Scandal has become the bread and butter of political reporting. Not reporting on punishment for crimes, but the naught details. “Scandal,” wrote Marc Danner, “unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact.” (NY Review of Books, December 4, 2008)
U.S. scandals arose centuries ago, often deriving from imperial adventures that involved breaking laws and lying or covering up. Each one dramatizes the conflict between the values of a democratic republic and an autocratic empire, between pious Christian facades and base — but very understandable — motives, like greed, acquisitiveness and even revenge. In 1898, God, for example, ordered President McKinley to “take the Philippines,” as he informed the press corps of his decision to take Manila Bay. The Dole family then benefited from its investment in pineapples. McKinley wanted to convert the heathens, of course. U.S. troops occupied the Philippines until 1933. A crazed anarchist executed McKinley in 1899. Payment for his imperial sin?
“God will punish you,” my mother used to warn me when I’d misbehave and elude her castigation. I probably believed it because like most kids, I automatically accepted my parents’ words as gospel even when they spouted old world mumbo jumbo. (My faith in their authority got tested when my father told me I would die if I ate shellfish, for example.) Similarly, like most American kids, I learned that people who commit serious crimes should pay a penalty. In civics class, kids still learn about equal justice. Cops arrest rich or poor men sleeping under the bridge or stealing a loaf of bread. At a certain age — adolescence? — it dawned on me that the rich didn’t pay; only the poor. Hundreds of thousands of poor people who smoked a joint, or snorted cocaine, occupy jails and prisons. Bankers and brokers who scammed billions of dollars get “bailed out” because they belong to the brotherhood of power and privilege.
Who will punish Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle and the rest of the mob that tricked the country into war? I’m not talking about me breaking a neighbor’s window playing stickball. The abovementioned “public servants” — and especially Bush — started two wars, initiated torture as routine practice, usurped basic rights and steered this country onto the proverbial reef of scorn. Since the U.S. system operates on principles similar to my mother’s — we must wait for God to punish them — I doubt I will feel any sense of satisfaction in my lifetime. Modern empires don’t tend to punish their malfeasant emperors — unless their policies directly impact on a powerful section of the ruling clique. Nixon — undone by the Watergate scandal — created special agencies to re-elect the President and finance the re-election of the President. Like his “plumbers” (top stop leaks to the press) these creations circumvented the traditional government bureaucracies and made the Establishment very uneasy.
Lying and spinning, however, have become as American as apple pie. Kids learn in school about George Washington admitting to chopping down the cherry tree. Bush, no George Washington, had difficulty confessing to misdeeds. Bush doesn’t admit lies or mistakes. In 2004, at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner, he still insisted he did the right thing by starting the Iraq War and even jokingly looked under his desk for Saddam’s WMD and links with Al Qaeda. The press corps laughed. They were his only pretexts for going to war. His cabinet and advisers knowingly perpetrated lies or kept quiet. They understood no casus belli existed. They collaborated in orchestrating for a stenographic media an atmosphere for war.
All of them have left or will leave office rich and famous. Neither Congress nor the courts have punished these sinners. Yet, the whole world knows Bush and company started a war without just cause and transgressed on law and ethics in numerous other ways as well. The media, which should be collectively screaming for justice, has enjoyed reporting the scandals, the rises and falls of the rich and powerful. Instead of exhorting the public to rise up in wrath, the supposed fourth estate, with few exceptions, expresses sympathy pains for poor lame duck President Bush, whose dramatic decline in popularity must truly hurt him.
The Founding Fathers did not design the U.S. system for overseas empire, but they did foresee continuous continental expansion. The President would execute laws made by Congress, with rights remaining in the hands of the individual states and the Courts, while somehow the nation would acquire more and more territory.
In 1787, James Madison understood the nation’s future as “laying the foundation of a great empire.” He predicted westward expansion to the Pacific and feared a return to monarchy when citizens had occupied available continental land. To preserve “the Republic,” Madison suggested, “extend the sphere,” which allows for “a greater variety of parties and interests [and] make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens.” (Federalist X)
This “extend the sphere” metaphor has guided U.S. history since the 13 colonies to the most powerful empire in the world. The notion of an ever expanding republic, however, created a duality that future generations did not resolve. Empires require rapid decision-making, hardly compatible with more ponderous republican institutions (Congress, local, county and state governments).
After World War II, to circumvent the cumbersome processes of the republic, those who governed the now preeminent power in the world fashioned a secret overseas agency capable of carrying out aggressive policies. Cold War initiators added to the intelligence capacity of the CIA a “covert” side. In the name of protecting the free (democracy and republicanism) world, the men around Harry Truman started the Cold War by lying: accusing the badly war-scarred Soviet Union of plotting to take over Western Europe. After losing 20 million dead and even more wounded, having 200 major cities destroyed and having little food or clothing, it would take quite a stretch to see even an evil leader like Stalin invading Western Europe — with the U.S. possessing nuclear weapons.
What ensued were institutionalized scandals: wars (with armies or CIA) based on invented “security” reasons. Ironically, history books do not record as scandalous Truman’s three year police action in Korea, the CIA coups in Iran and Guatemala or the massive intervention in Cuba culminating in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Each one of these actions ran counter to the very law announced by Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson as he explained the post World War II Nuremberg trials to the German population. An ‘aggressor’ is generally held to be that state which is the first to “declare war upon another state;” invade it or attack it “with its armed forces, with or without a declaration of war” or afford “support to armed bands formed in the territory of another state, or refusal, notwithstanding the request of the invaded state, to take in its own territory, all the measures in its power to deprive those bands of all assistance or protection.”
Jackson declared that “no political, military, economic, or other considerations shall serve as an excuse or justification for such actions.” He compared illegal warfare to piracy and thus applied “the principle of individual responsibility [as] necessary as well as logical” to maintain peace.
“The idea that a state…commits crimes, is a fiction. Crimes always are committed only by persons.” Like the duality between empire and democracy, the Presidents also pursued illegality from the highest office while preaching obedience to law. Bush, the fundamentalist Christian, believes Hell is the proper place for sinners. Imagine his nightmare of retribution, a variant on an old joke.
The Devil offers a grim W options since he was such a powerful figure.
In Chamber one, Bush sees Nixon swimming in a hot, acidy pool, unable to get out. Nixon’s skin is red and swollen with blisters.
“Don’t swim,” snaps Bush.
The Devil opens Door 2. Pappy Bush, breaking rocks and sweating profusely has tears running down his cheeks. For each rock he splits, a new one appears.
“Nope,” says Bush
“Here’s your last option,” says the Devil, opening Door 3. Clinton is seated at an Oval Office type desk, looking satisfied. In front of him is Monica, doing her thing.
“Hmm,” says Bush, “Think I’ll choose this one.”
“Okay,” the Devil responds. “You can leave now Monica.”
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow and author of a BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His films are available on DVD from roundworldmedia.com.