Who's Minding the Store?

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A character in Preston Sturges’s great political parody, Hail the Conquering Hero gives the best description of American politics: "The phony always wins, until a bigger phony comes along. Then he wins."

Listening to John Kerry and John Edwards attack W for misleading the nation and leading it into war under false pretenses, one is tempted to heave a sigh of relief that the truth has finally made its way into the mainstream. But guess again.

In this Sunday’s New York Times’ gigantic story about the flawed intelligence leading up to the war, there is a portion buried well into it that shows how Kerry and Edwards were both out to lunch, asleep at the switch, or however one wishes to describe dereliction of duty. That salute by Kerry as he proclaimed "Reporting for duty" was a farce. Some duty.

As the Times explains, Kerry never even read the National Intelligence Estimate before he voted to give Bush the authority to go to war against Iraq. "According to the CIA’s report, all U.S. intelligence experts agree that Iraq is seeking nuclear weapons," Kerry said just before he cast his infamous vote. "There is little question that Saddam Hussein wants to develop nuclear weapons."

Instead of doing his job by asking the "hard questions" he promises to ask after his election, he satisfied himself with a briefing by George Tenet. My urologist had to remind me that I had come to see him after I first heard Tenet speak at the Yale Club just after Clinton had appointed him. "You told me he was a complete jerk," he reminded me. But was he a bigger jerk than "Joe," the CIA engineer who got it all wrong about those aluminum tubes? Bob Graham who served as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and who read the report, voted against the war resolution. "It reinforced in my mind pre-existing questions I had about the unreliability of the intelligence community, especially the CIA," he affirmed. Graham’s candidacy for president lasted a couple of months, largely because he looks like a turtle and keeps a copious diary of his day’s activities, something Kerry would never do, lest the public find out how little he actually does.

Which brings to mind a statement made to me by Congressman Barney Frank, during the course of my interview with him for my biography of Allard Lowenstein, The Pied Piper. "This is a great job," he told me, smiling in his resplendent Congressional office. "I don’t have to do anything." Meaning, his staff does all the work and tells him how to vote.

Which brings us to John Edwards, one of the country’s most successful trial lawyers. As a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Edwards had the chance to discuss the WMDs and the nuclear program in Iraq with Graham, but he didn’t. The evidence shows he didn’t bother to read the report either. Asking no hard questions, Edwards stated: "We know that he (Sadddam) is doing everything he can to build nuclear weapons." Never mind that the Department of Energy, alias the bomb factory, had concluded that "based on these tubes," no one could construct a centrifuge site capable of producing enriched uranium.

It is impossible to imagine that John Edwards would ever examine a witness in a multi-million dollar trial without familiarizing himself with the transcripts of the examination before trial and all the evidence. But he didn’t do his homework when a vote to go to war was at issue. Why not? For the same reason that George Tenet was constantly missing in action when his presence was called for and Colin Powell went along with the rods story, without questioning it. That reason is that almost no one in Washington does anything, not the president, not Kerry, not Edward, not Dick Cheney. They run around pretending to be busy, but they are not seriously involved in doing the people’s business. And we pay for this, with our money and with our lives.

And, if you think, things will be getting better at the CIA, think again. Porter Goss, a former Republican Congressman from Florida, who has just taken over as Director, has tapped an acknowledged shoplifter whom the police forced to resign from the CIA twenty years ago, as number three at the Agency (Executive Director), from which position, he will be in charge of the budget. It is surreal.

The political classes in America exist entirely separately from the citizenry, as a separate and distinct interest group responsible to no one. The end result of this is that the very existence of the state is inimical to the well-being of the people who inhabit it. The crowds cheering Kerry and Bush are fools, which leaves the rest of us in the same situation as the taxi driver in Groucho Marx’s famous skit. Groucho gets into the taxi and says to the driver, "Over a cliff. I’m committing suicide."

How to get out of the taxi? First, don’t be fooled that Kerry is any better than Bush, that the Democrats are better than the Republicans. Voting third party is appropriate in this election, as is telling your friends, neighbors and relatives that you are not fooled, that this entire political system must be restructured. But as Tom Brokaw said to Chris Matthews, "Those in power won’t do it because this is the system that got them where they are." Jump out of the doomed vehicle that is the two-party system and turn your back on the conspiracy of mediocrity that is destroying America. Voting for the bigger of two phonies will no longer do. In the immortal words of Nancy Reagan, "Just say no."

Richard Cummings [send him mail] taught international law at the Haile Selassie I University and before that, was Attorney-Advisor with the Office of General Counsel of the Near East South Asia region of U.S.A.I.D, where he was responsible for the legal work pertaining to the aid program in Israel, Jordan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is the author of a new novel, The Immortalists, as well as The Pied Piper — Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream, and the comedy, Soccer Moms From Hell. He holds a Ph.D. in Social and Political Sciences from Cambridge University and is a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers. He is writing a new book, The Road To Baghdad — The Money Trail Behind The War In Iraq. He is a contribution editor for The American Conservative.

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