November 15, 2007

Sleazeballs as President

I used to read the Berkeley Barb when I was an undergraduate at Berkeley in the mid-late Sixties, the roaring years of student activism at this now thoroughly tamed and docile campus. Back in the day, the question was whether it was even ethical to go to class, given the complicity in power-structure abuses which such an act implied. Now the question is whether to major in the hot new field of molecular biology (if you're smart enough) or in business administration (if you're not). Although with respect to the latter field, it might not be a bad idea to double-major in mathematics so you can whore yourself out to a hedge fund and handle all those incredibly complicated algorithms necessary to produce completely incomprehensible "tranched" doo-dads like collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities. I'm a member of the alumni association so I can use the library. I keep the books until I get my inevitable postcard informing me that unless the volume is immediately returned, I will be charged with the replacement cost ($150) and subject myself to extraordinary rendition. Times have changed.

Anyway, I used to pick up the Barb from one of the many free newsstands along Telegraph and then take it into a coffee shop at the corner of Telegraph and Channing and have a cup of joe and an old fashioned glazed donut, before (or instead of) heading off to my morning class. Robert Scheer wrote for the Barb in those days, back when Herb Caen used to call him "Berkeley Bob Scheer" in his Chronicle columns. I'm glad to see Bob never lost his radical edge, although it apparently cost him his job at the Los Angeles Times. One day in the spring of 1968 I read a piece about a Berkeley poli sci professor, I forget which one (there were so many great ones in those days), who claimed that every morning he stared into the mirror and said: "Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States." He then explained that he said that "to get used to it." Remarkable story, and completely true.

It gave me a frisson of dread when I read that. I couldn't quite believe that Tricky Dick would be elected, and I chose to think the witty prof was simply indulging in something like ritual incantation to keep the evil spirits away. Nah, he was simply acknowledging the inevitable. The Age of the Sleazeball had arrived.

Nixon was indeed a crook, a criminal mentality who debased the office and threatened to undermine the Constitutional foundation of the country. His assaults on the integrity of the system were, in fact, more dire than those of the current Sleazeball-in-Chief, but they were checked by a Congress that still had vestiges of statesmanship and noble tradition on a bipartisan basis. What made Nixon so scary was that he was very smart and completely unconstrained by any sense of ethics. Bush matches his dishonesty, but lacks the same level of cornered-rat cunning. On the other hand, Bush does not confront any sort of principled opposition; the Congress, on both sides of the aisle, willingly go along with any sort of extra-legal bullshit the president can come up with. Repeal habeas corpus? No problem. Retroactively redefine the Geneva Conventions so the war crimes we committed aren't war crimes anymore? You got it. Violate the Fourth Amendment and then change the law so it's okay anyway? When you want that? Bush does less damage because, when you get right down to it, there's nothing much left of American democracy anyway. The American system of checks and balances, representative government, and civil liberties protecting the minority from the "tyranny of the majority" (de Toqueville) are fond memories that do not exist in the real world anymore.

Nixon began the depredations. It's interesting that his popularity fell to the same Filene's-basement level, at about the same point in his presidency, as W. So the American people usually figure out, at some point, they've been had. The Crook-in-Chief was never looking out for them. He was wrestling with private demons (paranoia, thwarted ambition, stinging defeats of his youth) and needed the widest possible stage to work out his vindication. At our expense, because he brought along his ruthless desire to vindicate his past using the tools at hand -- which, in both their cases, were their criminal propensities.

But they got there because they could look like something else when the occasion demanded. Americans, over and over, elect the candidate with the greatest talent for projecting a false image, and now the only serious candidates left are the ones willing to distort themselves, to become what they think will fool enough of the people to get elected. Is it time to look in the mirror every morning and say: "Rudy Giuliani, President of the United States" ?

No comments:

Post a Comment