The Madness Returns
The hoopla over former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s memoir is the latest sign that the madness, which has dominated American political life for most of the last three decades, has returned – and may be on its way to a political restoration in 2010 and beyond.
The outbreak of Palin-mania follows the right-wing enthusiasm over the accusations about President Barack Obama’s being born in Kenya, the phenomenon around Fox News personality Glenn Beck, the Tea Party rallies, and last summer’s town hall disruptions over health-care reform.
This excitement has given hope to national Republicans who believe they’re headed toward a return to power sooner rather than later. They have even succeeded in shifting the blame for the massive federal debt and the bank bailouts onto Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, when those two mostly handled the messy triage after George W. Bush left behind a multi-car crash with bodies scattered all around.
The Republicans also are gaining traction with the old nostrum that got the United States into the current calamity, a reprise of Ronald Reagan’s mantra of tax cuts for the rich, a smaller social safety net, corporate deregulation, and a tough-talking foreign policy.
Their “free market” message is wrapped around clever talking points that appeal to many Americans conditioned for decades to despise “lib-rhuls.” Yet, some GOP arguments are head-snapping, such as the Republican anti-health-reform claim that the party's goal is to protect Medicare.
While the Republicans and the Right are having fun returning to this politically promising world of make-believe, Obama and the Democrats are plodding forward with all the joy of bedraggled war refugees dragging their life’s belongings behind them in an oxcart.
The struggle for health-care reform has turned into a long, excruciating march with many of the most worthwhile features – like a true cost-saving system, either a single-payer approach or a robust public option – cast away like family valuables left on the roadside to lighten the painful load.
In the 10 months since Obama was inaugurated on that bitterly cold day in January, he has been transformed from a beacon of hope and change into a cautionary tale, a symbol of what happens to a thoughtful man who is overly accommodating to both rivals and erstwhile allies.
By letting health-reform deadlines slip – and especially allowing Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus to dilly-dally by negotiating with Republicans who simply wanted to string out the process – Obama managed to look weak and indecisive, rather than bipartisan and conciliatory.
And the times when his administration has acted forthrightly, such as when it released evidence of George W. Bush’s torture policies and announced trials in New York federal court for five 9/11 defendants, the right-wing and mainstream news media have portrayed those reasonable decisions as controversial, if not unpatriotic and un-American.
Meanwhile, the American Left has reverted to its role as sideline critic, giving Obama almost no credit for his brave acts and lots of blame for his compromises. Progressives also have done little to build an infrastructure of media, think tanks and other institutions that can challenge today’s right-wing dominance in what the Right likes to call the “war of ideas.”
The Reagan Revolution
All these tendencies can be traced back three decades to the post-Vietnam War days when the Left largely dismantled its media outlets and think tanks, especially in the news center of Washington. Leading progressives mostly retreated to distant liberal strongholds such as San Francisco.
Simultaneously, the Right began pouring hundreds of millions – even billions – of dollars into building its own Establishment centered in Washington. Besides its own media outlets and think tanks, the Right spent large sums of money in creating anti-journalism attack groups to go after mainstream reporters who dug up information that undermined right-wing positions.
Into that shifting situation of the late-1970s stepped Ronald Reagan, a charming grade-B movie actor, corporate pitchman and former California governor. Unlike the responsible but dreary President Jimmy Carter, who talked about the need to conserve energy and rein in wasteful materialism, Reagan made everything seem simple and fun.
Though dubbed The Great Communicator, Reagan really wasn’t that great an orator. His secret was that – as an actor and adman – he understood that Americans wanted the world presented in easy blacks and whites, while enjoying flattering tales about their own innate goodness.
So, Reagan engaged in systematic exaggerations – about the black-hat evils of government, big unions, environmentalists, “welfare queens” and the Evil (Soviet) Empire and about the white-hat goodness of American Way consumerism, unrestrained capitalism, a beefed-up U.S. military and “freedom-fighters” from Nicaragua to Angola to Afghanistan.
To present such a black-and-white world required control of information, so Reagan’s Washington foot soldiers, especially a bright young cadre known as neoconservatives, sought control of key information sources. As the shock troops for what’s called “information warfare,” the neocons targeted independent-minded Washington journalists and the CIA’s analytical division.
The neocons’ behind-the-scenes victories over those two groups – made easier by the American Left’s abandonment of the information battlefield – proved decisive in setting the nation’s political course for three decades. The United States veered off into Reagan’s world of fear and fantasy. [For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]
Even during brief respites of relative sanity, such as when some of Reagan’s dirty secrets spilled out in the Iran-Contra Affair or when Bill Clinton finally ended the 12-year Reagan-Bush-I reign, the trend away from rationality never was seriously addressed. Rather, the Democrats looked to finesse the falsehoods and avoid ugly conflicts.
Because of that, the madness could quickly resume. For instance, during the first year of Clinton’s presidency, the potent right-wing media invented or exaggerated a host of “scandals,” such as Clinton’s Whitewater real estate deal, the Travel-gate firing of some holdover White House staff, and the “murder” of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster, who actually had committed suicide.
In February 1994, when I attended the Conservative Political Action Conference, what I saw was a glimpse of the future. Right-wingers were hawking frat-boy-style magazines showing Hillary Clinton semi-nude and videos recounting Bill Clinton’s supposed “murders” and other crimes.
There was a locker-room-style madness to the scene, much like the blustery irreverence on the talk radio shows of Rush Limbaugh, G. Gordon Liddy and other Clinton-haters.
At the time, Democrats tended to dismiss the significance of this right-wing media assault. Instead, they sought bipartisanship and focused on legislative achievements, such as passing a deficit-reduction bill and pressing for reform of the health-care system. But congressional Republicans responded by doing whatever they could to delay and sabotage Clinton’s key initiatives.
Backed by a populist upsurge, which found its voice in the Clinton-hating media, the Republicans mounted a powerful comeback. Both the House and Senate fell under GOP control in 1994, shocking Democrats who had assumed that such a turnover was impossible. The next six years were marked mostly by President Clinton clinging to the White House while under relentless attack.
During Campaign 2000, the Right’s mean-spirited humor – which by then pervaded the mainstream news media, too – made fun of the all-too-serious Al Gore. Meanwhile, the over-aged-frat-boy George W. Bush was mostly fawned over as a fresh face with a down-home style. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Al Gore v. The Media” and “Protecting Bush/Cheney.”]
Then, during the disputed election, when Bush’s team was busy blocking a Florida recount, which – if done fairly – would have put Gore in the White House, the Right rose up in rebellion against such a prospect (most famously with the Brooks Brothers riot to stop the Miami-Dade recount).
On the other side, Gore and the Democrats pursued a vote recount through the courts. And much of the activist Left insisted that the outcome didn’t much matter because Green Party candidate Ralph Nader had declared that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Gore and Bush anyway.
After Bush snaked away with the presidency, he made it clear that he didn’t give a hoot about bipartisan moderation. With the federal budget surprisingly in balance, Bush pressed for Reagan-style tax cuts tilted toward the rich. Soon, the federal government was sliding back into an ocean of red ink.
After the 9/11 attacks, the American people also wanted simplistic moral judgments. So Bush told them that the problem wasn’t that al-Qaeda reflected an extreme form of Islamic anger over Western intervention in the Middle East and especially the long-term Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. No, according to Bush, it was that they “hate our freedoms.”
Bush soon extended the black-white dichotomy to the “axis of evil,” three countries with almost nothing in common: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. With the neocons again pulling the strings -- at the CIA’s analytical division and with the Washington press corps -- the American people were guided to the conclusion that the neocons wanted, an invasion of Iraq.
Only gradually – especially after the Iraq War turned into a figurative quagmire and New Orleans into a real-life one when Hurricane Katrina hit – did independent-minded Americans and the Left fully wake up to the danger of tolerating Bush's fantasy world. They began to aggressively challenge the lies.
This resurgence of rationality proved powerful in Election 2006, when the Democrats regained control of the Congress. Then, in Election 2008, Obama presented himself as not only a brilliant orator but as a rational human being who respected empirical evidence. Beyond an expression of hope, his victory was a recognition by the American people that reality mattered.
But Obama was also faced with the wreckage that Bush had left behind, including a cratered economy, a staggering federal debt, two wars, and tattered international relations with both allies and adversaries. Obama had to sort out what his priorities were, what needed emergency bandaging and what could wait.
Like Clinton before him, Obama also chose to turn his back on demands that the prior Republican administration be held accountable for its crimes. By looking “forward, not backward” in the name of bipartisanship, Obama presumably thought the Republicans might reciprocate, but – as with Clinton – that wasn’t going to happen.
As Obama stumbled, Reagan-style irrationality began to take hold again. After all, it’s not much fun to act responsibly and deal with hard problems.
Soon, millions of Americans were counting themselves as followers of Glenn Beck, the clownishly divorced-from-reality host of a popular Fox program. Other Americans tied teabags to their hats and marched on Washington to defend Reagan’s chief legacy, hatred of government.
Republican lawmakers trotted out their old cure-all for the economy, more tax cuts. And the neocons were back, questioning Obama’s toughness and egging him on to give his militarist commanders in Afghanistan all the fresh troops they want.
Next came Sarah Palin’s bus tour on behalf of her memoir, Going Rogue, with crowds lining up by the thousands to buy the book and get a glimpse of their heroine. For two days, cable news shows, including MSNBC, anchored programs from malls where Palin was appearing.
As soon as the mainstream news correspondents sensed that the tide was turning again, they smoothly readjusted to the resurgence of know-nothing-ism. Palin’s recitation of right-wing talking points was treated with deference and respect, except by the likes of Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show.”
On his Nov. 18 program, Stewart showed a clip of Palin responding to a question about what she’d do about unemployment if she were President.
“I’d start cutting taxes and allowing our small businesses to keep more of what they’re earning,” Palin responded. “Not punishing them by forcing health care ‘reform’ down their throats, by forcing an energy policy down their throats that ultimately will tax them more and cost them more to stay in business.”
“That’s what I don’t like about her right there – it’s the nothing,” Stewart said. “If you peel back the pretty, shooty layers of the Palin onion, there’s no onion. It’s just a conservative boiler-plate mad-lib, ‘freedom is good and taxes are – ooh, I need an adjective – how ‘bout, I don’t know, silly.’
“And the worst part is that it is a mad-lib delivered as though it were the hard-earned wisdom of a life well lived. … The glee, boasting about you’re straight-shootin’ when you’re not straight-shootin’. You’re just a talking-point machine.”
Palin – like Reagan – has come to embody a willful, almost joyous contempt for reason and facts, a kind of juvenile rebellion against those boring folks who try to figure out reality and act responsibly.
And the Right may be onto something: it’s so much more fun and a lot easier politically to let the crazy times roll.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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