More Equal than Others

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One spring, just before the end of the Cold War, my wife and I visited Riga. On a walk, we stumbled upon an informal street market. The goods set out on the pavement and the appearance of the vendors told us that times were tough in Latvia. A young man with very bad teeth standing behind a rickety folding tray with a row of rusty fishhooks on it told me in a mixture of German and English how the Russians had polluted the Gulf of Riga so badly that the fish caught there were not safe to eat.

Suddenly, an olive-colored truck with a tarp stretched over the back rumbled into the market and struck a pedestrian, knocking him to the pavement. The driver of the truck stopped, jumped out, walked over to the guy, who seemed tipsy, yelled at him, smacked him around a bit, then got back into the truck and drove off. The guy sat there for a moment, wiped some blood from his face, got up slowly, and limped off. I looked around. No one offered to help. No one wrote down the license number of the truck. No one looked the least bit surprised. The fishhook seller looked at me and shrugged.

* * *

The social contract can be understood as a deal. You are obligated to act within the law. As long as you do, society is obligated to protect your rights. Should you act outside the law, your rights are subject to forfeiture, which means society can take your property, your liberty, or, sometimes, your life. Even though you didn’t sign the social contract, that’s the way it is, like it or not. (In reality, it’s not so simple, of course, but this thumbnail description will do for now.)

A crucial clause of this unwritten contract is that everyone in society is bound by its terms. Everyone is obligated to act within the law. Whoever you are, should you act illegally, your rights are subject to proportionate forfeiture. On the flip side, society is obligated to protect the rights of everyone. Whoever you are, provided you act legally, society must protect your rights. This is sometimes called equality before the law. Without this clause, the social contract can be said to be void, which means it does not exist. Put another way, this equality clause is a sine qua non of the social contract. (Again, it’s more complicated than that, but that’s close enough.)

The driver of the truck stopped, jumped out, walked over to the guy, who seemed tipsy, yelled at him, smacked him around a bit, then got back into the truck and drove off.

In a way, then, there are two kinds of inequality before the law. The first occurs when society fails to protect the rights of someone who has acted within the law. This tends to happen to people who are socially and politically powerless. The second occurs when someone acts outside the law and society fails to impose any consequence, or a proportionate one. This usually happens to the powerful. Only when such a failure on the part of society to protect or to punish happens because of the status of the person in question is it a clear example of inequality before the law. Both kinds of failure result in what is sometimes called a miscarriage of justice.

"Thirty Years on Death Row," a 60 Minutes episode first aired on October 11, 2015, provides a good example of the first kind of miscarriage of justice. Glenn Ford was convicted of murder in 1983, then spent 30 years in solitary confinement on death row in Angola prison before the real killer was identified and Ford was released, only to die a few years later of cancer. Marty Stroud, the prosecutor who sent Ford to prison, confesses that he pressed his case at the trial to get a guilty verdict when he knew that some of the evidence was dubious. He admits that the prosecution was successful only because Ford was a poor black man facing an all white jury. He knew at the trial that the defense team had never tried a criminal case, much less a capital one, and that they were hopelessly overmatched, in both experience and resources.

In 1962, the young, drunk scion of a wealthy family in Maryland angrily struck a barmaid with his cane. She died. The killer was fined $625 and served a six-month prison sentence. This is an example of the second kind of miscarriage of justice, where society fails to punish proportionately. The inadequate sentence prompted Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan to write the song "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." She was the black barmaid. Society failed in its obligation under the terms of the social contract to adequately punish William Zantzinger, the rich white guy who killed Ms. Carroll.

Everyone agrees that a Romanian hacker, who says he breached the server, revealed to the world that it existed and that the secretary tried to cover her tracks.

The distinction between these two kinds of miscarriages of justice can become blurred. Some consider the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray to be examples of society’s failure to protect the rights of the powerless, while others see them primarily as examples of society’s failure to punish their empowered killers. Still others see the deaths as tragedies or simple misfortunes, but not examples of injustice. Similarly, some think that the rights of Mary Jo Kopechne were not protected by society when Edward M. Kennedy was given a two-month suspended sentence for leaving her to suffocate in a submerged car, waiting nine hours even to report the accident. It has also been said that his real punishment was that he never got the keys to the Oval Office. Did O.J. Simpson escape the consequences of his illegal actions because he was a wealthy celebrity, or was he hounded by the system because of his race? Or is the fate of his wife the greater tragedy? Each purported miscarriage of justice is different and, as has been said, these matters are complicated.

That Secretary of State Hillary Clinton installed a private, unsecured email server in the basement of her house in Chappaqua to conduct both private and government business is not disputed. Neither is the fact that through this server she exchanged emails with people both inside and outside the government, including President Obama. That these emails contained a variety of classified information, including some at the very highest level, is a matter of record. Everyone agrees that a Romanian hacker, who says he breached the server, revealed to the world that it existed and that the secretary tried to cover her tracks. Testimony shows that laptops and Blackberries were destroyed, that the server itself was digitally wiped clean, and that tens of thousands of emails were permanently erased. A few of the emails that were recovered reveal parts of this clandestine effort. (It seems that Hillary Rodham learned a valuable lesson when she helped the House Judiciary Committee prepare the case against President Nixon in 1974: when they ask for the tapes, burn them, especially the 18-and-a-half minute bit about yoga lessons in Benghazi.) A few of her underlings negotiated immunity deals with the FBI, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination was invoked at least once, and the Secretary herself repeatedly said, “I can’t recall.”

I take it as a given that Secretary Clinton broke federal law. Tens of millions of Americans think so, even many of her strongest supporters. I’m pretty sure that FBI Director Comey thinks so, too. And Secretary Clinton certainly knows that she did, unless, of course, she forgot. If you don’t accept this premise, it is suggested that you read the statute in question (focus on Section [f]) and a chronology of the events surrounding the server. If, after reading these, you still think that Secretary Clinton did not act outside the law, well, bless your heart.

On July 5, 2016, Director Comey recommended that the Secretary not be indicted, saying,

“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.”

I take it as a given that Secretary Clinton broke federal law. And Secretary Clinton certainly knows that she did, unless, of course, she forgot.

Let us do a little thought experiment. Let us say that you sent and received top-secret documents to and from people both in and out of government over your very own unsecured basement server. Let us say that a guy in Romania tipped off the FBI and you tried to destroy the evidence. Where do you think you would be right now? If you answered, “I would be tightly lodged in the slowly grinding wheels of the vast criminal justice system,” you have a firm grasp on reality.

So why did Director Comey conclude that no reasonable prosecutor would indict Secretary Clinton? What factors was he weighing when he decided not to bring charges against her? The evidence of her wrongdoing is certainly strong, there are mountains of evidence, much of it relating to her use of classified documents. It couldn’t be that. The intent to communicate classified government information outside secure, authorized channels is clear. Couldn’t be that. The intent to destroy evidence and obstruct justice is clear. Not that, either. While she probably didn’t intend to share her emails with foreign governments, we know that her negligence makes it entirely likely that she inadvertently did. And since the intent to commit espionage is not required for the statute to be violated, what factors was the director, in fact, weighing?

Now, I don’t know James Comey and harbor no ill will toward him. I do, however, wish to explore the possible motives behind his surprising July 15 decision. In doing so, I may give the impression that I am bringing into question his character. I’m not. I’m simply trying to answer this question: why did he do it?

Could it be that Director Comey realized that Secretary Clinton is not some television cooking show host like Martha Stewart, whom he threw the book at for being less than candid with the FBI about a stock tip a friend had given her? He sent Martha to the big house for her fib, but this is different. After all, Hillary Clinton is the former first lady, the former senator from New York, the former secretary of state, and the current Democratic Party nominee for the presidency of the United States. It makes perfect sense. What reasonable prosecuting attorney would bring charges against someone with such power? That would be an obvious consideration. Why, the wrong choice could end careers: hers, her underlings’, or the prosecuting attorney’s, or, even worse, the career of the director of the FBI.

Is it possible that Director Comey was gazing at the organizational chart of the US government when he made his responsible decision to let her slide?

Or was he thinking back to his time as special deputy counsel to the Senate Whitewater Committee, when he and his colleagues concluded, after thousands of hours of exhausting legal work, that despite the fact that Hillary Clinton had engaged in a “highly improper pattern of deliberate misconduct,” the evidence uncovered just wasn’t enough to ensure a conviction, and it was reluctantly decided not to indict? He probably knew she was guilty, but even then she managed to slip the net (“I can’t recall”). Who’d want to go through that again? Or could it be that he was thinking of how a similar situation was handled in the past, when the secretary’s husband was investigated and charged by Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, who was lampooned on every late-night talk and comedy show, who was targeted by mocking books and bawdy stage productions, who was keelhauled by every major media outlet in the country? Could it be that the director glimpsed a Kim Philby-like future, living in exile in some god-forsaken red state, scribbling self-justifying memoirs that the New York Review of Books would never deign to crack?

Or could it be that he had to consider the hierarchical context of the actions in question? Let’s see. Comey’s boss is Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Lynch’s former boss was President Clinton. Her present boss is President Obama. The president appointed the former secretary of state. The former president is the husband of the former secretary of state. Is it possible that Director Comey was gazing at the organizational chart of the USG when he made his responsible decision to let her slide?

Or maybe Director Comey’s considerations were loftier. Perhaps he was looking at a wider context, his gaze fixed upon some greater good. Maybe he realized that if he were to recommend the indictment of the Democratic nominee, he would be increasing the probability that the successor to President Obama would be Donald J. Trump. And maybe, just maybe, he considered that outcome to be less than desirable. If so, consider his dilemma: his clear duty as the director of the FBI was to recommend indictment (ask any FBI agent), but he may have decided that his higher duty as a loyal American was quietly to induce a miscarriage of justice — to abort justice, so to speak, just this once, to prevent a much greater evil from being born. Many would sympathize with this dark impulse.

Could he really have thought that preventing this electoral end would justify these extralegal means? If it is unbelievable that Director Comey consciously considered this, is it just possible that these #nevertrump prejudices could have given his other rationalizations for letting the secretary skate that last little, but necessary, subconscious nudge? The NPR radio piece, “How the Concept of Implicit Bias Came Into Being,”broadcast on Morning Edition, October 17, 2016, lays out the latest science that explains how the director’s decision could have been guided by forces of which he was not even aware. Seriously. You can listen to it here.

When people feel that there is no longer equality before the law, and the social contract has been broken, the result might be a demonstration, a riot, or even a revolution.

But no, to assign these motives to Director Comey would put him on the ethical level of John Wilkes Booth, who was sure that Providence had sent him to smite the tyrant with his own hand. To suggest that the country’s top cop adopted the ethics of the assassin, putting himself above and outside the law, might be unfair. And if his sole motive was to stop Trump, it wouldn’t be a very good example of inequality before the law, would it? Sure, failure to punish would still make him a bit of a weasel, but it wouldn’t, strictly speaking, be because Secretary Clinton’s power was shielding her from the law so much as because Director Comey feared Donald J. Trump more than he feared her. In any case, motives are often mixed and hard to discern, as Director Comey can, and perhaps will, testify. But I rant.

What now? In a more perfect world, Secretary Clinton would call a presser, preferably before Election Day, and say, “I did it.” This would be the right and proper thing to do. But while Secretary Clinton may surprise us all and be a very late bloomer in the personal integrity department, it is unlikely. So it falls to Director Comey to man up and say, “She did it.” You are not advised to hold your breath.

Here is the way the cookie will crumble. Come January, Hillary Clinton will look the compliant Chief Justice Roberts squarely in the eye and swear to him, under oath, mind you, that she will defend the Constitution of the United States. At that moment, tens of millions of Americans gazing at their gigantic flat screens will blink. And in that instant, the world will change, for they will realize that, in this country at least, there is no longer equality before the law. There will be a loud crack, as the social contract is broken. And there will be a loud pop as that contract ceases to exist. The mutual obligations it stipulated will disappear like so many emails in a vat of BleachBit. And what will happen then?

Let us hit pause here and reflect that no one has to die for a miscarriage of justice to occur. In 1992, the policemen who had beaten Rodney King were acquitted. Many thought that this was a miscarriage of justice that violated the terms of the social contract, rendering it void. They believed that their obligation to act within the law had ceased to exist. The riots that followed resulted in 55 deaths. The 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement was fueled by the perceived injustice of banking executives, the people who were thought to have caused the financial crisis, successfully slipping the net. Tens of thousands demonstrated in various ways all around the country. Thousands were arrested. It was felt that the powerless had lost their homes and fortunes while the government busied itself bailing out the powerful who had caused those losses. We are the 99%.

When people feel that there is no longer equality before the law, and the social contract has been broken, the result might be a demonstration, a riot, or even a revolution. The March on Washington and the Los Angeles Riot of 1992 were about equality before the law. The American Revolution itself was in large part about the British subjects in North America being treated differently from those in England. The grievances in the Declaration of Independence are a litany of this unfair and unequal treatment. On a personal note, I was in Beijing in 1989, and in Tiananmen Square a few days before the massacre. It is underreported today that one of the key grievances of the students who started the demonstrations was that the children of powerful Communist Party leaders were afforded wealth, privileges, and opportunities that no one else could even dream of. As those children were also often lazy, overweight, and incompetent, they were mockingly called “rice bags,” as they were only good at consuming, not producing. The problem with these “princelings” continues to be a sore point in China today. There is one law for them and another law for the powerless masses. And where there is no justice, there often is no peace. Hit pause again.

What will happen when Hillary Clinton says, “so help me God”? I don’t think that there will be a revolution, do you? I mean, are you going to man the barricades? No riots, either. There may be a demonstration or two, but it won’t amount to much. No, what will happen is that tens of millions of people will see the law as less important than they did the day before. The small voice that says not to break the law will be harder to hear. The pang of guilt that is felt when the law is broken will be less sharp. On a scale of one to ten, that pain will fall from an 8 to a 2, give or take.

There is one law for the princely and another law for the powerless masses. And where there is no justice, there often is no peace.

Then, when the law comes between one of these millions of people and something he wants, whether it’s a little illegal protection against Freedom of Information Act requests or a charitable donation from a foreign potentate buying a favor, or even a simple fraudulent tax deduction, he will be more likely to follow the example of his leader and break that law. Taking his cues from his president, he will weigh not the legality of the act but the probability that charges will be brought. Then, if he is caught breaking the law, he will do everything he can to destroy and conceal the evidence, and, if questioned about the alleged violation, he will lie as necessary. And should this citizen be placed under oath, he will follow the example of the leader of the free world and say, “I can’t recall.” That is what will happen.

* * *

Looking out from the top floor restaurant of the Intourist Hotel in Riga, my wife and I spotted a church spire less than a mile east. It looked like it had been plucked out of Chicago. We set out on foot. It turned out to be a late 19th-century Lutheran brick church ringed by a cobblestone traffic oval, surrounded by six-story Germanic townhouses of about the same age that had fallen into disrepair. Across the street from the front of the church, occupying one of the old townhouses, was some sort of military headquarters, with olive-colored Russian jeeps in front. Disappointed to find the arched doors of the church boarded up, we decided to walk around it.

On the side of the church, under another arch protruding from the basement, was a small door that was ajar. Pushing the door open, we stepped into a dark, vaulted hallway that turned immediately to the right. There was a dim bare bulb 20 or so feet ahead, with a poster behind it in Latvian that showed a fist, if I remember it right. It might have shown manacles being broken. I’m not sure. Hearing muffled voices, we turned left and found ourselves at a counter, behind which were 20 or so people working at poorly lit tables under a low groin-vaulted brick ceiling. A young man with an emerging mustache approached us, asked something in Latvian, quickly gave up and left, only to return with a young woman who spoke some English.

Here, they are daring to bring back to life a country that has been smothered by decades of injustice.

She explained that they were preparing for the election of a shadow government that would be ready to step up if the Russians were to grant independence. I think she said that it would oversee the drafting of a new constitution and the creation of a new democratic government, as opposed to a democratic people’s republic. She gave us a roster of the candidates, with names, photos, nationalities, and other information. I remember that some were Russian. There were two collection boxes on the counter. One was to help pay for the election, the other to help restore and reopen the church. I asked if she really thought that the Soviet Union was going to leave and allow the Latvians to be free. Her eyes teared up as she said, “We have to believe this.”

I remember thinking: here, in the dimly-lit basement of a boarded-up church under the shadow of a foreign regime whose bizarre idea of a social contract is based on fear, power, and obedience, with no rights worth mentioning, a regime whose historical resume is long on serfdom and autocracy and short on democracy and freedom, these people are attempting to forge an authentic social contract. Here, they are daring to bring back to life a country that has been smothered by decades of injustice, and occupied by foreign powers for centuries before that. They want to create a country where the people make the laws and the people act within the laws, knowing that society will protect their rights and enforce those laws, knowing that when someone, anyone, no matter how powerful, acts outside the law, society, in the name of the people, will fulfill its obligation to punish that person proportionately. I thought: they are sick and tired of living in a country where miscarriages of justice are so commonplace that when they occur people simply shrug.

I had not been so moved since Old Yeller died. I broke my long-standing policy of not donating to religious or political causes and put some money in both boxes. Not much, but some.

* * *

Today, I had to go to Google Earth to find the church, because I couldn’t remember its name. It is St. Gertrude’s Old Church. Here are some photos. Have a look. Go ahead.




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Investigation of a Citizen Above Justice

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I’m not sure why Hillary Clinton does anything she does, but I know she has a way of reminding me of old movies. Gangster movies, of course — though not the Godfather kind, in which you’re supposed to sympathize with the profound psychological and metaphysical conflicts of the leading characters. No one actually sympathizes with Hillary Clinton. I’m reminded more of the primitive gangster films, which teach you that some guys just want to be king of the world and will do anything to reach the peak, or preserve the illusion.

Those aren’t the only movies I associate with her. She often makes me think of His Girl Friday, where Earl Williams, the goofy gunman, is involved in so many ridiculous and, as Donald Trump would say, unbelievable incidents that a newspaper reporter says, “I’m pretending there ain’t any Earl Williams.”It’s a relief to pretend that there ain’t any Hillary Clinton.

Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies.

But the strongest cinematic parallel I can find to the Clinton story is a once-famous Italian movie that is called in English Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). In it, a ranking police officer commits a crime and then gets the idea of establishing his superiority to normal people by submitting to an investigation that shows he is guilty — obviously guilty — yet does not lead to his arrest.

The parallel with Clinton is evident. In the emails episode alone, Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies, all of them conflicting preposterously with common sense, and with one another. The FBI, led by the vaunted Mr. Comey, spent thousands of hoursinvestigating her, located (without any difficulty) the incriminating facts, listened to many additional ridiculous lies, and discovered that Citizen Clinton could not be prosecuted because there was no evidence she intended to violate any of the laws she schemed to violate.

That’s basically how the Italian movie turns out. The power structure can never conceive of indicting one of its own. The bad guy wins — in two ways, one of them more important to him (and to me) than the other. He doesn’t get indicted; that’s the relatively unimportant win. The more important one is his demonstration that people like him are above the law. Members of the elite are never punished; they are immune. Their immunity is the proof of their status, the validation of their identity, and the source of their joy. That’s the vital thing. If you wonder what Mrs. Clinton does with the time she doesn’t spend on fundraising (and, of course, lying), I think I have an answer. She spends most of her time laughing at honest people who have a job.

/em




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The Two Americas

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I don’t want to poach on Stephen Cox’s territory in his monthly Word Watch column, but I have an observation to make about rhetoric. The observation is this: The function of rhetoric isn’t just to appeal to an audience; it is also to identify an audience. Lately this has been happening a lot, and with instructive results.

Three examples:

1. President Obama’s response to the question about whether he knew about the scandalous behavior of the IRS. He said that he didn’t know about the report on the scandalous behavior. This was a shockingly obvious dodge. It starkly revealed the president’s stupidity. But it was a carefully prepared response. It was a calculated dodge. It was calculated to appeal to partisan insiders, who knew (wink, nod) that the rhetoric was grossly misleading but hoped it would save some part of the president’s bacon. So it identified that audience. And it identified another audience — the general American population, which was expected to receive Obama’s claims with passive credulity, thus proving itself even stupider than the president himself.

2. Hillary Clinton’s screaming fit before a congressional committee, some months ago, about the causes of the Benghazi attack. Arms waving, she shrieked, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”Never a good actress, Clinton wasn’t up to the role of Lady Macbeth, despite the fact that she is Lady Macbeth, and she had obviously been practicing her outburst. Now, who can take seriously a secretary of state whose head blows off at the suggestion that it might be of some interest to discover why people attacked an American diplomatic outpost and murdered an American ambassador — and on her watch, too? The answer is . . . the mainstream media! They took it seriously. Their commentators almost unanimously lauded her powerful and unanswerable performance. Of course, her act was precisely the opposite of strong and convincing; looking back on it, Washington insiders wince about the expectation that it would delude the rubes. But here are the two audiences that her rhetoric identified — the insiders and the rubes. The rubes, it turns out, were not fooled, but the insiders were.

3. The IRS folk and their government investigator, testifying before Congress late in May. The investigator seemed stupefied that his nothing-but-the-facts rhetoric didn’t cover all the bases: when asked why his interrogators had included IRS supervisors in their interviews with IRS employees, he was shocked, amazed. He hadn’t expected such a question — coming, as it did, from outside the charmed circle of Washington bureaucrats. The IRS directors were a hundred times worse. Asked the most obvious questions — obvious, that is, to anyone not in that circle — they used the rhetoric of word and gesture to convey the impression that they were the victims of lèse majesté. They didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know whom they had asked about what happened. They didn’t know who, if anyone, was “disciplined” because of what happened. Of one thing they were certain: they shouldn’t have been asked about any of it. To communicate this idea, they sighed; they sneered; they made faces; they made unfunny jokes about Easter egg hunts; they tried every form of rhetoric available to them to communicate the idea that the questions — again, the perfectly obvious questions — were grossly inappropriate and outré. They assumed that the only audience that mattered was people like themselves, people who are entitled to power and justifiably resent all attempts to wrest it from them. The rest of us couldn’t possibly be significant.

Well. What does this mean? It means one of two things:

1. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — wise leaders and their intelligent, well-educated, politically correct students and disciples, the modern-liberal establishment and power structure. This is the only audience that counts, either culturally or politically. The other America consists of people who, being perpetual fools and dupes, are out of power and always will be.

2. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — simpletons who are prepared to swallow almost anything, from the idea that prosperity results from giving the government all your money to the idea that Barack Obama is an honest man. The other America consists of people who know better, and are sometimes willing to do something about it.

I think I know which view is right. But I thank Obama, Clinton, and the minions of the IRS for revealing the issues so clearly, though so unconsciously, in their inimitable displays of rhetoric.




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A Presidency Imploding

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Since the beginning of the modern presidency under Franklin Roosevelt, every chief executive elected to a second term has suffered disaster during that term. FDR provoked a major political crisis when he tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, after which he guided the economy into a severe recession, undoing some of the economic gains of his first four years in office. Truman had Korea. Eisenhower faced Sputnik and the recession of 1958–59 (the worst in 20 years), followed by the U-2 incident and the collapse of a planned summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Lyndon Johnson suffered through Vietnam and widespread race riots. Nixon became embroiled in Watergate, was impeached and resigned. Reagan nearly lost office in the Iran-Contra scandal. Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” eventually led to his impeachment, though he was acquitted by the Senate. George W. Bush had Iraq, Katrina, and the financial meltdown of 2008. Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn.

Obama roundly defeated Mitt Romney to win reelection in 2012. Yet today, not even six months into his second term, he is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so. After deciding to push gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre, he failed to secure congressional passage of even his minimum program for universal background checks. Immigration reform, expected to be the signature domestic achievement of his second term, is hanging fire in the Senate, and faces questionable prospects in the House. The implementation of Obamacare is fraught with problems (on this see David Brooks’ column “Health Chaos Ahead,” in the April 25 New York Times). Foreign policy, normally a presidential strength when the nation is not actually at war, seems increasingly in disarray. Relations with Russia are fraying. No progress has been made on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The possibility of US intervention in Syria’s complex civil war seems to be increasing, with planning underway for an air campaign in support of the Syrian rebels, and a forward headquarters of the US Central Command already on the ground in Jordan. Add to these problems the troika of scandals currently roiling Washington (Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s secret spying on the Associated Press), and a picture of an administration nearing collapse begins to form.

Let’s examine briefly the three scandals just mentioned. The 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, came about as a result of mistakes made by the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress (who in 2011 turned down an administration request to provide more funds for embassy security). The administration made the scandal all its own by putting out misleading talking points that claimed the attack was not terror-related. It clearly did so for political purposes, seeking to preserve Obama’s reputation as a successful fighter of terrorism during the election campaign. The web of lies about Benghazi woven by the administration since last September will not bring it down, but the political damage is likely to be significant and lasting.

Today, not even six months into his second term, President Obama is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so.

The IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status probably won’t destroy the Obama presidency either, but it could. We don’t yet know just how high up the rot goes. If it can be shown that people in the White House encouraged the IRS campaign (or simply knew about it and did nothing), then the scandal rises to Nixonian levels. The betting here is that Obama and his people aren’t that stupid, but we’ll see. Don’t hold your breath for impeachment, but do expect a long drawn-out series of investigations that will bog down the administration for much of 2013.

The AP spying scandal is merely a continuation of the quasi-authoritarianism instituted by federal authorities after the original 9/11. One of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon was based in part on his use of wiretapping without a court order. Today the Department of Justice conducts warrantless wiretaps as a matter of course, thanks to the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2012, which Obama signed into law after his reelection. This particular scandal has legs because journalists were the target. But it’s really no more than business as usual in our Orwellian Republic. The administration may take some hits, but the damage will not be mortal.

Nothing that has happened so far in Obama’s second term rises to the level of Watergate. Yet, taken together, the mistakes and lies of the past eight months have this administration reeling. It truly is in danger of imploding — which for many on the Right would be good news. A crippled presidency, however, tends to breed uncertainty and malaise, with bad consequences for the economy. And there is the further danger that a crippled president might seek to redeem himself in foreign lands — Syria, for example, or Iran.

The second term woes of Obama’s predecessors were largely the result of hubris (or, in Ronald Reagan’s case, incipient senility). Obama on the other hand suffers principally from aloofness. He is under the impression that elections are all that matter. But we do not live in a plebiscitary democracy. Successful governing involves schmoozing with people you may secretly detest. It involves coming down from your pedestal and actually engaging other human beings who also have supporters and power. Obama has never wanted to do this. He prefers to stand alone, believing that the adoration of his supporters guarantees success. As a result he has few real resources to draw upon in times of trouble. And he is in trouble now. No single problem (the IRS scandal possibly excepted) can bring him down, but he faces the prospect of a slow political death from a thousand cuts. While he undoubtedly will seek to place blame for his troubles on those who have always opposed him, his foremost enemy dwells in the mirror.




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David vs. Goliath

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After two months of misleading and conflicting White House statements explaining the Benghazi fiasco, more questions have been raised than have been answered. No one should be astonished, therefore, that the recent resignation of CIA Director, David Petraeus, a central figure in the controversy, would be any different in its effects. Only days after the presidential election and only days before he was scheduled to testify at Senate and House Intelligence Committees hearings, the revelation of an extramarital affair abruptly forced Petraeus to step down.

The affair was discovered during an FBI investigation that began in June 2012. Mr. Petraeus first learned of the investigation on September 14. Since the affair had ended in July, Petraeus knew there was no blackmail threat. And he would have known there was no security threat — that no classified information had been leaked to his paramour. Thus, on October 29, Petraeus was not surprised when he was told by the FBI that he would not be charged. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, he planned to stay at his job, believing that his affair, now known to the FBI and Attorney General Eric Holder, would never become known to the public.

Petraeus' adulterous episode had nothing to do with Benghazi — except for the date, September 14. That was the day when, in briefings to both the House and the Senate oversight committees, Mr. Petraeus described the Benghazi attack in a manner consistent with the administration's video-incited mob story. Why would the director of the CIA mislead Congress? As Charles Krauthammer observed, “Here’s a man who knows the administration holds his fate in its hands and he gives testimony completely at variance with what the Secretary of Defense had said the day before, at variance with what you’d heard from the station chief in Tripoli, and with everything that we had heard. Was he influenced by the fact that he knew his fate was held by people in the administration at that time?”

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform the director of national intelligence about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier?

Evidently satisfied that the Obama administration would protect him, Petraeus traveled to Libya, where he conducted his own review of the attack. He told friends that he was looking forward to testifying before Congress. But on the day President Obama was reelected, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told him to resign.

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform Clapper about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier? We are expected to believe that, with the election approaching and almost daily reports pointing fingers of blame at the CIA, it was a trivial matter, not worthy of notifying Congress or the president himself. But as soon as the polls closed, it somehow became critically important for Petraeus to resign. The post-election usefulness of Petraeus is now a White House secret, tightly held by Eric Holder and Barack Obama.

President Obama secured his second term by cynically pushing campaign-damaging problems such as the Benghazi investigations past the election (to name a few others: Fast and Furious, the WARN Act lay-off announcements, the Iranian attack on a US drone, the additional flexibility for Vladimir Putin, the Fiscal Cliff, and the debt ceiling). The Benghazi debacle alone could have ruined his chances.

Prior to the Benghazi attack, the White House promoted President Obama as a bin Laden-slaying leader who had captivated the Arab Spring while deftly engineering widespread al Qaeda attrition. With Libyans ingratiated by Obama's conciliatory Middle East policies, Ambassador Stevens could attend diplomatic meetings and openings of cultural centers in Benghazi, unshackled by boorish security details. Everything was running smoothly. As we were told, often, “al Qaeda was on the run."

The attack revealed that nothing was running smoothly in Benghazi. The sanguine, fictional portrayal was abruptly contradicted by the ugly reality of the murders of Stevens and three other Americans — by terrorists. But President Obama and administration officials (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, James Clapper, David Petraeus, and such surrogates as Jay Carney and Susan Rice) blamed unruly demonstrators, spontaneously provoked by a "disgusting and reprehensible" video. This was their story. They stuck with it for eight or more days.

Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

Recall that during the attack and its immediate aftermath, intelligence information flooded the White House. There were reports from the Benghazi mission and the CIA station; real-time audio from the mission to Charlene Lamb at the State Department; real-time video from a Predator drone. All of it indicated organized terrorism. Navy SEAL Ty Woods certainly recognized a terrorist attack when he saw one. And there was a State Department email alert sent at 6:07 pm, less than two and a half hours after the attack began, stating, "Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibilty for Benghazi Attack." The FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated militias. Even Libyan President Mohammed Magarief called it a “pre-planned act of terrorism.”

Accordingly, the White House waspresented with the following possibilities for explaining the attack to the public: (A) planned attack by al Qaeda terrorists, (B) planned attack by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, (C) planned attack by terrorists of unknown affiliation, or (D) we don't know. Rejecting these explanations, the Obama national security team fabricated its own scenario — one of a spontaneous attack by neighborhood protestors. To account for the spontaneity aspect, it was embellished with the anti-Muslim video. No evidence of either the flash mob or the video was contained in any of the reports from Benghazi. Yet the White House went with the video-incensed flash mob story.

The Obama administration's duplicity in garnering credibility for this farce was such that the White House flagrantly altered information reported by Mr. Petraeus. In his testimony to Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings last Friday (November, 16, 2012), Petraeus stated that on September 11, he immediately knew it was a terrorist attack and described it as such in his intelligence assessment. He further said that after providing the assessment to the White House as talking points, his reference to "al Qaeda-affiliated individuals' was replaced with the term ‘extremist organizations.’"

Why did the White House deliberately advance a synthesized story it knew to be false? Some have suggested fear that news of an al Qaeda attack would be viewed as foreign policy failure. But Mr. Obama believes that his "Light Footprint" strategy will prove the best approach to protecting US interests in the chaotic Middle East, dismissing incidents such as the Benghazi attack as "bumps in the road." It is more likely that the frantic clumsiness was driven by the fear that Obama's indecisiveness would be viewed as leadership failure. For example, an attack thought to be executed by protestors could be expected to end before military support would arrive. An attack thought to be executed by organized terrorists would be expected to last throughout the night (as it did, continuing to the CIA safe house — a facility that would be unknown to mere demonstrators), offering no excuse for refusing to send military forces immediately.

Indeed, it may be the cover-up of indecision that lies at the heart of the Washington DC side of Benghazi. The failure of a president motivated more by politics than concern for American lives had to be covered up at all costs. When their video-as-catalyst excuse began to crumble, the White House moved to a "fog of war" excuse that produced "conflicting accounts" from intelligence sources. With the White House shifting blame to the CIA, and the FBI investigating his romantic affair, David Petraeus may have sensed that he was becoming the scapegoat when, on October 26, he stated, through a CIA spokesperson, "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” If not Petraeus, who did decide against sending military assets to rescue the besieged Americans? Only the commander-in-chief has the authority to order military forces into another country.

Ironically, Petraeus appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal— if only by Washington standards.

President Obama has said that he ordered his national security team to do whatever was needed to save American lives. However, what he actually did is another White House secret. In a recent press conference, in which he chastised Republican senators who criticized UN Ambassador Susan Rice for her role in disseminating the White House's anti-Islam video story, Obama said that "they should go after me" instead. But when asked (in the same press conference) what he had done to protect American lives in Benghazi, Obama had no answer, referencing investigations and muttering, "We will provide all the information that is available about what happened on that day." Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

During the Intelligence Committee hearings, lawmakers sought to identify the individuals who replaced Petraeus' al Qaeda references, the apparent basis of Susan Rice's vigorous promotion of the video-incensed flash mob story. None in attendance (representatives of the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence community, and FBI) could say. The Obama administration, not represented at the hearings, knows. But it's not talking — still another White House secret.

Atthe second presidential debate with Mitt Romney on October 17, Obama — incredibly — said he knew on September 11 that it was a terrorist attack, but this was not a secret he had kept for over a month. It was something we all should have known since September 12, after parsing his Rose Garden comments that mentioned, generically, an act of terror.

David Petraeus, with career and marriage regrettably in shambles, is gone. Ironically, he appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal, but only by Washington standards. He will likely be back for future hearings. But, given the deluge of Obama administration blame, excuses, and rebuffs to obscure the truth, use of his tarnished reputation to impugn his testimony would not be beneath White House tactics.

There is no urgency to uncover the truth, beyond that expressed by a handful of Republican Senators and Representatives. Democrats, none of whom have left the wagons encircling the president, excoriate them for “politicizing” the tragedy. And the media, for the most part, has disgracefully shown greater interest in distractions such as the sexual escapades of generals and the so-called Susan Rice attack than in the Benghazi attack and the four murdered Americans.

Future hearings, therefore, are likely to proceed at the same exasperatingly slow pace, but now burdened by White House secrets, under the shadow of plausible deniability. Constant, blatant deceit has been the essence of the White House Benghazi story.

Goliath is winning.




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Why the Moneyed Media Should Pray for Obama's Defeat

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Everybody knows that the Moneyed Media (also known as Mainstream Media) are in trouble. The press, in particular, is doing badly. Readership and advertising income are down. The Pew Research Center for Excellence in Journalism reports that it's so bad they are going to rename themselves the Observatory of Media Mediocrity. Nah, actually, they report that 2011 newsstand circulation was down 43% since 2008. Overall circulation was down "only" 6% thanks to cut-rate subscription rates. Magazine ad pages went down 46% in the same period. Newspaper advertising and circulation, on average, went down about 50%. In short, a bloodbath.

Is it because Americans watch more TV? Nope. According to Nielsen's annual "Television Audience" report, a growing percentage of households in the 18-to-49 core demographic that advertisers so covet do not even own a TV set (about 3% this year, vs. 1% last year). If they ever want to watch a show or a movie, these people play a DVD on their computer or, increasingly, stream video from Hulu, Netflix, or the like. They are exposed to a few ads, but that's nothing in comparison to the 35% of airtime devoted to commercials that cable viewers get to swallow. And of course, all the news and infotainment spewed by network TV never reach these unplugged eyeballs. Even among the declining TV owners, the big networks and their affiliates saw their prime-time audience decline 12% since 2005. Live ratings of programs have been decreasing constantly for the last three years.

All these factors are a good reason to stop calling Big Media "mainstream." They still have income, a payroll, and some notoriety, though, which is why they can be called "the Moneyed Media."

What are the causes of this decline? According to every media consultant I've read, it's because of this darn internet. The ponderous Paperosaurus Rex and Teeveelociraptors are in competition with the small, nimble Internet mammals, and the old beasts are losing.

The modern-liberal media outlets show a disconcerting uniformity and are rarely critical of the Obama administration, except when considering the most irrelevant subjects.

According to the consultants' narrative, professional journalists see their carefully researched stories ripped and copied to multiple sites. Cheap local TV with underpaid, half-starving crews gains an undeservedly equal footing with the major networks, thanks to their websites. And the world mourns the death of Real Investigative Journalism, since these blog writers that now pass for journalists don't leave their mom's basement to go track toxic iPad factories in China or children killers in Africa.

Yes, granted: these factors certainly count. But isn't there another big reason for America's disaffection with the Moneyed Media?

Let's look again at the Pew report mentioned above. In 2011, the only national newspaper that increased its circulation was the Wall Street Journal, a resolute opponent of state intervention in the economy. The WSJ may not be every libertarian's cup of tea, but we have to give them this: they are, with Investor's Business Daily, one of the few national conservative dailies left in the country.

Similarly, Fox News has a notable anti-liberal slant, and gathers almost four times as many watchers as the combined CNN, MSNBC, and HLN (5.7 million vs. 1.5). Are we seeing a pattern here?

Fox and the WSJ are rare exceptions. In their enormous majority, the Moneyed Media are consistently modern-liberal. In 2007, the aforementioned Pew Research Center surveyed journalists and found that about 80% of these professionals identify themselves as liberals or at least as Democrats. Only 8% identify themselves as conservative (which would, presumably, include libertarian or classical liberal). It is a truism that most newsrooms are staffed with liberals and that a conservative journalist has very few employment opportunities in the Moneyed Media.

Now, let's put ourselves a second in the Birkenstocks of Dave Democrat and Lisa Liberal. They want to read a paper or a magazine during their train commute, and after their tofu and granola dinner, they want to watch some political commentary TV. They won't watch Fox or buy the WSJ, of course. But once past this initial filter, hundreds of publications and shows compete for their attention, from the allegedly moderate ones that Dave Democrat might favor to the rabidly leftist ones that Lisa Liberal may prefer. Lisa is even suffering from an embarrassment of riches: recall that only 19% of Americans call themselves liberal, yet a disproportionate share of the media caters to them.

The modern-liberal media outlets show a disconcerting uniformity and are rarely critical of the Obama administration, except when considering the most irrelevant subjects, such as Michelle's wardrobe or the antics of Secret Service agents. A grayish, soothing conformism oozes from all these mouths that babble without actually saying anything important, spewing a verbiage that carefully avoids important problems. It's a nice, relaxing way for Dave and Lisa to reinforce their biases, but it's pretty boring.

At the end, Dave will browse the Democratic Underground on his iPad while Lisa will read Daily Kos. At least, the crazy comments sometimes elicit a smirk.

And here lies the problem of the Moneyed Media: it's all the same leftist drivel, a uniform river of meaningless information that never evokes crucial problems.

The Moneyed Media carefully minimize all the news items that could harm or ridicule Obama and his peons. And yet, what golden material the Obama administration offers! The shady, undocumented past — even his student records are sealed. The illegal alien relatives. The DOE subsidies and loans to dubious firms, with taxpayers' money ending up in the pockets of rich Democratic donors. The gun-running scandals, which NBC News didn't mention until mid-June. The runaway regulations. The EPA undoing congressional laws. The beyond-reason deficit. The laws and court decisions that are ignored — sorry, "not enforced" — except in the case of medical marijuana, against which the law is sternly invoked. The continuing unemployment four years after the financial crisis started. The lawsuits against states. The gleeful, careless waste of money by the federal administration. The secret meetings while golfing. Why, if Nixon had done any of this, popular culture would still reverberate from the outrage!

If only half of Obama's stupid gaffes had been uttered by Bush I or II, they would be sarcastically recounted daily on every channel, in every paper.

And the gaffes, the gaffes! Whenever Obama strays from his teleprompter, hilarity ensues. "I've now been in 57 states" during the campaign was a howler by itself. Then we had "I don't speak Austrian" — yeah, I hope you speak Australian at least. We heard a Navy member being called a "corpse-man." We saw the president, parading at a goofy show, disparage his own bowling, comparing it to the Special Olympics — how classy. Oh, but that's OK, because "We're the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad." Too bad the country is inhabited by working-class voters, because "they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Then we basked in his wisdom: "Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries." But don't think he is unpatriotic: to a veteran crowd, he said, "I see many of the fallen heroes in the audience here today as we celebrate Memorial Day." And there are many more. If only half of these stupid things had been uttered by Bush I or II, they would be sarcastically recounted daily on every channel, in every paper, and used as icebreaking jokes by every attendee of conferences.

And then there are unexplainable acts that occupy a class by themselves, Obamaisms that, by their weirdness, leave any Bushism far behind. Bowing to the Saudi king. Bowing to the Japanese emperor. Giving a speech during "God Save the Queen" at Buckingham Palace. You can treat these awkward moments as fodder for comedy or for indignation, but they certainly deserve better than the silence that greeted them in the Moneyed Media.

You see, our talking heads are being protective of this "mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," in the immortal words of Joe Biden. (And speaking of comedy, Biden's bloopers would have launched a hundred standup routines in a less leftist America.) But this unflinching support makes the heads uninteresting drones who can no longer connect to an audience or a readership. The public is bound to notice mindless idolatry, at some point. And it has. It pays less and less attention to the babbling poseurs in the Moneyed Media. That's why business is down.

The remedy is obvious. Since all these fine intellects in the newsrooms are currently paralyzed by unconditional devotion, let's turn the love into rage. Let's replace blatant self-censorship with thundering, fact-exposing editorials. In a word, let's have a Republican president. Faced with the fall of the One, all the creative energy currently spent in covering up scandals and making media boring will suddenly get channeled into the pursuit of truth. If the present GOP favorite is elected, we won't see much difference (alas) in the level of statism, but we'll immediately be regaled with the slightest nuggets of scandal unearthed from a boring Mormon life. After four years of self-muzzling, our media will once again learn to analyze documents, discern truth, and expose coverups. The moneyed media will be back in business.

But of course, they will fight tooth and nail against it.




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