The cunning cons of party pols
By Courtney Haden
Two games that put the fun into Fun City are speed chess and three-card monte. Though some say New York City’s official recreations are kvetching and kvelling, the board game and the card game capture, I think, the essence of that great metropolis.
Chess is a game of supreme strategizing, in which success is dependent on one’s ability to think several moves ahead. Take away the luxury to deliberate, as the masters of speed chess demonstrate daily in Washington Square, and instinct becomes a crucial component in vanquishing one’s adversary.
Three-card monte, on the other hand, is a game of skill only for the person holding the cards. As widespread as the legend of this street con is, there’s always one mark who steps up to the table thinking he can beat the dealer.
Manhattan’s unique diversions have become America’s lately. The presidential race, still a human gestation away as of Super Fat Tuesday, has picked up incredible velocity thanks to the various media accompanying the contest, so that the daily engagements between the Democratic senators on one side and between rival wings of the Republican Party on the other comprise hourly confrontations.
Essential to any competitive campaign now is a Rapid Response Team, wonks and geeks poised for instant rejoinder to any sudden rhetorical moves by the opposition.
This is definitely work for the feint of heart.
With the right RRT, any candidate’s casual misstatement at 9 a.m. can be blown into a cause celebre by 10:30, nimbly riposted by noon, turned into a viral video by three and wrapped just in time for post-gaffe analysis on the 5:30 news.
The big winners? Potential voters with attention deficit disorder and Matt Drudge.
I was convinced the breakneck pace the candidates set in the ramp-up to primary season could not be maintained and I was wrong. If anything, events are moving even faster now, on multiple fronts. As in speed chess, the winner will be the player who makes the next-to-last mistake; a game more thrilling, perhaps, than edifying.
Three-card monte, on the other hand, doesn’t mind a deliberate pace, because the key to winning is misdirection. Our national game of bonneteau has floated from agency to agency inside the Beltway for seven years, but on Super Tuesday, the game was on at the House Judiciary Committee meeting room, where Attorney General Michael Mukasey kept the red queen hopping during several hours of testimony.
You may recall that Mukasey was supposed to be the dude with the rectitude; a conscientious alternative to the tawdry fumblings of disgraced AG Alberto Gonzales. Despite the former district judge’s evasive responses to pointed legal questions during scrutiny of his nomination, Mukasey somehow persuaded skeptics such as Democratic Senators Dianne Feinstein and Charles Schumer to vote for his confirmation.
In exchange for their support, Mukasey has proceeded to waterboard the Constitution. During last week’s testimony, Mukasey asserted a new and chilling mandate of absolute power at the highest federal level.
The Attorney General, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, spent a good bit of last Tuesday enumerating laws he wouldn’t enforce. He started with a refusal to initiate a criminal investigation of CIA agents’ torture of detainees, refused next to investigate warrantless wiretapping and finished the day assuring Congress he would not enforce any contempt citations they might be brash enough to drop on present or former White House officials.
Mukasey’s justification? If a government operative relied on a Department of Justice legal opinion for his actions, he could not be prosecuted or investigated because the actions therefore would have been permissible under the law as it existed then. As TPM Managing Editor David Kurtz broke it down online, “We have now the Attorney General of the United States telling Congress that it’s not against the law for the President to violate the law if his own Department of Justice says it’s not.”
Not even Nixon’s radical cabal dared this dream.
While our attention are drawn to the tinselry and fanfaronade of the colorful struggle for office, another campaign for power is waged by those who would make permanent the criminal aims of the current administration. It is a classic con game move; shills distract the marks during the shuffle. Unable to keep their eyes focused on the shifty dealer, the marks lose.
The philosophical mission of the Bush/Cheney regime is to set aside the constraints of constitutional checks and balances in favor of concentrating authority in a “unitary executive”---what the Founding Fathers might have called a “king.” From illegal signing statements to unjustified invasions, George Bush and his minions have acted in disregard, if not outright defiance, of the rule of national and international law and have done so with impunity.
Because we just don’t care anymore.
Perhaps we think we have no power to stop them, or that we can simply wait out the term hoping something better might come along. Maybe we think the changes the Bushies made in the way things are done will be corrected by a new administration and that the whole ugly enterprise will recede into history, to be regarded as quaintly as Grant’s or Harding’s.
Instead, these people mean to create a living legacy, to leave behind an authoritarian regime operating according to their repressive principles and for their benefit long after they’ve gone; a military-financial complex against which ordinary citizens would be powerless to resist.
Paranoia? You tell me. Former AG John Ashcroft told Missouri Republicans last weekend that George Bush “respects liberty so profoundly that he has safeguarded civil liberties more than any other president in wartime that I know of.” So much so that the White House has nominated exactly nobody to fill the currently vacated Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board established through the 9/11 Commission.
Guess those civil liberties will oversee themselves. Or maybe George Bush and his boys’ll be happy to oversee them for us.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.