Belaboring the Obvious

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Television, History's Make-Up Artist

With all these potential hearings on Bush admin malfeasance, misfeasance, stupidity, war, lies, cronyism and outright churlishness and thuggery coming up, it occurs to me that I've perhaps done without video contact from the outside world for a bit too long (ten years, in fact). Anybody want to make me a really good deal on a satellite dish, TiVo and about eight thousand hours of videotape?

Of course, then I read what political coverage on television has become and I'm suddenly not sure it's worth all that money. Maybe not worth any money at all. Remember all the shots from the `50s and `60s of people watching the news by crowding around on the sidewalk in front of a radio and tv store, watching sets through its front window? That's pretty much my speed these days, even though there are no more radio and tv stores....

And, when I think further on it, the things this administration has done are far, far worse than anything Nixon did, probably even worse than what Reagan did, and yet, we didn't get much of the truth during hearings in either of those prior instances. Oh, sure, there was just enough red meat thrown to the political wolves to keep them all quiet, and, most importantly, convince them that they were right all along. Nixon resigned well before the people were, metaphorically or literally, ready to march through the streets with his liver on a pike. It's taken almost forty years for the rest of the drips and the drabs to come out (as in staff had to steer Nixon away from the phone of evenings because he liked to call foreign leaders and lecture them when he was drunk). Ollie North managed to both infuriate the political wolves and simultaneously pacify them--his seeming forthrightness about breaking the law was infuriating, but, at the same time, it proved to the wolves that Reagan really was running the government as if it were a fascist operation, and that confirmed their suspicions. It was also a way to use the hearings to prevent prosecution.

In neither Nixon's nor Reagan's scandals did most grasp that the most important thing was that the top people avoid going to jail--as they well should have. Politics in this country would be greatly different today if we'd been better at removing and then prosecuting wrongdoers. If Nixon had spent fifteen years working in the prison laundry for laundering campaign cash, it might have slowed down the illegal tendencies of Reagan's boys. If Reagan had died in prison for illegal arms sales, misuse of government resources and funding terrorism, it might have given pause to Bush, Cheney and Rummy. Then again, it may not have with that troika of authoritarians. Still and all, television has fuzzed the focus.

Impeachment was put into the Constitution for a reason--the Founders knew that wielding great power has always held within it the capacity for great mischief. And for almost forty years, we've seen one political party front multiple presidential candidates whose desire for power has caused them to behave irresponsibly with that power. We all know the excuses--executive privilege, moral obligation to an ideology, personal whims conflated with grand purpose--but the very raw fact is that none of the top people exceeding the boundaries of good governance in modern times have been punished for their excesses. Precisely because of the existence of political parties, impeachment has become a political tool, rather than a managerial one, thus guaranteeing that its use will always be attributed to venal and petty intentions (clearly such was in evidence in the Clinton impeachment), rather than the more lofty purpose of ridding government of those whose excesses have become egregious. As political divisiveness has increased, impeachment has become ever more meaningless, and toothless. Television has done its part in egging on that divisiveness, too, in order to create "drama" out of ordinary life.

Proof of that latter point, I suppose, is in the fact that Bush, having publicly admitted illegal acts on a broad scale, is still President, and that all talk of his impeachment has been couched in strictly partisan political terms--would impeaching him serve any useful purpose, would talk of his impeachment help or hurt one party or the other's electoral chances in the midterms, etc. I have the feeling that, in the absence of political parties, Bush's immediate impeachment upon his admission of wrongdoing would have been a pro forma exercise, accomplished with a minimum of rancor and a maximum of efficiency--as would have Nixon's and Reagan's, as well. That the Founders intended it to be used in that fashion is explicit in the Constitutional language describing impeachment, as compared to, say, the language describing treason. Treason is very serious business, with the terms of those charges and the demands for required evidence clearly stated, while impeachment is much more broadly considered, including not just unlisted "high crimes," but unlisted "misdemeanors" as well. What the Constitution essentially says about impeachment is, "fuck up in any way, shape, form or degree and you're outta there."

That Congress should have the ability to remove bad actors from positions of power reflects the nature of elective democracy. Ambitious politicians can lie convincingly to the voters about their intentions for governance. Anyone, after campaigning on personal qualities of honesty and trust can then surround himself with appointed liars, crooks and thieves. Bush has done both, and yet, his impeachment (and later criminal trial on substantive charges) is not only in some doubt, but is actively being argued against as a politically unwise move.

The option being floated today as preferable is to continue him to allow him to pursue any and all illegal acts in which he chooses to engage and simply allow him to leave office in a couple of years. Being rid of him in that manner is seen as "better for the country" than to expose him and us to a politically contentious and tendentious process that--because of partisanship alone--may not result in his actual removal from office.

Partly because of political punditry, partly because of Congressional timidity, and mostly because of partisan allegiance (all of which are incited and complicated by a media with its own agenda), impeachment has been elevated to the status of treason--even though impeachment was intended to be a simple and practical means of removing from government people who would not, for whatever reason, govern within the law. It's one thing for Congress to find evidence of a failure to execute law through its oversight obligations, inform the Executive or the Judiciary of that failure and have it corrected--that's a simple function of tripartite government, and is not deserving of impeachment. It's quite another thing for Congress to refuse its oversight obligations so as not to reveal illegal activity and then actively protect a leader from impeachment out of partisan political considerations while that leader continues his illegal activity. Leaving problems until they grow disproportionately large contributes to the aura of impeachment as monstrously disruptive to democracy, where, in fact, it has always been intended to further the aims and interests of governance by democratic means. Congress, rather than the Judiciary, was chosen to try impeachments because it was seen as the most direct link to the wishes of the electorate. In its effect, impeachment was the national equivalent of the states' rights to recall its elected officials.

Guess I've talked myself out of expenditures on television.... Any hearings coming up will be much like those in the past--excited revelations leading to endless analysis, without anyone saying, bluntly, straight-out, "George Bush told me to do it, even if it broke the law." The people with the rottenest reputations will have those reputations and their hides protected. Ambiguity of intention will be explored and parsed so finely that no simple truth could escape intact and come to public view. The national security state will continue to protect, via state secrecy, its right to secrecy, and the right of its minions to evade exposure. We will be served a tiny appetizer and will be told it's a four-course meal. We will be invited to participate in "democracy in action," but only insofar as that democracy is defined by the traditional media's conventional wisdom.

Almost everyone in this country, even those most staunchly in Bush's political corner, knows that Bush lied us into illegally invading another country, and that he and his administration have unilaterally and without the consent of the people abrogated treaties, spied on citizens without warrant, usurped power in egregious fashion, have exhibited the most brazen of corrupt cronyism and were, very likely, criminally negligent in failing to prevent the attacks of five years ago. Instead of bright revelation, we will instead be subjected to a sort of interminable legal wrangling intended to obfuscate the truth even as it is described by the media as revealing truth. There will be minor players who go to jail and are eventually pardoned in the hours before Bush leaves office. Bush himself may suffer some mud-splattering, but he will leave office with his presidential pension intact, and, as with Nixon, Reagan and his father, the Sunday morning political pundits on the right will do their very best to rehabilitate his reputation as an elder statesman, hoping to take best advantage of the United States of Amnesia. Across generations, history will be rewritten on television just enough to hide the simple fact that Bush was an inarticulate, willfully ignorant (and possibly mentally unstable) punk who, when handed the keys to the largest military and security apparatus in the world, acted like a drunken frat boy who'd stolen the family car and had taken it for a joyride.

Television will never tell us that.


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