Archive for December 2003
Another puzzler from Quizilla:
None of that description is true except the last bit about the ego. Add this to the Long Island Tea result and you start getting a picture of opposites mixing uncomfortably under the same skin.
This gets worse and worse….
I have to pause here for a moment just before the end of The Cult of Personality in order to express again some frustration with the appalling ignorance of the press and the way in which that ignorance colors press reports in shades of misunderstanding and outright inaccuracy.
In today’s NYT, John Kifner writes about NY Gov George Pataki’s pardon of Lenny Bruce, who was convicted of obscenity for using 4-letter words in his nightclub act in 1964, and in doing so perpetuates the very myths, misunderstandings, and false accusations that Lenny’s enemies used to destroy his career. It is patently obvious from Kifner’s descriptions of them that he has never heard first-hand any of the routines for which Bruce was condemned but is instead relying on the opinions of others for his understanding of them. In fact, he sounds exactly as uninformed as the contemporary press accounts 40 years ago which were likewise written by men who had never seen Bruce perform and who were simply parroting the characterizations in the indictments.
For instance, he begins his account of Lenny’s life and work with this:
Mr. Bruce, born Leonard Alfred Schneider in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13, 1925, got his first big break in the fall of 1948 on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” a notably wholesome venue. But his humor grew dark and edgy, filled with scatological words and ethnic slurs…
Lenny never used ethnic names as “slurs” in his whole life. As a Jew, he used words like “kike”, “sheeny” and “hebe” only in order to make the case that they were slurs, which in the late 50’s was a startling, not to say revolutionary, concept. When Southern clubs began banning him, they didn’t do it because he used the word “nigger” but because he was attacking their common, everyday use of the very same word, pointing out in the early 60’s in a routine on the power of words that he was being arrested for using a perfectly acceptable word–“come”–in a sexual context at the same time that no one thought twice about, much less objected to, the way bigots used “nigger” to refer to Negroes.
Lenny’s reputation as the first “shock comic” was entirely undeserved. He wasn’t interested in shocking audiences by using forbidden language for its own sake as George Carlin and Howard Stern, among others, have built their reputations doing; his point was always centered around the hypocrisy of that use–the double-standards, the inconsistencies, the hidden assumptions of good vs evil. Lenny wanted his audiences to acknowledge their hypocrisy and try to understand its source so they could reject it. People who focused on the words themselves rather than the way in which the words were used or the people the words hurt were, to him, missing the point and probably perpetuating the hypocrisy.
Mr Kifner, explaining what led to Lenny’s NY arrest, writes:
Mr. Bruce mocked a magazine photograph said to show Jackie Kennedy trying heroically to aid her husband, saying she was really trying to flee.
That was the interpretation of his accusers; in fact, Lenny never said any such thing and what he did say was almost the diametric opposite of Kifner’s “explanation”. He wasn’t “mocking” Jackie Kennedy, he was mocking a society that would have torn her apart without mercy had she reacted the way any human being would be likely to react if the head of the person sitting next to them exploded, spewing brains all over them–by trying to save themselves. He saw nothing abominable in that reaction; it was normal, human, maybe even intelligent. What he found abominable–and what he mocked in that routine–was our insistent belief in a heroic fantasy at the expense of human reality, and our willingness to devour anyone who did not live up to our fantastic, inhuman expectations. That we would have been willing to roast Jackie on a spit for reacting exactly as we would probably have reacted in the same circumstances was what he found hypocritical and uncharitable; to him it proved that our fantasies were more important to us than human life itself, and that made them dangerous.
That we can still be missing Lenny’s point 40 years after his death is testament to how far we haven’t come after all. Much as we may congratulate ourselves for overcoming obstacles and improving our tolerance for difference, Lenny Bruce is still there, not-so-silently rebuking our “progress” for being pretty superficial. If Lenny were still alive, he’d be having a field day mocking all the hypocrisies we continue to embrace.
And John Kifner still wouldn’t get it.
In the first few months of the Bush II Administration they seemed to be floundering, mostly pre-occupied with cutting off American participation in every international treaty. The dogmatic unilateralism that was to poison the Second Gulf War and its aftermath was already apparent, made crystal clear when they pulled out of the International Children’s Rights Treaty at the request of global corporations who used children in their overseas factories. They were certain enough what they didn’t want to do, and certain of what they did want to do; they were less certain of how to do any of it. The Middle East situation was imploding under Sharon’s hardline tactics, but W wasn’t interested; he talked to Sharon when Ariel called him but would promise him nothing; when Arafat requested his intervention, or at least that he take a phone call to discuss the Palestinian view, W couldn’t be bothered–he was on vacation.
The only initiative in which anyone could interest him was cutting taxes for the oligarchy–a Republican core-value since the day the income tax was instituted. That, he was willing and even eager to work on. Taking advantage of the traditional honeymoon and Democratic reluctance to anger their corporate donors, Bush and the hardline Pubs in the Congress rammed through a $$$Trillion$$$$ tax give-away to the richest 1% in the name of “jump-starting” the economy. It was their only accomplishment in those early months, and for a while it looked to be their last–W had gone back to sleep. He was waiting for The Moment that his god had promised him when he was born-again, The Moment when the door to his destiny would be opened unto him and he would step into the role he was sure God had assigned to him as the Republican FDR.
On September 11th, 2001, The Moment came.
I was far less impressed than many others by the way he handled that tragic event. His seminal speech to the nation was larded with cliches and stock phrases, and his no doubt Rove-inspired instant use of the rubble for photo ops and promises he had no intention of keeping (his promise of $20B in aid to the city was quickly cut by Congressional Pubs to $5B and he even fought that, and his promise of Federal money to help pay police and firefighters and update their equipment never materialized at all) showed breath-taking cynicism at a level even Richard Nixon never stooped to. But the worst part, to me, was his automatically militaristic response; rather than treat this terrorist incident as a police matter in the way that the rest of the world had learned, quite successfully, to do, Bush proposed a military invasion of Afghanistan. He seemed to have little real understanding of the realities of global terrorism, preferring instead to cast the event as if it were Pearl Harbor: a sneak attack by another organized state rather than by a clearly independent terrorist group with ties to a number of different governments.
This lack of sophistication and his comfortable identification with simplistic and inaccurate analyses of the global terrorist threat was a direct result of the influence of neocon thinkers like Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, and Gary Schmitt who for years have defined the problem almost exclusively with terms like “state-sponsored terrorism”, insisting that terrorism couldn’t be effectively fought without eliminating the regimes they believed were supporting those terrorists–and eliminating them by military means, by far their favorite response. (You can hear Richard Perle make this argument during a panel on Neoconservatism sponsored by the Hudson Institute; the link comes via Josh Marshall, who was the only centrist on the panel.) Other options, as we now know, were never seriously considered by anyone in the Bush Admin except Powell, and his views were roundly defeated in the first day or two after the attack. Perle, during the panel mentioned above, even insists that no other viable option was available, and that even if Gore had been elected he would have been forced by circumstances to the same actions, though “it may have taken longer”.
This is not the place to make the case that other Western nations who have suffered terrorist attacks have been very successful in treating such attacks as a police matter, systematically capturing and eliminating one terrorist group after another during the past 30 years, or that global terrorism finds its financing far more often from rich, sympathetic individuals than from govts whose assistance has usually been more symbolic than real. Whatever the weaknesses or inaccuracies in the neocon vision may be, what’s important here is that Bush bought into their belief that terrorism could be successfully fought militarily, and that he bought into that belief because it dovetailed nicely with the ultraconservative goal of getting people to identify the President more as the Commander-in-Chief of the US military than as the people’s civilian representative.
The invasion of Afghanistan began the process of militarizing America by allowing conservatives to begin defining every issue, domestic or foreign, in terms of its effect on “the war on terrorism” (WOT, in bloggers’ shorthand). It also gave the army of ultra-right commentators an excuse to ratchet up their vitriol, labeling anyone who criticized the war as an “appeaser”, a “leftie kook”, or even a “traitor” (the word that would later be almost universally applied by the far-right to critics of the Second Gulf War and by wingnuts like Ann Coulter to centrist Democrats and anyone else who disagreed with her extreme beliefs). Naturally, discussion of that “effect” more and more began to center around the activities and needs of the Afghan forces and the potential aftermath of the invasion. Given the swiftness of the initial military victory over the Taliban, it might have ended there but for the ultraconservative planners for whom this was only the first step. The Taliban had no sooner retreated than Admin neocons were openly advocating an invasion of Iraq using the since-disproved excuse that Hussein was a heavy Al Qaeda supporter (the WMD argument had not yet reached the prominence it would later occupy as rationale for war).
Ignoring the well-documented animosity between the secular Hussein and the fanatically fundamentalist wahhabism of Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, neocons harped on a fictional connection between the two as a way of extending American anger at Afghan terrorists and re-directing it toward the target after which they had been lusting since Bush I’s refusal to invade Iraq a decade before: the world’s second-biggest oil depository. Officials hinted for months that they had proof that Hussein was behind the 9/11 attack, laying the groundwork for a new invasion theater. They weren’t about to let “War” slip from its prominence as political rationale; it was their strongest weapon in the coming Congressional elections.
In an essay in last October’s Harper’s Magazine (not available online) titled, “We’re in the Army Now”, Kevin Baker pointed out that between March of 2001 and the off-year elections of 2002, Bush had spoken “either at a military facility or to a specifically military audience an astounding 45 times”, an early indication of where his ultraconservative handlers were heading. As Baker put it:
George Bush’s presidency has been from the beginning…a gung-ho, in-your-face approach to governance that has refused any hint of compromise and that has already brought about a seismic transformation of American politics. …[T]he swearing-in of the first truly Republican-controlled Congress to serve under a Republican president in almost 50 years [was] a stunning triumph achieved by an off-year election strategy that boldly repudiated the old notion that all politics are local and based its entire campaign on issues of national security–and on George Bush himself.It was a strategy that depended in large part on deploying the military as a campaign prop. Bush stumped at military bases throughout the 2002 elections, blowing in dramatically on Air Force One to pump his latest tax cut or the Homeland Security plan… There was a tactical advantage to these venues–no American president over the last 70 years has been less comfortable with unscripted appearances before the general public, and by campaigning at military bases Bush’s handlers could assure that his crowds would always be restricted to jubilant, flag-waving supporters–but above all there was the opportunity for the commander in chief to interact personally with our men and women in uniform. He could throw his arms around their necks, shake their hands, hug them, dress up like them. Their physical presence and their…approval erased any remaining public memory of Bush’s own adroit dodge of the Vietnam War, or the fact that he may officially be a deserter to this day after going AWOL from the Air National Guard unit he managed to join during that war….
IOW, Bush had managed to successfully identify himself with “the most revered institution in the country”. Baker quotes a Gallup poll in which 76% of Americans claimed to have “a great deal of confidence” in the military as opposed to the next-highest category, religious leaders (45%), and way higher than their confidence in Congress (29%). “Americans,” Baker wrote, “now see the military as the last refuge of many democratic values in a society that seems ever more shallow and materialistic.” He’s right, and while the neocons can’t be entirely blamed for engineering that feeling, they are certainly guilty of exploiting it.
Why the emphasis on identifying with the military, aside from the obvious political reasons? Baker pointed, as I did earlier in this series, to the origins of the Republican Party:
For all their supposed conservatism, the Republicans have always been the true radical party in America. From its inception in 1854…the GOP [has been] a repository for all sorts of crackpot notions and secret societies–the Know-Nothings and the Sons of Sam and the anti-Masons, the Sabbatarians and the Prohibitionists. Their leading, shared characteristic, what brought them together as a movement in the first place, was their willingness to try to define for the first time just what a true American was–and to enforce that definition by the sword if necessary.From its inception, the GOP has been our party of blood and iron….(emphasis added)
Explains a lot, doesn’t it? For 150 years the True Republicans have imagined themselves to be keepers of the True American flame, arbiters of what is or is not “American”, what does or does not constitute real “patriotism”, what will or will not be allowed to become part of the American landscape. Baker quotes Walter Karp from The Politics of War:
Republicans share a belief that their party is not a faction, not a group, not a wing, but a synonym for patriotism, another name for the nation.
Seen against this background, we can begin to understand that Ann Coulter’s insistent labeling of liberals and Democrats as “traitors” isn’t a mutation but the expression of a long-buried ancestral bloodline passed from John Brown to Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay like an inherited gene, characteristic of the breed. Moderate Republicans are despised almost as much as liberals, more in some circles, precisely because they are viewed as having betrayed the core values of faith in the Republican mission by accepting conflicting views as at least worthy of serious consideration–blasphemy, in the True Republican dogma.
Their identification with the military also now makes perfect sense, for it is the military they will need to use to enforce their world-view on unbelievers, to punish the un-American, and to pursue their objectives abroad. However, none of that would be feasible unless the great body of American citizens could be trained to see the military as their direct representative, the unambiguous expression of their own majority will, the protector of their interests and the ultimate personification of American pride. And the easiest and quickest way to train the public to that belief was to invest them in a single symbol: the President as primarily Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces and only incidentally as the civilian leader of a democratic government. It was The Moment that made all that possible for the first time in American history.
For the first time, Republicans found themselves more or less in charge of the federal government at a moment when a stunning new foreign threat presented itself. They immediately embraced the crisis as their own, applying the sorts of radical remedies–both at home and abroad–they have often advocated in the past but have never been able to fully put into effect.
The famous flight to the carrier deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln was thus not merely an isolated photo opportunity seized for political advantage–though it was that, too–but a deliberate attempt to blur if not destroy the line between military and civilian rule that George Washington had established in the first years of the Republic by refusing to wear his uniform in public after he was elected. Washington was adamant in insisting that there be no confusion of roles–America was to be a democracy, not a de facto monarchy or a military state. As a student of Roman history, he was aware of the mischief, not to say destruction, that could be achieved when political figures also held military rank–or were perceived as such–and he rejected even the appearance of melding the two.
George W. Bush has instead embraced that melding, encouraged that confusion. And we have apparently gone along in the name of “supporting the President in a time of crisis.” With the passage of PATRIOT I and the apparently imminent passage of PATRIOT II, we are now well into the process of accepting the notion that the President can cancel the Constitution in the name of protecting us from external threats provided we trust him. It is our personal approval of Bush himself that has opened the door to True Republicans wanting to militarize American society, and reversing that trend will require discrediting Bush himself.
In an odd kind of way, Bill Clinton was made to order for Rush Limbaugh. Rush, the one-man nemesis of the counter-culture, made his reputation attacking feminists, liberals, gays, college professors, immigrants, the NEA, and anyone else to the left of Genghis Khan by accusing them of saying things they’d never said but that his core listeners believed they would have said in public if it was safe and probably did say in private. But an argument could be made that, at least in the beginning, Limbaugh’s core listeners were a realtively thin slice of his audience; that the bulk of that audience was made up of people who agreed with some of his positions but not others, people who listened for the “entertainment value”, and people who disagreed with him almost totally but found his outrageousness entertaining or wanted to keep track of what he was saying in the (accurate) belief that he was mirroring the often unspoken but true feelings of the right wing in American politics.What Limbaugh called “entertainment”, however, was (and is) in reality a particularly virulent form of propaganda which grew over the years from a simplified echo of core right-wing beliefs to structured demagoguery with a very definite purpose. As Mr. Neiwert, in an essay titled Rush, Newspeak, and Fascism (well worth a read in its entirety, you can download a PDF version of the whole thing here), puts it:
Through most of the first decade of his radio career, his primary schtick has been to rail against the government and its supposed takeover of our daily lives. This anti-government propaganda has served one main purpose: To drive a wedge between middle- and lower-class workers and the one entity that has the real (if sometimes abused or neglected) capability to protect them from the ravages of wealthy class warriors and swarms of corporate wolves.
To that extent, Rush has functioned as he was meant to function by the conservative planners who first saw talk radio’s possibilities in shaping the political landscape: as a propagandist hawking their world-view on a daily basis in language so startling in its muscular simplicity and so larded with easily-labeled “enemies” that the meanest intelligence could grasp the message without having to work at it very hard. Rush took propaganda techniques known since the Second World War and honed to a fair-thee-well during Stalin’s reign and applied them in the US for the first time since Father Coughlin in the 30’s, and it was an approach that worked exceptionally well:
[T]here can be little doubt as to the effectiveness of Limbaugh’s propaganda: In the intervening years, it has become an object of faith, particularly in rural America where Limbaugh’s broadcasts can often be heard multiple times throughout the day, that the government is in itself evil, a corrupt entity, something to be distrusted and feared, and certainly incapable of actually solving problems.
Mind you, in Limbaughland, there are still “evil” people in government — but they’re all liberals. Indeed, the demonization of all things liberal has always been a component of Limbaugh’s routine. But now it has become his focus. And it is in that shift, taking place in a context of rising extremism, that he has become openly divisive, and truly dangerous.
Probably, but let’s not pretend that Limbaugh is advocating some new ideas that he invented; his attitudes have been main themes for the ultraconservative, corporate-based core constituency of the Republican Party since the end of the Civil War. All Limbaugh did was give it a loud, persuasive, modern voice, helped along by the conservative owners who put it on their radio stations several times a day, disallowed the airing of opposition voices, and then claimed that the public had “demanded” it.
At root, the extremes in any political orientation or philosophy are a mass of contradictions, and ultraconservatism is no acception. They like to think of themselves as daring risk-takers able to face challenges weaker citizens shy away from, yet in practice they pull every imaginable string to minimize or eliminate risk altogether, no matter who else has to suffer in the process; they tend to detest most those who most closely resemble them; they tend to project their own weaknesses, especially personal weaknesses, on those with whom they disagree; attracted by strenghth, especially the raw exercise of power in support of policies they favor, they tend to back explicitly anti-democratic foreign leadership–dictators, military juntas, self-appointed autocrats–in the name of “realism” and then attack them later for being too strong; and so on.
Ultraconservatives have always needed enemies. Where moderate conservatives want to conserve–to go slower, to make sure we aren’t throwing the baby out with the bath water–ultraconservatives respond to fear–of outside threats, real or imagined, of change, of anything or anyone different–and that response is anger. Ultraconservatives always over-react because their fear makes them inherently weak, unable to countenance compromise of any sort for fear that it might endanger them in some way. Fear is a powerful motivator; the stronger the fear, the higher the motivation. Ultraconservatives seek power as the only drug capable of calming their fear; the more power they have, the less frightened they need to be.
What are they so scared of? Losing their privileges, mostly. Rich ultraconservatives hate Communism and populism because both threaten to take the privileges which money buys for the rich by taking away the money; poor ultraconservatives hate immigrants and blacks because they threaten to take away the few measly priviliges that being native-born and white affords to the otherwise impoverished. To assuage their fear, both groups need to feel more powerful than what they’re afraid of and privileges, however meager, prove that power; take them away and weakness is all that’s left.
This is true of all extremes. Progressive radicals who want outside agencies like government to solve or mitigate problems that arise from personal weaknesses or lack of talent and/or capability are also reacting from fear. Seeking power or the protection of power is the universal human response of frightened people, and both sets of extremes need enemies in order to rally the troops that will provide the power or protrection they need.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism in Soviet Russia, ultraconservatives found themselves deprived of the enemy that had energized them and provided their entree to power for 3/4 of a century. There were plenty of others, of course, from feminists to homosexuals to immigrants to Robert Mapplethorpe, and Rush found–and hammered–all of them. But they were lacking a Demon. There was Fidel, but he was a spent force as Demons go; since the October Missile Crisis, no frightened Republican, try as s/he might, had been able to whip up much enthusiasm in the public for hating him–as a tiger, his teeth had been pulled. There was China, which would have pleased the religious right, but demonizing China presented a problem: the core Republican constituency–corporations–were doing a lot of business in and with China nowadays. They were leery of antagonizing the whole country; individual leaders, yes, but individual Chinese leaders did the NRC no good. They could whip up a frenzy over Godless Communist China, but who knew who Ziang-chi-min was? Who could even spell his name?
No, genuine Demons you could get the public to rally round were thin on the ground, no two ways about it. Without a personified, Grade-A, #1 Gen-u-whine Demon, generalized attacks on generalized targets like feminazis and abortion doctors lacked a core, a center, a focus of evil, and energizing the troops was difficult if not impossible without one. What to do?
Their seemingly insoluble problem was solved with the election of Bill Clinton. They hated the son-of-a-bitch. He was everything they despised–a Southern cracker, the Governor of a joke state known as a heaven of shantytowns and trailer-trash, an unrepentant womanizer a la JFK who exuded sex appeal at a level no Republican had ever reached or ever would, and he had won by stealing their issues–THEIR issues! Welfare reform, balanced budgets, free trade, de-regulation. He was a travesty, a perversion of themselves, a mirror-image with charm and a populist appeal. Shameful, maddening, evil.
But the worst was his astounding political skill and his ability to forge coalitions out of unlikely partners: radical feminists and Southern housewives; homosexuals and mainstream Protestant churches, Democratic Democrats and–Horrors!–their own Reagan Democrats. The man was threatening to become another FDR, welding a lot of small groups with differing agendas into a single group with one over-riding goal: to keep Republicans out of power for another 50 years. It couldn’t be allowed. He had to be stopped.
Almost as soon as he was sworn in, Republicans began the process of trying to destroy his Presidency, and the beauty of their plan was that it would use the same tool that Democrats had forged to destroy Nixon: the Independent Prosecutor. This struck them as true balance, an eye for an eye: precise, equal Judgment; exact Exacted Revenge. There was a pleasing symmetry to it, a what-goes-around-comes-around inevitability.
Of course, there was the minor issue of what it was the IP was supposed to investigate to be settled yet, but they figured there must be something. After all, every politician has a skeleton or two in the closet somewhere; it was just a matter of finding his and smearing them all over the tube. They had the media, they had the echo chamber of the Mighty Wurlitzer. They would leave him nowhere to hide.
They began, naturally enough, with rumors; there were a lot to choose from. Clinton had fathered a bastard black child, had been involved in a murder, had stolen money, had sold his support for legislation, had been involved in a number of shady business deals, had raised monel illegally for his Gubernatorial campaigns, and so on. None of them could be proved, of course, but they could be investigated, that was the point–throw enough smoke around and a gullible public was sure to believe that there had to be a fire somewhere. They started with White Water, a land development deal on which Clinton had actually lost money. The charges were vague, the evidence suspect when it wasn’t completely cooked, and nobody understood exactly what crime it was Bill was supposed to have committed. But none of that mattered as long as it was being “investigated”.
A good beginning, and the very vagueness of it fed the right-wing-whacko rumor mill like fertilizer feeds geraniums. On the nascent internet, right-wing websites were freed from facts by the almost complete lack of them and cheerfully invented a raft of conspiracy theories woven with any slime-laden gossip that happened to come their way. Their creators presented their personal beliefs as proven fact without bothering to support their assertions, and–like gossip–story built upon story, repeated and expanded so often that each began to take on the patina of an uncontestable history, like Columbus discovering America or Washington crossing the Delaware.
Which is where Rush came in. He took the tactics he’d devised to smear the left,
added to them the free-wheeling disdain for “facts” that he’d learned on the internet, and combined them into a simple, powerfull strategy: Lie, early and often. Apologize for nothing, retract nothing, repeat everything and tie it all to Clinton’s back. His approach was the verbal equivalent of a gangland street-sweeper; he didn’t have the interest or the patience for a sniper. He sprayed his targets from every angle with any ammunition available, rock salt to buckshot, indiscriminately and without let-up. There was never a devastating charge but there were lots and lots and LOTS of smaller charges, and their sheer numbers were overwhelming. Disprove one and ten more arose to take its place; allow a little time to pass for the public to forget the one that had been disproved and he could bring it up again as if the debunking had never happened.
The think-tanks were awed. The Limbaugh strategy was brilliant. The opposition was always off-balance, always on the defensive, forced to answer accusations of imaginary crimes as if they were real, not once but over and over again. But Rush didn’t stop there. He began to tell his stories in a way that put Bill Clinton at their center like a spider sitting in the middle of its web spinning traps for innocent but unwary flies. Rush gave the ultraconservatives the Demon they’d been lacking, and that Demon’s name was Bill.
Who often obligingly performed for them: the infamous “tarmac haircut”, first waffling on and then abandoning his appointment of Lani Guinere, the constant attempts at compromise when a child would have known that compromise wasn’t possible, and of course the women–acres of them, one story after the other–Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones et al; he didn’t seem capable of meeting a woman without trying to seduce her. He fed into every ultraconservative stereotype of what liberals were, outdoing every previous contender for the title. Rush had a ready-made show almost every day; all he had to do was pick up a paper.
Maybe it was how easy it all was that led him–and the rest of the right wing–to keep upping the ante, raising the stakes. Clinton never fought back, just smiled and went around them. As Michael Feldman of PRI’s Wha’d’ya Know put it, “They’ve been dumping all this doo-doo on him and he just keeps smiling, smiling, smiling.” What does it take, they must have asked themselves, to get to this guy? And they set about finding out.
The nastiness of the rhetoric increased exponentially for the next eight years, fed by failure after failure to dent the armor of the Comeback Kid: Travelgate was nothing; Paula Jones went south after it was proved her testimony had been given to her by lawyers for the Conservative Law Foundation acting on orders from the CLF’s founder and funder, arch-conservative Richard Mellon Scaife; the White Water investigation ate up 7 years and $$30 or 40MIL$$$ without ever proving a crime had been committed, let alone by Bill Clinton. Despite these maddening failures, all during the ’96 campaign right-wing pundits crowed that Clinton didn’t stand a chance of re-election. Fred Barnes said, “Bill Clinton will lose this election to any Republican who doesn’t drool onstage.” Unfortunately, the Republicans nominated ace hatchetman Bob Dole, an unlikeable hack who ran back to the Senate in the middle of his campaign so he could make a speech defending a corporate contributor who produced poison gas (look it up), and whose biggest contributors were tobacco companies. Clinton won. Handily.
In the end, ultraconservative Republicans were reduced to trying to impeach him over a sordid affair with an intern, and they failed spectacularly. But the failure did seem to inspire them to plumb new depths of degraded rhetoric. They called Clinton–the sitting President of the United States–“a douchebag”, “scum”, “slime”. Rush hinted often if he didn’t say it outright that Vince Foster had been murdered and that Clinton had ordered it, suggesting not-quite-under-his-breath that it wouldn’t be the first time if he had–a direct link to the Willie Horton meme. Democrats were liberals and liberals weren’t just wrong, they were murderers, traitors, the scum of the earth.
Between the extreme political attacks and the extreme and increasingly hostile rhetorical attacks, Clinton’s Presidency was crippled: a number of major initiatives, including proposed fixes for the health care and social security systems, were unceremoniously dumped and forgotten as the result of bitter right-wing opposition; the efforts in Somalia and Rwanda were cut short, leaving both countries in an uncomfortable limbo; environmental issues were ignored and some regulations weakened because Clinton couldn’t afford to fight about them; but most important of all, the coalition he had begun to put together during his first campaign never materialized and the Republicans–now solidly in the hands of extremist radicals like Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, and Trent Lott–won a majority in both houses of Congress.
Rush had shown them the way to spread the Gospel According to St Ronald and crush the opposition in the process, and their destiny was clear.
a. The Commander-in-Chief
The stage was set: the strategy had been decided, the tactics developed, the audience trained, the secondary players cast and in place. The only thing the ultraconservatives (now calling themselves “neo-conservatives”, or “neocons” for short, in an attempt to de-fang the poor images the word “ultraconservative” carried like the excess baggage on an overloaded pack mule) were missing was a star. The scenario they’d planned was toothless without one.
It hinged–as all such scenarios have from before the time of Carthage–on the investment of belief and power in a single individual who would represent them and their ancient agenda in a way that the populace would accept even as his radical actions belied every soothing word he spoke. Much as they would have liked one of their own on the throne, experience had taught them that someone who was overtly a neocon–James Watt, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and so on and so on–alienated large segments of voters and drove them into the other camp. A believer would be nice but more important was someone with a pleasant charm and unthreatening manner, someone who could successfully project the image of The Guy Next Door, who embodied simplicity and certainty without looking too intelligent but who looked intelligent enough (Americans don’t like their candidates to be smarter than they are; look what happened to Adlai Stevenson), someone with the common touch, and–vitally important–someone easily swayed and not too inquisitive; someone who would, for example, refuse to read the newspapers for himself and be content with summaries prepared by neocon aides who could then make sure he never saw anything that might shake his faith in their agenda; someone who might announce his decision to launch America’s first pre-emptive war on the slimmest of pretexts by poking his head into a door and uttering those six immortal words, “Fuck it. We’re taking him out.” IOW, they needed a C-average John Wayne with an over-ripe sense of his own “destiny”.
I don’t have to tell you who they found.
With the “watchdog” press successfully muzzled (the inability of the press to get Iran-Contra onto the public’s plate proved it beyond all reasonable doubt), planners at HF, AEI, and the other conservative think-tanks were ready to move on to the next item on their agenda: the development of tactics targeted at marginalizing the impact of the left-wing and the dissemination of those tactics to the faithful and through them to the rest of the country. At the time, this looked like a much more formidable task than it actually proved to be.
Whatever their hopes or fantasies, conservative thinkers with even the slimmest of ties to political reality knew full well that Reagan’s success was predicated on his personal charm and the success of his everybody’s-Grandfather persona in pulling swing voters and center-right Democrats (the so-called “Reagan Democrats”) over the line to support him. They also knew that this support was thin, tentative, and probably temporary. The challenge was to find a way to lock in people not normally drawn to conservative causes like eliminating Social Security and corporate taxes or reversing the gains in environmental law and racial justice, the people who would otherwise desert the party when Reagan ended his second term. In other words, they had to find a way to force the center to move to its right against its current will. Support for environmental controls on corporate activities, for example, was particularly strong, as they discovered when they had Reagan appoint James Watt as Interior Secretary. His violent restructuring of Interior policies to openly and brazenly favor corporate interests started a firestorm of protest that eventually drove Reagan to replace him and taught the extremists that they were going to have to move slower than they had hoped.
But conservatives–especially extremist conservatives–as a whole aren’t much given to changing their minds once they’re made up; they tend to characterize mind-changing in negative language, calling it “waffling”, disloyalty, betrayal, or a surrender of ideals. There was little chance, despite their setbacks, that they would ever consider altering their goals or compromising on their agenda except as a short-term tactic for the sake of appearances; to do that would be to show weakness to the enemy (defined even then as “anyone who disagrees with us”), or, as the conservative/corporate-speak of the day had it, to “show them your belly.”
And, true to form, they didn’t. Instead they set about laying off their more controversial stances (except abortion) and concentrated on identifying the conservative issues that played best with the non-conservative voters who had swung to Reagan. They found three: security, tax relief, and the economy, in that order; despite the fact that history couldn’t show a conclusive superiority in any of these areas on the part of either party–both had their ups and downs–voters believed for reasons of their own that on those three issues Republicans were better for the country than Democrats. Polls also showed that the conservative Achilles’ Heel was domestic policy–in that area, voters overwhelmingly preferred the Democratic agenda: protecting the environment, affirmative action, a woman’s right to choose, worker’s rights, and so on. The message was clear: get the voters focused on taxes and foreign policy; if they’re focused on Republican issues, then they’ll naturally focus on Republican solutions.
Again, the tactic worked. Reagan made his “evil empire” speeches and Republican strategists conceived the decade’s most brilliant red herring: Star Wars, an impossible scheme technically (and everybody involved knew it) but the kind of easy, superficially sensible pipe dream that the simple-minded Reagan would embrace whole-heartedly and that pervasive advertising techniques used since the 50’s had trained the American public to lap up with a spoon. In the event, they didn’t exactly lap it up, but they took it seriously enough that it often drove domestic concerns off the front pages and served to keep public attention focused on a useless daydream for damn near 8 years while Republican domestic policies enriched Wall Street, began the dismantling of the Great Society, and allowed corporations to deliberately destroy the social contract that had held since the end of WWII, stealing pensions, blackmailing states into eliminating corporate taxes, adding millions to the unemployment rolls for the single purpose of raising the price of their stocks, breaking or minimizing the power of labor unions, and using the Federal govt as if it were their own private cash reserve. Heightening the tension of the Cold War and building up fear of a nuclear holocaust centered attention outside the domestic arena so effectively that social depredations at home went largely unnoticed by the general public until after Reagan left office.
Meanwhile, conservative efforts to hijack the media continued apace: the Mighty Wurlitzer and its echo chamber were growing, gaining in experience and expertise; conservative talk radio was becoming a political as well as a commercial force; a wave of mergers and consolidations were gradually putting all forms of media, from movies, tv and commercial radio to newspaper, magazine, and book publishing, under the control of a shrinking handful of right-wing tycoons like John Malone, Sumner Redstone. and Rupert Murdock; and direct pipelines from the media tycoons into the offices of conservative political figures like Newt Gingrich, Orrin Hatch, and Phil Gramm were solidifying a unity of purpose and message. They were all on the same page, and each thought they were using the other. It was a perfect arrangement for all concerned–and a powerful one. A large chunk of the media became an arm of operations for a certain segment of the govt–that segment which agreed with the aims of the tycoons who owned the media–and would churn out information skewed to support the goals of that segment; in return, the segment would support the corporate aims of the tycoons, challenging, re-writing, or even eliminating laws and regulations that the tycoons found too restrictive.
The main question of this phase was, again, “How?” Now that control of the media was in their hands, how were they going to use it to best advantage to steer America in the direction they envisioned? The answer came in two parts: the 1988 campaign of Bush I, and Rush Limbaugh.
The 1988 Presidential campaign was in many ways a watershed for the conservative forces actively engaged in the effort to change America’s orientation. For one thing, they no longer had their Grandfather icon fronting for them. Instead, they had a patrician insider who was uncomfortable on television and had an unfortunate tendency to talk in clipped, unfinished sentences that were easy to ridicule and often hard to decipher. He had massive govt experience, including a disastrous stint as CIA Director the year after Nixon resigned, but little practical experience in anything but business. People, they found, liked him but couldn’t relate to him very well, nor could he reach across the Great Class Divide to them with any success. Their new candidate was a long way from Reagan’s Granddad; Bush was more like the rich uncle you saw once a year at Christmas, the one who bought cheap presents and didn’t stay very long. He was OK, but you weren’t going to share your Christmas cookies with him, and you didn’t really notice when he left. Selling him was going to be a problem.
GOP strategists decided early on to use the same tactic against liberals that had been so successful in the attack against the press: George Sr would tar his opponents with the epithet “liberal”, using it as if it were a profanity he could barely stand to utter, and counter any criticism of his policies or statements not by defending or explaining them but by attacking his critics as “liberal elitists” and suggesting (without actually saying it) that their attitudes were un-American and/or idiotic. It was during that campaign that Poppy in fact turned “liberal” into a swear by refusing to say it: “liberal” became “the L-word”, and the “L-word” became a synonym for silly, impractical, devious, and un-American. Anyone who could take that claptrap seriously, Poppy seemed to be saying, couldn’t be trusted to run that country for that reason alone.
This time the tactic was only semi-successful. Poppy, after all, was a centrist, not a right-wing devotee of Reagan’s hardcore gospel, and when he tried to sound like one he came across looking like a robot lip-synching previously prepared programming. But he undeniably struck a nerve, particularly with older white male voters disenchanted with the social changes of the last 20 years. They liked what he said even if they distrusted the way he said it, and if they didn’t exactly flock to his side, if their deepest desires weren’t set aflame with passion, if they didn’t show up at his rallies in overwhelming numbers, still they supported him and every single one of them would vote.
Poppy was helped immeasurably by the nomination of Michael Dukakis by the Democrats. The Duke, despite being the son of immigrant, working-class parents, came across looking and sounding more like a patrician elitist than patrician elitist Bush. His emphasis on his background cut so little ice with potential voters that Poppy could label him a “liberal elitist” and get away with it. In addition, the Duke was focusing his campaign on economic issues at a time when the false boom of the Reagan years had not yet begun to unravel (as it would between ’88 and ’90) and nobody was particularly feeling the need to change directions.
Duke’s concentration on the economy also left a yawning gap in Poppy’s strongest area: his expertise in foreign policy, including his pedigree as Reagan’s anti-Communist VP, Dutch’s right-hand-man in America’s on-going battle with the “evil empire”. Poppy’s media gurus figured they only needed one domestic issue if it was strong enough, and they settled on a natural: taxes. Massachusetts was called “Taxachusetts” by the rest of the nation; while the perception was inaccurate even then (a dozen or so states had higher property and income taxes than Mass), it played well everywhere else.
So while newspapers reported on and Bush talked about other things, the campaign responsible for the ads and the Mighty Wurlitzer responsible for the spin pounded away at two simple themes: Dukakis was a member-in-good-standing of the Eastern Liberal Establishment (as if there was or had ever been such a thing); and Dukakis was a tax-and-spend liberal who wanted to do to the country what he had done to Massachusetts–tax it to death. This simple, two-pronged strategy was intended to marginalize Dukakis by getting voters to perceive him as marginal: an extreme figure outside the mainstream, somebody not sensible, not serious, not realistic–somebody “not like us.”
Politicians have used the “us vs. them” tactic from time immemorial. It knits followers together as a unit, bands them together to fight “outsiders” in an echo of human experience that goes back to the cave1. In a sense what Bush and his handlers were doing was just a slightly more sophisticated and extreme version of that oldest-trick-in-the-book. It was, that is, up until the Willie Horton episode.
The Willie Horton episode is enormously important in a way that went largely unnoticed at the time in the furor over its racial implications, for in hindsight its importance doesn’t lie in its viciousness (that was a natural extension of Republican campaign advertising tactics going back to Nixon) or its blatant playing of the race card (another natural extension of Republican campaign tactics that had evolved from Kevin Phillips’ “Southern Strategy”). Rather, it’s importance lies more in its subtle attempt to link a Democratic Presidential candidate with a convict.
The subliminal message in the Willie Horton ads was the identification of Dukakis with a murderer and rapist as if they were one and the same. Ostensibly an attack on the “liberal” philosophy of rehabilitating criminals by mainstreaming them back into society, the ads made every effort, both verbally and visually, to equate Horton and Dukakis as different sides of the same coin, fellow-travelers on the fringes of society. The undertones of the ads were less racial (though they were that, too) than they were anti-social; who, after all, would release such a man unless he could identify with him? Normal people–you or I–would lock Horton up and throw away the key, but Dukakis freed him. The inevitable question in the viewers’ minds had to be: Why? Why would he do that? The answer embedded in the ads was, “Because they’re birds-of-a-feather–they’re both criminals.”
The fact that Horton was black mattered far less in this campaign than the fact that he was a murderer. It was the first time that any political ad of modern times had defined the “them” in “us vs them” in such an extreme manner that a political opponent could be described in terms formerly reserved for torturers and serial killers. It was a tactic designed not just to put Dukakis (and by extension, anyone who supported him) on the margins of society but to push him completely beyond the pale and into the Lands of the Outer Darkness, an ominous country no sane human being would visit voluntarily, a country with an eerie resemblance to the Biblical version of Hell.
The ads worked–Dukakis’ poll numbers went into a nose-dive, especially in the South, from which they never recovered. Although the backlash created by the ads was significant, it was too late; the damage had already been done. GOP strategists took careful note: Don’t marginalize your opponents; shove them over the cliff–make them Untouchables, characterize them as unclean, spawns of society’s lowest and most vicious dregs, agents of the Devil. Traitors.
It was breath-taking, the political equivalent of a gated community: a mile-high wall of barbed wire separating their political opponents from “ordinary people”, a wall that kept out the predatory animals of the Liberal Establishment and prevented them from eating you alive. And who did you have to thank for this protection? Why, the Saviors of the Right who saw the danger and built the wall, who else? So whose side do you want to be on?
But the backlash, while it came too late to help Dukakis, did accomplish one thing: it stopped the ads. They were pulled from circulation. That was a good thing for democracy but a bad thing for GOP strategists trying to get a handle on methods for turning the country around. They had a strategy–Divide and Conquer–but not the tactics to make the strategy work at a mass level.
Fortunately for them, there was Rush.
to be continued….
1. Mel Brooks put this age-old feeling into a nutshell as The 2000-Year-Old Man. Asked by Carl Reiner if they had national anthems back in the “old days”, Brooks replies:
B: We weren’t nations, we was caves. Every cave had its own national anthem.
R: Do you remember your cave’s anthem?
B: Of course! You don’t forget a national anthem in a minute.
R: Could you sing it for us?
B: Sure. (sings:)
“Let ‘em all go to hell,.
Except Cave 76!”