Thirty seven years ago today, as of the moment I just put pen to paper, John F. Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas, Texas by unknown assassins, for unknown reasons. From that moment to this, the American Presidency has been an institution in decline.
The decline actually started in November of 1960, when Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago stole the election for Kennedy. Richard Nixon, who, despite all his faults and failings, was at least a statesman, declined to contest the election, instead conceding and then quietly attempting to prove voter fraud or get recounts in various constituencies.
After the assassination, the institution of the Presidency was besmirched by a lying report on the murder, that was published out of the misbegotten belief that concealing the truth, whatever it was, would better serve the national welfare. But a lie never serves anything except itself. Certainly, on the day the Warren Report was issued, the Presidency took another terrible blow. The report made a statement loud and clear: preserving the honor and integrity of the world’s greatest public office is less important than concealing an embarrassing truth.
Then came the Nixon years and the Watergate disaster. In point of fact, what happened at the Watergate was a commonplace incident of political skulduggery of no real importance. This was why the controversy caught Richard Nixon by surprise. Such things were routine. Everybody knew they happened and everybody did them. Essentially, he blew it off. But the Democratic congress would have none of it. The congressional leadership crossed a line during the Watergate crisis–they forced the resignation of a president by using his attempts to conceal a trivial offense as a lever to dislodge him.
When Nixon read his resignation speech, something changed between the two parties, and it changed forever. They ceased to be loyal contestants before the rule of law, and became armed camps intent on humiliating and destroying each other at any opportunity, and by whatever means available.
The press has gone gleefully along with this, seizing on the trivial moral lapses of politicians as if they affected their ability to lead in some mysterious way. Speaker of the House Jim Wright engages in a vaguely questionable ethical act. Ruin him. Congressman Albert Bustamante is accused of receiving a bribe but not of doing anything in return for it, legal or illegal. Jail him. HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros is accused of telling a trivial lie to the FBI in an effort to protect politically irrelevant personal affairs. Blow it up out of all proportion, jail the innocent, brand him for his lapse. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich preaches family values but turns out to have a less than perfect family life. Crucify him. Bill Clinton is exposed in a moral lapse that is between him, his wife and God. Destroy him. In most of these cases, an attempt to hide a politically unimportant act was turned into a trap, where the victim ended up accused of a much more serious crime, such as lying to the FBI or obstruction of justice.
Where were the real crimes? In the editorial rooms where they gleefully put the incendiary stories together, and in the dirty political backrooms where moralizing grotesques like Jackie Bennett and Ken Starr engaged in their legally questionable hanky-panky, all of it designed to do one thing: harm the holders of high office for political gain, without regard to the respect due those offices.
And now we have another such feeding frenzy as the cheap suits and sharks tear each other to pieces in pursuit of a presidency that would be better off inhabited by practically any ordinary American than either of the weak-kneed and bizarre men who are tearing at one another’s throats to get it.
How could the situation be worse? One of the midgets won a clear electoral victory. He got over two hundred thousand more popular votes than the other guy. But a freak of ballotry–or fraud–delivered the great state of Florida to the loser of the popular vote. Incredibly, this one sits on a moral high horse while trying to gain an electoral majority even though he lost the popular vote. Meanwhile, the other guy uses dirty, filthy tricks, including daring to toss the ballots of some of our precious military men and women in the mud, in pursuit of his own goal.
As the great defender of the Roman republic said over two thousand years ago, “O times! O morals!”
Why is it like this? Well, oddly enough, the basic reason that the office of the presidency has been devalued–and even the reason that so much of the voting is so close–gets back to money. You see, it now costs so much to run for office that the presidency is, essentially, for sale to the highest bidder. And the highest bidders are almost never the best men.
It’s happened before in history, and the past offers us a dire warning. (And please keep reading. We Americans turn away from the past. But it DOES have lessons for us. Especially now, when we are literally right in the middle of fulfilling the warning, ‘those who are ignorant of the past are condemned to repeat it.’
Rome, 180 AD: The Emperor Marcus Aurelius dies, leaving his son Commodus to rule. Commodus, a brutal fool, brings to an end the Age of the Antonines, one of the most glorious periods in human history. Trajan, Hadrina, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius had given the Mediterranean world eighty- two years of honest, worthy and equitable rule. They had made the office of Emperor of the Romans the greatest engine for the alleviation of human suffering that had ever been created, and transformed the whole of the Mediterranean and most of western Europe and North Africa into a prosperous, safe and happy civilization.
After Commodus, though, it became clear that a man could not reach the imperial throne without the help of the army. The Roman Senate, which had previously confirmed emperors, was no longer in charge. The Praetorian Guard–ten thousand soldiers who guarded the emperor’s safety–had been coddled by Commodus to the extent that they had come to think of themselves as more important than the people and their leaders. After a couple of men had tried on the imperial purple and been killed for their trouble, a wealthy Roman called Sulpicianus decided to buy the right to rule from the Praetorians.
There followed an obscene spectacle–the office was put up for auction. Wealth became the only criteria for rule. How much could you pay? How many gifts could you give? A man named Didius Juilianus bought the Roman Empire from the Praetorian Guard for the equivalent of $12,500 for each man.
From that day on, the imperial office continued to decline, as much for political reasons as out of the increasing contempt of the average man for the whining, shrieking weaklings who inhabited it.
This is a different country in a different world, but I will tell you this: when public office begins to be sold to the highest bidder, nothing but trouble follows. Right now, our fund- raising laws are an appalling mess. They are DESIGNED to give the rich a chance to bid for the loyalty of candidates. Al Gore. George Bush. Who really owns them? The 775 millionaires who contributed over 80% of Dubya’s campaign money? The Buddhists to whom Gore seems so beholden? (Just a joke, son.) The benefactors who are funding the expensive political warfare that has broken out in Florida?
What a time. Because of rising oil prices and a dropping Euro, we are heading toward a time of economic trouble. The stock market is on a razor’s edge and could fall apart at any time. Saddam Hussein’s former chief intelligence officer is going around insisting that Saddam has the bomb, while sanctimonious European powers, steeped in a tradition of appeasement, are sending delegations of politicians and clergy to Baghdad to express their “moral outrage” over the embargo.
Meanwhile, Israel gets more and more belligerent, the Palestinians get more and more radical, the Egyptians withdraw their embassy from Israel, and a surprise nuclear war in the Mideast begins to seem within the realm of possibility.
In the Hague, a conference upon which the human future depends more, perhaps, than any other in recent memory, collapses in disarray. There will be no ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. The world will go on spewing out greenhouse gasses as if there was no tomorrow.
And if you look at the wild weather and the dire environmental changes all around us, maybe there isn’t one.
The history of great leaders is written in the ink of happy lives, but weak leaders write in blood.
I predict that, no matter which of these pitiful little men is inaugurated as President of the United States, his history will be written in blood.
And his spin doctors will whine all the while: It’s not OUR fault.
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