Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

Monday: Over the weekend on TV, in the flurry of talk about Mark Foley's resignation from the House, I heard several times the remark that this is something the American people can really connect with. A first reaction might be that this is one more instance of the media's condescension toward the public. The people can connect with icky e-mails sent to teenage boys, and presumably get outraged about them, whereas the national debt, or a trade balance out of control, or a militaristic foreign policy supported by lies is a topic not very interesting to them.  But as I think further, I realize it's not the people who are giving top significance to a story that's, at most, of minor import, but the members of the press themselves. They are the ones who are really connecting with this sad tale of a man's downfall. They are the ones driving it to the top of the political agenda. There's something strange and distorted happening in our public discourse. The media decide what the people can connect with and then they give it so much sensationalist attention that the people are drawn into the story without ever having decided whether it's important or not.  We can hope this is merely froth on the deep currents of public policy, but the more we pay attention we find reason to believe it's froth all the way down.

Tuesday: The best feature of Bob Woodward's new book is a host of throwaway lines that will probably never be mentioned -- or noticed -- by anybody on TV. One, for example, is his comment about James "Spider" Marks, the major general who was appointed the chief intelligence officer for the Iraqi invasion. We learn that General Marks was 49 years old, thin, "totally gung ho," and that he took it as an "article of faith" that Iraq possessed great collections of weapons of mass destruction. Why the latter? Because he heard Dick Cheney say so. You and I might well ask why anyone should believe Dick Cheney. But, evidently, it never occurred to General Marks to doubt the vice president. Consider what this means. Here was a man with considerable power, possessing an important function in one of the most significant governmental operations in decades, and in touch with all the secret data amassed by the United States government. And it didn't come to his mind to wonder whether the vice president was telling the truth. At the very same time he was taking Mr. Cheney's words as an article of faith, I, a person with no inside information at all, was sure Dick Cheney was not credible and doubted that Iraq possessed the weapons the president and vice president said it did. The evidence for doubt was very strong. Articles were being published every day raising questions about this great store of weapons. Furthermore, it was hard to figure out how Saddam Hussein could have got them. Where did they come from? And where did the money come from either to purchase or build them? An arsenal of the sort Saddam was said to possess is tremendously expensive. These are all issues that should have been foremost in the mind of a person who was trying to think seriously about Iraq's military potential. But none of them seem to have made their way into General Marks's mind. He was supposed to be a brilliant man, but we need to begin comprehending that brilliance of the sort he possessed is not worth much in either government or military strategy. There's scarcely any critical component to it. It's computer-like. And we know that with computers it's garbage in, garbage out.

Wednesday: David Brooks, writing in the New York Times, uses the Mark Foley story to advance a social theory. The former moral code of the nation was based on "expressive individualism." But now that's going out. A revived older code is coming in which decrees anything that "tears the social fabric" to be evil. This older code, Brooks suggests, is noble. The previous code was flighty, shortsighted, and shallow. When I think back over my lifetime I remember social codes that once were powerful and virtually unassailable and now have been torn down. When I was a boy, for example, all the good people taught me that it was wicked for black people to assume that they had the same rights as white people. This belief was a solid component of the moral code which flourished around me. And then some flighty, shallow and shortsighted people came and tore it down. Another powerful component of the moral code was that homosexuality  was so evil we performed a moral service by scorning, harassing, and beating up people who practiced it. I can remember some boys in my school lunchroom bragging about how they had stomped on a fellow student until he was bloody because he was a "queer." And they were applauded. Now heroism of that sort, once a firm element of the moral code, is also being torn at, presumably by flighty, shortsighted, and shallow people. One thing that causes me -- perhaps, too, because I'm shortsighted -- to be suspicious of an argument is for it to be introduced by a lie. Early in his column, Mr. Brooks says, "Foley is now universally reviled." That's not true and Brooks knows it's not true. Many people have expressed compassion for Foley and asked whether the furor occasioned by his e-mails is not really about something else. This is not to say that sexual relations between adults and children should ever win social approval. In my opinion, they shouldn't. But for any hint of them to throw the country into hysteria is not a good thing either. And to use them to advance a moral code controlling all behavior is the argument of a propagandist posing as a sociologist.

Thursday: On December 5, 2002, Ari Fleisher, the White House press secretary said: "The president of the United States and the secretary of defense would not assert as plainly and bluntly as they have that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction if it was not true, and if they did not have a solid basis for saying it." At the same time, the army general assigned to deal with the weapons of mass destruction during the upcoming invasion was telling his associates that he had no idea whether any of sites identified  to him by the CIA had any weapons at all. And the president and secretary of defense had never met, or probably never even heard of, this general. There is nothing more important in the few weeks left before the congressional elections than that the American people remember what was told to them in late 2002 and 2003. It was virtually all wrong. Defenders of the president will say he was operating on the intelligence delivered to him. What they will not say is that he made no effort to find out how solid the evidence was and that he did not talk to any of the people who were doing detailed work on that evidence. The only conclusion we can draw is that he didn't care about it.  The issue in the upcoming election is whether the people are going to provide a rubber-stamp Congress to a president who behaved that recklessly, causing tens of thousands of people to lose their lives and costing the nation hundreds of billions of dollars, while earning for our country the contempt of the rest of the world. Any vote for a Republican candidate is a vote for a president who duped the nation, and, in effect, an approval of that duping.

Friday: Reading about government and politics forces you to wade through hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of stories about wildly ambitious men, who put eighty to a hundred hours a week into their jobs, crank out dozens of memoranda, position papers, and action reports at breakneck speed, and confer and cajole into the wee hours of the night, every night. It all seems tremendously impressive, awe inspiring, even daunting, that is till you step back and ask yourself about the result. Then you are more often than not confronted by a maelstrom of futility, waste and destruction. What's the good of energy and highly praised brilliance when they produce only a nasty, painful mess? Wouldn't these guys have been better employed playing checkers or, at the most, managing car dealerships in small towns? It depends on perspective, of course. If one finds his life meaning simply by rising in the system, it doesn't matter what the system does. That's the truth and the challenge of politics. Till we begin to solve it, government will remain as it is now, a mess. As I wrote these words, I glanced sometimes out my window at a neighbor's house where a group of guys are repairing the roof. They're blessed, I thought, doing something that's clearly useful. And, yet, it is men like these who enable ambitious sycophants, who in an afternoon's discussion can decide to blow the roofs off more houses than these guys could fix in a lifetime. So they too, those skilled roofers, are also the challenge of politics.

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Harvard Square Commentary, October 9, 2006