Although I served briefly as Congressman Ron Paul’s research assistant in the second half of 1976, I do not think of myself as a skilled political observer. But some things are obvious, and one of them is the present embarrassment of the faithful Republican Right as a result of the prison scandals in Iraq. It has all hinged on the photos. Oh, those irresistible photos!
That anyone could be so imbecilic as to take photos, let alone videos, of that morally repugnant debauchery illustrates a law of bureaucracy: there will eventually be some bureaucrat in any government bureaucracy who does something really stupid and then leaves a record. But it takes special level of mindlessness to make and keep a record that plays well on prime-time network television.
Nixon made audiotapes of his White House chats. This was stupid. But it took an illegal leaker inside the White House or else a stolen set of the tapes to disclose to the prosecutors which sections of the tapes were the condemning ones. The courts and the press successfully covered up what Susan Huck in 1975 thought should have been obvious: the prosecutors knew exactly where on each tape the condemning passages were. The prosecution did not receive carte blanche from the courts to obtain the actual tapes. They could demand only copies of specific extracts. Either there was a tipster inside the White House or else an illegal set of duplicate tapes that was given to the prosecutors. That was how the justice system got tricky Dick: by being even trickier. Yet even today, almost three decades after Dr. Huck published her discovery, only two Garys have picked it up: first Gary Allen, then Gary North.
This time, no such deception or illegal behavior has been necessary to get out the story. The photos are everywhere: on the Web, on al-Jezeera TV, and on network TV news. These photos condemn the United States publicly as nothing that I can recall in American history. Abu Ghraib is hardly the worst thing that the United States has ever done, but it is surely the worst thing that ever got captured on videotape and then reached a billion or more people on TV.
Rev. Talleyrand, the most famous survivor of the French Revolution, once quipped, “It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.” Abu Ghraib was both a crime and a blunder. It was a videotaped crime. In government circles, this is regarded as the worst possible crime. It got air time on prime-time TV.
And, speaking of air time. . . .
RUSH LIMBAUGH SOUNDS OFF
Rush Limbaugh faces daily the problem of everyone with a talk-based radio show: he must keep talking in order to overcome the most important threat on radio, namely, dead air. This means, inevitably, that the talker will say something really stupid. Talk show air time is to its hosts what video cameras are to Army prison guards. Eventually, it will lead to a gaffe.
When the talker is an ideologue, he feels compelled for the ratings’ sake to say something shocking about a recent event. A brief observation stating the obvious is never sufficient. I call this the Jerry Springer temptation. But the outlandish statement must also be consistent with the host’s perceived worldview, or at least his shtick. Limbaugh could not resist Abu Ghraib. CBS News has posted his words verbatim.
“I’m sorry, folks. I’m sorry. Somebody has to provide a little levity here. This is not as serious as everybody is making it out to be. My gosh, we’re all wringing our hands here. We act like, ‘Okay let’s just die,’ you know? ‘Let’s just give up. What can we do to make these people feel better? Let’s just pull out of there, and let’s just go. Let’s just become a neutral country. Let’s just do that.’ I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s outrageous what’s happening here, and it’s not — and it’s not because I’m out of touch; it’s because I am in touch, folks, that I can understand. This is a pure, media-generated story. I’m not saying it didn’t happen; I’m [not] saying the pictures aren’t there, but this is being given more life than the Waco invasion got. This is being given more life than almost — it’s almost become an Oklahoma City-type thing. One more Bush sound bite, and the president continued explaining how real democracy works here.”
I saw this segment on the CBS Evening News, taken from his Web site. I could not believe my ears. He was also quoted by The New Republic.
Here is what he said to a caller and then posted on his own website (May 4): This is no different than what happens at the skull and bones initiation and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You of heard of need to blow some steam off?
There was a time in America when even hard-core conspiracy buffs had not heard of Skull & Bones. They may have seen the 1970 TV movie starring Glenn Ford, The Brotherhood of the Bell, but nobody who was not a Yale alumnus knew it was about Bones. That changed after Ron Rosenbaum published his article on Skull & Bones in Esquire (Sept. 1977), followed by Antony Sutton’s book on America’s Secret Establishment (1983).
Today, with a pair of Bonesmen running against each other for President, a Bones initiation has become a joke for Limbaugh, little more than a fraternity hazing event. He has no awareness that taking a bloody self-maledictory oath, coupled with self-revelations to fourteen fellow initiates of one’s sexual history, might have psychological and social effects in a person’s life — effects that have to do with obedience, oath-bound silence, and control.
[Side note: I hope that some interviewer at the televised debate asks both of the candidates to describe Bones and their relation to it. This, according to the original Bones’ rules, would force both of them to leave the TV studio immediately. Then we could watch a movie re-run or something more useful. This will not happen, of course. No one will ask.]
Limbaugh’s statement is representative of the Republican Party’s response to the Abu Ghraib videos: trivialization. His statement can serve as a convenient epitaph for the Republican Right, written by its number-one cheerleader.
In our day, Rush Limbaugh is the past master of keeping the Republic Right in line. That was a productive public service when the Clintons were in office. He can be amusing. He sometimes goes to the heart of a matter. He is a master of ridicule. For eight years, he inflicted pain on one group of incumbent politicians, which is half the battle in a two-party system. But with the Republicans in power, he must of necessity maintain his position as the party’s in-house cheerleader. His ridicule is reserved today for those who are inflicting pain on incumbent Republicans — the other half of the battle.
Limbaugh has now spoken for his listeners. He has articulated their moral vision. This moral vision can be expressed in one sentence: “When our guys get caught breaking the law, the infraction is not a crime any more.” This outlook denies the rule of law. Specifically, it denies Exodus 12:49. “One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” The rule of law is the bedrock judicial foundation of Western civilization. Limbaugh has dismissed it as a joke.
Is this politics as usual? You bet it is.
THE AGNEW EFFECT
Three decades ago, the Nixon Administration was being assailed from all sides. Vice President Spiro Agnew was under investigation for income tax evasion as a result of bribes he had taken as governor of Maryland. He told the press at one point, “I did nothing as governor of Maryland that any previous governor had not done.” That was when I concluded that he was guilty as charged. Maryland was legendary for its political corruption.
I recall one televised snippet in the months prior to his “nolo contendere” (no contest) plea on October 10, 1973. He was speaking to a crowd of Republican faithful. He told the crowd that he was innocent, and that he would not resign. I specifically recall a group of women, wearing straw hats, jumping up and down and cheering. I think they were also waving little American flags, but I could be wrong. Mentally, they surely were.
He soon resigned in disgrace. Had he not been caught, he would have become President when Nixon resigned in disgrace ten months later.
[Side note: Agnew did not serve time in prison. He was forced to pay the IRS $10,000 for interest and penalties. Then he got sued by a group of Maryland residents, who had been put up to this by a group of George Washington University law students, who were doing it as a class project. They had found a precedent in old English law that required a malefactor to re-pay the state of Maryland for his graft. He was convicted and had to write a check for $268,482.]
Those women in their straw hats symbolize the terminally gullible. Politics could not function in a democracy without the votes of the terminally gullible. These people are the infantry of democratic politics. They are the boots on the ground. They are the ones who are told to march in the mud of local campaigns. They are the targets of psychological warfare — not just by the enemy, but by their commanders.
Over time, they die off. Their ranks are not being replaced. The steady decline in the percentage of Americans who vote indicates the extent of the attrition. Terminally gullible people are becoming more scarce.
Terminally gullible voters are always in the hip pockets of whichever political party they belong to. People in a politician’s hip pocket spend most of their lives being sat on.
THE PARTY FAITHFUL TODAY
Today, there are millions of Republican faithful whose attitude is this: “George W., he’s my man.” This is normal in politics. Clinton had the same kind of support, as have all Presidents. But Bush is facing what Clinton did not face. Seducing an intern with a cigar is not the same thing, politically speaking, as what happened in Abu Ghraib prison. Here is the difference: Lewinsky did not have a videotape of the event. Had she had a video, rather than a semen-stained dress, Clinton would have been convicted by the Senate. Why? Because of on-camera stupidity. (Of course, had she not kept the unwashed dress, he would not have been impeached by the House.)
A President can get away with anything except gross stupidity in full public view. To embarrass your political peers is considered unforgivable. You embarrass them by doing something truly stupid that leaves a record. Their constituents may think, “This guy was taken in by the President. He must be really gullible.” Making tapes is incontrovertibly stupid. Without the audiotapes, Nixon would not have been forced out.
Bush’s ratings are falling. Why? Because of the videotapes. There is no scandal yet. Congress is miffed that it was ignored by Rumsfeld, but nobody is saying, “Bush must have known about this.”
At this point, Bush is protected by the perception that he is not too bright, which is not the case. He got through Yale University and Harvard Business School. His problem is not a low IQ. He, like Clinton, can remember everyone’s name. He is no dummy.
Here is his intellectual problem. He lacks the ability to assess the truth of what he is being told by his subordinates. He cannot sort the wheat from the chaff. Being President, he is surrounded mostly by chaff. Politics is long on chaff and short on wheat.
His mind does not work in a coherent fashion. He cannot put things together, and details bore him. He is also inarticulate. He seems like a bit of a dim-wit on-camera. This protects him politically in a world where most voters perceive themselves in much the same way: bright enough to get by in life, but confused and unable to speak in public. Millions of them think, “George W. he’s my man.”
But now the videos have arrived. The moral debauchery of what was done has not outraged the party faithful. Instead, it has embarrassed them. No one likes to be embarrassed.
There is something else — never mentioned in public. Private England is so plug-ugly that when I first saw the thumbs-up photo, I thought she was male. Yet she is four months pregnant. This fact undermines the confidence of American males in our troops. “What kind of soldier would impregnate this woman? To what level have our troops fallen?” No political commentator ever mentions this. The very suggestion is sexist.
If you ever had any doubts about women in the military, Private England should settle the question. General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of Abu Ghraib, and who has been quietly moved out of Iraq, has also not made it any easier for members of the National Organization of Women. Her defense was developed by Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes. “I know nothing. Nothing!” She was out of the loop. I think of these two women as Schafly’s revenge.
To trivialize Abu Ghraib is easy. Limbaugh has done it, instinctively, knowing that this would be accepted by his audience. The fact is, most politically decisive issues are trivial. Great moral issues rarely reach the top of the short list of those issues that decide political outcomes in modern democracies. Great issues of right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, threaten to divide electorates. Incumbent politicians do whatever they can to de-fuse such issues, for they do not want their constituents divided. They want a majority of the voters who show up at the polls to re-elect them.
The more voters who show up, the more risk there is for incumbents. Moral issues attract voters who normally stay home out of boredom or disgust with politics. No incumbent politician wants a lot of newcomers to show up at the polls. Their presence might de-stabilize the existing order, wherein he has been able to win.
So, it is unlikely that Abu Ghraib will become a moral line drawn in the political sand. It is likely that the photos, the investigations, and the drip-drip-drip of the media will produce a sense of embarrassment and even disgust on the part of the Republican faithful. The faithful will not rise up in righteous disbelief to defend Bush or Rumsfeld. They will mumble. Then they will think about something else.
WHEN THERE ARE NO PHOTOS
What is not trivial is the fact that at least five prisoners died as a result of military interrogations in Iraq. This story has hit the American press in the hinterlands (The Denver Post), but is not front-page news in the senior newspapers of record. These deaths took place last year. There were no videos, so Congress does not care. Even getting linked on Drudge’s site made no difference. Photos matter. Official reports don’t. Prime-time matters. Murder doesn’t.
The deaths include the killing in November of a high-level Iraqi general who was shoved into a sleeping bag and suffocated, according to the Pentagon report. The documents contradict an earlier Defense Department statement that said the general died “of natural causes” during an interrogation. Pentagon officials declined to comment on the new disclosure. Another Iraqi military officer, records show, was asphyxiated after being gagged, his hands tied to the top of his cell door. Another detainee died “while undergoing stress technique interrogation,” involving smothering and “chest compressions,” according to the documents.
Details of the death investigations, involving at least four different detention facilities including the Abu Ghraib prison, provide the clearest view yet into war-zone interrogation rooms, where intelligence soldiers and other personnel have sometimes used lethal tactics to try to coax secrets from prisoners, including choking off detainees’ airways. Other abusive strategies involve sitting on prisoners or bending them into uncomfortable positions, records show.
“Torture is the only thing you can call this,” said a Pentagon source with knowledge of internal investigations into prisoner abuses. “There is a lot about our country’s interrogation techniques that is very troubling. These are violations of military law.”
I am waiting for Rush Limbaugh’s lively comments on these developments. I wonder what fraternity rites he will compare these to.
A widespread sense of shame is fatal for an incumbent political party. Only slightly less threatening is a widespread sense of embarrassment. If the party faithful, who spend their lives in the party’s hip pocket, decide to stay home, then the other party will become the incumbent party.
There should be a sense of moral outrage in Republican Party ranks. There never is, of course. Outrage is always reserved for big-name candidates of the other party. But there is a growing sense of embarrassment. While most Republicans are not willing to condemn the armed forces command system of having perpetrated a great moral evil, or even accuse it of incompetence, they are ready to wonder what lies ahead for a military regime staffed by troops with video cameras and no common sense. According to the Army Times, American troops in Iraq are referring to the six morons who lost the war. This raises legitimate questions regarding the wisdom of the Administration that started it.
The photos have betrayed the Republican faithful. They, like those straw hat ladies in Agnew’s crowd of adoring fans, now sense that they have somehow been misused. This sense of doubt points to the truth: they have indeed been misused. They will never admit this to their Democrat friends. But they will not be so ready to show up on election day next November. Some will drop out of politics. Nobody likes being made a fool in public, and Private England has made fools of millions of Republican stalwarts.
When the party faithful stay home, swing voters will decide the outcome of an election this close. This is bad news for Republicans.
Some of us remember the 1960 sketch of Nixon, reprinted everywhere: “Would you buy a used car from this man?” It lost the election for him. I keep imagining a photo of Private England, thumbs up. The caption: “Is this the line of defense between you and Osama bin Laden?”
May 21, 2004