The Smell of Empire

When I ponder the current state of affairs in America, I am reminded of a classic scene in The Sound of Music. Late in the movie, the von Trapp family decides to make a dash for the border. As they slowly push their car down the driveway, headlights suddenly illuminate their progress. Everything freezes. A weasel-faced Gestapo officer slowly approaches and hands the Captain an obviously opened telegram which instructs him to report for navy duty in Germany.

The Captain takes the letter and glances at its broken seal. After a measured pause, he looks the officer in the eye and replies:

"I was under the impression that the contents of personal telegrams in Austria were private…at least in the Austria I once knew."

It was a small thing, that opened telegram. But it was symbolic of so much more.

The American Republic is, to me, the concrete manifestation of our Founding Fathers’ idealized worldview. It is, of course, about the legalisms of constitutional law and representative government. But it also has a feel…a taste…a smell.

Like that telegram, which represented the fateful passage to a new order, my senses are starting to pick up the smells and tastes of Empire.

Neroism is in the air.

I remember reading somewhere that in early America, the White House was always thrown open to a huge public party on Inauguration Night. Various and sundry citizens would crowd inside and imbibe in ales and spirits until the wee hours. Fights would often break out…furniture would be destroyed. The place was so mobbed one time that the new president (I think it might have been Andrew Jackson) couldn’t get out through the front door to go meet friends across town. He had to crawl out a window and climb down a trellis.

Needless to say, this tradition has been discontinued.

President George Washington once decided to take a vacation to visit various friends in the Mid-Atlantic States. He took one or two staff members with him and disappeared in his coach. No one in the capital was sure where he was for 6 or 8 weeks. He re-appeared after a month or two, ready to get back to work.

When our president travels now, he takes an entourage that rivals that of an Egyptian Pharaoh.

Even the British Royals are now republicans by comparison. When Bush recently traveled to London, he thoroughly exasperated his hosts with a litany of crazy security demands. The Queen finally drew a line in the sand when the Secret Service wanted to tear out numerous walls in Buckingham Palace for reinforcement "in case of a rocket-propelled grenade attack."

David Brinkley once told a story describing Washington DC when he began his career. He related how the White House was seen very differently then. It was merely a public building, like any other. He told of how people would walk down Pennsylvania Avenue at lunchtime and throw blankets out onto the White House lawn to enjoy a summer picnic.

Try that now…they’ll mail your remains back to your next of kin in a Ziplock baggie.

As with that telegram, the signs of Empire are everywhere. Our mild-mannered Jimmy Stewart Republic has become a bloated Imperial corpse…like the decomposing carcass of Jabba the Hut.

It can be seen in George W. Bush’s smirk, and in Bill Clinton’s predatory oval office debauchery. It rears its ugly head in Hillary Clinton’s grasping power-hunger, and in Teresa Heinz’s Euro-trash superiority complex (Is she Johnny Depp in drag? Has anyone ever seen the two of them in one place at the same time?).

It appears in the sneering grin of the airport security guy as he ransacks my wife’s carry-on luggage. It shows up in those little cameras that are appearing throughout our major cities, and in the anti-aircraft missiles next to the Washington Monument.

I recently went to the bank to discuss moving a sum of my money for a business endeavor. The conversation quickly began to revolve around a variety of government regulations and paperwork. It appears that it is now necessary to fill out numerous forms "so that the Treasury Department knows what you are going to do with the money."

I looked the banker square in the eye and said, in my best Christopher Plummer voice:

"I was under the impression that what a man chooses to do with his own money in America is a private affair…at least in the America that I once knew."