Two very unpopular candidates made the 2016 presidential campaign an embarrassment for American democracy. Now, the outcome could become one more tragedy for U.S. politics, observes David Marks.
By David Marks
Mourning seems a strange response to election results; as I consider my feelings after the presidential election, I’ve realized it’s another chapter in a sequence of tragedies throughout my life.
I was eleven when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination came over the loudspeaker in our sixth-grade classroom. Our tough, yet inspirational teacher wept at her desk in front of us. Her tears taught me more than any explanation of those events could ever reveal.
Not many years later, I suffered the shock of the killings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and wondered at how these horrific events would shape the future.
I had wanted to be an astronaut, but soon realized that going to the moon as a U.S. Air Force pilot might have the prerequisite of bombing Vietnam. I began understanding the damage the U.S. was doing with its military interventions, and made a conscious decision to stay away from space and politics. It seemed you could only improve yourself to make a better world. Politics was not for the peaceful.
By 1973, the stench of Watergate drifted across the country. I was fascinated; a “smoking gun” is not needed in a murder prosecution, but somehow had become a necessity in political crime. But Nixon’s defenders could not counter undeniable evidence of illegal activity by both the President and his aides that was found in White House audiotapes. Most of the political “nobility” escaped the consequences while Nixon and a few accomplices took the fall.
We knew Nixon was a war criminal years before, but Watergate set a precedent that our leaders must be caught in the act of some far narrower and less consequential crime to prove they are scoundrels. We do know that Nixon feared and obsessed on the revelations of worse crimes in his past. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Heinous Crime Behind Watergate.”]
Retreating from Politics
Ever more convinced of the darkness in U.S. politics, I retreated further, convinced that only personal actions and relationships could shape the world.
There was a glimmer of hope during Jimmy Carter’s presidency; he was a seemingly honest leader, supporting alternative energy and a cleaner environment, and allowing investigations into foreign and domestic assassinations of the previous decade. But few were moved or surprised by the contradiction of the Warren Commission’s findings and the Congressional pronouncement that JFK had been killed by a conspiracy.
In 1980, my first daughter was born during the northern California Indian summer. Even the election of Ronald Reagan two months later couldn’t eclipse my elation. I recall thinking about how the world might be different when she became a woman. I could only attempt to be a good enough father so that she would be kind and strong, and brave and bright enough to gain her equanimity.
It was only a month after the 1980 election that John Lennon died. It was then I mourned his murder and Reagan’s rise as a converged event. Lennon had been hounded by the junta that had taken over the country. He had once observed, “Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that.”
I recovered with the knowledge that the power of John’s music would stay with us, and knew his spirit would give perspective and strength to my daughter and the many children whose lives were just beginning. Despite his passing, John Lennon’s open-eyed idealism had been magnified.
The combination of Reagan’s rise and Lennon’s death in 1980, with the background of earlier assassinations of political leaders, continued to shape my world. Disgusted and repulsed by the “Reagan era,” it was a time for further retreat and the nurturing of ideas for a better future.
My second daughter’s joyful arrival in February of 1984, coincided with the U.S. “stabilizing” the Middle East, firing shells into Lebanon. Our “ally” Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people were fighting a horrific ground war with Iran. The conflict was far away, though I knew U.S. interests in oil resources in the region would eventually turn around to impact our lives directly.
Despite the violence perpetrated by our country, I was still resolved to make a better world for both daughters in my own small way. Although very young, I knew they were part of a generation of gifted, empowered women who might be able to change the course of the planet.
Hypocrisy of Reagan
In 1986-87, revelations of the hypocrisy of Reagan and his gang emerged during the Iran Contra investigation and hearings. I was fascinated that Reagan had sent a bible and cake (along with weapons, of course) to Iranian leaders when he had publicly invoked Iran as America’s greatest enemy. By helping Iran with sophisticated U.S. weapons for cash, Reagan and his team could secretly fund the Nicaraguan Contras in a dirty war outside the scope of Congress.
The issue of foiling Congress seemed to distract from what was an important question: why was Reagan helping the strongest voices for Islamic Jihad in the region? I recall thinking how any Democratic president would have been impeached, drawn and quartered for such a betrayal to the country. Reagan came away from the “affair” largely unscathed; he wasn’t protected by Teflon, as the press claimed, he was surrounded by organized criminals of the highest order.
I could no longer bear just watching events unfold. The crimes of Washington pushed me to where I had to get involved. I offered my support and assisted with the work of a handful of dedicated journalists investigating the 1980 “October Surprise,” i.e., tracing back Reagan’s secret arms sales to Iran in the mid-1980s to an earlier arrangement in which Reagan secretly approved arms sales via Israel to Iran immediately after taking office in 1981.
The evidence pointed to Reagan’s presidential campaign having secretly made a deal with Iranian leaders to delay the release of the hostages until after the U.S. presidential election. Polls had shown that if the hostages were released before Election Day, Jimmy Carter would have won reelection. And, indeed, the Iranians held the hostages until Reagan had taken the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1981.
But the statements and testimony of a couple of dozen witnesses including officials in Iran, Israel, Europe and the United States – along with important documentary evidence – failed to shake off Reagan’s Teflon.
In 1991-1992, I watched as a modern version of The Emperor’s New Clothes played before us. When faced with the possibility that an election would be revealed as a complete sham, Republicans and Democrats stood shoulder to shoulder to deny the possibility and limit the damage. No matter how much evidence emerged (smoking cannons), the truth did not matter when Washington’s status quo was threatened. I mourned for our loss of truth.
(To this day, The New York Times and other mainstream media outlets refuse to question the October Surprise conventional wisdom that Reagan must be innocent, although even the chairman of the congressional whitewashing investigation has now admitted to having second thoughts.)
However, as the special prosecutor’s Iran-Contra investigation and the congressional October Surprise inquiry extended into 1992, they did cast enough doubt on the Reagan administration’s relationship with Iran (and the role of Reagan’s Vice President – and then President – George H.W. Bush, a former CIA director) that they affected the presidential election results of 1992.
Along with his approval ratings falling steadily due to the economy, incumbent George H.W. Bush lost the false gloss of being an honest politician. The end of 12 years of Republican presidents came to an end as Bush lost to moderate “New Democrat” Bill Clinton.
The Parties Blur
Fast forward through the Clinton years when the blur between Republican and Democrats became a thick haze. The Republicans, although vaguely different from President Clinton in some social policies and economic preferences, found they could only demonize him for his handling of sexual indiscretions. His real crime was winning a second term in office, which no Democrat had done since Franklin Roosevelt. Meanwhile, U.S. foreign policy only became more firmly aligned with international corporate priorities.
And then quickly (please) through the eight years of George W. Bush. Although the list is long, the penultimate disgrace of his presidency was the mis-applied vengeance over the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 by using the tragedy to justify the unjustifiable invasion of Iraq.
Bush’s horrific administration, staffed heavily with arrogant and incompetent cronies, conducted a war that gave foundation to a generation of angry young people in the Middle East who will always see the United States as a terrorist state. I realized at the beginning of the Iraq invasion that violence is not about politics; I thought, there’s a child in Iraq who in 20 years will say: “The U.S. killed my father, I’ll gladly walk into Washington with a nuclear backpack.”
There was a reprieve of sorts and certainly some refreshing changes with the Obama presidency. But the recognition that Barack Obama would continue the U.S. military enterprises in the Middle East overshadowed any of his more enlightened policies. Yes, his adversaries tried to foil him at every turn, but the priorities of the wealthiest Americans were rarely in question. Washington politics and its ugly international footprint are a continuing tragedy.
And then there is Trump. It took a few days to realize that I was in mourning again, as much as I mourned when leaders were killed or when Reagan came to power; I mourn particularly for my daughters and the younger generations of women and men who deserve better. My mother, born in 1925, president of her college class, a beloved teacher and still a strong bright woman, feels that the event horizon with Trump gives her more anxiety and fear than she experienced in all of her life, including World War II. She may not see a woman as president of the United States. I mourn for her loss.
Hope for Hillary
I recognize that in many ways Hillary Clinton represented a status quo that has worn on me, but I had some hope that her ascendance to the presidency might change her, and as the first woman in that office, she might take on a leadership role that embraced pacifism; or at least might be influenced by those who feel peace is the priority.
There is much concern for what Trump will do, but the greater pain and loss is about what he won’t do. Mourning is always about loss; in this instance, the possibilities of progress that have been taken away for the near future, assuming that Trump continues to align himself with reactionary pols – the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Pence – who stuck with him during the campaign. Many Republicans see Trump as little more than a signature-writing machine who will sign whatever right-wing bills they send him.
So, we will mourn for a while, but a better world can still be realized. My mom and my daughters are no less powerful; and we all can be empowered by the blatant hypocrisy of this election – as we also recognize the hidden history that gave this travesty its foundation.
Political events may influence how we feel; but more importantly, who we are, and what we are willing to do for each other, determines our personal and political future.
David Marks is a veteran documentary filmmaker and investigative reporter. His work includes films for the BBC and PBS, including Nazi Gold, on the role of Switzerland in WWII and Jimi Hendrix: The Man they made God. He is writing a film screenplay, Extreme Ignorance, highlighting the need to turn electronic media into a creative force.