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The ’70s and Now, and the Big Difference Between the Two

Former White House counsel John Dean testified before the House judiciary committee on Monday, and it gave us a nostalgic feeling. The last time Dean was before the committee was way back in the early ’70s days of the Watergate scandal, and we well remember what a very big deal it was.
Although we were mere junior high school students at the time we already had a precocious interest in politics, and closely followed the Watergate story from the first day a couple of Washington Post reporters relegated to the late night crime beat reported that some burglars had broken into the Democratic party’s national headquarters in the fancy Watergate complex and attempted to place a wire-tape on the phones. That initial short story buried in the inside pages of the paper included the intriguing detail that all of the burglars and would-be wiretappers were closely associated with the Committee to Reelect President Richard Nixon, already better known as CREEP, and eventually led to Nixon’s resignation after impeachment charges had been brought by the House of Representatives.
There was an interminable two years or so before it all played out, which included Nixon winning reelection with a popular and electoral landslide, but it was a fascinating and unforgettable spectacle for an impressionable young political geek to watch. We read everything about it that ran in the local morning and afternoon newspapers — Wichita had both back then, and both were well worth the dime-a-day subscription rates our parents happily paid — and during summer vacation we’d take time out from bicycle-riding and basketball-playing and other normal boyhood pastimes to watch the congressional hearings that preempted the soap operas and game shows and old movies on the city’s three television stations.
One of the most compelling episodes of that reality show was Dean’s televised testimony to the House judiciary committee. The youthful lawyer who had already risen to the job of White House counsel freely confessed to various crimes he had committed at the behest of President Nixon to cover up the campaign’s clear connection to the break-in, spoke of various other requested crimes he had declined to carry out in service of the cover-up, and had a quotable line about a “cancer at the heart of the presidency.” After that the Watergate scandal inevitably hurtled toward Nixon’s resignation, with significant help from some conversations that Nixon had ill-advisedly recorded on audio tape, which the courts ordered released to the public and corroborated pretty much everything Dean said, including the self-incriminating parts of his testimony/
Dean wound up being disbarred and serving a short time behind bars for his confessed crimes, along with Nixon’s Attorney General and a few other high-ranking administration officials, but so far history has treated Dean more kindly. He did admit to the crimes he committed at Nixon’s behest, was provably innocent of other crimes he’d been requested by Nixon to commit, and ultimately told the verifiable truth and accept its consequences, which is more than you can say for any of the people who have been caught up in any subsequent political scandals.
Dean’s latest testimony to the House judiciary committee is far less consequential. At this point he’s an 80-year-old and graying and balding ex-lawyer and ex-felon, appearing on some very low-rated hearings televised on a few of the thousands or so television channels, and he has no more personal knowledge of President Donald Trump’s alleged scandals than we do. The Democratic majority running the committee inquiry called him to testify again for the clear purpose of getting some stories in the newspapers that mention both Watergate and Trump, which obviously have nothing to do with one another, but there are enough similarities that we can’t blame the Democrats for asking Dean’s opinions.
One of the many currently litigated spats in the current presidential scandals is whether former White House counsel Dan McGahn will testify to the various congressional committees looking into the matter. A 400-plus-page report by the special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” included several pages about McGahn testifying to the investigation about diligently declining presidential orders to obstruct the investigation, so the Democratic majorities in Congress have ordered him to testify about that, while McGahn’s ex-boss is ordering him not to testify, and we’ll have to await the courts’ rulings about that. Our guess is that McGahn eventually testifies, and will reiterate the exculpatory-to-himself but damning-to-Trump testimony he gave to the special counsel investigation, but it probably won’t have the same effect as when Dean spoke out way back in the ’70s.
For one thing there are now a few hundred other reality shows to watch on television during summer vacation, and far fewer junior high political geeks tuning into the congressional hearings. For another thing, many of the new media that Nixon didn’t enjoy back in the day will be providing coverage that portrays McGahn or anyone else casting aspersions against Trump as an enemy of the people, and these days the people seem to believe whoever’s telling them what they want to hear. Back in the Watergate days the Republicans had relatively liberal members in the northeast, and the Democrats had some very conservative members in the the south and west, and politics was more a matter of facts than party affiliation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case these days.
Trump would have been well advised to ignore Dean’s inconsequential testimony on Monday, but he couldn’t help “tweeting” that Dean is a disbarred lawyer and ex-felon and yet another loser who dares criticize our dear leader, and once betrayed the Republican party’s deal leader Nixon. That’s all true enough, we suppose, but Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Michael Cohen is also disbarred and in prison, and his former campaign manager is also in prison on charges that involve his dealings with hostile foreign governments, and his past national security advisor is awaiting sentencing on charges that arguably rise to the level of betraying his country, and his former White House counsel is clearly ready to testify to Congress about all the obstruction of justice order he disregarded. By comparison, Dean doesn’t look so bad.
Nixon still has his die-hard defenders, but Trump doesn’t seem to be one of them. Trump couldn’t help “tweeting” that the cowardly Nixon had resigned, something Trump boasted he would never do in the currently more favorable media and partisan political landscape, even as he blamed Dean’s betrayal for the resignation. At this point your average die-hard Trump supporter is too young to know or care about any of it, and the oldsters hanging on for the next election won’t mind that Trump’s discreetly dissing Nixon, while the young Democrats who know nothing of history seem intent on nominating the same sort of too-far-left candidate who lost by a popular and electoral landslide to the already obviously corrupt Nixon back in ’72.
Politics remains a compelling show, even to our jaded eyes, and despite our advanced age and all the tempting diversions of those hundreds of other channels we’ll remain tuned in.

— Bud Norman

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Another Conspiracy Confirmed

All of the right-wing wackos, including ourselves, have long suspected Obamacare is intended to so thoroughly wreck the American health care system that the public will at last accept a Canadian-style single payer system. Several left-wing wackos of our acquaintance think so, too, but regard it as a delightful trick to be played on their fellow citizens. More sensible people have regarded this as a far-fetched conspiracy, reasonably believing that no one in government would ever attempt such an audacious and unlikely ploy, but now we see that Sen. Harry Reid has made a full confession.
The Senate’s majority leader, who did much to push the legislation into law despite widespread public opposition, even after voters in ultra-liberal Massachusetts went so far as to elect a Republican to stop him, gave up the game during a public television appearance in his home state of Nevada. “What we’ve done with Obamacare is have a step in the right direction, but we’re far from having something that’s going to work forever,” Reid said. When asked if the meant the country would have a system without private insurance, he answered “Yes, yes. Absolutely, yes.”
There will likely be more of this sort of talk as the failure of Obamacare becomes ever more apparent with its haphazard and selective implementation. The law was imposed on an unwitting public with plenty of grand promises that everyone would at last have health insurance, premiums would go down, the national debt wouldn’t go up, no one’s existing coverage would be effected, employment would flourish, and all that talk about rationing and “death panels” was just a lie told by hateful people, but that’s getting harder for likes of Reid to say with a straight face. Our government now concedes that tens of millions will remain uninsured and pay for the privilege, premiums are rising in most states and are forecast to further rise, Congressional Budget Office projections made after all the accounting gimmicks expired show a dramatic cost increase, millions are going to lose their employer-provided policies, a delay in the employer mandate until after the mid-term elections acknowledges that it is driving a trend toward part-time jobs, and even such Democratic heroes as John Dean are publicly fretting about the law’s rationing board. No longer able to deny the facts that are showing up monthly in people’s mailboxes, Obamacare’s defenders are forced to talk of what comes next.
There will be efforts to blame it all on the Republicans, of course, and Obamacare’s eponymous president has already declared that opposition to the bill is motivated solely by some sick desire to deny people health care, but as the poll numbers for the law worsen with each passing day this will be harder to sell. Even with a billion-dollar advertising budget it is difficult to convince a majority of Americans that they are mean people who want others to die. Better to argue that greedy corporations and their Republican puppets won’t simply won’t permit Obamacare’s miracles to occur, and start making grand promises about the day when the free market for health insurance is at long last vanquished. Like Pee Wee Herman falling off his bike and saying “I meant to do that,” the laws defenders can ultimately boast that socialized medicine was what they had intended all along.
It might even work. Many people prefer to blame some rich they don’t know rather than the politicians they have voted for when things go wrong, and insurance executives make for especially appealing scapegoats. A single-payer system can be more easily explained than the complexities of a free market system, too, and its inherent flaws more easily obscured. As strange as it might seem that the public would accept more government as the solution for problems caused by government, they do it all the time, and in recent memory responded to a government-engineered financial crisis by electing candidates promising ever more government control of the economy.

Still, there are hopeful signs that it might not work. Obamacare remains unpopular despite an unprecedented public relations campaign and the best efforts of the media to demonize opponents, and the same people so over-sold the law that even most apolitical types can’t help noticing how ridiculous they are. Whatever quarrels people have had with their insurance companies will soon pale in comparison to their complaints with the government’s heavy-handed role, and that “Flo” woman from the Progressive ads now seems a far more attractive spokeswoman for her industry than Obama is for his. One should never underestimate the Republicans’ ability to waste a good issue, but failing to take advantage of their opposition to Obamacare will take some doing.

Republicans are already making an effort, of course. An internecine battle is now underway in the party between those who want to de-fund Obamacare and those who would rather let its flaws become so tangible that more Democrats will join with the unions and the red state incumbents in rushing away from the law. De-funding Obamacare is a politically risky proposition, as it will allow the law’s die-hard to defenders to spend the rest of their lives insisting that it would have worked just as promised if not for those human-hating Republicans, and if a government shut-down is the result much of the media will revert to its usual role of writing sob stories and casting blame to the right, but letting it become fully implemented poses risks to the people whose lives are dependent on a functioning health care system. We’re inclined to side to with the de-funders, but hope they’ll go about it shrewdly enough to win the battle for public opinion despite the powerful forces arrayed against them.
Whatever happens in the upcoming budget fights, Reid is quite right to believe that Obamacare won’t last forever. The most important matter, then, is that he be proved wrong about what comes afterwards.

— Bud Norman