“A party which is not afraid of letting culture, business, and welfare go to ruin completely can be omnipotent for a while.” — Jakob Burckhardt
As seen from New York through the screens of the print and broadcast media during the weeks following last year’s elections, the news from Washington seemed to promise the chance of animated debate, maybe even strong and honest argument, when the newly-minted 109th Congress assembled on Capitol Hill in early January to take its collective oath of office. Such at least was my supposition. Prominent Democrats were making it a point to complain to equally prominent journalists about the muzzles placed on the snouts of their integrity by the stage managers of Senator John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign — no loud objections to the war in Iraq, no sarcasm spilled on the platitudes, nothing uncivil about the patriot in the White House. The restrictions had prevented them from saying what needed to be said about the deliberate and premeditated harm done by the Bush Administration to the American people. But now that the senator from Massachusetts had sailed merrily down the stream on his windsurfing board, the gag rule had been lifted, and they were free at last to speak the truth.
On the other side of the aisle the Republicans were even more up front about their intention to tell a straight and candid story. Emboldened by their November victories in both the presidential and congressional elections, the party’s fuglemen were touting their plan to destroy, in all its liberal tenses and declensions, the hated remnants of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. At his triumphant press conference on November 4, President Bush made no attempt to conceal the ferocity of the forthcoming preemptive strike. “I earned capital in the campaign — political capital”, he said, “and now I intend to spend it”. By Christmas what had become known as the “Bush Agenda” encompassed the privatization of the Social Security system, a reformulation of the tax code in such a way as to provide more money for war and law enforcement, less money for the undeserving poor, the nomination to the Federal Appeals Courts of judges apt to find legal precedents in the books of the Bible rather than in the Articles of the Constitution, more laws limiting the freedom of individuals, fewer laws restraining the freedoms of property.
The lines thus so clearly drawn on the sand tables of the media raised the hope that somewhere in the Capitol or its vicinity a traveler from the provinces was surely bound to come across restless stirrings of parliamentary debate, bold expressions of impolitic dissent, some reason to believe that the forms of democratic government we see pictured on the postcards exist in substance as well as name.
The expectation was short-lived. Under a pale winter sun on the morning of January 4, the Capitol grounds resembled a military encampment. No leaves on the trees, few birds in the sky; the spacious vistas interdicted in all directions by armed men in black uniforms — police at the perimeter barricades, police on motorcycles, police drifting overhead in helicopters. Standing for an hour in the long line of citizens waiting to submit to the security procedures, I understood that it was neither the time nor the place to recite the Gettysburg Address. The impression was that of a medieval walled town preoccupied with its own weakness and fear, and well before I reached the last fortified checkpoint I knew that the notion of a government by the people, for the people, and of the people wasn’t the kind of thing likely to meet with the approval of the metal detectors.
The bulwark of suspicion was reinforced by the heavy police presence inside the Capitol, every thirty yards another man in uniform asking for an identity, the official attitude similar to that of customs inspectors inclined to look upon lost luggage and Arab tourists as disguised weapons of mass destruction. It was another hour before I’d found my way to the office in which I filled out a form, sat for a photograph, and so received the press badge that allowed safe passage through the checkpoints. Still obliged to empty my pockets, of course, but no need to remove my shoes.
At noon in the Senate Chamber almost the whole of what its one hundred members like to call the “greatest deliberative body in the world” gathered for the swearing-in of their newly elected companions (nine for a first term, twenty-five for additional terms) , and as they stepped forward four and five at a time to swear the oath of office in the presence of Vice President Dick Cheney, I was struck by the ways in which they looked so much like one another. The media flood the nation’s editorial markets with testimonies to the piebald character of the American democracy jumbled together from a wonderful diversity of colors, creeds, and cultural dispensations, which is a swell story, but in the United States Senate not one visible to the naked eye. The press gallery affords a close and well-lighted view of the Chamber, and with it an occasion to study the collection of faces as if they already had become portrait busts in Statuary Hall. Even at the privileged distance of less than twenty feet it was hard to imagine any of the members present — middle-aged and comfortably settled in their flesh, white, wearing expensive suits, glad to be here in Tampa for the golf outing — finding the time to write his or her own speech, much less taking the trouble to read through the 2,858 pages of the Federal Budget that distributes an annual appropriation of $2 trillion. Nothing in their manner suggested a shred of difference in their preconceptions and modus operandi. Red state, blue state; Old Testament, New Testament; popular assembly, oligarchical junta — why argue the details as long as everybody knows how and when to count the money?
The swearing-in ceremony was accomplished in less than an hour, Senator Kerry notable for his absence. Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican majority leader, then delivered a speech welcoming “everyone here and everyone watching at home … to this historic first day of the 109th Congress”. Although never a man known for his oratory, Frist did his best to impart to the words the flourish of high flown sentiment accompanied by stately gestures in the manner of Henry Clay — “My colleagues … [we] are the stewards of this ancient and yet still living and thriving tradition … The American people — and indeed the people of the world — look upon this Capitol and those of us who serve here for inspiration and leadership and unwavering devotion to our common cause … My fellow Senators, you are all honorable men and women … God bless you …”
The effect was disconcerting because by the time Frist arrived at his second paragraph, hardly anybody remained in the chamber (two stenographers, the clerk, and Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the minority leader obliged to speak next), which meant that Frist was addressing what I’m afraid he mistook for his eloquence to nobody else except the cameraman recording the event for C-SPAN and posterity.
Reid’s speech consisted of a tribute to Frist (“one of the most prominent transplant surgeons in the country”), a senseless and disjointed anecdote about his father rescued from certain death in an Arizona mine shaft, and a vow to seize “the bipartisan opportunities” available to this new Congress looking “to the future with a greater day, a nicer day, a more pleasant day ahead”. Unlike Frist, Reid made no attempt at rhetorical grandeur, content to read his prepared text straight into the camera lens in the flat voice of a real estate agent bored by his own sales presentation.
Much of the legislative business brought before the Senate and the House of Representatives later in the afternoon continued in the same spirit and tone, for the most part consisting of routine measures appointing committees, establishing rules and procedures, expressing sympathy for the victims of the Christmas tsunami in the Indian Ocean, mourning the loss of American soldiers in Iraq. A similarly dull calendar on Wednesday and Thursday gave me the chance to seek out a number of Democrats whom I admired for what I’d seen of their reflections in the news media, among them Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Congressmen Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Henry Waxman of California, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, also of California, the minority leader in the House.
As forthright in my bias as the talking-heads at Fox News, I began each conversation by expressing the hope that somehow the Democrats might find the ways and means with which to counter the Republican motion to reconstitute the United States in the image of Mexico. None of the four respondents quarreled with the observation that what was now at risk in the 109th Congress was nothing more nor less than the principle of democratic government, which, given their constituencies and voting records, wasn’t surprising; what was surprising was both their sense of ineffectualness and their agreement as to the obstacles standing in the way of the animated debate that I’d been pleased to think possible when talking to myself in New York.
“It’s truly amazing”, Waxman said, “that so many people still think that this place is on the level”. He explained that ever since the Republicans gained the maioritv in the House in 1994. the House leadership had been changing Rules — eliminating the possibility of debate when one of their own bills comes to the floor for a vote, routinely giving the Democrats as little as twelve hours to read 800 pages of small and treacherous print. No Democrats were invited to the House and Senate conference considering last year’s intelligence bill; nor were any Democrats allowed to propose an amendment to the medical prescription bill. Congressional requests for information from the executive agencies of government — from the Pentagon about the cost of weapons, from the Justice Department with regard to its policies on torture and the detention of “enemy combatants” — may or may not receive the courtesy of a reply. In the absence of answers to their questions, Congressional Democrats lately have been forced to file lawsuits in order to discover how the government for which they’re held responsible conducts itself behind soundproofed doors.
As an instance of the strong-arm methods deployed by the Republican leadership in the House, also of the majority’s contempt for the due process of law, Nancy Pelosi mentioned the new rule, passed with no chance of amendment on the first day of the 109th Congress, that rendered meaningless the name and purpose of the House Committee on Standards and Official Conduct. Evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the Committee henceforth will investigate no charge of moral or financial wrongdoing unless at least one of the Republicans present provides the enabling vote, an event as unlikely as a descent on Washington by the armies of Napoleon.
“These people are shameless”, Pelosi said, “arrogant, petty, short-sighted”. Representative Markey chose stronger words to express the same meaning. “They do as they please”, he said. “They wish to wipe us out”.
More than once while listening to the several confessions of parliamentary weakness, it occurred to me that our elected representatives of government construe themselves as having been reduced to the peonage of journalists. Dorgan had reformulated the Democratic Policy Committee to hold hearings meant to advertise the malfeasance of the Bush Administration — hearings about the subversion of the Social Security System, about the Halliburton Company’s failure to account for the $10 billion that it had either stolen or buried in the deserts of Mesopotamia — but because the committee lacked subpoena power as well as legislative footing, it would depend for its effect on the whim of the news media. Would CBS News send a camera, or the New York Times a reporter? Waxman likewise presented himself as a mere gadfly, doomed to convene press conferences in the hope that somebody would accept the invitation. Markey described Congress as a “stimulus-response institution”, taking its cues from the expression of public outrage that maybe could be incited by the circulation of e-mail and messages posted on the Internet. “We must capture the words”, he said, “convert issues into melodrama — children dying, mothers weeping. The coin of the realm.” Not wishing to discount Markey’s last, best hope for Senator Reid’s “nicer and more pleasant day ahead”, I refrained from saying that the coin was counterfeit, that to think the media blessed with courage, conscience, or convictions was to build one’s house on mud and sand.
The point didn’t need belaboring because it was made clear the next day when the Senate Judiciary Committee briefly examined the qualifications of Alberto R Gonzales, the White House counsel, to serve as attorney general of the United States. The nominee showed himself to be a man of little principle and less integrity, a clever eunuch in a corporate harem, grinning and self-satisfied, unwilling to give a straight answer to questions about the part he played in the drawing up of the memoranda for President Bush that referred to the Geneva Convention as “quaint” and “obsolete”, and defined torture as “only physical pain of intensity akin to that which accompanies serious physical injuries such as death or organ failure”. When asked for specific recollection of documents that the White House refused to release to the committee, he dodged behind the phrases “I don’t recall … I don’t remember …” Obviously, Senator, “his [President Bush's] priorities will become my priorities …”
Nor did the Democratic members of the committee hold the judge accountable either to the facts or to the tests of scorn and ridicule. Senator Edward Kennedy and Patrick Leahy expressed concern, even tried to make sense of the bowdlerized record, but neither of them were willing to risk their depleted store of political capital on a bet already lost.
Among the 250-odd people crowded into the hearing room in the Hart Office Building, the majority were reporters come to see and not to tell. Failing to find the stuff of melodrama (children dying, mothers weeping), they turned the story into a corporate press release to which their editors affixed headlines signifying nothing — “GONZALES DEFENDS HIS WHITE HOUSE RECORD” (the Washington Post), “GONZALES SPEAKS AGAINST TORTURE DURING HEARING” (the New York Times).
Or, in plainer language, power is as power does, and if it’s accountable to no law other than its own, well then, dear reader, at least you’ve seen the pictures and heard a government spokesman say that America never tells a lie. What else do you expect? Maybe a piece of marble quarried from one of the Capitol’s portrait busts, or possibly a small square of glazed tile cut from the flooring of the Rotunda. A souvenir. Something to remind me of what was once a great republic before it lost the war on terror.
I couldn’t have guessed at the scale of the defeat until I came to Washington with the hope of proving it a dismal rumor. But except as proofs of fear and weakness, how else to interpret the practice of torture as state policy, the nervous habit of official secrecy, the military entrenchments around the Supreme Court and the Capitol?
Shortly after noon on Thursday the police locked down the building for twenty minutes — nobody allowed to enter, nobody permitted to leave — while one or another of the government’s praetorian guard units (Secret Service, possibly the Wyoming National Guard or elements of the 82nd Airborne Division) cleared the grounds and the nearby streets for the arrival of Vice President Cheney and his vanguard of motorcycles. On the west front of the building workmen were setting up the defenses (tactical, strategic; ancient, modern, and medieval) designed to protect Bush’s inauguration later in the month from so vast a host of enemies (real and imagined, foreign and domestic) that the list of suspects amassed by the Department of Homeland Security was said to run to almost as many pages as were to be found in the Pentagon’s library of plans for the domination of five continents and seven oceans. The news media already was chattering about the magnificent display of vigilance scheduled for January 20 — 8,500 uniformed officers securing the perimeter of the parade route on Pennsylvania Avenue, thirty-one checkpoints, dogs trained to sniff out explosives, sniper teams on rooftops, patrol boats in the Potomac River, monitors sensitive to poisonous substances in the atmosphere, political protesters confined to cages well out of the sight of Peter Jennings.
Walking down and away from Capitol Hill on Thursday afternoon I didn’t notice any riflemen practicing their aim on squirrels or pigeons, but I could see the construction gangs extending the fortification of the West Steps, and in the distance beyond their cranes and pulleys, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Maybe it was a trick of the fading light, but instead of calling to mind the strength of the American spirit, the two landmarks at first glance reminded me of stage props for a television news show or a Hollywood movie, conceivably for a theme park Democracyland where, twice on weekdays and three times on Sunday, top quality high-school marching bands perform that well-known and much beloved musical number “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave”. The thought was not one that I could slide through the checkpoints at an Inauguration Ball, and I figured that the sooner I got back to New York the better my chance of finding an American political idea not so frightened of a future in which most of the days were apt to be neither nice, non-partisan, nor pleasant.
Harper’s Magazine, March 2005.