The last four years has been, in many ways, a gorgeous spectacle, a pageant of opportunities for the writer. Sometimes, government is bad. Sometimes, government is corrupt. But rarely are all branches of government as bad, as corrupt, as intellectually bankrupt, as willing to serve short term greed at the expense of any other priority, as soaked to the gills in an ethic of blind and lemming like selfishness, yoked to an astonishingly irrational messianism, as in the last four years. It is the culture of the coup. The rapture of the raptors, complete with all the dressings: the unctuous and ignorant Southerners, the Dems pawning their “liberalism” for a song, the demented likes of Zell Miller whose vacances from his accesses of fury are spent in amassing perks for Home Depot, upon whose board he will undoubtedly be ensconced when he retires in three weeks -- it is a zoo with the keepers fled. Was it like this under the Grant administration? LI got all Henry Adam-ish reading about the latest bout of Delay-ism to make its way through that thing we call the Congress like a particularly nasty form of new STD:
“The story began nearly three years ago, with an initial impetus simply to replace a $5 billion annual tax break for American exporters that the World Trade Organization had ruled was illegal. It ended this week with a 633-page behemoth that offers new tax giveaways to everyone from corporate titans like Boeing and Hewlett-Packard to an array of oil and gas producers, shopping mall developers, wine distributors, even restaurants. Many companies, like General Electric and Dell, are likely to end up with far more tax relief under the new bill than they had ever received from the old tax break. Some, like Exxon Mobil, never qualified for the old tax break at all but will enjoy tax savings now.”
There has never been a better time to buy a congressman or a cabinet member. There's never been a better time to argue a case that pits capital vs. labor before a federal court, the judges of which are most likely to have been appointed by a Reagan or a Bush. There are no laws against peculation, bribery, extortion, or other financial crimes that can’t be easily finessed if the crimes are committed by the proper players on the proper scale. There is nothing that can’t be done with money in D.C. Of course, occasionally, the Congress, remembering that decency is a matter of not showing the kids tit shots on tv, does thunder against one commercial venture: tv. But those who are true connoisseurs of obscenity know that Ms. Jackson’s endowments simply don’t compare, as pornography, to the spectacle presented, this week, by Tom DeLay’s House. Those munching sounds you heard were the collected jawings of Republicans and Democrats filling themselves to repletion with lobbyist bribes as they pushed through tax breaks, say, an airplane building company which was practically indicted, last week, for systematically bribing the Pentagon’s top Air Force procurement official, Darleen Druyun, in order to accrue perhaps as much as 10 billion dollars in extra revenue and steal a march on its competitors. The government is in that misfunction mode known to us from all the sad and edifying histories of all the falling republics. Ms. Druyun, by the way, was doled out the same punishment as Ms. Martha Stewart, such being the idiocy of our courts when it comes to white collar crime.
Matthew Josephson’s always interesting History of the Robber Barons (much dissed in the nineties by the laissez faire triumphalists – and oddly unreferenced as the laissez faire heroes unraveled all over the place in 2001 and 2002) gives us the background of Henry Adams activities during the Grant presidency:
“Late in 1869, Charles F. Adams, Jr., who was becoming a specialist in railroad affairs, came upon evidence of a “vast conspiracy” which began in an attempted seizure of one of the principal trunk-lines in the East ; then in wide ramifications enveloped the national currency system, the political leaders of several of the state legislatures, the federal government, members of the presidential cabinet itself. The machinations of the “conspirators” seemed at the time of historic significance to both the Adams brothers, who believed that successive crises had been precipitated by them, culminating finally in the nation-wide panic of 1873. Sensing the new powers at work in the situation, the deep alterations in American society, they had tried to expose the principals of the plot ; they wrote “Chapters of Erie,” unfolding the whole sensational story in a form still substantially correct. They were beating drums, setting up signal-fires ; yet no one had been alarmed, or had the time to be alarmed.”
This is Adams, from the Education, on the Gold scandal – one of the interlocking scandals that made up the substance of the book Henry and his brother wrote in 1870:
Before he got back to Quincy, the summer was already half over, and in another six weeks the effects of President Grant’s character showed themselves. They were startling—astounding—terrifying. The mystery that shrouded the famous, classical attempt of Jay Gould to corner gold in September, 1869, has never been cleared up,—at least so far as to make it intelligible to Adams. Gould was led, by the change at Washington, into the belief that he could safely corner gold without interference from the Government. He took a number of precautions, which he admitted; and he spent a large sum of money, as he also testified, to obtain assurances which were not sufficient to have satisfied so astute a gambler; yet he made the venture. Any criminal lawyer must have begun investigation by insisting, rigorously, that no such man, in such a position, could be permitted to plead that he had taken, and pursued, such a course, without assurances which did satisfy him. The plea was professionally inadmissible.
This meant that any criminal lawyer would have been bound to start an investigation by insisting that Gould had assurances from the White House or the Treasury, since none other could have satisfied him. To young men wasting their summer at Quincy for want of some one to hire their services at three dollars a day, such a dramatic scandal was Heaven-sent. Charles and Henry Adams jumped at it like salmon at a fly, with as much voracity as Jay Gould, or his âme damnée Jim Fisk, had ever shown for Erie; and with as little fear of consequences. They risked something; no one could say what; but the people about the Erie office were not regarded as lambs.”
Like Adams and Josephson, LI believes that we live in an epoch in which the chief insights in our politics are best garnered from the profound study of teratology. How else to explain the flourishing of Delay in the era of Bush?