POLITICIANS WITHOUT BORDERS

Sam Smith

Let’s forget about the names and just think about the facts.

One of the two top candidates for president got his buddy nominated to be head of Homeland Security – until stories about his seedy background forced him to withdraw. He was indicted not long thereafter.

This candidate has a consulting firm that helped a confessed drug smuggler get business with the federal government, aided the horse racing industry recover from a betting scandal and advised a pharmaceutical company that admitted misleading doctors and patients about the addiction risks of Oxycontin. According to ABC News, Drug Enforcement Administration officials say the candidate “personally met with the head of the DEA when the DEA’s drug diversion office began a criminal investigation into the company.”

Other law and lobbying clients of this candidate have included Saudi Arabia, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation and a chewing tobacco maker. His firm has, according to a news report, “reported lobbying on various issues the White House, the vice president’s office, Congress and every Cabinet agency except the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

This man’s opponent – the other leading candidate – joined him in supporting the nomination of the now indicted Bernie Kerick to be homeland security chief. Kerick probably didn’t seem all that strange to her since three of her close business partners had already gone to prison, her major backers included two drug smugglers and her friends, supporters and associates included at least five other prominent individuals who became felons, including one who was on the FBI most wanted list for almost two decades.

This candidate herself achieved a 530% return on a highly questionable play in the cattle futures market, which one journalist described as about as mathematically probable as finding the Dead Sea scrolls on the steps of the Arkansas statehouse.

This candidate came close to being prosecuted – the independent counsel even prepared a draft indictment. In the indictment of her law associate and mentor, she is referred to 35 times, albeit only as his “billing partner.” She also said “I don’t recall” or its equivalent 50 times in a 42 paragraph response to a congressional committee looking into her dubious activities.

This, in short, is what American politics has become as we head into the most mobbed up election in our history.

But Rudolph Giuliani and Hillary Clinton are not the cause of our problems. They are merely exploiters of them, two remarkably corrupt individuals rising to the top because of a politics driven by myth, propaganda and a stunning lack of relevant information from the media.

Here is an example of the latter:

In the past month, Google finds 22,000 mentions of Hillary Clinton in the news media, but only two mentions of Webster Hubbell in a mainstream journal, both in one of the Washington Post’s blogs. Similarly, there are only three mentions of Jim McDougal, another criminal associate of Hillary Clinton.

As noted here before, we all live in a Mafia neighborhood now. We are, in fact, so accepting of this that we hardly notice offenses that once would have easily disqualified a candidate. Here’s how I discussed this phenomenon six years ago in my book, “Why Bother?”:

[][][] Underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, the American establishment — from corporate executive to media to politician — reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer had to play by any rules but its own. There is a phrase for this in some Latin American countries: the culture of impunity. In such places it has led to death squads, to the live bodies of dissidents being thrown out of military helicopters, to routine false imprisonment and baroque financial fraud. We are not there yet but are certainly moving in the same direction.

In a culture of impunity, rules serve the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values typically guide a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encourages coups and cruelty, at best practices only titular democracy, and puts itself at the service of what Hong Kong, borrowing from fascist Germany and Italy, refers to as “functional constituencies,” which is mainly to say major corporations.

A culture of impunity varies from ordinary political corruption in that the latter represents deviance from the culture while the former becomes the culture. Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism. The intellectual achievement, technocratic pyrotechnics and calm rationality that serves as a patina for the culture of impunity can be dangerously misleading.

In a culture of impunity, what replaces constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all that sort of arcane stuff? Mainly greed. As Michael Douglas put it in Wall Street: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works.”

Of course, there has always been an overabundance of greed in America’s political and economic system. But a number of things have changed. As activist attorney George LaRoche points out, “Once, I think, we knew our greedy were greedy but they were obligated to justify their greed by reference to some of the other values in which all of us could participate. Thus, maybe ‘old Joe’ was a crook but he was also a ‘pillar of the business community’ or ‘a member of the Lodge’ or a ‘good husband’ and these things mattered. Now the pretense of justification is gone and greed is its own justification.”

The result is a stunning lack of restraint. We find ourselves without heroism, without debate over right and wrong, with little but an endless narcissistic struggle by the powerful to get more money, more power and more press than the next person. In the chase, anything goes and the only standard is whether you win, lose or get caught.

The major political struggle has become not between conservative and liberal but between ourselves and our political, economic, social and media elites. Between the toxic and the natural, the corporate and the communal, the technocratic and the human, the competitive and the cooperative, the efficient and the just, meaningless data and meaningful understanding, the destructive and the decent.” [][][]

The culture of impunity is not just a national phenomenon. We have politicians without borders at every level. For example, in recent months – following the election of a thirty something supposedly reformist mayor – the city of Washington has been treated to a stunning blend of arrogance, corruption and contempt towards citizens, all smoothly melded without hardly a peep from either media or victims.

In less than a year, Mayor Adrian Fenty has:

– Effectively dismantled the elected school board, replacing its powers with an autocratic superintendent selected by the local business lobby, whose developer members are cheerfully eying the availability of soon to be closed schools.

– Fined anti-war demonstrators for putting up protest notices.

– Ended a taxi fare system that for decades has given DC more cabs per capita than any place in the country and provided the city with some rare upward economic mobility for the less wealthy – replacing it with a system that will allow a few corporations to seize control of the industry and reduce the number of drivers.

– Announced plans to destroy government e-mails after six months, greatly reducing available evidence against criminal elements within the government. The mayor was forced to retreat from this one.

– Announced plans to deny car owners the right to make personal appearance on parking ticket cases, which would greatly reduce their chances of appeal.

– Tripled the number of key aides earning over $175k a year.

Writes local independent journalist Gary Imhoff about the school takeover: “‘I signed on for reform; I didn’t sign on for autocracy,’ said Councilmember Jim Graham at the angry city council breakfast with Mayor Fenty today. But autocracy is what he got. Councilmembers were warned not to give Fenty the limitless power he asked for over the school system, but they didn’t listen. Now they are reaping the results of their folly. . . They haven’t talked to parents, or residents of the city, or even councilmembers, because they don’t think they have anything to learn from them and don’t believe they need to. The plans have been made; they have been announced; and councilmembers and citizens will hear and obey.

“Citizens voted for Fenty, and that’s the last say they’ll have over school governance. Councilmembers voted for Fenty’s school takeover, and that’s the last say they’ll have. All the inconveniences of democracy are behind us now, and we are graced with the efficiency of autocracy. There was an old joke. . . that communism was a system of “one man, one vote — one time only.”

While the school takeover is more significant, another example gnaws almost as much: the treatment of public libraries. In a couple of cases, the city plans to bury neighborhood libraries (and in one case a fire station as well) in high rise commercial developments. Worse, in the case of the central library named after Martin Luther King Jr, there have been discussions with Bloomingdales to take over the building. Where the books will go has yet to be decided. The scheme – which couldn’t be more insulting and emblematic of the effects of gentrification on DC – would replace the first great local tribute to the black civil rights leader with a store catering to white consumerist culture. . . from “I have a dream” to “I want it all.”

One high library official even suggested that maybe to they didn’t need such a large building downtown. Perhaps a smaller reading center would do, with books brought in from elsewhere as needed. As one city council member put it, downtown land is too valuable for such public buildings.

The library made it onto the DC Preservation League’s list of the city’s most endangered places, which described it like this:

“The only example in Washington, DC of the mature style of pre-eminent Modernist architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library has stood as the only monument to Dr. King in the nation’s capital for the past 30 years. It holds special significance to the millions of Washingtonians who have come to the library over the past decades to participate in a wide variety of programs and activities, and is a center of community life in the District.”

Admittedly, the library’s interior was not well designed and a case can be made for replacing it with something better. But no case can be made for replacing it with something worse,

Even the most corrupt local officials in the past have been careful to respect the culture and icons of their community. A James Michael Curley, Richard Daley or Marion Barry, for all their faults, honored and often exemplified the cities they ruled. They understood that things like libraries, fire stations and recreation centers were symbols of a community’s identity and values. They brought communities together; they served as a neighborhood’s display window; they helped define the “we” in a place.

But in a city where campaigns are won with dollars rather than votes – which is to say in much of modern urban America – soon or later the politicians start to lose touch with, and interest in, such matters. It never even occurs to them that stuffing a library into the high rise to benefit one of their campaign contributors reveals them to be as vacuous and soulless as the building itself.

In yet another example, a few days ago the city demolished a federally owned Sears mail order house built of some 10,000 parts in the 1920s. According to a report on the action:

“For nearly four years, Palisades residents and others around the city have flocked to support the home’s preservation and return to the private sector. Over 1,450 people signed letters to the city asking for the house to be saved from demolition and put back into the hands of a new owner who would restore it in place and put it back on the tax rolls from which it had been absent for 50 years. Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to adopt a three-page resolution calling for the property’s return to private ownership and restoration in place. The Jesse Baltimore House became a symbol for Palisades’ residents who wished to preserve their community’s rapidly disappearing early 20th century homes and their community’s historic origins as a working class streetcar suburb of Washington DC.”

What is striking about this is not the city ultimately decided to get rid of the house, but that it did so before it had met its legal responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act;” without notice; over a Thanksgiving holiday when its advocates were otherwise involved; and in contempt of letters by 1,450 people and the local advisory neighborhood council. A good politician from an earlier era – good or bad – would never have handled the situation in such a high handed, arrogant manner. Now it’s standard operating procedure.

The unspoken message of such actions – ones that treat communities not unlike George Bush has treated the world – is that citizens no longer matter. With enough cash and good airtime, they simply become irrelevant, whether it’s Clinton and Giuliani or a mayor like Adrian Fenty. The one advantage of the local version is that the politicians’ disdain for the citizen is harder to hide.

The single most important factor creating politicians without borders is the source of their money. As long as the thing that allows them to win is not the public choice of the voter but the private funds of a small number of contributors, the system is doomed. At a rally on the steps of the Capitol in 1999, I spoke to this:

[][][] I have three objections to our current system of campaign financing.

The first is literary. Being a writer I try to show respect for words, to leave their meanings untwisted and unobscured. . .

For example, for centuries ordinary people have known exactly what a bribe was. The Oxford English Dictionary found it described in 1528 as meaning to “to influence corruptly, by a consideration.” Another 16th century definition describes bribery as “a reward given to pervert the judgment or corrupt the conduct” of someone.

In more modern times, the Meat Inspection Act of 1917 prohibits giving “money or other thing of value, with intent to influence” to a government official. Simple and wise.

But that was before the lawyers and the politicians got around to rewriting the meaning of bribery. And so we came to a time not so many months ago when the Supreme Court actually ruled that a law prohibiting the giving of gifts to a public official “for or because of an official act” didn’t mean anything unless you knew exactly what the official act was. In other words, bribery was only illegal if the bribee was dumb enough to give you a receipt.

The media has gone along with the scam, virtually dropping the word from its vocabulary in favor of phrases like “inappropriate gift,” “the appearance of a conflict of interest,” or the phrase which brings us here today: “campaign contribution.”

Another example is the remarkable redefinition of money to mean speech. You can test this one out by making a deal with a prostitute and if a cop comes along, simply say, “Officer, I wasn’t giving her money, I was just giving her a speech.” If that doesn’t work, you can try giving more of that speech to the cop. Or try telling the IRS next April that “I have the right to remain silent.” And so forth. I wouldn’t advise it. . .

My second objection to our system of campaign financing is economic. It’s just too damn expensive for the taxpayer. The real cost is not the campaign contributions themselves. The real cost is what is subsequently paid in return out of public funds.

A case in point: Public Campaign recently reported that in 1996, when Congress voted to lift the minimum wage 90 cents an hour, business interests extracted $21 billion in custom-designed tax benefits. These business interests gave only about $36 million in campaign contributions so they got out of the public treasury nearly 600 times what they put in. And you helped pay for it. . .

This is repeated over and over. For example, the oil industry in one recent year gave $23 million in campaign contributions and got nearly $9 billion in tax breaks.

The bottom line is this: if you want to save public money, support public campaign financing.

My final objection is biologic. Elections are for and between human beings. How do you tell when you’re dealing with a person? Well, they bleed, burp, wiggle their toes and have sex. They register for the draft. They register to vote. They watch MTV. They go to prison and they have babies and cancer. Eventually they die and are buried or cremated.

Now this may seem obvious to you, but there are tens of thousands of lawyers and judges and politicians who simply don’t believe it. They will tell you that a corporation is a person, based on a corrupt Supreme Court interpretation of the 14th Amendment from back in the robber baron era of the late 19th century — a time in many ways not unlike our own. . .

Corporations say they just want to be treated like people, but that’s not true. Test it out. Try to exercise your free speech on the property of a corporation just like they exercise theirs in your election. You’ll find out quickly who is more of a person. We can take care of this biologic problem by applying a simple literary solution: tell the truth. A corporation is not a person and should not be allowed to be called one under the law. . .

At root, dear friends, our problem is that politicians have come to have more fear of their campaign contributors than they have of the voters. We have to teach politicians to be afraid of us again. And nothing will do it better than a coming together of a righteously outraged and unified constituency demanding an end to bribery of politicians, whether it occurs before, during, or after a campaign. [][][]

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