The intertubes will be smokin’ tonight, tomorrow and beyond with commentary on this evening’s rhetorical combo: Dubya’s "Eternal SOTU of the Spotless Mind", and Jim Webb’s two-fisted rebuttal.
In clean, muscular language Webb performed the most important service a citizenry can ever ask of its politicians: To literally speak on our behalf.
On smaller matters we may disagree, but on the big things the job of our representatives is to open their mouths and use the proximity to power we lend them to speak what is in our hearts directly to those who do not want to hear it.
And if they are very good, say it clearer and more magnificently than we ourselves could probably manage if we were standing where they are.
By that measure, Jim Webb was good tonight. Very good. And afterwards watching a simpering puddle like David Brooks try to encompass what Webb’s speech accomplished in his shabby, partisan rags made me laugh. Watching Bobo grudgingly grunt out left-handed admiration for Webb's punctuation and his font choices and ignore the content as anything but “partisan” was like watching Barney Fife, fifty pounds overweight, trying to downtalk Muhammad Ali.
Webb can speak for himself and needs no editorial gilding, and the deconstruction of George W. Bush’s remarks will be the work of many hands over the next many days, so instead I’d like to discuss the goings on in a dusty corner of the radio dial late this afternoon.
Now I usually don’t have the opportunity to listen to any radio, much less NPR (the “Nice Polite Republicans”. h/t Atrios), during the average workday, but today I was booming down the wide boulevards of my city and overheard Neal Conan facilitating this round of mutual masturbation between former Senators Alan Simpson and George Mitchell, each nostalgizing about the Good Old Days and generally pinin’ for the fjords.
Then I pulled over and made a little sick behind some nice lady’s rose bushes.
Then I cleansed my palate with a little Zepplin and resumed my rambles.
Here is what they said (all quotes are rough and approximate except, where I have just made stuff up to make the old guys sound more lively.)
The program was called “Crossing the Divide: Partisan Politics on Capitol Hill.”
First, in fairness, some things that I liked.
Simpson: Trust and respect are the missing ingredients. I trusted them [my Democratic counterparts]. I didn’t have to agree with them.
Mitchell: Preznit Bush [the First] was in office. Democrats controlled the House and the senate…We had our disagreements, of course. But because we maintained a personal respect and a cordiality, we were able to overcome our differences. And we passed a shitload of things. Big, scary, complicated legislation where we spent a ton of time working out our differences and compromising honorably.
Mitchell: We believe in competition. We believe in it in business. In sports. And of course in government. But we also believe in [cooperative and collegial political] relationships that will vindicate our belief in the competitive system.
Simpson: I never voted straight party ticket. I never followed the straight Wyoming party platform because I thought some of it was stupefying. And yet I seemed to get along OK and I never lost an election.
Simpson said many good things. That the last Congress did nothing. That this new arrangement will pull the President towards the center. That it is “tragic” that Harry Reid has been the Dem Leader in the Senate for all these years and yet has been invited to the WH to speak to the Preznit one-on-one only once.
So, as I say, there was some good stuff.
However it was all icing on a big pile of cold dung, because even with the barrel of an elephant gun pressed to the foreheads of their favorite puppies, what you will never get a Simpson or Mitchell to choke out is this, simple reality:
When it comes to partisanship, ideological fanaticism, and the vicious depths to which they will gleefully sink to demonize their opponents, by any measure the Republican Party is far, far worse than the Democrats.
So why is partisanship getting worse in the Senate?
Mitchell: Because you’re getting more people elected to the Senate from the House. And they bring the mores and traditions of the House with them.
Simpson: I agree with George totally. I can name names. I watched the venom come from the House.
Caller Isabelle from New Jersey chimes in and gets the bullshit rolling.
Isabelle: I think the problem right now is not so much between the Republicans and the Democrats as it is between those with an ideological approach to politics and those with a pragmatic approach.
Isabelle: So when you have people like Alan Simpson or Christine Todd Whitman who have a more pragmatic approach to politrics they can discuss [issues] with Demiocrats, whereas when you have a very ideological person like President Bush or Sam Brownback…it’s more difficult to come to a compromise because their ideology is based on ideology not on reality.
And then, completely unprompted, our host helpfully leaps in with this:
“I would suspect to be fair that there are at least a few Democrats who have an ideology of their own too…”
To which the caller replies:
”Yes. I agree. I just couldn’t think of one though.”
The discerning ear can now hear the penny drop.
“To be fair…”?
driftglass translation: Whatever explicitly Republican high crimes, scandals, lie or treasons are under discussion, Something Very Bad will happen to me if I don’t automatically and doctrinally butt in with no evidence whatsoever and assert that, somehow, Democrats are equally bad.
This is GOP Talking Point Number One, repeated so incessantly and so ubiquitously that it has reached the point of reflex.
Everyone is equally partisan.
Equally to blame.
Everybody knows that…except for some mysterious reason no one can lay hands on a single metric that shows this to be true.
And why? Why this persistent, voluntary blindness?
Well, for the GOP the answer is obvious. I mean, since they can now force the bar to be lowered and the ire to be raised uniformly and robotically for everyone every time they and only they are caught naked, in the apse, fisting the Easter Bunny, they can start every national race no worse than dead-even with any competitor.
But with others – with those who do not follow anything political very closely at all – I think the answer is really very simple. They want to believe it because to believe otherwise is terrifying.
Our political parties have each been on various issues and at various moments shrewd and flawed and cowardly and noble, but our system is formulated in such a way that we ultimately resolve ourselves into two and ONLY two major parties. With rare exceptions we always have been thus, and for the foreseeable future we will certainly be thus. And being a proud Realist I have long since learned to rein in my political fantasies and keep them from straying too far into the “Gee, what if we had nine parties, a parliamentary system, public financing, and heroes and angels as public servants?” territory.
Because we don’t.
We have what we have, and the trick has always been to try to keep this ornery, square-wheeled Conestoga wagon lurching along in generally the right direction. Because sitting by the roadside crying and holding one’s breathe until the magic, smooth-riding, round-wheeled, hybrid Nadermobile glides to a stop to pick you up and take you to the Progressive Promised Land is never, ever going to happen.
The two parties have always ended up soaking up the issues and zealotries and good and bad Third Party ideas of the day like biscuits sopping up gravy.
They have adapted and evolved or devolved where and when they have been forced to, and then like two drunks propping each other up, stumbled along their symbiotic way.
That view of our country is burned onto our collective civic motherboard, so what happens on the day regular, non-political junkie Americans are faced with the no-longer avoidable reality that one of our Parties is no longer just the Opposition, but are the Enemy?
That all of their millions of megawatts of flag-wavin’, good-hairin’, Jebus Lovin’, RedWhiteandBlue Murrican rhetoric has been in the service of a political and economic elite that is deeply malevolent and deeply committed to the extinction of this country as we know it and love it?
What happens then?
There are powerful historical parallels to be found in the Dark Age of our own recent Segregationist past.
The perpetuation of Jim Crow in this country owed as much to the vast number of citizens who quietly went along with or who willfully ignored the terrorism that the Southern states inflicted on their black minorities, as it did to the terrorists who carried out their state-sanctioned campaign of rape, torture, extortion, lies and murder decade after decade after decade.
Long, looong after it was painfully clear to anyone who bothered to open their eyes that the South was owned and operated by openly fascist regimes of child murderers, Americans by and large dealt with the problem by magical thinking. They did not want to believe in an America run by bloodthirsty despots – which is exactly what the Segregated South was – so they just…ignored it.
Just wish-wish-wished it away.
Sometimes, in search of other more intricate answers, I overlook our nearly infinite national capacity for just closing our eyes to terrible problems, pulling the blankie over our heads, and hoping it all somehow goes away. So like the war in Vietnam, year after year this country somnolently whitewashed over the horrors of our Apartheid That Dare Not Speak Its Name until it came screaming out at us from our teevee sets and rammed itself down our throats.
And now we are faced with another grim reality with frightening implications: That millions of our fellow citizens are either hateful morons or clinically insane and that they are almost all packed into the same political Party.
A Party/Media/Corporate Empire which now survives solely by keeping its base ignorant, frightened and berserk with rage.
And the implications that flow from this unhappy revelation that we are two, distinct Americas now -- and that while one is certainly flawed and squabbling and timorous, the other America – the Red/Fox America -- has become so existentially monstrous that it is now inimical to every value we claim to cherish -- are so terrifying to normal citizens that they will not accept it.
And so with the eager help of Hate Radio, Fox News and the Mainstream Media, they invent a bedtime story to help them hide the ugly truth. An opium dream that is now faithfully parroted by every Broder and Brooks and Friedman and Neal Conan in the land. This lie that no matter how low the GOP sinks, somehow, some way the Democrats are equally and oppositely terrible.
Equally steeped in sin and intolerance.
Equally to blame for every bad thing.
Back on NPR, Jim in Oklahoma City would like to know the effect of Religious Fundamentalism on politics.
Jim: “Reasonable people are willing to compromise their political stances, but it is probably extremely difficult for people to compromise what they believe are their religious principles.”
Got it? The question Jim asked is about the dangers that come when Religious Zealots get into politics.
And since political extremism jacketed in fundamentalist religious fanaticism is a particular disease of the Right, this is a clearly a shot right into Simpson’s Party’s political wheelhouse.
So how does Simpson answer?
First he rambles uncomfortably and incomprehensibly all over God’s Little Acre and back again (for Simpson-watchers, this is a sure sign that he is about to lay out a fat line of bullshit), and then fires back with this:
“I can tell ya, when you have zealots on both sides, and they’re getting’ pumped up on one side by Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken on the other, you got problems in River City.”
Rush Limbaugh “returned to radio as a talk show host at KFBK in Sacramento, California” in 1984.
That was 22 years ago.
Al Franken began firing back in the same medium as Limbaugh when he began anchoring a show on Air America, which did not even exist until 2004.
That was two years ago.
So Rush had a twenty-year head start. And in that time his imitators created an entire, integrated radio/teevee/print/cable media Universe based almost entirely on egging the pig people on to mindlessly hate Liberals and blame queers and “feminazis” for every evil on Earth, real or imagined.
For twenty years a polyglot witchbag of sociopaths, Christopaths, Neocons, drunks, demagogues and whores have gotten rich and re-elected by banding together to demonize Liberals and tell the scum of the nation over and over and over again that being the scum of the nation is a noble calling. Or, to misquote H.L Menkin, “No Fox executive ever went broke overestimating the hateful stupidity of the pig people.”
And for twenty years – while the mass purveyors of carefully calibrated hate and rage and xenophobia on the Right gathered more and more power and got more and more vulgar and vicious in their rhetoric – what did the Left try to do?
We tried to find common ground. To meet our opponents half-way.
To compromise…with people who sneered at the very idea of working together and said quite openly that compromise was “political date rape”.
While the Emperor of Weaponized Bile, Newt Gingrich, took over the House with a campaign explicitly based on calling Democrats “traitors” at every opportunity, and Limbaugh was being honored as the “Majority Maker” by those House Republicans, we on the Left were still trying to do and be all the nicey-nicey things that Alan Simpson is now all weepy and wistful for.
And it didn’t work. And while we played by Marquis of Queensbury, the orcs laughed in our faces, overran the joint, and bequeathed to us as its apotheosis the worst, most despicable, most incompetent, most Constitution-loathing Administration in American history.
Al Franken and Air America did not arise in a vacuum. The came into being as a desperate, eleventh-hour attempt to fight back against a twenty year multimedia blitz of unremitting, unrebutted Conservative lies and bigotry.
They arose because no one in the Mainstream Media had the guts to take on the GOP Propaganda Machine head-on. Instead, the MSM collaborated, because collaborating in the Big Lie was a much better, safer career move.
Progressive Radio arose because politicians like Alan Simpson were, for twenty years, perfectly content with looking the other way and harvesting the electoral fruits of the poison tree that their Conservative/Christopath/Racist Hate Radio, Hate TeeVee, Hate Satellite, Hate Cable and Hate Publishing so lavishly watered and fertilized.
Because the GOP was never concerned with the destruction of political comity…as long as it was working to their advantage.
As long as all of the screeching Orwellian hellfire was coming from the Right, they never said a fucking word.
But now, finally, after twenty years of unilateral disarmament, now that the Left has at last decided to fight back hard, suddenly old Republican loons like Simpson get all gooey for the glory days of cellulose collars, nickel candy bars, whale-bone corsets, heroic cavalry charges and a politics of gentle, ruffled fisticuffs followed by brandy, cigars and top-shelf hookers.
Suddenly it is “zealots on both sides” that have torn his beloved Temple down.
Well fuck you, Alan Simpson. Fuck you sideways for your bogus hand-wringing and crocodile tears.
And fuck you, George Mitchell, for sitting there with your thumb up your ass and allowing your good, Republican friend to spread this Big Lie unchallenged right under your nose.