This hasn't been a good week for my political peace of mind. The Democrats took an ownership share of the war and somewhat backed off their promsies of ethics reform, the US Attorneys purge reached new depths of tragicomedy, a bad immigration bill is going down to defeat largely because it isn't even worse, and the astonishing idiocy of George W. Bush was again on full display. This is a man who evidently fails to grasp concepts that a reasonably attentive 12 year-old would understand, and he's the most powerful man in the world.
If there's any grounds for hope, it would be that the public seems far ahead of its ostensible leaders. They (we) want out of the war, and they want the Democrats to lead on that and other questions. Of course, this only makes it even more baffling that the Democrats refuse to do so.
I've written here and elsewhere that the whole country, minus maybe 20-25 percent of the willfully ignorant or hopelessly detached, simply want the Bush Era to end and the Duhciderer to go home to Rancho Plastico and read boxscores, clear brush, and drink himself to death. But impeachment, the legal only way to make this happen before my dad's 66th birthday (1/20/09), is "off the table." Gary Kamiya, writing in Salon, explains why, in one of the most brilliant pieces I've read in a very long time. Kamiya makes the point that pundits, liberals, and just about everyone else either has missed or is afraid to say: Bush is our creation, and in an imperfect but very real sense, we enabled his disaster. It's worth quoting at length:
[T]here's a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off -- and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush's warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America's support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It's a national myth. It's John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness -- come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we're not ready to do that.
The truth is that Bush's high crimes and misdemeanors, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies were, literally, a matter of life and death. They were about war. And they were sanctified by 9/11. Bush tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity, which Congress and the media went along with for a long time and which has remained largely unexamined to this day. Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. This doesn't mean we support Bush, simply that at some dim, half-conscious level we're too confused -- not least by our own complicity -- to work up the cold, final anger we'd need to go through impeachment. We haven't done the necessary work to separate ourselves from our abusive spouse. We need therapy -- not to save this disastrous marriage, but to end it.
At first glance it seems odd that Bush's fraudulent case for war has saved him. War is the most serious action a nation can undertake, and lying to Congress and the American people about the need for war is arguably the most serious offense a public official can commit, short of treason. But the unique gravity of war surrounds it with a kind of patriotic force field. There is an ancient human deference to The Strong Man Who Will Defend Us, an atavistic surrender to authority that goes back through Milosevic, to Henry V, to Beowulf and the ring givers, and ultimately to Cro-Magnon tribesmen huddled around the campfire at the feet of the biggest, strongest warrior. Even when it is unequivocally shown that a leader lied about war, as is the case with Bush, he or she is still protected by this aura. Going to war is the best thing a rogue president can do. It's like taking refuge in a church: No one can come and get you there. There's a reason Bush kept repeating, "I'm a war president. I'm a war president." It worked, literally, like a charm.
And many of the American people shared Bush's views. A large percentage of the American people, and their elected representatives, accepted Bush's unlimited authority to do whatever he wanted in the name of "national security." And they reaffirmed this acceptance when, long after his fraudulent case for war had been exposed as such, they reelected him. Lindorff and Olshansky quote former Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, who justifies his opposition to impeachment by saying, "Bush obviously lied to the country and the Congress about the war, but we have a system of elections in this country. Everyone knew about the lying before the 2004 elections, and they didn't do anything about it ... Bush got elected. The horse is out of the barn now."
To be sure, the war card works better under some circumstances than others. It is arguable that if there had been no 9/11, Bush's fraudulent case for war really would have resulted in his impeachment -- though this is far from certain. But 9/11 did happen, and as a result, large numbers of Americans did not just give Bush carte blanche but actively wanted him to attack someone. They were driven not by policy concerns but by primordial retribution, reflexive and self-righteous rage. And it wasn't just the masses who were calling for the United States to reach out and smash someone. Pundits like Henry Kissinger and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman also called for America to attack the Arab world. Kissinger, according to Bob Woodward's "State of Denial," said that "we need to humiliate them"; Friedman said we needed to "go right into the heart of the Arab world and smash something." As Friedman's statement indicates, who we smashed was basically unimportant. Friedman and Kissinger argued that attacking the Arab world would serve as a deterrent, but that was a detail. For many Americans, who Bush attacked or the reasons he gave, didn't matter -- what mattered was that we were fighting back.
The unpleasant truth is that Bush did what a lot of Americans wanted him to. And when it became clear after the fact that Bush had lied about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, it made no sense for those Americans to turn on him. Truth was never their major concern anyway -- revenge was. And if we took revenge on the wrong person, well, better a misplaced revenge than none at all.
The problem is that the American people are not judging Bush by the standards of law. The Bush years have further weakened America's once-proud status as a nation of laws, not of men. The law, for Bush, is like language for Humpty Dumpty: it means just what he chooses it to mean, neither more nor less. This attitude has become disturbingly widespread -- which may explain why Bush's illegal wiretapping, his approval of torture, and his administration's partisan purge of U.S. district attorneys have not resulted in wider outrage.
This society-wide diminution of respect for law has helped Bush immeasurably. It is not just the law that America has turned away from, but what the law stands for -- accountability, memory, history and logic itself. That anonymous senior Bush advisor who spoke with surreal condescension of "the reality-based community" may have summed up our cultural moment more acutely than anyone else in years. A society without memory, driven by ephemeral emotions, which demands no consistency from its leaders but only gusty patriotism, is a society that is not about to engage in the painful self-examination that impeachment would mean.
Emphasis mine. Bush is simply the most egregious symptom of a disease that's been around in American history at least since Nixon, and probably further back that that. This is a wasting affliction; what it erodes is our shared commitment, regardless of personal politics or beliefs, to play by one set of rules that we agreed upon at the Founding and have periodically revised since then. The Law should not be seen as an obstacle course to navigate en route to some extra-legal goal, whether it's to launch a war of choice and vengeance or to politicize the institutions of government. It should be seen as a barrier that keeps us all from harm, an unscalable fence that separates safe ground from the minefields.
What Bush, Cheney, Rove, and their congressional enablers did was to cut a thousand holes through that fence, so much that the whole structure is now unsound, and it's no longer clear where the barrier is drawn, what's safe and what's not. But they couldn't have done this if we hadn't let them. And we let them because the unthinking, unreasoning desire for revenge--regardless of whether that revenge was justified or even rational--trumped the commitment we made. Under cover of war lust, an unprecedentedly political administration did the bulk of its grim work. We gave them that cover.