Steven C. Day's "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe"
June 8, 2005
|STEVEN C. DAY'S ARCHIVES|
According to the Bible in Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3 (popularized among the non devout by Pete Seeger’s song recorded by the Byrds), “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die; A time to plant, And a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, And a time to heal; A time to break down, And a time to build up . . .”
And to add something which, though it’s implied, is never specifically stated in the verse: There is a time to talk, And a time to act.
Last Chance Democracy Café
This has been a good couple of weeks for old farts like me: Finally, there’s a topic in the news regarding which young bucks have no choice but to admit, however reluctantly, that we age-impaired types know more about than they do -- Watergate.
Thank you, Mark Felt! You not only helped to blow the cover off one of the great political scandals of the 20th Century; you have also given a whole generation of graying politicos one last moment in the sun.
I was 18-years-old when the full force of the scandal broke in 1973. More politically attuned than many of my fellows (they actually dated girls, drank beer and that sort of thing), I spent the better part of my summer that year camped out on the couch, dutifully watching the Senate Watergate Hearings. I still remember the highlights of the unfolding scandal: Old Senator Sam Ervin, the Chairperson of the committee, dishing out down home homilies: John Dean, young, earnest -- unshakable. HR Halderman -- Nixon’s enforcer, looking every bit as guilty as he was. Martha Mitchell, surely a crooked politician’s worst nightmare: A crazy wife who loved to call up reporters in the middle of the night.
And then there was Nixon himself, undoubtedly one of the most psychologically complex political figures in American history: A tragic combination of genius and corruption.
Watergate teaches many lessons, but there are two in particular that seem particularly pertinent today: First, although the break in at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee and the subsequent cover up were the immediate events that forced Nixon to resign, what really brought him down was the long term pattern of corruption and abuse of power that led up to them. Persistent lawlessness and chronic deceit have a way of catching up with a person -- even the President of the United States.
Second, the truth about Watergate and the related scandals didn’t come to light because people talked about how bad Nixon was: It took action -- courageous and dedicated action on the part of many, many people.
* * *
Horace stroked his chin, tapped the table top with his index finger and then looked Zach straight in the eye.
“Oh, God,” said Zach in a voice that managed to sound at once both resigned and cheerful. “Here we go again.”
Everyone else at the large round table laughed. We all knew as well as Zach the significance of Horace’s stirrings, or at least thought we did. It was question and answer time; and as always, our young college friend was about to become the man in the box, as Horace, and to a lesser degree the others, good-naturedly grilled him on some topic of the day.
This happens so often here at the café that Winston once quipped that we’re the only tavern in the world that uses the Socratic method of drinking.
But we were wrong about Horace this time.
It was a dreary early summer evening outside, as the last traces of rush hour traffic whizzed past the café’s windows. Angry dark clouds blanketed the sky, too proud it seemed to surrender any rain, but too obstinate to yield to the sun.
And, as we would soon discover, Horace’s mood well reflected this darkness.
That I had somehow managed to miss Horace’s unhappy state earlier, when, as I do every Wednesday, I acted as chauffeur in bringing Horace, Tom and Winston to my café, reflected a degree of self-absorption on my part that I would likely have found troubling had Horace not kept my attention riveted elsewhere.
“Zach,” He began irritably, “do you ever get tired of all the fucking talking that goes on around here? All the fucking talking that liberals do in general, for that matter?”
To say that hearing Horace speak in this churlish and profane fashion was a surprise, would be approximately equivalent to saying that having Dick Cheney win the Nobel Peace Prize while being simultaneously voted Miss Congeniality in a beauty pageant would be slightly unexpected.
Horace’s conduct wasn’t surprising: It was stunning; true, he had once become emotionally distraught and angry during a particularly intense, and for him personally disturbing, discussion at the café (Episode 29.1). But for him to start off the evening in this kind of foul mood was totally out of character.
Something was clearly up.
“Well . . .” began Zach, who I’m quite certain was sufficiently shell-shocked as to have no idea whatsoever what to say in response.
Horace let him off the hook, however, by barging ahead himself, “Because I’ve got to tell you, I’m tired of it! Damn sick and tired of it!” He was half shouting now. “Talk, talk, talk and then fucking talk some more . . . that’s us, boys! I mean, right now . . . right at this very moment as we’re busily exercising our jowls the United States is literally falling into a black hole in Iraq! A God damned black hole!”
“We know that, Horace” I replied in what immediately struck me as an embarrassingly weaselly voice.
Horace’s response was terse: “So, if we know it, then what the hell are we doing about it? And more importantly, what the hell are the Democrats in Congress doing about it?”
“ . . . I’m thinking,” I replied after a few seconds.
“Well, feel free to just keep on thinking until Joe Lieberman grows a spine, for all I care. Because it won’t change the fact that the Democrats, with just a few honorable exceptions like John Conyers, Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy, aren’t doing a damn thing about Iraq. But then why should that surprise us? It isn’t like we haven’t been here before. Think back to 2000: Bush stole the presidency. Stole it as plain as a thug grabbing an old woman’s purse. Now, one would think that the act of stealing the presidency in the world’s oldest functioning democracy might produce a fairly strong response, wouldn’t you?”
He was looking at me.
“I guess,” was all I could muster in response. Jesus -- that was certainly a gold star on my forensics record.
“And what did we actually do?” thundered Horace. As revved up as he was, I was sort of hoping he hadn’t noticed how lame my last response was. “How did we fight back?” he continued. “Why, we did the same thing liberals always do, of course, we tried to talk the bastards to death. Whatever move they made during the post election fight, our response was always just to jabber some more.
“They hit the streets; we complained. They staged a riot; we expressed outrage. They engaged in a systematic plot to deny minority Americans their constitutional right to vote; we shouted ‘for shame!’ They grabbed the momentum during the recount by pushing the ridiculous line . . . the utterly unfathomable bullshit that somehow by demanding that every vote be counted we were actually trying to steal the election; and we said, ‘now, now, please don’t get upset.’ They waged a street fight; we held a tea party.
“In the meanwhile, of course, Bush was sworn into office . . . an event, by the way, which will almost certainly go down in history as one of the great turning points for the worse in the history of the United States. But, hey, at least we liberals had a nice chat!”
* * *
As an aside, Horace’s outburst offers a good example of just how fundamentally the worldview of most partisan Democrats, and I use the term partisan in a positive way (standing for something), differs from that of much of the major news media.
To the major media, the 2000 election controversy isn’t just old news, it’s ancient history. And when a liberal Democrat, like Horace, brings it up in conjunction with discussing something like the War in Iraq, most media types write it off as sour grapes.
But to most liberal Democrats, the 2000 election and Iraq are inseparable: Two different ends of the same rotten vine.
And when we see our political leaders adopt the media’s line on this, as they almost always do, it sets our spleens on fire.
* * *
Horace, by the way, was still in full rage. I figured the best thing to do was to let him have his say. Once he’d blown off the excess anger, I was sure he’d be back to normal. Then in due course we’d find out what set him off.
Tom, who apparently had a different approach in mind, tried to break in. “What in the blue blazes are you talking . . . ?”
Horace brushed him aside like a locomotive plowing through a tumbleweed. “So the son of a bitch sneaks into the Oval Office through the back door with the help of his friends on the Supreme Court. So what did the Democrats do in response? Huh? Did they call his sorry ass out as the pretender to the throne he was? Join the Congressional Black Caucus in challenging his election when the vote of the electoral college was presented? Declare their intention to fight him at every turn? Well, did they . . . ?”
No one rushed in to answer.
It was every man for himself.
Actually, it was every woman for herself, as well. I could see Molly hiding behind the door to the kitchen.
Finally, I said, “I have to admit that isn’t how I remember it.”
“Damn straight! Because that isn’t how it happened! Instead of even trying to fight back, most of our pansy assed representatives fell all over themselves trying to kiss the new pontiff’s ring! And boy howdy did Bush play them like a master, swearing to be bipartisan . . . You remember, the promise he made in that speech before the Texas Legislature right after the Supreme Court put him into office . . .”
“Yeah, I remember,” I said in a quiet “please don’t hurt me” sort of a voice.
“Of course you remember,” he continued. “We all do: He promised to reach across the aisle to Democrats and bring us together as a nation. Of course it was all a lie.”
“The first of many,” nodded Tom, who I was glad to see was finally on board with my “let him blow off some steam” game plan for calming Horace down.
But Horace clearly still had plenty of steam left. “Yeah, it was a lie, alright,” he barked. “Beginning almost the second he hit Washington, Bush became one of the most partisan and ideologically driven presidents in American history, using the good fortune . . . or perhaps I should say the ill-gotten gain of his minority presidency to push through a radically conservative agenda.”
“Bastard,” muttered Winston, who always has had a knack for summing things up in a nice succinct way.
“But even as Bush and the GOP pushed one highly partisan piece of legislation after another, the Democrats just kept talking about bipartisanship.”
My plan for calming Horace down was looking a little suspect at this point: If anything, he seemed to be picking up steam.
“I mean, for God’s sake,” he shouted loud enough that the dart players on the other side of the lounge looked over to see what was going on, “has there ever been a more irresponsible and mean-spirited legislative act than the adoption of Bush’s first tax cut package, even if the Democrats did manage to improve it a little! I mean, wasn’t that just swell! Why not in one fell swoop junk the solvency of Social Security, dramatically increase the already staggering divide between the haves and the have nots, pass on a massive debt to our children and . . .”
“Now in fairness,” Tom bravely stuck his head into the lion’s mouth, “a lot of Democrats fought that tax cut . . .”
“Oh, they talked up a storm in opposition, all right. They talked and they talked and they talked. But when it came time to vote . . .”
“I know . . .” Tom started to concede.
“ . . . a whole bunch of Democrats voted with Bush . . . a whole bunch. And then they complimented themselves on how well bipartisanship was working in Washington.”
“I know,” repeated Tom.
“And then the towers came down.” Horace’s voice was suddenly calmer, more circumspect. “And almost 3,000 of our countrymen died at the hands of madmen who were promising us more of the same. And even I’ll admit that those first weeks after Sept. 11 were no time for excessive partisanship. And true enough, after the attacks, Americans of every stripe, liberals, conservatives and moderates alike, offered our support to the man . . . the man who, no matter what we had thought of him before, was now the only president we had. The only leader we had to look to. And as hard as it was to do . . . given everything that had come before, even hard core Bush opponents like me at least tried to place our trust in him, trusting that surely . . . surely, in the name of God, things would now be different. That at long last he would truly become a president for all Americans.”
* * *
For me, Sept. 11, 2001 will always be the day of a million images: The North tower ablaze, looking eerily like a giant smokestack. The sudden fireball as the second plane smashed into the South tower. The unthinkable collapse -- two huge mountains disappearing, leaving a hole in the sky the size of a planet; the smoke that seemed to billow forever from the rubble.
The aftermath: The agony on the faces; the desperate searching for loved ones; the “have you seen this person” signs; The heroes; the martyrs; the demagogues; the famous picture of the three dusty firefighters raising the American flag over the rubble; the sinister face of Osama bin Laden; the blank stare of George W. Bush as he read My Pet Goat; all meshed together in my mind -- all part of the same unforgettable collage.
And as Horace said, to a degree unseen for years, America stood united.
And for just one moment it actually seemed possible that George W. Bush might grow to be a worthy custodian of that unity: Here were the closing words of his short speech after the attacks -- the speech that gave so many of us hope that maybe, just maybe he was up to the job after all:
Yes! “Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace.” Those were the words we were all looking for -- one people, one nation and one purpose. At long last, in this his hour of challenge, he was going to redeem that long forgotten pledge of bipartisanship and really become the president of all Americans, not just of the wealthy and of the religious right.
But Horace was right here too, of course: In the end, it was all just one more lie.
* * *
Horace took a moment for a sip of beer. I took that to be a positive sign he was continuing to calm down. And I was glad to see it.
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with his outrage -- or anything particularly inappropriate about his conduct, for that matter. As the proprietor of a café that serves liquor, believe me, I’ve seen a lot worse -- and a lot worse over things far less serious than a breach of trust by the President of the United States and the failure of the opposing party to properly attack it. No, Horace was just fine. So he was furious over the state of his country: What of it? That was his right as an American, and God knows he’d paid the price for it, what with having lost his only son, Lester, in Vietnam.
It’s just, well, I’ve said it before; Horace is our rock here. He’s the one who talks the rest of us down from the ledges and puts the world back into focus for us when we need it. To see him showing signs of losing faith was to see our own lifeline in jeopardy.
But I had nothing to worry about. He was back.
Horace ran his hand across his forehead, shrugged his shoulders and said to Zack “Well, I guess I’ve shown you my butt again, son."
Zach smiled: “No. I think that was your heart.”
Damn, I like that kid.
“The thing is,” Horace began slowly, his emotions still obvious, but well in check, “Bush took that trust we gave him . . . that America gave him in those horrible days following Sept. 11 and he misused it. He co-opted it to push through additional tax cuts and other giveaways to his rich campaign contributors . . . things that actually harmed public safety, by draining away dollars critically needed for things like homeland security; he misapplied it in granting huge corporate welfare giveaways to politically connected defense contractors; he misappropriated it in closing down public access to governmental information, more often than not to protect himself politically, rather than to protect us from terrorist attacks.”
“And don’t forget the Patriot Act,” sighed Winston, “which at the end of the day is little more than a wish list of police powers and restrictions on civil liberties the administration wanted long before Sept. 11. Bush used the attacks as the excuse to rush them into law . . .”
“All true,” agreed Horace. “But without a doubt, the worst thing of all . . . other than Iraq, of course, was the degree to which Bush & Company used the War on Terrorism as a political weapon to help the Republican Party . . . although once again, until recently, the Democrats seemed largely unwilling or unable to do anything about it.”
“Who could ever forget the famous Karl Rove slide show in 2002, for example” offered Tom.
“I think I remember that,” said Zach. “Didn’t he prepare a slide show . . . saying that the Republicans should focus on the War on Terrorism in the campaign? That they should argue that Republicans would be better than Democrats at protecting America from terrorist attack, right?”
“So much for united we stand,” sneered Winston.
Tom added, “And let’s not forget that nifty little Sept. 11 based fundraising scheme the Republicans came up with. You remember, they offered to give anyone who contributed to their congressional campaign committees a picture of Bush taken on Sept. 11. And then, of course, there’s their gall in scheduling the Republican Convention in New York City to correspond with the date of the attacks. Nothing but class these guys, huh?”
“Can you imagine anything more pathetic?” said Horace sadly. “More debased? More un-American? First, the Republicans insist that the whole country, Democrats as well as Republicans, must join together and rally around Bush in response to the terrorist attacks. Then when the Democrats do just that, they turn 180 degrees and use 9-11 for partisan political gain . . . up to and including, I should add, facilitating one of the dirtiest political campaigns in modern American history, the 2002 senate race in Georgia, in which the Republicans actually questioned Max Cleland’s patriotism, a man who only sacrificed three of his four limbs in the military service of his country.”
“It was a sin,” said Tom.
“It was a crime,” I added.
Horace disagreed. “No, the crime was in how he misused 9-11 and then lied in so many other ways too in order to draw us into Iraq. He’s done a lot of dishonest things, but ultimately that’s the one he has to answer for . . . The one that’s cost almost 1,700 American lives so far, and according to at least one study, as many as a 100,000 Iraqi lives.”
“At least the Democrats are starting to show a little spine,” said Tom.
Horace nodded in agreement. “But that isn’t good enough anymore. Not now. Not since we’ve seen proof beyond any reasonable doubt that High Crimes have been committed. The time for pure talk is over. It’s time to act.”
END OF PART ONE
* * *
COMING UP IN PART TWO: Say hello to the “I” word and the politics of action.
* * *
Read all the "The Last Chance Democracy Cafe" episodes in the archives.
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004, Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001