“What are the things that you can’t see that are important? I would say justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, love. You can’t see any of those, but they’re the guiding lights of a life.”
This past April marked twenty years since the death of President Richard M. Nixon, which came nearly two decades after he became the first Chief Executive in U.S. history to resign from office. That ignominious fortieth anniversary is coming up next month. It’s not something to be celebrated. The Watergate affair that brought him down has left an indelible stain on both American politics and the soul of the American people. Those of us in the 50 and under crowd have pretty much grown up in a world suspicious and even hostile towards all levels of government. The over 50 crowd helped build and fuel that distrust after a brutal sense of betrayal for a nation that set itself up more than two centuries ago as a beacon of democracy and freedom.
I’ve always said Watergate burned whatever bridges of faith and trust the American public had in their elected officials. But, the wicked uncertainty actually began the moment President John F. Kennedy had his head blown apart by an assassin’s bullets and Jacqueline Kennedy clambered onto the trunk of the presidential limousine in Dallas on November 22, 1963. The ensuing Warren Commission Report hoped to quell doubts that the murder was anything but the act of one deranged ex-Marine with delusions of grandeur. Yet, people saw it for what it really was: a rush to judgment. Americans weren’t so gullible anymore. The quagmire in Vietnam; the various energy crises of the 1970s; and the absolute failures of the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter Administrations (the latter burdened by the ineptness of the Iran hostage ordeal) only sealed the fate of Americans’ general distrust of their government.
Ronald Reagan fed off that fear like a lion gorging on a sick zebra and metamorphosed it into two successful political campaigns. One of his most popular statements, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’,” resonated strongly with the frustrated masses. Indeed, he had a point. But, Reagan’s own professional disconnect and ineffectiveness – Iran-contra, covert U.S. involvement in Central American conflicts, ignoring the AIDS epidemic, a pathetic war on pornography – placed him in the same pantheon of “Them.”
Almost from the moment Bill Clinton announced his candidacy for president, Republicans took retribution against their Democratic counterparts over Watergate by targeting Clinton every chance they could. They dissected the Whitewater deal and found – nothing. So, they turned to First Lady Hillary Clinton and manufactured something called “Travelgate.” When that didn’t work, they pounced on the events surrounding the suicide of Vince Foster; dragging the memory of a man who may have had severe emotional problems into their cesspool of arrogance and striving fruitlessly to twist it into an evil political plot. Alas, in 1998, they zeroed in on something totally unrelated to politics: the Monica Lewinsky affair and tried to impeach Clinton over a tawdry sexual indiscretion. The final report by special prosecutor Kenneth Starr read like a soft-core porn novel. I remember looking at that mess and thinking, “They want to impeach a U.S. president over that?! A blowjob?!”
We see that stubbornness now with the likes of House Speaker John Boehner and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. They complain that President Obama has no viable plans to help the U.S. economy, for example, but stand in their buckets of ideological cement and won’t budge. Thus, Obama (slowly growing some semblance of a backbone) has been forced to invoke executive privileges to get the work done. Now, Boehner is threatening to sue him because of it! I remember Boehner repeatedly asking, “Where are the jobs?” But, when Obama wanted the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of Americans to expire at the end of 2010, Republicans balked and threatened to block extension of unemployment benefits, which were also set to expire at the end of that year; thus holding struggling Americans hostage. Obama relented, and the wealthiest citizens continued to see their after-tax incomes grow, while average Americans continued to lose their jobs and their homes.
The administration of George W. Bush solidified, in my mind, the corruptness and intransigence of the U.S. government. The 09/11 horror compelled many Americans to question what our government officials know and what they’re doing about it. That the Bush Administration then tied the 09/11 affair to Iraq’s alleged development of nuclear and / or chemical weapons convinced so many of us that our government is willing to go to extreme lengths to obfuscate and mislead just to embolden its own agenda. They tap-danced on the dead bodies of the innocent people who hurtled themselves from the World Trade Center’s burning Twin Towers and merely wiped the blood of soldiers from the millions of dollars they earned from oil revenue.
Bush was a puppet president; a doll adorned in designer business suits and propped up with ersatz ‘Mission Accomplished’ bravado. I almost feel sorry for him. Even he said, after leaving the White House, that he felt “liberated.”
Obama hasn’t done much better. At least he’s more verbally adept than Bush. But, I wish he’d make the time to rummage through his wife’s cache of designer handbags for his gonads before telling John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, “Fuck you. I’m president of the United States. I run this shit here – not you guys.”
It bothers me, for example, that we’re still entrenched in Afghanistan. I feel we should have bombed the crap out of them twelve years ago – damn their civilians, including the children and women, because they didn’t care about ours – and then leave. Maybe airdrop a few high-protein biscuits and bottled water into the mountainside, just to show we’re not complete assholes and go about our own business.
But, it bothers me even more that Obama hasn’t empowered Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the causes of the near-total economic collapse in 2008. The worst financial downturn since the 1930s didn’t happen because someone on the Dow Jones trading floor accidentally unplugged a computer before the end of the business day because they needed to do a software upgrade. It resulted from a multitude of events; such as hefty tax cuts for that “job-creating” 1%; extreme deregulation of the housing and banking industries; and the billions of dollars on the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Except for a handful of notable exceptions – Bernie Madoff, Mark Dreier – no one has been held accountable for the “Great Recession.” But, if I walk into a local convenience store with a toy gun and rob the Pakistani clerk of fifty bucks, I could spend thirty years in prison. I believe there were other more diabolical machinations in play, beginning in 2001, that caused the economic downturn. Yes, economies endure cycles of bull and bear markets. But, this fiasco wasn’t just cyclical, like rainfall. Somebody did something, and it wasn’t by accident.
In February 2012, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe stunned her constituents by announcing that she wouldn’t seek reelection that year. She didn’t hesitate to explain why: the level of hostility and unwillingness to compromise in the U.S. Congress had become unbearable. To her, I guess, it wasn’t worth the trouble anymore. It was a shame. Snowe was one of the most level-headed politicians in Washington, regardless of party affiliation. She was willing to listen to and work with all of her colleagues. But, many of them just didn’t seem to share the same ethic.
I still say it all goes back to Watergate. Nixon and his band of henchmen were determined to keep the president in power, as the 1972 elections neared. Nixon had a modest tenure as Vice-President under Dwight Eisenhower, but suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the upstart Kennedy in 1960. When he lost the California governor’s race in 1962, he vowed to exit public life altogether, loudly proclaiming, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore.” But, he just couldn’t stay away. He loved the political game and desperately wanted the presidency. His dogged ambition put him in the White House six years after the California debacle – and forced him back out six years later.
Things have never been the same since. And, we still can’t bring ourselves to trust anyone in government.