going to take care of this guy or not?” Years later, Bush was surprised that this bit of impertinence had stuck with him, but it had its effect at the time.

After 9/11, the notion of retaliation against Iraq had surfaced almost instantly, beginning with Bush himself. “See if Saddam did this. See if he’s linked in any way,” he ordered counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke. “But Mr. President, Al-Qaeda did this.” “I know, I know, but see if Saddam was involved. Just look. I want to know any shred.” (As events later proved, he wasn’t kidding about the shreds.) The first few hours after the planes struck were chaotic, with the president struggling to get back from Florida while buildings were burning in New York and D.C. As United Airlines Flight 93 sped toward Washington, Cheney ordered it shot down – and twice more as a military aide re-confirmed “authority to engage.” Recollections differ as to whether he had obtained Presidential approval in advance, but “none of about a dozen sets of logs and notes kept that day recorded the call,” writes Mr. Baker. The plane was brought down instead in a Pennsylvania field by its passengers, before any Cheney order was given (and, fortunately, ignored), as frantic cell-phone calls revealed that other airliners were being used as deadly missiles. Most observers speculate its target was the Capitol or the White House; Cheney and team were below the East Wing in a secure but “low-tech” bunker that had never been used in a crisis before. Cheney spent most of the next few weeks at one or another “secure undisclosed location” (his own words) in order to maintain the line of succession in case of further attacks. Usually the secret hideout was no more exotic than Camp David or his own residence, but it was still undisclosed.

Bolstered by an historic wartime thumbs-up from the electorate – not dissimilar to Bush’s father’s – which extended into the 2002 midterms, Bush and Cheney might possibly be forgiven for convincing themselves that they were acting on behalf of a united nation. To the “reality-based community” (a notorious term that came from an anonymous Bushie widely believed to be Karl Rove), however, the administration needed to pound into “truth” the notion that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. (Never mind that another member of Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” North Korea, actually had nukes.) Some suspected the actual motives were less noble after watching post-invasion Iraqi looters sack everything in sight – including museums and munitions dumps – except for the one bit of infrastructure under Coalition protection: the oil fields.


“Stuff happens,” shrugged Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at one of the press conferences that made him something of a rock star after the invasion proved easier than anybody expected. Saddam’s army quickly dissolved away, allowing a cathartic “victory” to play out on American tv sets tuned to the “shock and awe” channels, and it turned out that Iraq had actually long since disposed of its WMDs but maintained enough of a pretense to juice the dictator’s perceived international importance and keep the hated Iran at bay. Rumsfeld is the subject of Errol Morris’s new film THE UNKNOWN KNOWN, which one might expect to be a companion to his Oscar-winning THE FOG OF WAR (2003), in which former SecDef Robert S. McNamara expresses second thoughts (his “eleven lessons”) about our prosecution of the Vietnam war. But Rumsfeld displays no contrition, no beard-stroking, no doubt whatsoever. In this he was typical of the Bush inner circle.

Without Donald Rumsfeld, you might not even have a Dick Cheney. It was Rumsfeld, Cheney’s longtime mentor, who convinced President Ford to bring Cheney in to succeed him as Chief of Staff when he became the youngest man ever to serve as Secretary of Defense. Cheney returned the favor years later when he counseled Bush to appoint Rumsfeld as the oldest SecDef in history. Through all the intramural squabbles of the Bush years, Cheney and Rumsfeld were never on separate teams. Rumsfeld was the ultimate organization man, highly attuned to protocol and what he saw as proper chains of command. He communicated orders and random thoughts in hundreds of memos that were so voluminous they came to be known by his staff as “snowflakes.” Rumsfeld spends much of THE UNKNOWN KNOWN reading from various snowflakes, some of which sound like koans, full of Zen ambiguity but lacking any enlightenment. For example, this passage, which originated as a press conference answer and gives the film its title: Reports that say there’s — that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know. One Rumsfeld snowflake was directed at President Bush as he searched in vain for WMDs in Iraq: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. By such logic did our country invade a sovereign nation in a runup so blind and frantic that besides squandering precious blood and fortune, it also consumed the political career of a man who otherwise might well have become the first black president of the United States: General Colin Powell. (Think about how that might have altered the Republican brand.)

In Rumsfeld’s view, SecDef’s job was to wage and win a war. Whatever happened afterward was somebody else’s responsibility. In fact, the various administration members’ accounts of the post-invasion debacle form a Quentin Tarantino-like Mexican standoff, pointing at each other with fingers rather than pistols. What fool dissolved the Iraqi army, encouraging trained soldiers to fade back into the population as armed dissidents? Who failed to protect storehouses of weapons and ammunition, never mind priceless, irreplaceable cultural antiquities? How did uniformed American jailers turn into sadistic monsters? When did we begin fighting wars with contractors and mercenaries, including a private-sector paramilitary immune from U.S. or Iraqi law? What gave us the idea that we could pay for this whole mess with another country’s oil? Each memoirist tells us, in his or her own way: I don’t know, bro, but it sure wasn’t my fault.


Rumsfeld held a great advantage over Bush, at least while war plans were being laid. To his fellow Texan, Lyndon Johnson’s tragic mistake in Vietnam was trying to micromanage the war from Washington. Bill Clinton, to some extent, had been guilty of the same thing in tentative humanitarian uses of the military (even though Clinton had worked his will in Kosovo without a single casualty). Instead, Bush resolved to listen to his generals on the ground, under the direction of Rumsfeld. The only general he didn’t listen to was Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “several hundred thousand soldiers” might be needed to occupy Iraq after the war, in direct opposition to Rumsfeld’s notion of a quick, sleek, in-and-out strike by a lean, techno-savvy force. Shinseki was never asked to elaborate, and was replaced later in the year.

The speedy ground “victory,” and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” football-spike aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, kept the wartime fervor bubbling hot enough to defeat Sen. John Kerry and win a second term. Bush liked to brag that more people voted for him than for any other presidential candidate in history. (The all-time #2? Sen. John Kerry in that same election. It helps when there’s no vote-siphoning from a third-party candidate, as Ross Perot did to “41” and Ralph Nader did to Al Gore. Both were topped by Barack Obama four years later, but Bush is still the only Republican presidential candidate to win the popular vote since his father in 1988.) Re-energized, vastly relieved at never having to campaign again, emboldened by a victory that was clearly mathematical after the overly lawyerly 2000 race, and much more comfortable in his presidential skin, Bush enthused in his first post-election press conference: “I earned capital in this campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.”

But now the war had entered its excruciating just-dragging-on phase, a bloody grind of noise behind anything else the president tried to accomplish. He had some plans for the second term, to at least partially privatize Social Security and forge some desperately needed immigration reform. But the public was losing patience with the war effort and thus its authors. Sovereignty had been handed over to Iraq (“Let freedom reign!” Bush scribbled on Condi Rice’s note. Not “ring.” Reign.), but without U.S. troops it only amounted to a few words on a piece of paper. The lurid images from Abu Ghraib prison had been assimilated but not forgotten. Don Rumsfeld had gallantly offered his resignation over the scandal, but as Mr. Baker writes, “cynically, it could be seen as forcing Bush to either support him or cut him loose.” “Pretty smooth,” Bush told an advisor. “He called my hand.”

That had been the first-term Bush. The more assured second-term president now paid less attention to the likes of Cheney and Rumsfeld; one imagines he must have been growing tired of advice that the fullness of time was proving so wrong. There’s a famous clip, used by Michael Moore in his film FAHRENHEIT 9/11, of Bush resolving to hunt down America’s enemies, then stepping back to a golf tee and saying, “Now watch this drive.” It makes him seem callous, flippant, even foppish (whatever PR officer approved that idiotic photo-op should have been beheaded), but that’s not so, either. Bush agonized over the victims of his wars, at least on the American side, and his frequent visitations and other acts of kindness to veterans and their families went unpublicized, which suggests to me that they were genuine. (He even temporarily gave up golf in sympathy, perhaps because of that mortifying clip.) The war consumed Bush, and if any regrets were deeply internalized – you can’t betray your troops by second-guessing their mission, he frequently said out loud – they were still present.

Despite Rumsfeld’s space-age cogitations, it appeared that what we really needed was more troops (easier to argue than more domestic spending, which we needed as well), and with the support of the usual suspects – John McCain has never seen a military muster he didn’t like, and his obviously bobbleheaded choice of Sarah Palin later helped our nation dodge a fusillade of bullets because he could only grouse from the Senate, not push buttons from the Oval Office – Bush doubled down on the troops a la Shinseki and thus helped tamp the reddest Iraqi embers. When I heard Citizen Rumsfeld’s Fox News comment two months ago that, in his words, “a trained ape” could have done a better job handling Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai than President Obama and his team, I first wondered how the word “ape” came to mind, then reminded myself that I shall never again be lectured on foreign policy by this particular individual. As for Cheney, Mr. Baker writes that by the time of the surge, “He was becoming more like a regular vice president.” In June 2007, when Cheney urged bombing of Syria’s newly discovered nuclear reactor at a meeting of the national security team, Bush asked, “Does anyone here agree with the vice president?” Not a single hand went up.

When Bushies were delivered their electoral “thumpin’” by a war-weary electorate in the 2006 midterms, it was finally time for Rumsfeld to go away for good, and the chief picked up SecDef’s longstanding offer of resignation like a Texas-League grounder. (Some Republicans, who were beginning to recognize a sinking ship when they saw one, began grousing that if Bush had thrown Rumsfeld to the dogs before the election, it might have helped their chances, but to Bush that would have been a sign of weakness, always less desirable than wrongheadedness.) This did not sit well with Cheney, but less and less did these days; if the president was a lame duck, then what did that make a vice-president who was not interested in running for higher office? The debilitating ennui of the war, now officially America’s longest, topped by a financial cataclysm overseen by the “business party” (i.e., the foxes had been guarding the henhouse all along) rendered McCain’s ticket – made to appear even more feckless by the transparent Hail-Mary selection of Gov. Palin and his tin-eared insistence on a money-meltdown White House “summit” at which he barely spoke – DOA against the first credible black candidate in history, who was only there because he’d narrowly beaten the first credible female candidate in history. On the way out, Bush even towel-snapped Cheney one last time by refusing to pardon the veep’s loyal aide Scooter Libby, who had been convicted of leaking the name of a covert CIA officer. He commuted Libby’s sentence, obviating jail time, but refused to wipe the slate clean, despite all of Cheney’s protestations right up to Inauguration Day. Bush was his own man on this issue, and if he had not always been, perhaps he had grown in the office. At least when measured against Dick Cheney.


Cheney was nothing if not stalwart. He became obsessed with the possibility of another attack against America, a “second wave,” and he never let it go. As with the Commies he hated, to him the end justified the means, thus “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” his cold-blooded euphemisms for US-sponsored extra-legal kidnapping and torture. He famously held that “if there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al-Queda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” Cheney’s “One Percent Doctrine” applied only to 9/11, not the 95% of scientists alarmed over man’s contribution to climate change or the 90% of Americans who favored stricter gun regulations. He continued to insist, notably in R. J. Cutler’s 2013 film THE WORLD ACCORDING TO DICK CHENEY, that he had protected America against further attack and foiled evil plots due to information gleaned extraordinarily, though some interrogators say they obtained every bit of actionable stuff without resorting to torture.

Bush admired Barack Obama’s meteoric rise but felt his successor was unqualified to prosecute American foreign policy, perhaps forgetting his own global inadequacies on Inauguration Day 2001. When candidate Obama remarked in a debate that he would send U.S. forces into Pakistan to chase terrorists even without the government’s permission, Bush found it “stunning” in its “naivete.” (That Cheneyesque bit of bravado, of course, was exactly how Obama eliminated Osama bin Laden, an accomplishment that had eluded Bush for seven years.) “This guy has no clue, I promise you,” Bush ranted one day. “You think I wasn’t qualified? I was qualified.”

Near the end of his term, a former aide asked Bush, “You’re leaving as one of the most unpopular presidents ever. How does that feel?” Bush responded, accurately, “I was also the most popular president.” After 9/11, his approval rating reached 90%, the highest ever recorded. But his fall from public grace was also historic. During the nadir of the financial crisis in October 2008, a Gallup poll found that 71% of Americans disapproved of Bush’s job performance, the lowest marks for any president since the firm began asking that question in 1938. And while others at their worst – Nixon, Truman – fell below Bush’s low approval ratings, his dragged on and on. The last time a majority supported Bush was March 2005, “meaning he went through virtually his entire second term without most of the public behind him,” as Mr. Baker writes, and Cheney fared even worse. But “Bush’s graceful post-presidency seemed to temper judgments.” Unlike Cheney, unlike Rumsfeld, unlike nearly everyone else in his administration, Bush has found the fortitude to resist self-indulgence. In retirement he has uniquely been able to maintain a discreet silence, and his legacy is at least partially mending as he displays the common courtesy that few others in his party can manage to conjure.

Inside The Pubble

September 30, 2013


Last week, in the well of the United States Senate, a man began talking, he announced, on the subject of freedom, specifically the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare.” He said he intended to keep talking for as long as he could stand, which was the first lie of his speech: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had already scheduled a vote for debate on the bill in question the next afternoon, whether the orator was finished or not. The speechmaker likened Obamacare to life in Nazi Germany and the Bataan Death March; attacked members of his own party as Chamberlain-like appeasers, a “surrender caucus”; quoted author Ayn Rand, actor Ashton Kutcher, country singer Toby Keith, and the father of conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh; shared how much he enjoyed White Castle hamburgers; imitated Darth Vader; and read an entire children’s book, Dr. Seuss’s GREEN EGGS & HAM, to his young daughters, since he couldn’t read it to them in person because he was otherwise engaged in delivering this puzzling address. More than 21 hours later, he finally relinquished the podium, declining Leader Reid’s offer of an additional hour in which to dig his bizarre hole just a bit deeper. The garish display wasn’t even a true filibuster, since the babbler was only forestalling debate on a piece of legislation he didn’t like, but when the time came at last, he switched the position he had been putatively arguing and the action was carried on a unanimous voice vote, officially recorded as 100-0. This whole maniacal publicity stunt had been an utter and abject waste of time, a fleabag circus sullying what was once considered the world’s greatest deliberative body, where ten or so supportive members in attendance were reduced to a group of groundlings forced to binge-watch The Ted Cruz Show.

The Texas senator, who had been in office for only nine months, frequently complained about how Obamacare was harming the economy, costing jobs, destroying freedom. An amazing swath of destruction, that, considering that the core provisions of the law hadn’t even gone into effect; the part that did simply allowed young people to remain covered by their parents’ health care plans until age 26. Americans will be able to sign up for health care “exchanges” beginning tomorrow, and they can receive services under Obamacare starting on Jan. 1, 2014. Furthermore, this learned solon rose to demand that other Senators stand with him to either defund Obamacare – a law duly passed by Congress and affirmed by the Supreme Court – or refuse to pass a budget at all, thus shutting down the entire federal government, an action that would not only destroy jobs (800,000 immediate furloughs), but also delay or eliminate payments to millions more, including soldiers and retirees. His marathon rant was nominally before a Senate controlled by Democrats: even if they decided to pass such a measure – fully as improbable as replicating cold fusion – it would then be up to President Obama to decide whether or not to gut his most significant legislative achievement, one that will finally bring health care to millions of uninsured Americans. A veto would be all but certain, a simple layup for the Hoopster-In-Chief. Even Sen. Cruz’s silly choice of literature, GREEN EGGS & HAM, was baffling: the whole point of the story is that you shouldn’t criticize something new before you’ve even tried it! But irony escapes this Harvard Law graduate and Princeton debating champion. To call Ted Cruz’s excruciating performance “Quixotic” is to insult Cervantes.

As expected, the Senate amended the budget bill after first restoring funding for Obamacare (specifically, a 2.3% surcharge on medical equipment intended to help finance the program) and sent it back to the House, with these words from Leader Reid: “Here’s a president who less than a year ago won the election by five million votes, five million votes. Obamacare has been the law for four years. Why don’t they get a life and talk about something else? People deserve better.” House Republicans originally demanded the following “concessions” (the list is incomplete because more demands were constantly being added) in exchange for permitting the government to continue functioning past midnight tonight: increase oil drilling on federal lands, roll back regulations on greenhouse gases, construct the Keystone XL oil pipeline immediately, defund the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, make it more difficult to sue for medical malpractice, and one last item: postpone the Obamacare rollout by one year. It’s a colicky tantrum from an infant, or maybe a ransom note from hapless C-movie gangsters: nice country you got here…be a real shame if something happened to it. Barring an eleventh-hour miracle, some federal kneecaps are going to get broken on the same day Obamacare exchanges (the ones controlled by individual states, that is) begin accepting members. This from the party that lost the 2012 elections, except for its intractable gerrymandered majority in the House – which, as we will see, actually represents fewer voters than does the “minority.”

Are these people crazy? It’s as if they actually want the country to fall back into recession!

Where did this topsy-turvy world come from, a land where the defeated minority in a democracy can grip the nation by the throat and seriously threaten to reverse its limping recovery from the worst recession in half a century? Why would anyone who truly cares for our country even consider doing damage like that? In fairness, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), no friend to health care reform, did seize the Senate floor to denounce the Cruz debacle – it only took him ten minutes – but by then the Texan’s tired tonsils were already, incredibly, being lionized by his party’s extreme right wing, the daffy tri-cornered-hat crowd, starting with a fawning interview on Limbaugh’s own radio show.

What in the name of the Founding Fathers is going on?

Despite all propaganda to the contrary, America is not a right-wing nation. An interesting piece by Elizabeth Drew in the New York Review of Books doesn’t really cover any new ground regarding what she calls the Republican “stranglehold on our politics,” but it sure does connect lots of dots. In her view, Pubs have paid better attention to elections in off-years (the next midterm election’s only a year from now; usually about half as many voters turn out than in Presidential years, but nearly all the fanatics do, giving them outsized influence through apathy) and at the state and local level (there will be 36 governorships at stake next year, several of them in key swing states whose guvs, as Pubs have long understood, control everything else). But when more people are more engaged, it suddenly doesn’t look so hot. Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six Presidential elections; the sole exception was 2004, when Dick Cheney played the fear card so clumsily that he nearly gave up the game. “If we make the wrong choice,” he warned, “then the danger is that we’ll get hit again – that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.” In other words, vote for me or die. That’s desperation, friends. The Republicans are the party of rich white men and those it can persuade to help them become richer. Its base is already outnumbered, and it’s getting weaker every year as the Reaper continues to chip away at the diehards. (Hard they may be, but they die nonetheless.) The GOP’s natural hegemony is over.

Now, if you can no longer win elections on the issues, you have two simple alternatives: rig the game so you can’t lose, or if that’s too tough (as in statewide races), then prevent your opponents from voting. The right wing has found ways to do both, and their methods are based in what was formerly progressive territory: the grass roots.

Ms. Drew points out that though President Obama won the 2012 election with 51.1% of the vote, due to redistricting in key states after the 2010 census (you may recall that Tom DeLay in Texas couldn’t even wait that long to redraw his state and add five shoo-in Republican seats to the delegation; he did this just before the 2004 election), House Republicans represent only 47.5% of the 2012 electorate. The Democratic “minority” represents 48.8%. Put another way, well over a million more Americans elected Democratic House members in 2012 than voted for victorious Republicans. But the current Congress is 234-201 Republican.

Four examples of gerrymandered Congressional districts. Computer analysis has this sort of election-fixing down to a science.

Four examples of gerrymandered Congressional districts. Computer analysis has this sort of election-fixing down to a science.

How in the world does that work? Let’s look with Ms. Drew at Ohio, a state the President won with 51% of the vote. Because of redistricting – heck, let’s call it by its proper name, gerrymandering, or deliberately (1) lumping likeminded voters together, no matter where they live, or (2) splitting the enemy among several districts, a bit of power dilution known as “cracking,” which, for example, has emasculated “liberal” Columbus – today’s Ohio House delegation is three-quarters Republican. It doesn’t represent the general Ohio electorate at all, only the guys who did the redistricting. Now, in fairness, both parties press their advantage through gerrymandering. There are some funky-looking districts in Maryland, for example, that were drawn up by Democrats. But if this “false equivalency” – an argument that claims it’s OK because the other guys act exactly the same, featured nightly on Faux News – were genuine, we’d have a more closely divided Congress. The fact is, Pubs have simply been better at this for at least twenty years. It’s not equivalent. They’ve gamed the system. But, as we will see, they should have been careful what they wished for, because they got it. (In code for evangelical Christians: I’m saying thou hath reaped the whirlwind.)

The other significant tactic which keeps a minority in power is voter suppression. Whenever you see the term “voter ID law,” you’re looking at a baby step toward the heinous poll-tax laws which threatened true freedom for most of the 20th century. Pubs will tell you that they’re trying to defeat the scourge of rampant “voter fraud,” a malady they’ve never been able to demonstrate. That’s their moral cover for what’s turned out to be a 21st-century version of Jim Crow – only this time, it includes those seditious traitors, college students. In our ole pal Texas, for example, a gun license is acceptable ID for voting, but not a student ID, presumably because gun owners tip Pub, and college kids think too much. The law went into effect instants after the Supreme Court recently invalidated the critical portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the one that made partisan horseshit like this subject to prior federal approval in the several states with long histories of voter suppression.

Why not show ID at the polls? You have to do it for almost anything else: to get a bank loan, to get a driver’s license, etc. But what about people who don’t have bank loans, credit cards, driver’s licenses, or any kind of photo ID? What about voters who are temporarily away from home because they’re in college, or who don’t have the means to drive across town, or who live out in the country? What about people who can’t afford photo IDs? Wait: they get to vote too? We can’t have that: poor people tend to vote for the only folks who know they’re alive! Yet simply having lawfully voted in every election since LBJ isn’t enough these days. Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) ticked off part of a laundry list before a group of Pubs in summer 2012: “Voter ID, which is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.” (Fun fact: The President won Pennsylvania, 52% to 47%, but he had to fight uphill over voter ID, not to mention rich-guy super-PACs.)

What would a Pub America really look like? To observe a conservative wonderland first-hand, a place where the right-wing id is suddenly leading a joyous ideological slamdance, to see what unfettered Teabag rule would actually produce, simply turn to poor North Carolina. Once it was the jewel of the Deep South, its Research Triangle a glittering star that attracted bright people from around the world. As Ms. Drew recounts, President Obama won the state in 2008. But the Pubs took over the legislature in the decennial year of 2010 (immediately redistricting the state in their favor) and the governorship in 2012, attaining unassailable “supermajorities” that could pass anything they liked without even consulting the other side. Now they wasted no time in cutting unemployment insurance and tax credits for low-income workers, banning Sharia law (whew, just in time!), restricting abortion and voting rights (their war on student voting borders on the laughable, but it’s the frickin state law), and transforming a once beautiful state into North Pubistan in only three years. Nancy McFarlane, the horrified mayor of Raleigh, could barely get a sentence out: “It’s hard to get people to understand the impact of what they’re doing is going to be.” Thinking people are going to think twice about moving to the Tarheel State, and there goes your Research Triangle. Sorry, Ms. Mayor.

Why would well-intentioned people subscribe to such madness? It’s because they talk to each other, and only to each other. They live in a different world, a right-wing echo chamber, the Republican bubble: the Pubble. Ms. Drew cites the tumultuous 1994 midterms, which restored Pub House control after forty years and handed Prof. Newt Gingrich the tiller, but I would suggest an earlier flash point: 1987, when the Reagan-era FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which held that opposing views should be granted equal time on the public airwaves. In that instant, baldly partisan broadcasting, immune to any “equivalency” whatsoever, was born. Anybody in radio will tell you that Rush Limbaugh saved the AM dial when he went on the air in 1988, and back then there probably was a progressive bias in mass media. (Although news organizations did strive for objectivity.) But Limbaugh’s immediate sensational success spawned dozens of radio imitators, and, in 1996, the Fox News Channel on television. Nowadays “the liberal media” is a fictional construct that preserves conservatives’ ability to paint themselves as victims, or to “work the refs” so that actual news organizations fall all over themselves to present the right-wing point of view even when they know the earth is more than six thousand years old and that man did not coexist with dinosaurs. El Rushbo is still the hottest thing on radio, and Fox News tops the cable ratings. When I lived in Georgia in the early Seventies, I loved Atlanta’s WRNG, “Ring Radio,” which was 24-hour call-ins; the station would entertain me during long drives. Their best “jock” was a guy named Neal Boortz, a Colbert-like improvver, you loved his quick mind. Post-Rushbo, Boortz re-invented himself as a conservative raver, and now he’s a syndicated big-shot; his verbal effluvia sometimes make their way to THE DAILY SHOW. Based on long stints spent inside Boortz’s radio-expressed mind, I know this particular guy is now only acting, but he heard the trumpets sound. If anything, the loudest megaphone these days belongs to the conservative media.

I used to think that Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Megyn Kelly and the others were, like Boortz, just entertainers, performers; they couldn’t possibly believe half the stuff they were spouting. But now I honestly wonder. The Pubble is opaque and soundproof. Barack Obama is the worst president in history, a Kenya-born socialist who hates America. If government would just get out of the way, the invisible hand of the market would regulate itself – except for the military, which merits ever-rising budgets. America is the greatest country in the world in all respects, and those who don’t think so should leave. Other nations hate us because we’re so free. Poverty is caused by laziness, and people lounge on their welfare payments rather than looking for work — but raising the minimum wage to subsistence level will destroy small businesses. Immigrants are stealing our jobs. Evolution and climate change are only theories, therefore we should disregard them. Health care is a privilege for those who can afford it. Any limitation on a private citizen’s firearms will turn us into a police state. CEOs deserve to make hundreds of times what their employees do because of competition for top talent. Tax cuts stimulate growth; spending dampens it. We should keep our hands off the big banks: they know what they’re doing. This is and always has been a Christian nation, with instructions for righteous living found in the Bible. The Israelis are freedom fighters; the Palestinians are terrorists. The government should lay off our personal liberties, unless it involves abortion or our sex lives. There is, of course, an opposing view on each of these issues, but inside the Pubble it’s all received wisdom.

Nothing illustrated the Pubble’s sturdiness more starkly than Election Night 2012. I have a friend in Mississippi who had laid in a nice bottle of champagne to celebrate Mitt Romney’s victory, and he wasn’t alone. Though statistician Nate Silver had been warning for weeks that the President was likely to earn re-election, the Pubble dismissed it as rubbish from the “liberal media.” The greatest moment of the night was watching an exasperated Karl Rove, once the Sultan of Stats, dispute the numbers coming in from his own network, Fox News Channel. To her credit Megyn Kelly, the anchor, defended her statisticians, at one point even acknowledging the Pubble’s existence. “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better,” she asked Rove, “or is this real?” The Pubble was flabbergasted, like Pauline Kael in 1972: she only knew one person who’d voted for Nixon! Rove’s confused bluster provided welcome schadenfreude for those who remembered the catastrophic Bush years. (A few days later he had the gall to blame voter suppression, but by then nobody was listening, because his American Crossroads Super PAC had infamously blown through $100 million that we know of on the 2012 election cycle, only to lose 10 of its 13 targeted races. Oh yeah, and the White House too.)

If you don’t think there’s room inside the Pubble for racism – “we’re not racists, we just think Obama is un-American!” – consider the amount of disrespect and sheer hate this President has been forced to endure, more than any other in my lifetime, more than Bill Clinton, more than Dubya. After all, nobody screamed “YOU LIE!” at 42 or 43 during a speech to a joint session, like the oafish Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC). Nobody held up huge signs saying WHAT PLAN? like the pathologically dim Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX). You don’t see others angrily pointing fingers in POTUS’s face like Gov. Jan Brewer (R-AZ). And just consider what happened when someone observed that Sen. Cruz was not born in this country, but in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, to a Cuban father and American mother. The Constitution states that a Presidential candidate must be “native-born,” but it doesn’t define the term. Cruz’s response? My mother was American, therefore I am too, and by the way, I’m renouncing my Canadian citizenship. The accompanying sound? Crickets. Now compare that to the President, who actually is native-born, also to an American mother, but was still being visited by annoying unhinged “birthers” well into his second term. What could possibly account for the difference? When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, just after the 2008 election, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” he was acknowledging that there was something wrong that needed to be set aright, and inside the Pubble the dog-whistle message was quite clear. Of course the legislative minority is expected to loyally oppose the majority – but to call deposing Obama “the single most important thing”? Jobs? Infrastructure? Health? Here, now, was the Pubble’s ultimate Other, that literal dark force that threatened the American way of life. We will now, McConnell said, foreshorten his presidency by denying him any achievement whatsoever, and Pubs have done their worst ever since to do just that: the current 113th Congress is on track to be the least productive in recent history. That’s why such events as the passage of Obamacare and the killing of Osama bin Laden — any achievements at all — are so disturbing inside the Pubble.

The “Tea Party” was nowhere to be seen when George W. Bush spent eight years busting the budget. It emerged almost instantly to bedevil the Obama administration. (I’m only half joking when I tag the origin of the Tea Party at about, oh, noonish on Jan. 20, 2009.) But a funny thing happened on the way to “liberty.” Egged on by Fox News and the rest of now-mighty conservative media, plus PACs and “think tanks” financed by the likes of the Koch brothers, the tri-cornered set crashed “town meetings” of legislators, following carefully scripted orders to assemble way down front so it would look like they represented the whole room, and thus, the whole country. Old pros like Dick Armey and Jim DeMint helped fan the flames and work the grassroots to produce actual candidates – the only surefire way to seize power. But they ran into an unintended consequence. They’d intended Tea Partiers to be rabble-rousers and not much else. But the radical right hunkered down deeper inside the Pubble, and before you knew it, the liberty baby was being thrown out with the freedom bathwater.

The Tea Party concluded that we had mistakenly elected a socialist Kenyan president not because Pub candidates were too conservative, but because they were not conservative enough. So you had the spectacle of thinking senators like Bob Bennett of Utah, as right-wing as they come but still earthbound, tossed over the side for Tea Party candidates, while others simply quit in disgust. That chilled Pub incumbents in both Houses: if you didn’t hew to the tri-corner gang’s extremism, if you didn’t keep the customer satisfied, even if you were in a district that was super-safe in any general election, you could still be “primaried” from the right! This wave of zealot candidates, and intensified zealotry among fearful incumbents, has had two deleterious effects.

First, it turned away reliable Pub Senatorial candidates, some of them incumbents, for the likes of Sharron Angle in Nevada (“People are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out!”), Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (“I am not a witch”), Richard Mourdock in Indiana (“Even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that…is something that God intended to happen”), and Todd Akin in Missouri (“From what I understand from doctors…if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down”). Each of these candidates proved too icky for the electorate, but each of the Senate seats they sought had been eminently winnable by more sensible Pub candidates. The wacko-birds simply threw those opportunities away, and thus potential control of the Senate for at least two election cycles.

Second, yo-yos like this actually started to win House races in districts so tightly gerrymandered that you could wear a tinfoil hat to your own fundraiser and feel right at home. John Boehner, the most ineffective Speaker of the House of modern times, has lost control over his caucus because so many of them are newly elected Tea-Party bombthrowers who see nothing wrong with bringing government to its knees, or failing to make good on obligations the country has already made (that’s what “raising the debt ceiling” means). They literally don’t know any better. Dr. Frankenstein’s monster has broken loose, and not even Dick Armey knows what to do now.

Why all the hue and cry, the garment-rending, the Cruz clowning, over Obamacare just this minute? Simple. It’s because inside the Pubble, folks never expected to be sitting here right now. Romney would stomp the Kenyan, Pubs would retake the Senate, and Anycare would be D.O.A. It’s not that Pubs actually fear the country will be wrecked by the ACA (a term many of them have now gone back to employing; ever since the President shrewdly embraced the term “Obamacare,” the “person-you-don’t-like-care” usage, which dates back to Hillary Clinton’s efforts twenty years ago, has lost most of its fizz). If that were so, then why not just let it happen and preside over the post-apocalypse? No, to the contrary: they’re afraid the country will like having affordable health care. This is why they continue kicking and screaming, now urging young people in TV spots to “burn your [nonexistent] health care cards” (isn’t that rich, Pubs invoking draft-card burning? Younger folk have noticed too) and doing everything possible to scuttle health care reform by any means necessary. They’re afraid it will work, that Big Medicine will be reined in just a tad, and universal health care will become yet another “entitlement” for the “takers.” They should be afraid.

Deep down in Karl Rove’s mind has to be a thought that would torture him to madness if he actually cared, and boy, I wish he really did. It’s this. If the fear-fueled Tea Party had never emerged, Republicans would have long since controlled the Senate, and today there would be no such thing as Obamacare – and, just possibly, as a little sweetener, no such thing as Senator Ted Cruz.

Ah, Senator Cruz. Back to our star of the moment. It doesn’t take an Ivy League degree to understand why he staged his narcissistic spectacle: he was only trying to attract cameras. (The biggest whopper of his entire blabathon came in Hour 18: “I would be perfectly happy if not a single story coming out of this mentioned my name.”) On March 6, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) unwound a 12-hour corker on unmanned drone strikes that actually stalled an Obama nomination – and people started taking him seriously as a Presidential candidate. Then, in June, Democratic Texas state senator Wendy Davis successfully ran out the clock on the legislative session with a 13-hour speech against an omnibus abortion bill – and unlike the two gentlemen, she was required by Texas law to remain on topic the whole time, and she could not be “spelled” for a break, as Cruz himself did for Paul. She became not only a statewide but a national sensation, and in a few days she’s expected to announce her candidacy for governor; if elected she would be the first woman, and first Democrat, to hold that position in twenty years. Well, Sen. Cruz thinks he is also fit for higher office. And that alone is why he embarked on his pathetic fauxlibuster. But, as with his tin-eared choice of Seussian morality lessons, he had no actual substance to offer, only windbaggery on which he even turned his back himself. He claims he’s “listening to the American people,” but all he can really hear are the people on his own Twitter feed. He’s affected nothing, proved nothing, and achieved nothing more than the winner of a beard-growing contest. It makes perverse sense that they love such a man inside the Pubble.

11/2/14: THE DAILY SHOW spent last week in Austin, Texas, a proudly progressive oasis in a very red state. One of their field pieces showed how Tom DeLay & company’s savage redistricting has disenfranchised, even nullified Austin. Here’s what happens when you live under Pub rule: Austin’s population of 885,000 is represented by no less than five Congressmen, four of which are not simply Pubs, but preening members of the party’s loony wing. Some of their districts, which each edge into different portions of Austin in order to dilute its Democratic vote, stretch for two hundred miles. Austin has been “cracked” down to the neighborhood level, so that it can be “represented” by wingnuts who don’t really represent it at all.

Releasing The Kraken

February 20, 2012

Peggy Noonan’s beautiful Wall Street Journal weekend piece featured a fanciful negative tv spot against Abraham Lincoln, illustrating just how easy it is to compose “negs” out of thin air, and Newt Gingrich said Saturday that he felt negative ads were driving down GOP voter turnout. It’s tempting to sit back and enjoy some delicious schadenfreude as the Supreme Court’s infamous Citizens United decision bites some unintended asses; the Pubs always expected Mr. Monopoly’s unlimited resources to vomit all over the campaigns of Democrats, not each other’s. But with St. Ronald’s Eleventh Commandment left in tatters (as well as the rest of his initiatives: a candidate with Mr. Reagan’s record and attitude couldn’t be elected dogcatcher in today’s Republican Party, because the “base” wouldn’t even consider nominating him), what we’ve seen so far is only a taste of the torrent of slime that is to come.

New York, where we live, is rarely a “battleground.” We’re usually as blue as can be, and broadcast costs in our city, the nation’s largest media market, are beyond expensive. So we don’t normally undergo the tv tsunami found in “swing” or early-primary states, where, in the words of Stuart Stevens, the Romney adviser with whom I once worked long ago, broadcast spots are “a dollar a holler.” Friends of mine who are in such places, though, say this year is different: both the frequency and the nastiness have been turned up to 11. And this is just the Republicans going to work on each other: wait till the sewer spigot is turned on somebody they really, viscerally, hate. As Bill Maher pointed out last week, no President in memory, not even Dubya, has been treated so disrespectfully, from Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson to Jan (“Finger Pistol”) Brewer. What is it about Barack Obama that gets ‘em so riled up? Let’s see: what’s unique about him?

Negative messages have been around forever. They’ll never go away, because they work: they appeal to the baser parts of our natures, the ids that occasionally crawl up from the dank cellar inside. That cute little girl picking flowers made people worry about Barry Goldwater’s finger on the nuclear trigger, even though there was scant other reason (“bombing [the North Vietnamese] back to the Stone Age” was Curtis LeMay’s bon mot, not Sen. Goldwater’s). Just after John Kerry – an actual war hero opposing a draft dodger who went AWOL from Stateside service – was nominated in 2004, I remember reading this boast from an anonymous George W. Bush operative: “by the time we get through with him, you won’t be sure which side he fought for.” I chuckled to myself at the time. Then the Swift Boat deluge began.

You can utter a blatant lie in 30 seconds, but the victim can’t defend himself in that same moment: nuance takes much longer than :30. Case in point: Mitt Romney’s very first tv commercial of the present campaign, in which President Obama is pictured saying, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” The commercial failed to note that the statement is from the 2008 campaign, and that then-Senator Obama was quoting a John McCain campaign aide. Not only didn’t the Romney camp apologize, they puffed out their chests and stood by the false insinuation: who cares if the statement is four years old and completely directed elsewhere, and that we omitted the words, “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote…”?

Mind you, this was an “on-the-record” Romney spot, the kind in which the candidate says, “I approve this message.” What’s new in this presidential election cycle is the rise of “Super PACs,” made more powerful than ever by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which held that individuals, corporations, unions and the like can donate unlimited amounts to an advocacy organization, as long as this group “does not coordinate” with any candidate’s actual campaign. It takes but a moment’s reflection to apply this fig leaf to anything you want: for example, why not hire a former campaign manager to manage the Super PAC instead? No coordination is necessary, because the newly moneyed guy knows exactly what the candidate needs without being told. These Super PACs will be the source of most of 2012’s negative ads, because the candidate himself need not approve them or even appear in them. Super PACs will be the ones getting their hands dirty. They will be full-time Swift Boaters. And they will outspend the putative campaigns many times over.

The effect of the Supreme Court decision hasn’t been insidious; it’s been instantaneous. Through a Super PAC, one single wealthy donor has personally kept Newt Gingrich’s candidacy alive, even though it is woefully deficient in organization. Stung by a loss in South Carolina, Mitt Romney’s Super PAC unleashed a tornado of anti-Gingrich ads in Florida and cost the Speaker the primary, almost surely because of this effort. And I repeat, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet: these are just firing-range practice rounds.

Some friends on the left say they’re disappointed in the President for reversing himself by encouraging donations to his own Super PAC after loudly criticizing the Citizens United decision (causing Justice Samuel Alito to mouth the words “not true” during the State of the Union address shortly after the ill-considered judgment was handed down). It offends their sense of honor and fairness. But to me, the President is simply acknowledging that you don’t bring knives to a gunfight. And while nobody should be proud of the kind of “support” they’ll be getting from Super PACs, Pubs of all people should understand about the relative merits of unilateral disarmament. The Kraken has already been released; without a similarly titanic response, nothing remains but destruction.

It all reminds me of an incident that happened almost twenty years ago, just before the election between President George H. W. Bush and Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. I was flying back from Seattle to New York, and my company’s policy was that if you took the red-eye back on a long trip, you could travel business class. After I managed a bit of fitful sleep, we stopped in Chicago, and a distinguished-looking gentleman slid past me into the window seat. He read a newspaper, then accepted breakfast service. I let him finish everything and hand over his tray before screwing together the courage to ask, “How does the election look to you, Senator?” For my seatmate was none other than George McGovern.

“Clinton in a squeaker,” replied the man who had been the Democratic candidate just as long ago at our meeting as that conversation is to me now. We had a delightful chat, mostly on lightweight subjects, but two things in particular absolutely startled me. He said that during the entire 1972 campaign – Richard Nixon, Watergate bugging, Hunter S. Thompson and all – “not once did a reporter ever ask me a question about my personal life.” Now, let’s step back. Sen. McGovern’s first choice for vice-president was Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, who – unknown to the nominee – suffered from clinical depression, a condition that, along with his secrecy about it, forced him to withdraw from the ticket. So personal lives were definitely in play at the time. Yet read again what McGovern said. He faced a more generous press corps, a less toxic political climate. Even given Nixon’s acute paranoia and his dark power to indulge it, in most ways 1972 was a more innocent time.

And so McGovern acknowledged. I asked him, “If you had the chance, would you run for President today?” “No,” was the immediate answer. “I couldn’t put my family through what you have to today.” And please remember, this was only 1992. Now, I don’t care whether you agree with the Senator’s politics or not, but only the meanest-spirited Bircher could deny that he’s a good, principled man, the kind of guy you want in public service. If campaign sleaze disgusts the likes of George McGovern enough to keep him off the ballot, then what rough beasts will we continue to attract among those potential candidates who remain?

As we arrived at the gate, several people in the business cabin, who had all overheard McGovern’s distinctive voice, rose to greet him. Each one said they’d voted for him in ’72. “Wait a minute,” McGovern protested. “If everybody voted for me, why didn’t I win?” After they’d dispersed, the two of us continued to walk together toward the terminal. I told him the first Presidential vote I was able to cast, once I got old enough, was for him. The Senator stopped and shook my hand goodbye. “I’m glad I got your first vote. But I’m gladder it wasn’t your last.”

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