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December 14 - 18, 1998

Tuesday, December 15, 1998

Demoting the general welfare

Like an aging grandmother who forgets her children's names, I keep referring to the present presidential predicament as "Watergate." It's partly, I know, because no natural moniker has stepped forward --- no, "Zippergate" doesn't really cut it. But it's also because echoes of Nixon's trickery in the early 1970s inevitably reverberate around the edges of Clinton's prevarication in the late 1990s.

It's tempting to see this week's impeachment proceedings in the context of unfinished political business; "Republicans want their payback for Watergate," Maureen Dowd says. And unresolved internal dissension over the Vietnam War has certainly tainted Clinton's entire presidency. Americans are not only aware that he was the first member of the post--World War II generation to occupy the Oval Office; they are also constantly reminded that he managed not to serve in the Southeast Asian conflict. Although in the eyes of his more radical peers, the establishment trappings of the young political aspirant must have been obvious, he nevertheless dipped a few toes in the counterculture pond,  accumulating the paraphernalia most likely to set Middle American tempers ablaze. Long hair, pot, rock music, antiwar pronouncements. Youthful indiscretions, perhaps, but that's all the evidence required to make it clear to certain minds that Bill Clinton was indeed part of the dissolute Sixties.

To condemn the president for being a child of his time is, of course, to ignore the genuine patriotism that infused the cause of many of his fellow rebels. And, no doubt, the cause of Clinton himself. Without this informing content --- a genuine love for the United States and despair at its perceived failings --- it's easy to reduce the passionate pursuits of these young people to questions of lifestyle. And to designate the most powerful exemplar of that lifestyle as a national scapegoat for decades of things-gone-wrong. Regicide is an old theme in classical literature, as a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania noted at the time of Nixon's impeachment hearings: the true role of the king, Pete Biester mused, is "to die, so as to bring about catharsis, a purging of fear and pity."

And that's one theory of what's happening in Washington right now.

But the theory turns out to be funnel-shaped, with a wide mouth at the top that comfortably accumulates all sorts of corroborating data while the validity of the whole mixture runs out a long tube at the bottom. Here's why.

In any society, value --- like water --- seeks its own level. If one group consistently climbs to the highest ground, all other groups will also trudge their way up the moral mountain. Conversely, if the ideals of one segment are trivialized, the beliefs held by all other segments will shrivel proportionally. How will history assess members of Congress who are willing to spend months and millions of dollars tracking the spoor of the president's perjurious peccadilloes and then --- despite the opposition of most Americans --- use the results as the basis for the gravest procedure that the Constitution provides? As the only high-minded people left in the country? As valiant warriors leading a cleansing crusade against a man who has desecrated the federal government? Or as consummate political animals, legislative counterparts to the Manipulator from Hope?

The implication of much media analysis is that this snowball running downhill smacks of political overkill. Made cautious by the last election, with its hint of a Democratic resurgence --- the newspapers and TV suggest --- the Republicans have decided to act swiftly, taking advantage of Americans' notoriously short memories and the two-year hiatus before the next election. This is not a battle over the sins of Bill Clinton, for the Democrats are also vehemently outspoken in their condemnation of his character. This is not an attempt to remove a destructive man from office but an allout campaign to change the balance of power. Rather than concede the defeat of the Gingrich-led putsch, Republicans have entered into a struggle designed to demonstrate that whoever controls Congress will dominate the entire government. Drive the incumbent out, and even though his successor is a Democrat, he will have to sit up and take notice when the Republicans speak.

Truly a slimy scenario, but not the only one. Hold on --- the alternative is even more frightening.

It begins with Biester's royal road to tranquillity, where Congress sacrifices the head of state to the gods of domestic harmony. In all of U.S. history, this device has been employed only twice, during the administrations of Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon. In each instance, a country sorely sundered by civil strife sought much-needed healing. The "specificities" of the charges may have been picayune --- Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act by firing a cabinet member; Nixon engaged in election campaign skullduggery --- but the national mood demanded dire measures.

Perhaps we're looking at the wrong end of the road. Perhaps the determining element in each case is not the offenses but the circumstances. Perhaps significant calls for impeachment occur in the United States as stigmata, signs of great wounds. Perhaps the present-day proponents of impeachment are sincere in their expressions of anguish at the task before them. Perhaps it's not simply strategy. Perhaps it's for real.

Perhaps it's time to recognize that, either still or once again, this country bears huge gaping self-inflicted wounds. Political wounds, where citizens mistrust their chosen representatives, and the government fears the governed. Economic wounds, where the poor mistrust the rich, and the haves fear the have-nots. Cultural wounds, where plain folk mistrust the sophisticated, and elites fear the masses. Removing King Bill will only distract attention temporarily from the pain. So long as we refuse to acknowledge the presence of pervasive problems, they will continue to fester. Lacking a cure, we will seek distractions again. And again. And again.

This is voodoo medicine. When will we realize that it won't work?

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Wednesday, December 16, 1998

The little gray newsrack

Meeting Agenda: Finance Committee, December 16, 1998.

Item 11. 982047 [Pedestal-Mounted Newsrack Agreement]

Ordinance approving the pedestal-mounted newsrack agreement by and between the City and County of San Francisco and Adshel Inc. which allows for the provision, installation and maintenance of pedestal mounted newsracks on public property....

It could be a children's story, complete with lively line drawings:

Once upon a time, a little gray newsrack lived near the busy corner of McAllister and Van Ness. She was a pretty little newsrack, with a shiny black handle and a clear plastic window that glittered in the sunshine. When she looked around, she thought that she must be in the most wonderful place on earth. Just ahead, she could see the brightly painted seal of the State of California. Behind her, across the street, the dome of City Hall curved like a golden apple.

The little newsrack had many brothers and sisters, gray newsracks who lived in other parts of the city. Sometimes she missed her family, but most of the time she was content to be part of a new group of friends. They were a handsome lot as they paraded down the street: there was Weekly in cheerful red, yellow-coated Chron, Ex in white, Guardian in dapper black, and many others, each in its own special color. They had been on the street for many years, and the little newsrack loved to listen to their stories. Murders, earthquakes, fires, celebrations --- these old-timers had seen them all.

The little newsrack had three signs which announced in clean black letters: SAN FRANCISCO FLIER. She wasn't exactly sure what a SAN FRANCISCO was, but it must be something pleasant because its letters tickled like small ants marching across her side. FLIER, she knew, meant the pieces of paper that she carried in her mid-section. She was careful to stand up straight so that people could get a good look at them. Every time someone reached inside and took a copy, she tingled all over with happiness.

One of the little newsrack's friends was a man named Xander, who liked to speed toward her on his bicycle, his ponytail flying in the wind and his cutoffs flapping below his knees. Sometimes he came down the hill so fast that she wondered if he would be able to stop. Xander brought her a new stack of papers and took away any old ones that were left. But he also looked her over with great concern, gently wiping off dirt and graffiti before he hopped back on his bicycle. The little newsrack always felt especially pretty after Xander left.

Then there was The Boss. She never knew when he would come to see her, but all of a sudden he would be there, bending his long legs to peer inside. Sometimes he would bring her a new supply of papers. Sometimes he would tighten the bolt on her handle. Sometimes he would just look at her, stroking his short white beard and nodding with approval.

Across the street stood the city's Soup Kitchen. The little newsrack liked to watch the Soups and their assistants as they walked briskly by her on their way to work. Every once in a while, one of them stopped and took a FLIER. When that occurred, it was all she could do to keep her tiny gray chest from swelling with pride.

One day, the other newsracks began to mutter among themselves, something about an Ordinance, or maybe it was an Ordinary Dance. That must be it. The Kauf Man Soup (who was really a pretty lady, and not a man at all) was holding an Ordinary Dance for newsracks. But the ones on the street were too ugly to come, she said, and besides there were too many of them. Instead, she planned to invite a select group from each corner, known as the Ad-Sells.

The little newsrack looked up and down the street, wondering who the lucky rack would be. Oh my, she thought, is it the Pro Toe Type, that big green chicken coop that's been sitting in front of the Soup Kitchen for months, never saying a word to the rest of us? What a boring party that will be!

The mutterings grew louder, and soon a dark cloud hovered over the corner of McAllister and Van Ness. If you aren't part of the Ordinary Dance, the other newsracks said, you can't stay on the street. They'll haul you away and maybe --- if you're lucky --- give your papers to the Ad-Sells to hold. Or maybe they'll throw away your papers, too.

As the newsracks began to grind their hinges and shake their windows in despair, an angry collection of people walked past, on their way to the Soup Kitchen.

"Who are they?" the little newsrack asked.

"The Publishers." Or was it "The Publickers"? A gust of wind caught the answer and she was never sure which she heard.

But she saw them again and again as they marched into the Soup Kitchen, trying to save their newsracks. Month after month, they appeared before Baby Brug Man, who read them a bedtime story from The Guidelines and told them to be patient. Month after month, the Publickers walked back past the newsracks, shaking their heads sadly.

Then something happened. The little newsrack heard it from Classifieds, who heard it from Indie, who heard it from Chron, who said that all the arrangements had been made for the Ordinary Dance and that Soup Kauf Man was trying to bring the Ad-Sells' invitation before the Fine Aunts Committee without giving anyone time to protest. Papa Brug Man had raised a ruckus in the Soup Kitchen, carrying on like a cornered bear, but Baby Brug Man just smiled. He knew that as soon as the Fine Aunts approved at the Comity Tea, the Soups would as well, and then the party could begin. Without the pretty red and yellow and gray newsracks. And maybe without their papers.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Friday, December 18, 1998

You're the top, you're the Coliseum

Simply madcap, isn't it? And so integral to the American grain. You could update a Preston Sturges spectacular and have Fred Astaire dancing on the wing of a B-52 with a wide-eyed chorus girl who is not his wife as they fly down to Baghdad.

An aside uttered by Clinton yesterday typifies such homegrown sequentiality. Clinton remarked that "far, far more people would have died" from the assumed future behavior of Saddam Hussein than from our attacks. Our continental "splendid isolation" has of course pitched this scenario repeatedly since the 1940s, evoking demoniac foreign menaces and the consequent need for our overkill capacity to be utilized.

What has been occluded by the current bombing is that 1.2 million Iraqis have already died as a direct result of the sanctions, 60 percent of them children under 5 years of age. (American parents wondering what to tell their kids about the president's behavior could start with that.) So we have substantial anticlimax with this policy, but it's hardly unique in our chronicle of averred clear-and-present dangers. The half-century-long cartoon panel of Soviet thuggery which spurred U.S. missile-brandishing and provided the mucilage for our preferred model of a state capitalist command economy, had been vanquished even long before the showdown in Cuba in 1962, and merely awaited the dénouement of our containment policy via Reagan's gothicizing perception-management and purse-emptying militarism. Likewise, his $15 billion of destruction visited upon 3 million Nicaraguans mooted the eventual election of our hand-picked lackey there.

But the prototype for our national security posture is clearly to be found in the concluding months of WWII against the Japanese. You can surely trace the superfluity of power embossing our national character from its enshrinement during that war's latter days. Correspondingly, that bearing trickles down seamlessly to the cultural realm; call me didactic, as you always do, but each replication, for instance, of cinema drama which asks us to consider a rampaging car chase as novel, or intersperses Porky's humor with graphic violence (a Sturges taking a meeting with Quentin Tarantino to add contemporary élan to a project), I would suggest is all of a piece with the tenor of leadership --- if that's the word I want. Mind you, I'm not speaking of Hiroshima or Nagasaki when I cite the example of our hostilities with Japan; that was merely the seedbed of the orchard of U.S. foreign policy anticlimaxes to follow. Rather, fully a million Japanese were slaughtered in the nine months of round-the-clock conventional bombing which preceded the atomic blasts. And virtually all of the American military command were agreed that the A-bomb was unnecessary to effect Japan's surrender. The misnomered "conventional" payloads, it should be noted, were in fact incendiary ordnance, and in one evening's two-hour rain of it on Tokyo they ignited the lives of more than 200,000 civilians. Much like the current crop of laser- and satellite-guided weaponry in development since the Gulf War and being operated as you read this, the techniques employed against Japan would undergo further refinement, and in due course the Vietnamese would perforce incorporate the word napalm into their common vocabulary.

* * *

All of this understandably loses nothing in the transition to the insistence that Saddam Hussein has sufficient armaments remaining with which to endanger another country. In reality his arsenal has all but been decimated, his infrastructure is in shambles, and 6,000 Iraqi kids spiral to slow death every month. With what little he may hold in undetectable reserve, he could perhaps mount a sortie or two before joining Hammurabi in the netherworld. The specter of the bugbear Hussein deploying nerve agents is obviously sustaining Clinton in his own hour of deliverance, and it's a mark of the pitiful substratum of opportunism driving Clinton that the destruction of factories harboring any chemical or biological weapons could well disperse across Iraq what would constitute, in effect, weapons of mass destruction. Once again, we will offer proof that we are unsurpassed at using such doctrinal devices preemptively. Keep in mind also that for many years above-ground nuclear tests were potentially no less lethal to those whose crops and dairy cows lay downwind of our peacekeeping.

Because the attack is likely to preclude any continuation of the U.N. inspection system, it stands to reason that the bombing as it progresses will become magnified in intensity and coverage. Corollary damage to civilians will rise, and what the sanctions haven't undone, the blitzkrieg will finish. This is a last throw of the dice for the imagination-impaired, and it's foolhardy to believe that the religious celebration of Ramadan will stay the completion of this offensive. Will the networks post an advisory on Christmas Day to warn of unsettling footage that a child cuddling his Furby might be better-off not seeing?

It's enervating and I shouldn't go here, but I will anyway, with my incomprehensible faith in the possibilities of mere rhetoric: The president had only to say, "We're calling for an end to the sanctions. We're going to resume normal diplomatic relations with Iraq and see how it goes." How simple and bold an approach, how noble. Indeed, how manly, if you will, in an un-Albright kind of way. One must also conclude that the Republicans, in their sudden aversion to foreign entanglements, all along had possessed the inclination to employ such bipartisan wisdom.

There's an old expression which defines Washington as the place where "the men fuck down and the women fuck up." You'll see it manifested today as the impeachment voting gets underway after the front pages have recounted Speaker-elect Bob's adventures. And yet, despite its obvious applicability, the description is hardly that exact (or, if you prefer, precision-guided). It bears little relation to gender in a larger and more universal sense, of course, given the presence of Madeleine and her sisters as vested exemplars of the policy juggernaut.Thus it's timely to correctly situate the boffing imagery in the context of power, and the ill-advised admiration of that power; in the setting of traditional tough-guy authority and license and --- you can probably finish this yourself --- the unthinking and complaisant respect for it. That indicts Monica, and Paula, and you and me, to be sure. Recognizing that this holiday season as the missiles lock-on is a gift we should self-bestow with gratitude. Think of it as anticlimactic, something we've always understood, and then head off to lift the cumulative gloom by hoofing-and-warbling-in the new year as Astaire would. Step with a will on behalf of your kids and their Iraqi peers. You don't need my social tips, but I'll admonish you to at least some homily of resolve: Singing out the old entails tapping out an alternative bridge to the next century. It's a quite simple notion, really. Otherwise we remain fixed in their crosshairs as the easiest of targets.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1998

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