Friday, July 6, 2007

Rehab Nation

On the afternoon of August 9, 1974, I sat with my family at our white astro-shaped Zenith Chromakey TV and watched Richard Nixon resign from office. I was sixteen -- just coming to political awareness -- and Watergate had been the dominant political story for two entire years. Watching him stand down felt to me like a victory -- a vindication that, after all the crime and all the lying, the system worked after all. For me, as for most of the late Boomer and early Gen-X crowd who came of age in the early 70s, it was the only happy moment in a sequence of events that would otherwise make us cynics for life.

So it surprised me that my mother -- whose motto in life is "Suck it up and deal" -- was sitting on the couch with a box of tissue, quietly crying. Why? I asked her. This was a great moment. A horrific wrong was being righted.

She sniffed, and cleared her throat. "I'm crying for my country."

Mom always takes the long view of politics. She knew that Watergate was not an end, but a beginning. From this point on, she saw, American politics was going to get uglier and coarser, rough in a way that it hadn't been since FDR had come to power. As a member of the Silent generation, Mom treasured that civility. As a reader of history, she knew in her bones that the comity of the nation depended on comity in Washington. And she knew that this moment portended many worse moments ahead.

And yet, at the same time, when the Ford pardon came down soon after, she thought it was the right thing to do. Let go and move on. Don't dwell on the past. For a long time, I thought that this was also just a piece of her general Silent-generation love of diplomacy and order.

But, lately, I've come to realize that there was something else going on there, too. Mom's also an ACA of the "trooper" variety. Sweeping ugly stuff under the rug and moving on was something she learned as a toddler, and it's still her favorite way of dealing with most of life. Suck it up and deal. And what's troubling me now is that this is the way most of America seems to prefer to deal with ugly political shit, too.

We've had many discussions about this in the years since, as the horrors she so presciently feared that day did indeed come to pass. Even so: she still thinks the pardon was the right thing to do. I counter that Ford's actions, even more than Nixon's, ensured the very outcome she feared most. The bastards learned they could get away with it -- and, worse, picked up some extra clue about how not to get caught next time. And so we had Iran-Contra, and then Monica-gate, and now the horror that is this war. All of it is a direct result of Watergate and its botched aftermath. Every new episode -- all left mostly unpunished -- gave the Republican Mafia another tutorial on how to hoodwink the masses and shred the Constitution. Like a hardcore drunk whose co-dependents coddle him through a week-long binge, they discovered they could get away with anything, that the family would look the other way, and that no consequences would ever be forthcoming.

Which means most of the country's worst political moments of the past 30 years would have been avoided entirely if Nixon and his cronies had done the hard jail time they so richly deserved -- and the rest of their criminal cabal had been given our hearty assurance that anyone who tried to run that crap on the American people again would also be feasting on the grapes of our wrath, delivered fresh to their doorstep with a gimlet eye and terrible swift sword.

Instead, we keep doing the ACA thing. Sweep it under the rug. Put it behind us. Move on. Trust karma to mete out suitable justice (another favorite argument of Mom's -- "These guys are disgraced. This will haunt them all their lives." Mom's got this quaint sense of morality that can't quite grok how wingnut welfare works.).

Any drug and alcohol counselor -- or anyone who's grown up in a dysfunctional family and knows first-hand -- or even Mom, when she's really thinking about it -- can tell you how well this kind of denial works. Fact is: It doesn't. It just lets the addict keep getting away with abuse. Which means, in the long run, the abuse is going to get worse, until one day it spirals out of control and blows the whole family apart.

America is a family that's been living with a bunch of reckless, unchecked power addicts for the past 35 years. They've bankrupted us, trashed the house, taken a toll on our mental and physical health, abused the kids, run the car into the ditch, and pissed off the neighbors so thoroughly that some of them won't even talk to us any more. Like all addicts, they refuse to acknowledge anything they've done -- let alone accept any responsibility for it. And every time we say, "Hey, no problem. Let's just forget about it and move on as a family," they figure they've gotten away with it again.

We cannot afford to let that happen this time. Our country is too far gone, our economy too unstable, our reputation too damaged, our Constitution too tattered to survive another round of this. It's time for a massive national intervention that forces the GOP into full accountability for what they've done, and removes their ability to do us any more harm. Nothing less than a full and honest reckoning of the damage will do. It is our ONLY insurance that the demons unleashed in 1972 will finally be put to rest. First, the truth -- all of it, covering all their malfeasance back to Clinton, back to Iran-Contra, back to Watergate if necessary. And then -- if they're willing to do the work required to become contributing members of the family -- we can discuss reconciliation.

If not, we have no choice but to throw the bastards out of the house. For good. For the sake of the kids. For our own sanity. For a real chance to move on, and build ourselves a new and better life without them.

The Democrats in Congress are making a yeoman's start at just this kind of accountability moment. But I don't count on it to last past the 2008 election. The hearings they're having now -- fruitful as they are -- are nothing more than the smart positioning tactic of an opposition party. Once they're out of opposition, they won't want to waste their time and political capital on it. Just as they've always done before, they'll put their shovels down immediately after the election. The dirt will stop coming. The confrontations will cease ("in the interest of comity," and under considerable pressure from their corporate donors and the MSM, who are terrified of the way this would upend the status quo). The "let's not be negative -- we must move the country forward" crowd will step to the forefront, Bush will get on the chopper for Crawford, and the Republicans will retreat to their country clubs to analyze the situation and figure out how to fuck us up more thoroughly next time. And you know, sure as a Haliburton dividend check, that because we lost our stomach for justice and declined to follow all the way through again, there will be a next time.

And I, like my mother, will cry for my country. Because I know that if we fail this time, America as she knew it -- as I learned to love it -- will have ceased to exit.

The Democrats will probably have at least enough sense to tie Iraq around the GOP's neck for the foreseeable future. They're going to be stuck cleaning up that mess for a long time, and will need to keep reminding America who made it in the first place, lest any of it stick to them.

But as for actually going after specific Bushios and making them do the froggy hop in front of grand juries and congressional committees -- don't count on it. If it doesn't happen by next November, it's not going to happen at all.