Sunday, May 24, 2009

Go Quietly Into The Night - Please

For the last several months, we have witnessed the sorry spectacle of former Vice President Dick Cheney speaking to anyone who will listen to his defense of his conduct in the Bush Administration’s war on terrorists. Inexplicably, he continues to enjoy airtime whenever he speaks, even though his message never changes except to progressively backpedal and hedge his story of “the facts.” The once near-invisible vice president is now so ubiquitously in the public eye that I fully expect him to show up at my granddaughter’s kindergarten graduation if only he is promised a microphone.

His actions are unprecedented for a former vice president. Except perhaps for Aaron Burr’s post-government notoriety and Al Gore’s Nobel prize-winning actions after serving as vice president, other vice presidents not ascending to the presidency have quietly left Washington and gone home, fading thereafter into historical oblivion. Many of them have agreed with John Adams who described the vice presidency as “The most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived,” or John Nance Garner who described the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss” (later changed to “warm spit” by the news media!).

Not so Dick Cheney. This was perhaps the most powerful vice president in our history. In George Bush’s corporate model presidency, Dick Cheney was the all-powerful Chief Operating Officer managing the implementation of the CEO/President’s policies and directions. By all accounts, he managed at a very deep and detailed level, tolerating no dissent, accepting no roadblocks to his intentions and decisions. Underlings that dared to disagree were sent packing. And until perhaps his last year in office, when Condi Rice’s and Robert Gates’ more temperate views found some acceptance, his reign was absolute. The American public was a nuisance to be disdained, whose opinions were publicly acknowledged to be inconsequential and irrelevant.

But now the secret government is coming into the full light. And what went on, predominately under the all-shielding name of “national security,” is proving to be quite ugly. If not outright illegal, then certainly an affront to Constitutional implications, the values we celebrate each July 4th, and the national self-image we claim for ourselves and hope that others see in us. So now the previously unthinkable is happening: the all-powerful, never-questioned VP/COO is being questioned. About his decisions, his rationale, his intent, and most importantly, his methods. And Mr. Cheney does not know how to handle his new, now assailable status.

The centerpiece of the questions is about our government’s use of torture to extract terrorist intelligence information. That our actions constituted torture is essentially beyond debate, understood by most all Americans and clarified by international law and treaty. Only Dick Cheney, his close associates, the perpetrators themselves, and Fox News really think otherwise. What has been subsequently revealed is that the claimed “legal justification” for these actions was bad lawyering at its worst, and even these bad legal opinions were issued after the torture had already commenced. And that most torture exercises were not done by trained, experienced interrogators, but by for-hire contractors without interrogation qualifications, even though valuable information was already being gained from traditional, accepted interrogation techniques. Yet we used the oft-cited technique of waterboarding 183 times on one prisoner; if it was such an effective technique, why was it needed 183 times to make its point – the frequency itself becoming yet another form of torture? Or as Jesse Ventura, former governor of Minnesota put it, “It’s drowning. It gives you the complete sensation that you are drowning ... I’ll put it to you this way: you give me a waterboard, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I’ll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.”

Dick Cheney argues two points: that these “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture) yielded actionable information and thereby saved American lives; and Obama’s elimination of these techniques has made our country less safe to a future attack (a despicable statement for a former vice president to make about a sitting president). In essence, the goal to save American lives and prevent another 9-11 justifies anything Dick Cheney did. Yet what kind of country, what kind of America has been saved if this is how we do business? I have no doubt that had we slowly sliced off one finger at a time until a prisoner’s hands were gone entirely that he would say almost anything we wanted. But is this what we want to be known for? Where is the line that we dare not cross? Have we become the very Saddam Hussein we claimed to despise, operating our own version of an Iraqi terror prison? At what point does our hatred, combined with an “anything goes” sense of absolute righteousness, lead us to becoming that very thing that we claim to hate? “We have met the enemy, and it [is indeed] ---- us.”

In this dangerous world, it is my full expectation that America will be attacked again by extremists, whether foreign or local (remember Oklahoma City). The twin towers were originally bombed in 1993 under Clinton’s watch; 9-11 happened 8 years later under Bush. Our fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has contained the terrorists there for now, hampering their planning and execution of that next attack. But it will tragically come, even if by a delayed timetable, and in spite of everything our military, police, and intelligence communities can reasonably prevent. I have no doubt that when that inevitability occurs, Dick Cheney will be the first to stand on his soapbox and yell “I was right.” And that scenario is the most distasteful thing of all about Dick Cheney’s present conduct.

The former vice president has claimed that his methods worked. But he has never proven that they were required in lieu of our traditional interrogation methods that have kept us on a proper moral compass over the years. He is now being called to account. From his previous power-driven role, it is an accounting that he is unprepared to endure, therefore he resorts to the old rhetorical tricks of skipping over the substantive issues and instead just questions the questioners, slanders the critics, and impugns the integrity of his prosecutors.

There are lessons in this for all of us. We all must confront our demons. And when our demons lead us to arrogance, to believe we are beyond questioning, and that the noble end allows us to justify whatever conduct we choose, then a large dose of humility is the required antidote to be taken. Dick Cheney lost his job on January 21, 2009; apparently he did not get his memo of termination. He needs to go home, write his inevitable book, and fade from our view. He had his eight years; he has been replaced; it is other people’s turn at bat without his attempted reconstruction of the past. Like it or not, his legacy is not on the speaker’s platform. It is now out of his control, passed on to the public record and to the work of the historians.

He had his time, and his time is now over. True class – in sports, in politics, in life – is knowing when it is time to put the bat down and move on. It is now that time for him to move on, to go quietly into the night, and to leave the world to the next leaders.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From Irrelevance to Absurdity

I have written before lamenting the loss of the Republican Party I knew in my youth from my father. A political party with important historical names --- Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and examples in my lifetime that included Eisenhower, Dirksen, Goldwater, Baker, Lodge, Rockefeller and Reagan. A party broad enough to contain the “silk stocking” Republicans of the northeast alongside the conservative individualists of the southwest. A potent force in U.S. political history. Yet not one of those historical individuals would recognize the collective irresponsibility of that which now passes for today’s Republican Party. Witness the following examples of political pandering:

1) Representative Michelle Bachman of Minnesota, who continually confounds rationality by:
- saying that Obama is seeking to set up “reeducation camps” to brainwash our children;
- introducing a bill to prohibit one world-wide currency, notwithstanding the U.S. dollar’s de facto role as just that for 60 years;
- inexplicitly announcing that “carbon dioxide occurs naturally in the world, so it does not cause global warming and so we don’t have to worry about it.” (I guess unlike black widow spiders, which also occur “naturally” in nature but which I will still choose to avoid!)

2) Norm Coleman, senator from Minnesota, who all electoral commissions have determined lost his reelection bid, but who refuses to take the classy statesman path and accept his defeat 6 months after the election, making the Gore/Bush debacle in Florida look like a textbook perfection.

3) Representative Spencer Bachus from Alabama, who announced that he personally knows of “17 socialists in Congress,” borrowing from Senator Joe McCarthy’s frighteningly injurious accusations of the 1950s, and who similarly thus far refuses to name any one of the 17. He further ignores that being a “socialist” is neither a U.S. political party nor an illegal status outlawed anywhere.

4) Governor Rick Perry of Texas, who announced that Texas may secede from the United States, raising eyebrows from those who were never fully convinced that Texas had ever truly joined the U.S. in the first place. A governor who chooses to ignore the history lesson of the War Between the States 140 years ago that denied the right of secession. (Texas was a loser in that war, by the way).

5) Continuing attempts by individual or several senators to block various Obama cabinet appointments, with flimsy or even no reason given, only to subsequently have them overwhelmingly approved in the end. What was achieved? As examples, Richard Burr of NC singularly opposed Tammy Duckworth, a double amputee Iraq War veteran universally praised by veteran groups, as Assistant Secretary of the VA; John Cornyn of Texas opposed Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State; Arlen Specter opposed Eric Holder as Attorney General. And most recently, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana is holding up the nomination of Craig Fugate as head of FEMA because he doesn’t like FEMA’s answers to how it will proceed with high-risk flood zones that will affect rebuilding in Louisiana. How exactly does depriving an agency of its leadership help provide new leadership and answers?

6) Then there is Dick Cheney, the scariest-person-now-no-longer-in-government-who just-won’t-go-away, whose negative comments about everything that has happened since the January 20th inauguration, and whose ends-justify-the-means defense of Bush administration torture exceeds my capacity for thoughtful response.

7) And lastly, there is the Fox News (aka the Republican Party Communications Directorate) inspired Tea Bag Protest, in which a bunch of folks got together to protest a) taxes and b) income redistribution. Except that the total number of protestors nationwide was probably less that those filling Grant Park one night awhile back in Chicago to hear Obama’s victory speech. A great many of those protestors are likely already included in Obama’s tax cuts for 90% of the population. Virtually every one of them will no doubt be gladly accepting their social security retirement payments when the time comes, which is the biggest income redistribution program in the country. Oh, and in 1773 the original tea protest in Boston was against taxation without representation; our current taxes were passed with representation, even if one does not like their representative’s response.

Once again, at a time when serious dialog, creative ideas, and political courage are needed, the current group of political lightweights in today’s Republican Party is found lacking. The most recent poll I saw shows only 21% of voters declaring themselves as Republicans. These are not “minority party” numbers, these are 3rd-party numbers. George Corley Wallace in ’68 numbers, Ross Perot in ’92 numbers, just a step ahead of Ralph Nader Green Party numbers. It is a party at a loss for message, direction and spokespersons. And if it were not for the aforementioned Fox News and the party’s self-anointed spokesperson Rush Limbaugh, they would be getting just about the same 3rd-party level of press attention.

Tax cuts and medical insurance tax credits are meaningless to the unemployed. Sending military forces against the bad guys is a hollow threat when you already have two wars going on, a war-weary public, and only estranged allies. A balanced budget is a death knell to an economy reeling from a lack of consumer spending. Talk of free enterprise capitalism wins no fans when people are reeling from the excesses of irresponsible deregulation. Republicans have to come up with a new message instead of the old news, and that message cannot be one that panders to the hysterical conspiracies of a decreasing number of citizens. It is not a time for trying to extract revenge for losing the 2008 election using political and rhetorical tricks. It is a time for governing and leading.