The other day I found myself watching one of those CPAN segments in which serious looking men say purportedly wise things in front of a wall full of reduplicated monikers like “Brookings Institution.” I wasn’t enthralled by what the speaker was saying, I even questioned much of it, but what got my attention was the narcissistic self assurance that the speaker had in everything he said, a presumptuousness that lent authority to matters where logic might have had doubts.
Much attention is given these days to the pathological patois of the GOP right, its hustlers and con men. But when you look more closely at the Washington story, people like Cruz, Ryan and Rubio are more like the city’s mosquitos and wasps, stinging, but not defining.
The real power lies in a group that, as Russ Baker once put it, make themselves seem serious by being somber. In Washington you are expected to restrict one’s conversation to the limits of Beltway discourse and remain attentive to the appropriateness of one’s remarks. Even the worst sins are not described in terms of the evil they have done or the pain they have inflicted, but merely by the fact they are considered “inappropriate.”
I learned this the first summer I worked in Washington as a 19 year old radio reporter. I attended a conference on the Middle East, whose speakers were intensely pro-Israel and anti-Arab albeit in a dignified and reserved manner. Majoring in anthropology, I already had a somewhat different view of the Mid East and I asked a question along those lines.
I don’t remember the question or the answer. But to this day I remember feeling put down and humiliated. I had run head on into somber Washington dealing with an upstart.
Fortunately, I still had a comic book view of journalism: we were meant to be the tough guys battling evil in power and so I was soon embarrassed more by my reaction and promised myself to never let it happen again.
On the whole, I haven’t. Decades later I even asked a question that John Kerry, in his absurdly self important manner, tried to dismiss as ignorant and my immediate reaction was, well, there’s another one you can’t trust. By then I had learned that the more high placed is the person to whom one introduces a new idea, the more likely this individual is to be uncomfortable, dismissive, or suddenly in need of another drink. Unchallenged myopia is one of the most cherished privileges of power.
The problem is that while you can learn to recognize and deal with this sort of thing, but most people in Washington don’t because if you ask too many wrong questions or say too many things burdened with uncomfortable skepticism your days in that fair city may be numbered. It doesn’t matter if those remaining are the same who supported our presence in Vietnam and our failed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Worse, to a degree far greater than a few decades ago, the Washington media is afraid to ask questions the city’s establishment doesn’t like and so have become powerful enablers of the nation’s decline rather than challengers of those responsible for it.
So, yes, get pissed off at Ted Cruz but watch what those guys say on CSPAN in front of the wall with “Brookings Institution” or similar titles replicated on it. Too often, they are ones who helped ruin our economy, our standing in the world, and our democracy. Even if they did it in such a dignified way.
Some days, when I finish editing and writing stuff about our nation and its politics, I get in my car and drive “up street” – the five miles on a two lane country road to the center of our Maine town. I am on my way to run errands or to meet someone, but also because the trip between the virtual nation I’ve just been describing and the real place toward which I’m headed is like crossing the Atlantic.
It’s not a matter of culture shock. More a matter of culture recovery. Rediscovering what it really means to be human and an American and to be around people who actually practice those things the people I quote on the computer too often only pretend to do.
I was born in Washington and lived there most of my life. But about thirty years ago I began realizing that it wasn’t my town any more. In 1981 I wrote an article about it for the Washington Post:
Could you stop the renaissance of Washington a minute? I want to get off. I have to run down to People’s and restock my inventory of Rolaids before reading one more article about how the city is being reborn, revived, and revitalized. This city – the Paris of prevarication, the London of dissemblance, the Florence of deceit – has outdone itself: It is telling itself and the world that it is getting better.
The much touted physical changes of the city have produced little other than rampant displacement, creeping homogeneity and an overabundance of automatic teller machines. Washington’s “greater sophistication” is virtually indistinguishable from rampant cynicism and mindless profligacy, and its autoerotic fascination with power for its own sake threatens to prove that masturbation does cause insanity.
The real story of the new Washington is that the told story is a lie. Strip away the icons of progress and you will find a new Washington that is not vibrant; it merely vibrates. A Washington that is not more sophisticated but comprehends and considers less. A Washington whose interest in culture is marked more by acquisition than by appreciation. And a Washington whose power is, in truth, declining because it has lost the key component of respect. . . .
The new city is one of real estate dealers rather than merchants, the city where you damn well better not leave home without it. It is the clone of Gotham, sire of scandal so tawdry that it has discredited political corruption, the city in which a day’s work can consist of a memorandum revised, a two-hour quiche lorraine and martini lunch and four phone calls to say you’re all tied up.
Yet I hung in there until four years ago before moving to Maine, a place I had learned to love over many a summer vacation. I considered it both an act of exile and of liberation.
But it has also left me a bit bipolar, trying to describe a false world while living in a true one. That’s why I enjoy watching my screen go blank and driving to town.
Admittedly we have a remarkably dumb governor, but I have been delighted over the past four years by how few scoundrels, hustlers and incompetents I have run into. These are not highly valued attributes in Maine and folks tend to spot them early around here.
The Washington crowd is more like Willie Loman: “He don’t put a bolt to a nut, he don’t tell you the law or give you medicine. He’ s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.”
Or, more politely, as James Kirchick of the New Republic wrote of our then new president:
Obama is, in his own words, something of a Rorschach test. In his latest book, “The Audacity of Hope,” he writes, “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”
And we’re still doing it.
The other day I began wondering how the national icons paraded before us by an obsequious mass media would get along here. John Boehner would clearly be the town undertaker. Michelle Bachmann, I guessed, would run the tourist trap gift shop. Bill Clinton would be the salesman you’d avoid when you went to the Suburu dealer to buy a new Outback. Hillary Clinton would be the realtor concentrating on newcomers since the locals had learned to go elsewhere. John Kerry would be the self-absorbed preacher to whom Jesus was only the penultimate savior. And Barack Obama might be the manager of the local Hampton Inn who lived 30 miles way and had little to do with the town’s residents except when they parked in his lot. Or maybe the lawyer you’d use for a real estate settlement but look elsewhere in case of a pending divorce.
There were a few people who might actually fit in. I could see Joe Biden sitting every night at the bar at Gritty McDuff’s, trading sea stories with whoever was next to him. Bernie Sanders would make a good chair of the town council and Elizabeth Warren would be a great principal of the high school.
But on the whole, the most prominent people running the nation would not be particularly useful around our town. That’s because things like integrity, cooperation, competence and reality still matter.
Which is why the economy, our school system, the condition of the roads and what’s happening because of climate change – including the eastward drift of lobsters and crabs – are a hell of a lot more important that what someone says we should be doing in Syria.
But that’s not true in Washington where the powerful get to invent crises so they don’t have to solve real problems.
And they have the arguments, the numbers and studies to back them. But in the end these are designed not to find reality but to market a political Disney World.
You can’t get away with that in our town. Perhaps one reason is that they used to build ships here, and as Joseph Conrad once noted, “Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses, that will not put up with bad art from their masters.” The capital could never go to sea.
The other morning I listened as MSNBC’s Chris Hayes spewed numbers as though he was trying to ace yet another standardized test that passes in his mind for real life. His hands were waving, his voice was excited and yet his message was hard to discern or remember.
Listening to him, I thought of the saying someone had passed on to me a few days earlier: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not using one in a fruit salad.”
Washington is full of knowledge without any place to go. My town is full of wisdom and all I have to do is drive up street to find a bit of it.
The US Capitol Police force was once comprised mainly of young men benefiting from the patronage granted their fathers by various members of Congress. It was a fairly pleasant crowd and you knew you were not just dealing with a law enforcement officer but perhaps a grad student whose dad was a buddy of the majority leader. My favorite Hill cop story from that period involves a friend who was a bagpipe playing Lebanese Catholic from Boston who knew everyone in the Demcratic Party and worked for a number of them including Massachusetts governor Foster Furcolo and, later, Ted Kennedy. She was on her way to an LBJ State of the Union from Boston but was late and arrived from the plane still carrying her bagpipe case in which rested not only the instrument but some pita bread her sister had made.In a hall crowded with some of America’s most powerful, my friend was told by a Capitol police officer to open the bagpipe case. The officer was disturbed by what he found inside. “Don’t worry,” said my friend. “It’s just a bagpipe and some pita bread. . . Call your chief and tell him Terri Haddad is here with her bagpipes. He knows me.” The officer did and at the other end the Capitol Hill police chief issued one blunt order: “Tell her to play ‘Danny Boy.’And so for the chief and many of America’s most powerful, she did and then was allowed to repack her instrument and go hear the speech.
Everything is judged by the convenience of the moment and, increasingly, backed up by disingenuous legal defenses.
One of the problems in understanding what is happening in Washington is that if both major parties lie or break the law, the media tends to just go along with it.
A recent example is the case of Obama issuing signing statements allegedly exempting himself from having to obey Congress’ defunding of his czars.
To be sure, George Bush issued over a hundred of such statements, essentially saying “screw you” to the US Congress, not to mention the Constitution.
The problem in Obama’s case is that a few years ago, when he was seeking a new job, he promised “I will not use signing statements to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.” The exceptions would be in cases in which Congress ordered to do something unconstitutional. Obviously, not funding czars – which a democracy shouldn’t have in the first place – doesn’t fall into this category.
But there is a much greater problem. The media just assumes that since both Democrats and Republicans have used them, they must be legal. In its coverage it totally – so far as Google can tell – failed to mention, for example, a 2006 American Bar Association Task Force that, as Wikipedia explains, “stated that the use of signing statements to modify the meaning of duly enacted laws serves to ‘undermine the rule of law and our constitutional system of separation of powers’ In fact, the Constitution does not authorize the President to use signing statements to circumvent any validly enacted congressional laws, nor does it authorize him to declare he will disobey such laws (or parts thereof). When a bill is presented to the President, the Constitution allows him only three choices: do nothing, sign the bill, or (if he disapproves of the bill) veto it in its entirety and return it to the House in which it originated, along with his written objections to it.”
In other words, Obama, like his predecessor, is clearly disobeying the Constitution. But worse, the Washington media isn’t even mentioning the problem because it has become unable to distinguish the difference between habit and the law.
One of the reasons that Barack Obama was elected was that many people thought he was extremely intelligent. And they assumed that meant he would also be competent.
Unfortunately, these two qualities – while not necessarily mutually exclusive – are not necessarily synonymous, either. In fact, we have found ourselves stuck with an highly intelligent president running perhaps the most incompetent Democratic administration of living memory.
But this is far from a problem exclusive to Obama. For the past few decades, Washington has increasingly become a haven for smart people doing stupid things. And because the capital’s media has joined the fun, this is not readily apparent to the public. A linqua unfranka has developed to cover up what’s really happening.
Thus you will not hear about it in the media or read about it in books. Nonetheless, the overwhelming proportion of damage done to our republic in recent decades has been the work of a dead center extremely proud of its intelligence. We rightfully rail against Palin, Beck and Boenner, but easily forget that, for all their faults, they are but vultures picking at the remains of casualties largely caused by an establishment that smugly prides itself on its intellect, judgment and moderation.
Whether it’s fifty years of failed wars, a disastrous reliance on the myths of the market economy, the costly and damaging drug war, or the loss of constitutional rights and civil liberties, one would be hard pressed to find more than the occasional instance when the likes the Brookings Institution, the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Washington Post were significantly on the right side of a matter of real importance to Americans.
It is fair to say, in fact, that never in our national history has so much well educated intelligence gone to such waste and done so much damage. Factors include the enormous rise of the lawyer class in the capital, an obsession with preventing or finding error rather than with taking action, a fundamentalist faith in various economic and political theories, an inability to look at matters inductively, a culture that acts as though it is always on TV, the blackmail of politicians through campaign contributions, the repeated replacement of facts with spin, compromise without a prior course from which to judge sensibly the compromise, too many managers and not enough doers, a media embedded in the power structure it is supposed to keep track of, the collapse of liberalism and the Democratic Party, and the scarcity of social intelligence.
Intelligent people in Washington who have not betrayed, suppressed or ignored their intelligence are typically ignored, dismissed or ridiculed. To be inquisitive, skeptical, reflective and wise is more likely to place one in a Homeland Security file than in a place of honor.
Which is why smart people in Washington do stupid things. And why it’s up to the rest of the country to straighten them out.