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THE GREAT SHAME
When the networks projected an Ohio win for Obama on November 4th, I counted up the remaining states, and realized that Obama was going to win. Like a lot of people that night, I wanted to celebrate. I gladly turned off the TV and went out to get drunk.
As they were everywhere, people were out in the streets of Buffalo, NY, too that night. Shouting, singing, crying, forming impromptu drum circles and dance troupes. Strangers hugging each other, cars honking as they crawled by—this was unprecedented behavior in the Queen City, where the people generally exude a dull aura of eternal defeat. Maybe this was what it would look like if the Bills actually won a Super Bowl.
Of course, people were celebrating Obama’s victory, but I think the main source of jubilation was that the end of the Bush administration, and Republican rule, was finally in sight. There were many cries of “Obama!” that night, but there were just as many people expressing a superlative relief, like a long over-strained muscle finally relaxing, that our long national nightmare was finally over.
I, too, am glad—elated, really—that Bush’s absurd, colossally tragic reign is nearing an end. But that doesn’t change the fact that we failed. We all failed. Congress failed, the courts failed, and the American people failed. We have suffered through two terms of plainly illegitimate, nakedly contemptuous tyranny in a country that was designed to facilitate overthrowing tyrants, and we failed to do so.
I have no doubt that Obama, as disappointing as he will no doubt turn out to be, is a vast improvement over the past eight years, and may even be the best president of my lifetime—a dubious achievement at best. But it’s not enough to look forward and move on. If anything is to be learned from the Bush disaster, it’s important to look back, and to understand how terrible our failure has been.
As citizens, our expectations have fallen far and fast. When Nixon ignored a subpoena, the nation was outraged. Even Republican congressmen were vocally outraged, and Nixon was forced to resign to avoid impeachment. When Nixon tried to fire a special prosecutor, his Attorney General resigned. Then his Deputy Attorney General resigned. When Reagan lied to the people about crimes far worse than Nixon’s, it was a scandal, but our expectations had already been dramatically lowered. There were hearings, but no impeachment. A few years later, a Republican congress abused the impeachment process as an instrument of prudery, in an act of supreme political perversion.
And then the real rape of American government began, starting with Bush v. Gore. Now, the president, and even his former employees, ignore subpoenas as a matter of routine. They can exact political retribution on CIA agents (Scott McClellan recently revealed that Bush told him he was responsible for the Valerie Plame leak), and get nothing but a few critical editorials in return. They can fake us into a costly, bloody war, and no one will do anything but bitch about it. They torture people to generate false intel, and nothing comes of it. Nothing.
All this is to end on January 20th, presumably. But Bush’s underhanded tactics will not end on that day. Still, he is showing us what “sprinting to the finish” means, as he furiously works to undermine the incoming Democrats in as many ways as possible. For one, Bush is generating a last-minute smorgasbord of polluter-friendly regulatory rollbacks, setting new lows in terms of water quality and global warming emissions, setting new, lower standards for “acceptable” levels of coal slurry in streams, of melamine in food products, and generally manifesting their shamelessness and hostility toward American citizens. New DoJ rules permit the FBI to engage in prolonged infiltration and surveillance of subjects who are not suspected of wrongdoing, and increased latitude in selecting these subjects based on their race and religion.
Over 90 such new “regulations” have occurred or are in the works, and while executive orders are fairly easy for an incoming president to reverse, changing new department-generated regulations entails a long and arduous process. This extends Bush’s disastrous impact well into the next term.
And so does this: Reports abound that scores of loyal Bush mid- and low-level appointees in many departments are in the process of “burrowing,” that is, changing their job status from political appointments, which change with each administration, to career civil service positions, which will make it hard for Obama to fire them when he takes office. The object is clear: to surround Obama with hostile operatives, hamstringing his agenda at every turn with leaks, foot-dragging and other forms of sabotage. Smooth transition, indeed.
Because congress and the American people have been asleep at the switch, the Obama administration will be spending much of the next four years struggling to simply undo most of what Bush has left them. It will only be a few months before our amnesiac press starts to blame Obama for the inevitable economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, and foreign policy blowback Bush will leave him. The next few years will reveal even darker secrets still unknown to us, a predictable result of tolerating the shadowy machinations of the most secretive administration ever.
All of this could have and should have been avoided, if the congress or the American people had any sense of duty, or responsibility, or really any sense at all. The fact that Bush, Cheney, and the rest will walk out of the White House and back into lives of decadent opulence and ballooning bank accounts is a shame, a damn shame of historic proportions. And the shame is ours. Bush is the worst outlaw ever to occupy the White House, and it is not enough that he simply leave. The message we have sent to power-mad, totalitarian presidents of the future is clear: Do whatever you want; we will do nothing to stop you. The press will do everything in its power to gloss over your worst excesses, and marginalize your critics, and when the public finally catches on, the press will simply ignore you in favor of optimistic coverage of your possible successors. At least that’s how it works for Republicans.
Bush lied about Iraq; it’s nothing if not clear at this point. And what the hell did we do about it? Bush failed miserably in New Orleans, dashing the image of Republican competence. But what did we do about it? Even now, as Bush’s economic team fools us into pouring an insane, gargantuan amount of money into the largest banks in the world, pulling a classic scare-and-switch tactic we should all be familiar with by now, nobody even murmurs about holding him accountable. As we all hold our breath and wait for Obama to take office, we allow the most craven, criminal administration in American history to keep right on pillaging our laws, our money, and our collective sense of decency right to the end. We, as a nation, are a miserable failure.
It’s just not enough that it will soon be over. It’s not enough that we managed to get through it. It’s not enough that the Republicans are in disarray, apparently headed toward a schism. These people should be in jail. They should serve as an example to all who come after them, that there is only so much corruption, malfeasance, and rank incompetence that this nation will put up with. Instead, their scot-free exit signals the impotence of this country in the face of an all-out hijacking of its government.
So sure, celebrate a victory for relative sanity in Obama’s win. But at the same time, we should be lamenting an all-out defeat for accountability. An eight-year crime wave has swept through the most powerful democracy in the world, and the only people being punished are you and me. And maybe we deserve it, because the true failure is ours.
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