HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

September 3, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Succession

The scuttlebutt around Washington is that even George Bush won't be able to find a worse attorney general than Alberto Gonzales. That may be true, but we need to keep in mind that the president's perspective is somewhat different from ours.

If the average citizen has an opinion about what kind of attorney general we need -- the thought is a stretch in itself -- it's probably someone who will enforce the law fairly. But that's a naive notion. People don't get to be attorney-generals because they will enforce the law. They get the job, rather, to carry out the president's policies. Gonzales loyally tried to do that. His problem was that he couldn't hide what he was doing with evasive rhetoric. When he spoke to Congressional committees, he sounded like a nitwit. And, perhaps, that's because he is a nitwit. I can't say for sure.

All the talk, though, about the Justice Department now being able to heal strikes me as scary. If it does heal -- under Bush's leadership -- what's it going to do? We are not going to get justice out of a department in Bush's administration because Bush doesn't know what justice is. So, if he manages to get a skillful spinner as attorney-general, it's possible for conditions to get worse -- as far as justice is concerned.

I don't see the point of celebrating Gonzales's departure. The best thing for the Justice Department, and for justice, would have been for him to be kept under a Congressional microscope during the remaining months of the Bush administration. Members of the Senate, of course, will make a lot of brave noises about continuing to check into what happened over the past several years. But the general rule with Congress is out of sight, out of mind. The administration will be able to twist justice more with Gonzales gone than with him in the limelight. And, I'll bet that's what people in the White House are saying to themselves right now.


Explanation

As the buzz of so-called news rushes towards us from our computers, TV sets, and newspapers, I assume that many citizens are like me in hoping to discover some principle or hypothesis that will help in grasping the workings of politics. Is there something other than chaos that orders the way political actions develop?

The theory I hear most often is that political operatives, though they may spout altruistic idealism, are pure power mongers with a single goal, to enlarge the power, first, of themselves and, then, of the little groups that surround them. Nothing, not public well-being, constitutional principle, decent impulse, nor religious faith, will ever be allowed to thwart, or even to modify, aggressive power-seeking.

There appears to be a good deal of evidence to support that notion, but I remain suspicious of any concept that pure (I am coming to be disgusted by purity above all qualities imagined by humans). Surely among the ranks of government officials and members of Congress there are men and women who do care, at least a little bit, about public equity. It's hard to believe that every politician in the nation is perfectly hypocritical and perfectly corrupt. Hypocrisy and corruption are robust forces in government; there's no doubt about that. But are they hegemonic? Do they overwhelm everything else? And, if they do, how is the average person to respond?

Yesterday, in a local used bookstore, I walked by a shelf containing the collected works of Benjamin Disraeli. There were twenty volumes in all. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of 19th Century British history knows that Disraeli was not always free of hypocrisy and most observers think he was capable of active opportunism. Yet as I looked at those books, I said to myself, "God! If we could have men like Disraeli heading our affairs we would be so much better off than we are." Disraeli's books may not constitute great literature, but they were real books that gave evidence of a real mind at work.

Who do we have now, appearing on the TV talk shows to tell us how we should behave in the world, that exhibits the same qualities? Can you imagine getting through a novel penned by Mitt Romney?

If I were forced to choose an underlying theory explaining the workings of current American politics, I'd base it on neither corruption nor hypocrisy. My pick would be dull-mindedness. I don't believe we have many public officials with minds lively enough either to perceive or to be offended by the intellectual garbage that is thrown at them everyday by their compatriots.

I realize that's not much of an explanation because it doesn't tell us why we have dull clods leading our political debates rather then personalities like Gladstone and Disraeli. But at least it gives us a place to start in trying to figure out what we can do.


Promptitude

I'm reasonably sure Mitt Romney's campaign is going to be weakened by the Larry Craig affair, not because Romney was formerly associated with the senator from Idaho But because of the hasty virulence in denouncing him. The thing that Romney doesn't understand about events of this sort is that though they draw much ridicule, they are also marked by an undercurrent of sympathy. People feel for a person in Craig's position, regardless of how pompous and hypocritical he has been in the past. Television has been sprinkled with remarks about Romney's cruelty, and it's not going to help him that New York Times editorialist Gail Collins wrote: : "it's good thing that when word about Craig first came out there weren't any small children or elderly people between him and the nearest microphone."

On top of the cruelty, there is Romney's declaration that the most important thing we want from public officials is that they serve as models for children. We assume that statements of that sort were crafted in public relations deliberations and that the candidate simply has a bad PR team. But we can't entirely dismiss the hideous possibility that they are sincere. Maybe that's what Romney actually believes. He has, of course, a reputation for not believing anything other than that he should be wafted incessantly to more powerful positions. Still, there are moments in our extended campaigns when real opinions slip out, and that's when certain candidates are most in danger.


Blasé

Another ho-hum headline -- "More Than 1800 Iraqis Killed in August."

Iraq has about one-twelfth the population of the United States, so a comparable number for us would be 21, 600. Do you suppose a headline that read, "More Than Twenty Thousand Americans Dead in August Due To War and Civil Strife" would make it above the centerfold. It might.

What's going on in Iraq because of our invasion and continued presence there has gone far beyond morality and is into the realm of action and reaction. No American politician will even begin to tell you what the reaction to those 1,800 dead will be, or the reaction to the similar number next month, or the month after that, and so on.

We see claims that the violence in Iraq is down, meaning not quite as many people were killed in the late summer as were killed in the spring. But if you chart the dead month by month, the number for every month in 2007 is greater than for the comparable month in 2006.

We also see reports that the American people just don't want to hear about it any more. What does that tell us? If your country is doing something that is bound to have dire consequences far into the future, and you don't want to hear about it, and if your reaction is like the reaction of most of your fellow citizens, then the notion that democracy prevails in your country is a farce.

I don't guess we'll get around to facing that any time soon. Our politicians aren't going to tell us. It wouldn't be good for their careers.


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