Monday, June 09, 2008

SWAMPOODLE REPORT: NIGHTMARES & HANGOVERS

Sam Smith

Our long national nightmare is over. . . . at least until tonight.

The RBCB (Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush) era is apparently finished, although with this crowd you can never be sure. It was a time when America lost power, respect, direction, jobs, integrity, its Constitution and an understanding of what democracy was all about.

There are no signs that any of these will soon be restored, but at least, for the moment, the disintegration may have been halted.

The Clintons went out like they came in, to a chorus of media enablers, assuring America that they were something they weren't, that Hillary Clinton, for example, was the voice of the working class or that ordinary women's lives would dramatically improve if she had been elected.

Echoes returned:

"If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners . . . Thank you very much and tell Mrs. Clinton we respect her and we're pulling for her." -- Dan Rather, talking with the Clintons via satellite at a CBS affiliates meeting

"Roger Clinton's life is in some ways the story of any younger sibling clobbered by the spectacular success of the one who came before . . . If your brother is Christ, you have a choice: become a disciple, or become an anti-Christ, or find yourself caught somewhere between the two" -- Laura Blumenfeld, Washington Post

"In the midst of redesigning America's health care system and replacing Madonna as our leading cult figure, the new First Lady has already begun working on her next project, far more metaphysical and uplifting.... She is both impersonal and poignant -- with much more depth, intellect and spirituality than we are used to in a politician . . . She has goals, but they appear to be so huge and far off -- grand and noble things twinkling in the distance -- that it's hard to see what she sees." -- Martha Sherrill, Washington Post

"The most interesting part of the story will come when the media have to acknowledge that there is nothing there . . . Shall we write on our various blackboard 1000 times, 'The Clintons did nothing wrong?'" -- Columnist Molly Ivins

"Ridiculous" -- NPR's Diana Rehm on suggested similarities between Whitewater and Watergate

For balance, let's recall a few objective press comments at the same time about Clinton's primary opponent, Jerry Brown:

"Annoying" -Ted Koppel

"Weird" - Cokie Roberts, NPR

"A pain in the you-know-what"- Bemard Shaw

"Flailing about, spewing out charges like sparks from a Fourth of July pinwheel" - JW Apple, New York Times

"He's a chameleon, a character assassin and a first-class cynic" - Jonathan Alter, Newsweek

"Brilliant, self-absorbed, friendless, idealistic, erratic, opportunistic, cold, hypocritical" - New York Times

"Jerry Brown's more corrupt than the system" - Eleanor Clift, Newsweek

Said FAIR, the media watchdog, "There is so much of this kind of writing about Brown that it is difficult to remember that journalists don't usually refer to candidates this way. Can anyone imagine Newsweek's senior political editor talking about George Bush's 'typical hype' or his 'unfitness' -- and getting away with it?

Those of us who had looked even slightly closer at the Clintons had seen something quite different. Christopher Hitchens wrote the other day:

"I have detested the Clintons ever since I covered the New Hampshire primary in 1992. The man I saw was not the silver-tongued charmer who seems to have bewitched so many people. Up close, he seemed like a red-cheeked, piggy-eyed bully with a mean streak a mile wide. And when he lied - which he more or less did for a living - he had a hard-faced little spouse to step into the TV studios to cover up for him. This woman put up with a lot from Bill over the years but could always tell herself it was worth it because in the long run the experience would give her the presidency she so obviously deserved."

I stumbled upon the story, the way you do a lot of stories, partly by accident. I was prepared by having just read Sally Denton's remarkable book, The Bluegrass Conspiracy, about how the drug trade corrupted Kentucky from the bottom up, including the state police and governor's office.

I had followed political corruption my whole life. My first campaign - stuffing envelopes as a pre-teen - helped to end 69 years of Republican rule in Philadelphia. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I covered the local city council as James Michael Curley was nearing death in next door Boston. I remember councilor Joseph DeGuglielmo explaining that he didn't know how to vote on an upcoming police and fire pay raise because each of those cops and firefighters were making, by his guess, an extra five grand on the side. He described, for example, firemen removing expensive rugs from people's homes as a spin off of their rescue efforts.

I helped Marion Barry with public relations when he was head of SNCC, boosted him for school board and mayor and then distanced myself as he distanced himself from the cause that had gotten him where he was. Later I would compared him with Clinton, two men who had used decency as a crash pad on their way to power.

I also read avariciously about every corrupt politician I could find from George Washington Plunkett of Tammany Hall to the Daley machine, the Longs of Louisiana and Philadelphia's Frank Rizzo who started his climb as a district police captain by going to the mob and telling them they could have numbers, whores or drugs, but they couldn't have murders. The mob obliged and took their bodies elsewhere. Rizzo's murder rate dropped and a new mayor was born.

As I studied these stories, one thing stood out, which I discussed in what was the first critical book about Clinton, a whole two year after he had been elected:

"It was, to be sure, a mixture of the good and the bad, but you at least knew whom to thank and whom to blame. As late as the 1970s the tradition was still alive in Chicago as 25th Ward leader Vito Marzullo told a Chicago Sun-Times columnist:

"'I ain't got no axes to grind. You can take all your news media and all the do-gooders in town and move them into my 25th Ward, and do you know what would happen? On election day we'd beat you fifteen to one. The mayor don't run the 25th Ward, Neither does the news media or the do-gooders. Me, Vito Marzullo. that's who runs the 25th Ward, and on election day everybody does what Vito Marzullo tells them. . .My home is open 24 hours a day. I want people to come in. As long as I have a breathing spell, I'll got to a wake, a wedding, whatever. I never ask for anything in return. On election day, I tell my people, 'Let your conscience be your guide.'"

"In the world of Plunkitt and Marzullo, politics was not something handed down to the people through such intermediaries as Larry King. It was not the product of spin doctors, campaign hired guns or phony town meetings. It welled up from the bottom, starting with one loyal follower, one ambitious ballplayer, twelve unhappy pushcart peddlers. What defined politics was an unbroken chain of human experience, memory and gratitude.

"Sure, it was corrupt. But we don't have much to be priggish about. The corruption of Watergate, Iran-Contra or the S&Ls fed no widows, found no jobs for the needy or, in the words of one Tammany leader, "grafted to the Republic" no newly arrived immigrants. At least Tammany's brand of corruption got down to the streets. Manipulation of the voter and corruption describe both Tammany and contemporary politics. The big difference is that in the former the voter could with greater regularity count on something in return.

"In fact, we didn't really do away with machines, we just replaced them. As Tammany Hall and the Crump and the Hague and the Daley organizations faded, new political machines appeared. Prime among them was television but there were others such as the number-crunchers, policy pushers and lawyers running Washington, as well as a new breed of political professional, including campaign consultants, fundraisers and pollsters.

"The curious, and ultimately destructive, quality of some of these new machines -- particularly the media and the political pros -- was that they had such little interest in policies or democracy; rather they were concerned with professional achievement or television ratings or making a buck. When one of the most skilled of the new pros, James Carville, was asked whether he would take a post in the Clinton administration, he admitted candidly that he only knew about winning elections; he didn't know about governing. And his Clinton campaign side-kick Paul Begala once remarked, 'Someone says issue; I say gesundheit.'"

I had been a student of corruption and yet was really impressed by the Clintons and by the political ecology of Arkansas. I didn't have time for moral outrage, I was too fascinated by it all. And I was encouraged, early on, by material sent me by a progressive student group - yes, progressive - at the University of Arkansas.

And so I became part of a miniscule leftwing conspiracy that preceded the vast rightwing alternative. I wasn't out to get the Clintons, but I wasn't - like so many reporters - going to just look the other way.

In February 1992, I wrote: "The media's protection of Clinton, of course, dates far before the current matter. He has long been the Washington elite's designated alternative to Bush. During the current campaign, Clinton has gotten kid glove treatment from the press"

By May 1992 I had come up with a list of about two dozen individuals and organizations that raised serious questions about Bill Clinton. It wasn't hard to do and most of these names would become familiar when they became intertwined with what would be known as Whitewater. The information was there for any reporter who wanted it, but most just didn't want to spoil the fairy tale they were in. And the closeness to power it brought.

A few did and some of them lost their jobs or were transferred as a result. I was banned from a local NPR talk show and, according to sources, from CSPAN and the Washington Post. The media treated those of us who wouldn't play the game with the opprobrium designed for them by presidential spinsters: conspiracy theories and Clinton haters. One reporter, well known in DC, told me in my own living room that I shouldn't be writing the way I was. "Even if it's true?:" I asked. "Even if it's true," he replied.

But there were good moments, too. Like when I was introduced to a black White House staffer and she said, "I know who you are" and with a big smile added, "You're b-a-a-d!"

By this time I had been in journalism for nearly forty years and had never run into anything like it. But the story wouldn't stop and so I kept on the case.

It was the story of an unprincipled couple rising to power in a mini narco-republic, which had once been the western boundary of the northern mobs, where Al Capone had a permanently reserved room in a hotel in Hot Springs, where Lucky Luciano was nabbed by Thomas E Dewey, and where Clinton's mother was a heavy gambler with mob ties. According to FBI and local police officials, his Uncle Raymond -- to whom young Bill turned for wisdom and support -- had been a colorful car dealer, slot machine owner and gambling operator, who thrived (except when his house is firebombed) on the fault line of criminality.

It was a story of a governor overseeing drug-driven political corruption, being the local facilitator for the Regan-Bush Iran Contra operations, and where the local state development agency sent tens of millions to a Cayman Islands depository.

It was a story about a state where a drug pilot brought a Cessna 210 full of cocaine into eastern Arkansas where he was met by his pick-up: a state trooper in a marked police car. "Arkansas," the pilot would recall years later, "was a very good place to load and unload."

It was a story where I got an email from Billy Bear Bottoms, the former pilot for Barry Seal, one of the nation's most notorious drug runners, complaining about something I had written.

It was a story in which Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker comes to Washington to see his old boss sworn in, leaving his state under the control of the president pro tem of the senate, Little Rock dentist Jerry Jewell. Jewell uses his power as acting governor to issue a number of pardons, one of them for a convicted drug dealer, Tommy McIntosh. It seems that the elder McIntosh had worked for Clinton in his last state campaign and, according to McIntosh in a 1991 lawsuit, had agreed not only to pay him $25,000 but to help him market his recipe for sweet potato pie and to pardon his son.

It was state in which a tractor trailer is stopped and police find millions in drug cash stowed in the cab.

And on and on. . . .

By the standards by which I was raised, any reporter who turned their back on such a tale should lose their press pass. But it didn't work like that.

Instead, those who tried to tell the truth became the pariahs.

It was my introduction to a new journalism. And to a new politics because, with Clinton, establishment liberals dumped their policies, their ideals and their standards. It wasn't like corruption back the in day, when liberals fought the bad guy. Now they helped manage his campaign, crying "Move on" and things like that. They came aboard not just as pragmatists, but as evangelical enthusiasts.

The Democratic Party would lose more seats at the state and local level under Clinton than with any Democratic incumbent since Grover Cleveland. Programs of the New Deal and Great society would be eviscerated. America's "first black president" would oversee an explosion of prison time for young black males.

But none of it mattered because liberals, especially the politically active upscale ones, had essentially abandoned what was once their essential business: helping those being screwed by the system. Their interest, driven by their own place in the economy, had turned to glass ceilings instead of hard floors and locked factory doors. And eventually they would replace it all with the simple expediency of a black Jesus, never mind that Barack Obama reached his magic delegate count the same week that the number of other black males, those in prison, hit a record level.

It's really not that surprising. The same mythological approach that created the Clintons was also used to justify the Iraq war and is now being used to create the new Obama era.

Check it out. Try to discuss with liberals the effect of Obama's Iran and Israel positions on our future in that region and in the world. Try complaining about his healthcare program or his support of the Patriot and No Child laws. Note that nobody seems to know who got him where he is so fast and that you don't get there without owing someone a hell of a lot. Try asking for just one new good idea that he has had. Try saying that Obama may be the best we're going to get, but it isn't that much.

Come to think of it, don't try it. I have and have largely given up. Because to many of his supporters, as with the supporters of Clinton and the Iraq War, facts just don't matter anymore. Faith is what counts. Anything else is heresy.

And the same media that didn't fairly report the rise of the Clintons, or the beginnings of the Iraq war, are now engaged in the same error with Obama. It's bad enough to have liberals turn into a bunch of secular evangelicals, but at least the press should have a little more self respect than to join in the shouting and the clapping.

Still, arguing with evangelicals - whether Christian, media or liberal - is a waste of time. Consider anything immutable and argument becomes irrelevant.

You just have to save it for the agnostics, free thinkers and those who understand the difference between a press pass and a bathroom pass, which is that the former allows you to disseminate information while the latter is for those who just need to dump shit. It's a distinction much of the media has forgotten.

So, once again, we'll just have to wait for reality to intrude on faith and hope and spin.

Meanwhile, one long national nightmare is over, so party on.

Just don't be surprised if you wake up with a hangover.

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PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM

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Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first band his Quaker school ever had and played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and has played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

Here are a few tracks:

SAM SMITH'S DECOLAND BAND

'SHINE' 

JELLY ROLL

PHOENIX JAZZ BAND

APEX BLUES   Sam playing with the Phoenix Jazz Band at the Central Ohio Jazz festival in 1990. Joining the band is George James on sax. James, then 84, had been a member of the Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller orchestras and hadappeared on some 60 records. More notes on James

WISER MAN  Sam piano & vocal

OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal