Implication for the Long Run: Developments Last Week

John Turner

On the Road

Driving from Annapolis, MD to Walterboro, SC on Monday, a distance of 535 miles, I noticed quite a fluctuation in gas prices. At a few spots in northern North Carolina, they actually dipped below two dollars a gallon. But, mostly, they were in the $2.15 range. The price of gas is one of the world's great mysteries. I wonder if anyone understands why it is what it is in any particular location. I assume that various greeds are involved, but whose, and which ones cause the greatest variations, are questions completely beyond me. The cost of food, too, is curious. At a small cafeteria in North Carolina, we got two meals, each with meat, bread, and two vegetables, a big drink plus peach cobbler for a combined price of $13.50. Admittedly, that's high by the standards I grew up with, but almost unbelievable when the cost of eating in a restaurant in downtown Washington is considered. It's hard to say what the experience of a 535 mile stretch causes one to think about America. I suppose it would be a cliché to say there's a lot good and a lot bad about it. But, that's the truth. It is certainly not, for the most part, an elegant country. But it is comfortable. And the land itself continues, as it has always been, magnificent.

Some Time in the Past

The time when the Republicans stop using racist appeals is like the time when hospitals stopped killing more people than they save, always several years ago. The problem is, it seems that it will always be several years ago, no matter how far into the future we go. Ken Mehlman, the Republican National Committee Chairman, says the commercial showing a frisky white woman beckoning to Harold Ford for another tryst, has nothing to do with reaching out for racist votes. He also says that he had no knowledge of its content before it aired. So, it seems he wants to disavow the spot at the same time he says there's nothing wrong with it. And Bob Corker, the senatorial candidate who will benefit from it, says it was "over the top," whatever that means. He's not going to turn down any votes he gets from it, however. The tactic of using racist appeals which can be publicly denounced is getting very old. Yet, if they work, they'll continue to be trotted out. We can wish that time were past, but anyone who knows the nature of private talk in America, also knows that era is still firmly with us.

An Unknown

It would be interesting, and useful, to know what portion of the people of the United States would actually like to scrap the Constitution and replace it with a presidential dictatorship.  It's a thing we can't know, of course, because we could never have an honest debate about it. Those in favor of a dictatorship would always claim to be supportive of the Constitution. Yet, over the course of the Bush administration we have learned that there are millions of citizens who have no concern for the Constitution, and no interest in it. There's no doubt that Bush and his inner circle have made an all-out assault on the Constitution and great numbers have cheered him on. His latest effort came with the "Defense Authorization Act of 2007," which the president signed in the middle of October. It contains a provision slipped in with almost no Congressional debate which, in effect," repeals the Posse Comitatus act of 1878.  This act which has stood for more than a century and a quarter, through two major wars, made it a crime for the president or any other official, to use the military forces to carry out law enforcement within the boundaries of the United States.  Now, an obscure clause in an act so complex few members of Congress have read it, gives the president the power to take charge of state-based National Guard units and to move them anywhere in the country, without the consent of local authorities, for the purpose of suppressing "public disorders." And who decides what a public disorder is? The president, by himself, is granted that authority. As Senator Leahy noted, "We certainly do not need to make it easier for Presidents to declare martial law. Invoking the Insurrection Act and using the military for law enforcement activities goes against some of the central tenets of our democracy." Mr. Leahy says so because he believes in the authority of the Constitution over the authority of the President. The people of his state stand by him in that belief. But, it's small state. How many other states want the president to be a Constitutional officer and not a dictator is hard to determine.

A Never Ending Issue?

You may think that Terri Schiavo is no longer a political issue but it seems still to be a hot topic in the Florida gubernatorial race. According to today's Tampa Tribune,  the Republican candidate Charlie Crist is being slammed for not taking an active position in the sensational fuss about whether Ms. Schiavo was brain dead. The Tribune, however, says he did take a stance by refusing to be as dogmatic about it as Governor Jeb Bush was. The Tribune is supporting Mr. Crist in his race against Democratic candidate Jim Davis, who was clear in saying the government should not get involved in the case. Somehow, though, in the mind of the Tribune's editor, Mr. Crist's non-stance deserves more credit than Davis's rightful position because Davis had less to lose than Crist did. I'm not sure anyone from outside Florida can understand how political argumentation works here. To tell the truth, I'm not sure anyone from Florida understands it either. But that doesn't appear to inhibit the passion which flourishes outside either reason or evidence.

The Effect of Fear

I continue to see commentary proclaiming that President Bush is trying to scare the people into voting for Republican candidates. This morning in the Washington Post, for example, Eugene Robinson makes that point strongly. I suppose it's true. Even so, I have a hard time conceiving of minds that could lessen their fear by electing a Republican. What is it they fear that Republicanism could possibly protect them against? I suspect this is one of those manufactured assertions that creates its own twisted sort of truth. Mr. Bush repeats, over and again, that failure to maintain Republican hegemony will constitute a threat. And, evidently, after a while, some people react to it automatically without ever asking themselves what possible truth the argument contains. There may be nothing more manipulatable than phony fear, fright that is conjured up more for the pleasure it delivers than out of genuine concern. We have become a nation where considerable numbers of us revel in that type of fear. Perhaps it adds drama to lives that otherwise would be intolerably flat. At any rate, that must be what Bush/Rove/Cheney are counting on.

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Harvard Square Commentary, November 6, 2006