Monday, September 10, 2012

My Political History

Author's Note: This is the beginning of an exploration of my political beliefs. They are mine, and it took me 38 years to figure them out. You may feel inclined to comment on them, or even ask questions, and I would encourage you to do so, provided that you: (a.) avoid the trap of name calling and absolutes, and (b.) write those comments as if we're having a discussion. If you think I've grossly overshot and missed the point, then by all means, let's talk about it. But if you think I'm wrong because I don't see it your exact way, then frankly, I don't want to hear it. I'll do you the same courtesy of not trying to tip your sacred cows, as well. Remember: you can't reason someone out of a position that they did not reason themselves into in the first place.  With all that said, if you're interested in what I have to say, then press on!

I'm at the very end (or very beginning, depending on who you talk to) of Generation X, as made famous in the book by Douglas Coupland. Make of that what you will. And while I don't buy everything that's been said about the children of the Baby Boomers, I do feel like we're the first generation that transformed pop culture into American Culture. We made television important, for example, in ways that kids prior to us did not and could not. We had Sesame Street. We had Pong, and later Atari and Nintendo. Our relationship with the TV was unlike what anyone before us (and I think sometimes since us) had seen.

I told you that to tell you this: I got most of my political education, about 70% of it, from television. The rest is a mixture of books, discussions, and personal experience and observation. I grew up in an environment where there were three local channels, an ABC, NBC, and CBS affiliate, plus three channels from a major city some two to three hours away (an independent channel that showed nothing but reruns and movies, a PBS channel, and another ABC channel). Six channels. that's three more than most people had; it was an embarrassment of riches, I tell you what. In particular, the three channels that our antenna managed to harness from the city far away contributed the most to my deep knowledge of movies, television, and other aspects of popular culture. I still miss them.

Possibly the Greatest Moment in Nixon's Presidency.
The first president I remember seeing and hearing about was Richard Nixon. Unfortunately, all I remember hearing about was Watergate and Spiro Agnew. I remember his resignation, and of course, the famous catchphrase, "I am not a crook." But more than that, I remember the reaction to Watergate the most. I didn't understand at the time what the big deal was about, but I knew that Nixon had somehow done a very bad thing, and everyone was quick to pile on. I mean, it was massive, from Rich Little to Mad Magazine. Everyone wanted to kick Dick Nixon around.

Years later, during one of the not very funny episodes of The Simpsons, Bart is reading a Mad Magazine and he chuckles, "Boy, they're really sticking it to this Spiro Agnew--whoever HE is." That gave me a belly laugh, because that was me, back in the day, reading Mad Magazine for political insights.

The next two presidents were a blur, and largely marked by the sketches they produced on Saturday Night Live. Gerald Ford the klutz, and Jimmy Carter, the pacifist, each took a beating by the early legendary cast that included Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd. Looking back on them now, it's hard to know what made them funny, but we all laughed out loud.  Well, we all laughed until the Shaw of Iran took a bunch of Americans hostage. Then it wasn't very funny.

I remember all of the adults' frustration with the situation. "I don't understand why we don't just go and get them," my father said more than once. This was 1979. Iran held over fifty Americans hostage for more than a year. At the time this was going on, the U.S. hadn't been out of Viet Nam for five years. It was an ugly, uncertain time, and yet, my role models were all for wading into Iran and kicking ass. Interesting.

The situation was, in reality, way more complicated than that. But even pre-CNN, what we learned about the crisis made little sense to at ten-year old. All I knew was the catchy parody song, "Bomb Iran," sung to the tune of the Beach Boy's "Barbara Ann." I was aware that everyone expected the President to"Do Something About It," and that he wasn't. Or didn't appear to. Is it any wonder that Carter lost the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan?

His nickname in the media was "Ronnie Ray Gun," a nod to his support of an orbital defense platform that would shoot enemy nukes down by, well, shooting down at them. It was called the Strategic Defense Initiative, but Reagan's critics of the plan called it "Star Wars," and lest you think it was high praise, I assure you, they meant it as a negative. Reagan was a republican, the first one since Nixon (no, I'm not counted Gerald Ford). And a big part of his election campaign was his promise to bring the hostages home. And son of a gun if he didn't do that very thing, within his first 100 days. Iran was scared shitless of Reagan.

Only that's not what really happened, see. Carter spent the last two years of his presidency dealing with Iran, and it was a diplomatic nightmare. Iran entered into a war with Iraq (more on that, later) and needed the money that the U.S. government had seized. So we in effect ransomed their money back to them in exchange for the hostages. But due to the complicated logistics of the situation, the prisoner release wouldn't take place until after Reagan's inauguration. In fact, the hostages were released right after Reagan's inaugural address.

That's all I remember, as an eleven year old. Reagan took office, and magically, the hostages were released. In truth, Iran probably was scared of Reagan, but they needed their money, too, if they were going to fight Iraq in a war that would last the length of Reagan's presidency. That, combined with the Iran hostage crisis, set the stage for "unrest in the Middle East" narratives that I have heard my entire life. I mention this only in passing, of course.

Published in 1988? Coincidence? Nope.
The 1980s were my teenage years, and I wasted them pretty much the same as everyone else. Everyone had a Reagan impression on television, and no one minded all that much. We were all too busy navel gazing and watching as cable television erupted, creating MTV, TBS, TNT, and much, much worse. Things were finally looking up and by the mid-1980s, everyone was bee-bopping along. Well, there was Nancy Reagan's War on Drugs. "Just Say No" became another catch phrase, about ten times more annoying than "Where's the Beef?" Now, some thirty years later, we can see the effects that the War on Drugs has had, what with the streets cleaned up and no one using anymore--oh, wait, that's not right. That's what was promised. But it never delivered. Again, I mention this only in passing.

In 1988 I was eighteen years old, and I was ready to vote, except for one small niggling detail: I was broken to pieces about the Iran-Contra Scandal. This avuncular ex-actor, who I considered a kind of hero for what he did, was in the dark about what the CIA was doing, funding pockets of freedom fighters and guerrilla armies, selling drugs and dispensing weaponry and ordinance to stop the march of Communism. Selling drugs? Weren't we in a War on Drugs? And how could the President not know?

The narrator in Brought to Light, an alcoholic
Eagle and former "company man" who blurts
out the story in a bar. Painted with Ralph
Steadman-esque intensity by Bill Sienkiewicz.
Alan Moore wrote a graphic novel about the secret dealings of the CIA during this time. It was called Brought to Light and it was based on material taken from the depositions and transcripts from the lawsuit against the US Government by the Christic Foundation, a legal watchdog group that normally set their sights on organizations like the Ku Klux Klan. As graphic novels go, it's a political grenade, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. At the time, Vice-President George Bush (and ex-Director of the CIA) was vocal about the lawsuit and thought that it had no merit. Time has proven otherwise, and a number of ex-operatives have come forward and told their stories, which match up with most of the stories collected and recounted in Christic Institute's lawsuit in the first place.

No one ever figured out what, if anything Reagan knew. My feeling is that the CIA and the other key people indicted in the scandal kept him in the dark about it, mostly, on purpose, just in case they got caught. Which they did. The whole thing soured me on the Republican party, but not because I didn't agree with what went down. It was the lying that got to me. They said they didn't do it, didn't know about it, and then it came out that, well, yeah, they kinda did. It hasn't tarnished his reputation, but at the time, the scandal, along with his failing health, sent him quietly into the wings.

And who stepped up to take his place? George Bush, former vice-president, and also ex-CIA. He seemed like a natural for the job. He'd been in the office for eight years. He knew what was going on. And what was his running platform? Does anyone remember? It got catch-phrased to death by Dana Carvey on Saturday Night Live? "Read my lips: NO NEW TAXES."

I just couldn't buy it. I was eighteen years old, and didn't know or care about economic policy.  Either because of how I grew up, or the stuff I read, or maybe a combination of the two left me terribly cynical. This was hipster irony before it was cool to be a hipster, or ironic. In the late 80s, it meant you were kind of an asshole. And did you see who he was up against? Mike Dukakis. What a clown. Oh, they tried, they really did, to make him as Kennedy-like as they possibly could.  The only thing I liked about that year's Democratic candidate was his vice-presidential choice, Lloyd Bentsen. He was the one who fired the shot across Dan Quayle's bow during the debates. Quayle compared his political experience to that of John F. Kennedy and Bentsen teed up on him like it was a softball pitch and replied, "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you sir, are no Jack Kennedy." That was good television.

Despite that zinger, Bush and Quayle won the election, and comedians and talk show hosts had four years of great material in the form of our new vice-president. I didn't vote for either candidate. I didn't want a former CIA director in the White House, especially after everything that had happened with the Iran-Contra incident, and I thought Dukakis was ridiculous. At the urging of my step-father, I wrote in "Bullwinkle Moose and Rocket J. Squirrel." It showed that I exercised my constitutionally given right to vote and chose None of the Above. Nettled by Bush's victory, I settled in to see what he was going to do. And then a funny thing happened: The Berlin Wall came down.

This was one of those "where were you?" moments for me.       

As someone who grew up in an Air Force Base town (the same one that test flew the B-1 Stealth Bomber while I was living there), I vividly remember doing "disaster drills" in elementary schools, where we were lined up in the halls with our heads tucked down into our laps and our arms covering our faces. I watched war movies and spy movies with my dad and my grandfather, and so by the age of twelve or so, I knew what the bomb was, who the Commies were, and what they wanted to do to our way of life.  All throughout Reagan's presidency, he made repeated overtures to the Russians to disarm, abandon nuclear missiles, and make peace with the Yankee Pig-Dog Capitalists. Modern Day Republicans are fond of the "Mr. Gorbechev, tear down this wall!" sound byte and use it a lot when talking about "The Great Communicator." To his credit, President Bush was quick to throw the lion's share of the credit to Reagan for the fall of Communism. Fair? Accurate? It didn't matter. Our noble enemy was no more. I wondered, ever-the-cynic, who our next enemy would be, because I knew one thing for sure: we as a country needed someone to be opposed to. America loves Bogeymen. And with Mother Russia out of the way, it sure looked like the Middle East would be a nice substitute villain.

This was, of course, hogwash. And I can prove it right now. Who was your least favorite James Bond? Hands down, it's Timothy Dalton. He sucked, not because he wasn't British and smirky enough. He was replacing Roger Moore, who had descended into pure camp at that point. No, he sucked because he was fighting generic terrorists in the Middle East that no one gave a shit about. No epic villains with grandiose schemes. In truth, it was all a little too close to home. The fight was about oil.

President Bush had some pretty big shoes to fill, but his plan was simple: stay the course. He had the Presidency handed off to him, like the third leg of a relay race. All Bush had to do was maintain. Unfortunately for him, he had to raise taxes almost right away, because SOMEbody couldn't keep their troops in their own country and decided to invade Kuwait. War costs money.

Gulf War I, or "Operation: Desert Storm," was little more than a massive police action. We know that now, but at the time, it was pretty scary stuff. This was my first real war, you see. I was living in Austin, and I was pretty keyed up about it. Desperate to know more about why we were over there, and what we were doing, I started reading everything I could. I realized that the last time we'd been involved with Iraq, they were our allies. We helped put Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. Now he's the guy we're shooting? It was confusing at the time, and it remains so to this day. I have a theory about that, but we'll save that for later.

From The Big Lebowski. "This aggression will not stand, man."
Nineteen days after it began, it ended. The US military got all dolled up for the prom, but ended up stranded at the dance. While General Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf sent his highly trained troops plodding through the desert in support of their ponderous tanks, a handful of marines in lightly armored Jeeps were moving fast, striking quickly, and taking over villages with little to no casualties. This is not an indictment. It's just what happened. There were some controversial incidents, of course. Nearly one fourth of the US soldiers died by friendly fire. There was the "Gulf War Syndrome" that made a number of returning veterans sick. This was the war that put CNN on the map of American Experience, and they gave us 24 hour news coverage. As a result, this was the first time that most Americans got to hear first hand about things like Friendly Fire and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. CNN put a human face on the war, and a lot of Americans didn't like it. Yes, the US accomplished their stated objective (along with a large number of coalition forces): they pushed Saddam back into Iraq and out of Kuwait. But while a number of people questioned the cost of human lives, the size of the operation, and the ultimate expense to America, there were a lot of people who felt like Bush didn't finish what he'd started and taken Saddam Hussein out of office right then.

Around this time, a Texas comedian named Bill Hicks was rising in popularity. He was bombastic, polemic, and a first-rate iconoclast. But he was very funny, very clever, and whip smart. He had a lot to say about government, politicians, and the war in Iraq, just to scratch the surface. Make no mistake about it, Hicks was Generation X's Lenny Bruce. I listened to everything he had to say, and it colored my perceptions about power and the people who wield it irrevocably.

When Bill Clinton decided to run for office, I was as star-struck as the rest of the world. My girlfriend was from Arkansas at the time and remembered campaigning for Clinton to be governor. He played the saxophone? He had a very hip, "with it" approach. He energized the youth base. I guess that would include me.

There was a third candidate, Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot. I was all set to vote for him, despite the number of people who made fun of his various Texas-isms. But Perot dropped out of the race, despite having some very interesting things to say. He was all about fiscally conservative governing. I don't know if that message didn't sit well with the people who normally buy and pay for candidates (because Perot sure didn't need their money), but he stated that he feared for his family's safety. Make of that what you will. *cough*CIA*Cough* 

In the end it was no surprise that Clinton won. I mean, really, it wasn't even close. The republicans and the nascent talk radio jocks were incensed that the popular kid in class won the election and immediately started nipping at his heels.

Most of what they dug up didn't stick, but it was all suspicious enough to earn him the nickname "Slick Willie," and in hindsight, that was probably more than somewhat prophetic. Clinton sure didn't seem to sweat the criticism as he drafted more and more legislation and policies. He got some Health Care coverage up and running for folks. There was, of course, "Don't ask, don't Tell." The North American Free Trade Agreement was his, as well, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. I don't think that he or anyone else thought it would gut American manufacturing the way that it did, and I would like to think that if they knew it was going to happen, they wouldn't have done it. He even picked up the war cry and instituted a number of "limited engagements'" and "police actions" against a number of dictatorships who were committing civil rights violations on their own people. Lots of troops saw action during the Clinton years. Nevertheless, Clinton fought hard to keep himself popular, relevant, and generally improving the country during peace time.  All of that was going great, until...

Not two days into the Lewinsky scandal, I was already sick of hearing about it. By this time, I was of the opinion that I didn't care at all (still don't, really) what goes on in private between the President, the First Lady, and anyone else who may be involved. I also didn't think Monica Lewinsky was fat and ugly, either. In the end, yeah, I could kinda see how it happened. He's presidential, she's star-struck... Anyway.

This was exactly what the shock jocks were looking for. Finally, a scandal that happened on their watch that they could pump up to the extreme and use to condemn him. What was so funny about that particular witch hunt was that it wasn't until after the hearings, the impeachment, and all of the fallout that Clinton's approval rating soared. He left office more popular than when he took it. I think partially this is because so many of the people attacking him were standing in very thin, very fragile glass houses, and they were heaving cinder blocks around and honestly thinking they held some sort of moral high ground. There were a number of scandals in the 1990s involving upstanding, seemingly moral crusaders who got caught with prostitutes, male and otherwise. It was just such a big joke. No one took it seriously. I think because deep down, nobody cares, really. They just pretend to care because they think everyone else cares.

When he came on the television in the midst of these hearings and announced that he launched missiles at some alleged terrorist named Osama Bin Laden, the entire nation scoffed. Wow, we all said, are you that desperate to distract us from what's going on? He got the message and dropped it. It's funny how these things work out.

What really squeezed my cheese was that he wasn't just admitting it. He got caught. Own it, man! Your sex life didn't mean a thing to any of us, provided you were a good president. I thought he was, at the time. Now I'm not so sure. Between sending all of the manufacturing jobs around the world and effectively gutting the middle class job market, and handing nuclear technology over to the New Communist China, he never stopped lying. Do you remember his testimony? He never broke character. He never gave an inch. I was really disappointed in him. By this time, I was completely disappointed in politicians and the political process altogether. Lies, misuse of power, reckless spending, no's like we have this need to put sociopaths in office and we can't understand why they let us down.

When Al Gore stepped up to the plate, again trying for a hand off, the Republicans were now in a Put Up or Shut Up mode. They had been whining and kvetching for eight years about how the Dems were doing it wrong, they got everything backwards, stuff was screwed up, etc. Never mind that when Clinton left office, there was a budge surplus of over 200 billion dollars. If you listened to anyone on the right, we were in the toilet from 1992 to 2000 and it was all Clinton's fault. Again, this is hogwash, and it's made all the more telling by how much money Clinton saved Republicans when he sent jobs overseas and opened up trade with China.  That's why, to this day, I cannot for the life of me fathom why the Republicans thought it would be a good idea to go with him.

It was widely known around Austin that Governor George W. Bush was an idiot. He was the Black Sheep, unsuccessful member of the Bush Power Clan. There is a truth behind all of the jokes. He wasn't really doing anything as the governor of Texas except making sure that interest rates were low and implementing the Texas lottery which was earmarked for bolstering education. I don't know where Texas is ranked right now, but I can promise you it's not in the top 10. Or the top 20. Or even the top 25. So, how'd that Lotto money work out for us? I still don't think we've gotten a dime of it, but I could very well be wrong about that.

By this time, I was done with sex appeal and flashy personality. I wanted someone who could take the economic prosperity and push us forward. I didn't think that George W. Bush was going to do that. I voted for Gore. I didn't like him very much, but he was as uncharismatic as Clinton was rock star. I wanted boring. I thought we needed boring. 

When the election of 2000 happened, it put the cap on the build-up of Us vs. Them rhetoric that has torn at the fabric of the country for the past twenty years or more. The hateful, squabbling back and forth was petty, infantile, and unseemly. This is supposedly for the office of the Presidency, and both camps were acting like rival cheerleading squads at band camp. It was just such a waste of our time. In the end, George W. Bush was made president, but it wasn't fair and square, and that cloud has followed him around ever since.

The democrats immediately starting comparing George W. Bush to Hitler. Hitler! The Nazi who murdered six million people, not counted the World War he started. Really. The light-headed Texas governor with a DWI conviction? It's not a fair, nor a valid, nor a realistic comparison. But boy did it get thrown around. All I wanted was for everyone to take a deep breath and remember that we are all Americans, and just because we believe different things, it doesn't make us evil, wrong, or stupid. Just different. I wanted a cease fire on American on American hate.

Then our enemy finally, at long last, showed up when we least expected it.

There are no words for this. None.
Cathy called me at my home on Tuesday, September 11th, to tell me to turn on the television. A plane, she said, had crashed into the World Trade Center, and they thought maybe it was an attack. Confused, I turned on the television and like everyone else, lost the rest of the day. And the rest of the week. Who wasn't understandably shattered by those events?  Cathy and I watched for several days, and then we had to turn the television off. I won't rehash any of the reactions because you all remember them. I will say that one of my favorite headlines was from the Onion--and it's become sadly prophetic in so many ways that it makes me sad. You can read the whole story here. It's not suitable for work. But neither was the Bill Hick clip, so you're on your own.

It wasn't long until President Bush sobered up and realized that he was going to have the toughest presidency in thirty years. I was interested to see how people came together, and we were all pointed in the same direction, looking for answers, and wanting justice, if not vengeance. The last time I felt like that, I had been eleven years old.

And we were all with President Bush until he announced that the bad guys were actually, now that we think about it, in Iraq. Oh, really? I have to tell you, it didn't sound right from the start. Afghanistan? Yeah, we knew about that. Suddenly, there's an Axis of Evil? Led by Iraq? Didn't we kick their asses ten years ago?

Understand me, here: if anyone in the administration had said, "As long as we're over there, we're going to clear out the region of dictators and help the people transition over to a peaceful government. We're going to win hearts and minds so that this doesn't happen again." I promise you, most of us would have signed off on it. But when you LIE to people about Weapons of Mass Destruction and then get caught, it calls everything into question. People were looking for a reason to not like Bush again,  and this was it. Now the Hitler signs came back out, and we got war protestors. I didn't blame anyone who said the war is unjust. I agreed with that. But as someone who has watched Iran and Iraq posture and puff up to the American war machine for most of my life, I was also secretly curious as to what would happen if we took out the former guerrilla generals that we had previously backed and replaced them with a stable government. I really wanted to know.

We sure got our answer, didn't we? President Bush got re-elected, solely on the "ongoing war on terror" platform. More lies. And this time, the lies were costing us billions of dollars (goodbye surplus) and worse, American lives. We learned, much like Russia, France, and other countries, that small, tribal people who are essentially still in a state of barbarism have no desire to be governed by people from halfway around the world that they do not understand and have no common ground with. Weird, I know, but we can now say that at least we tried.

That brings us to 2008. I remember having a random conversation with a Hispanic lady some years ago who said to me that she would vote for Hillary Clinton for President because "I feel sorry for her, you know." I asked her to clarify. She replied, "You know, 'cause her husband cheated on her."

I stopped talking politics with people not long after that.

See if you can guess who I voted for in 2008? You bet. The Dark Horse. Barack Obama. I wanted a change from the lies that put the military in danger. I wanted a change in the way we did things. I wanted the defense budget cut--because, you see, we built up this massive infrastructure (which is the exact opposite of the Real Republican's "Little Government" platform) and we had all of these people chasing ghosts in the Afghan hills for a decade now. It was time to pull back, and address some of the serious economic problems in this country. The prohibitive cost of health care. The disappearing middle class.

Yeah, I bought it. I bought the rap. And boy, am I disappointed. Not for any of the reasons that the New Republicans are. They are just as much a part of this mess as anyone. No, I'm mad because I really, honestly thought it would be different this time and the campaign promises would be upheld.

I sometimes want to be a Republican, though not necessarily a conservative. I want a small economic footprint. I want fiscal responsibility. But I also don't care what two people who love each other do in private. I do not care what a woman does with her own body. If you put my hand to the fire, I'll tell you these are moral concerns, best left to the church, and not the province of any government office. And if we have to be taxed, and if I have to pay into the system, I want that system to take care of me as much as it can. As someone who believes in a higher power, I would much rather pay for health care with my taxes, to heal the sick and feed the hungry, then to make war on third world countries with no standing armies. I think Real Republicans understand that. I do not think New Republicans do. However, there are a number of government programs that I think are necessary and good and need to be kept. I want to cut defense spending by two thirds and put it into education. I also want people on government assistance to work. That sure doesn't make me a democrat. Nor, I suspect, a liberal.

So what am I? I'm disillusioned, jaded, cynical, and also optimistic. I think there's got to be a tipping point for all of this where the people who are engaged in this hate-speech, who sound like conspiracy theorists, will sort of wake up and go, "oh, boy, we were asleep for a while. But now let's actually go make some real changes to the way things are done instead of blindly checking boxes and believing everything we are told at face value."

I'd like to think that's going to happen.

Later, I'll go into some specific issues that concern me. For now, this was an attempt, and probably not a good one, at showing you how I got to where I am. The bottom line: How can you tell if a politician is lying? His lips are moving. I don't trust 'em. Why should you?