Monthly Archives: January 2017

Conspirators into stumblebums

On the twentieth anniversary of the Watergate break-in, reporter Daniel Schorr gave the following account on NPR. I find it more than a little relevant today and have added some emphasis below.

One consequence [of Watergate] was to tear down the majesty of the presidency. No nation could see a president who lied, spied, wire-tapped, spoke obscenities and plotted to thwart the justice he was sworn to uphold and retain its faith in the institution. Ensuing “Gates” – White House scandals – came as shocks, but no longer as surprises. If America today has turned against its government, equating incumbency with guilt and inexperience with innocence, you can trace that back to Watergate.

A pity, because one lesson of Watergate is that the lumbering machinery of government worked. More than the press, it was the much-maligned bureaucracy and Congress and the courts that broke the cover-up: the FBI that refused to lie down and play dead; the assistant attorney general, who refused to be the president’s patsy; the Senate committee that laid the groundwork for impeachment; the federal judge who pursued the higher-ups of convicted Watergate burglars.

Since then, government and judiciary have been increasingly politicized. One wonders if today it could prevent a coup from the top. For that, it is not generally realized, was what was in the making. More sinister than what President Nixon did was what he planned to do after winning landslide re-election despite Watergate. The files and tapes disclosed his plans to centralize power in a “super Cabinet” with White House agents like political commissars riding herd on the departments.

The White House would have its own intelligence and surveillance operation. The full power of government would be turned on Nixon’s enemies. “They are asking for it, and they’re going to get it,” Nixon told John Dean. “We have not used the power in the first four years, but things are going to change now.” The nation was saved from that by the government it disdained, and the press it despises, and by whatever providence it is that makes conspirators into stumblebums.

Nixon was smarter than Trump, and had long experience in national politics, and still was thwarted in his ambition. By that measure we need only a little of that providence Daniel Schorr mentioned to work on our behalf. Let us pray that it’s still in operation.

(Daniel Schorr’s report © National Public Radio. I am grateful to NPR’s Audience and Community Relations department for unearthing this transcript for me.)

Engage

You wouldn’t know it from the level of our public discourse, but there is more that unites Americans than divides us – much more.

As Ralph Nader writes in Unstoppable, his book about forging left-right alliances on topics of common interest,

[M]ost people want safe food and drugs. They want to breathe clean air and drink clean water. They want their work to be rewarded with adequate returns for the necessities of life […] They want clean elections and competitive candidates, who provide perceived differences and choices in their platforms. They want their taxes to be reasonable and used well for the common good in an efficient manner. They want some voice in decisions that affect them. They want peace, justice, and public safety.

But Democrats don’t win office by telling you their Republican opponent is a lot like them, and Republicans don’t win office by telling you how much in common they have with Democrats. They need to find the fissures of disagreement, drive a wedge there, and hammer, hammer, hammer. Those Bible-thumping hicks in the flyover states will catch up to modern society sooner or later. The elite libtards on the coasts hate God, guns, and America. That sort of thing.

We used to know how to get along together, but it’s been trained out of us. Any political statement by one side is treated as an outrage by the other, producing ridicule, aggression, dismissiveness, and further entrenchment on both sides. We all need some deprogramming.

During yesterday’s inauguration of Donald Trump, a conservative friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

Still ecstatic it’s not Hillary.

I wrote,

Sincerely curious to know what your reasons are, as long as they’re more substantive than just “her e-mails” and “Benghazi” and “Vince Foster.”

During the campaign someone wrote that, whatever you think of Hillary, no one can plausibly believe she’d pose a threat to the Constitution; and no one can plausibly doubt that Trump does. To the extent that’s true (and it sure feels true to me), and since preserving the Constitution takes precedence over all, shouldn’t simple patriotism have demanded a Hillary vote?

My friend has not yet responded. But someone else, who I’ll call M, posted in that thread,

Liberals are the most intolerant bunch of people I have ever seen. A woman who accepts millions of dollars from foreign countries for her personal gain (foundation), while she is Secretary of State, doesn’t seem to bother you much. But if Trump says something you do not like, it’s the end of the world and the country is never going to be the same. If we survived 8 yrs of Obama, we can get through anything. He loathes America. The most divisive President ever. A vote for Hillary would have been a vote for Obama.

Now, there is plenty that’s wrong with that statement, and plenty of ways to challenge it. But that’s my programming talking: challenge the opposition, don’t let them get away with it, call them out on every little thing. What does that accomplish? Will I win a convert that way? Not a chance. I have learned from experience that a righteous takedown of this person’s misguided beliefs will make me feel puffed-up and smart and superior and maybe earn me some attaboy points among my peers… but do nothing whatever to meaningfully reach this person, to spread the idea of tolerance and respect, to heal the country. I would only have been helping the hammerers to drive their wedge deeper.

So I quashed my initial impulse to cite anecdotes and statistics and experts to prove my points and disprove theirs. Instead I responded,

Here’s the thing: no one’s ever as bad as their opponents make them out to be. Most of the things people disliked about Hillary were drip, drip, dripped into our heads for a quarter century by her opponents – and it worked! It even worked on me, a Democrat. I didn’t like her much for all those vague reasons – her shadowy connections, something something private e-mail server, etc. – until I started digging into all those criticisms for myself and found there was very little there.

On the other hand, most of what Trump opponents dislike comes from his own mouth – unconcealed hatred and disrespect for very many of our fellow citizens, proud ignorance of the Constitution, contradictory statements on almost every topic, unwillingness to engage with critics other than by suppression, and, worst of all, not one scrap of humility or kindness to be found anywhere in his persona.

I’m not disagreeing with anything in M’s post. Yes, there was a certain stink about Hillary; I smelled it too. Maybe it was just propaganda. As for Trump, I called him out on all those things that Americans want in their leaders – forthrightness, courtesy, maturity, humanity – and that all but his blindest supporters must admit he lacks.

This morning I was enormously gratified to find that M had given my comment a Facebook “like.”

This tiny interaction is my template for how we’ll win back the decent, diverse America we once had and have forgotten we want. We only need to approach conversations like this with no thought of putting the other person in their place, but in the sincere belief that we have more to learn than to teach.

We’ve been trained to treat half of the country as our ideological enemy. It’s time we learned the true enemies are the ones who’ve been turning us against each other.


Bonus: Storm, of the musical comedy duo Paul and Storm, had a similar story yesterday about engaging respectfully with a political opponent and achieving civility: Fist-bump with Uncle Sam.