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Bye, Bye Bertie: A Meditation on Political Theater

May 22, 2007, 1:23 pm

The title of this post is my witty response to George Bush, your president, who has said that a vote of “no confidence” in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales would be “pure political theater” on the part of Congress. For the full story from NPR reporter Don Gonyea, go here.

Now, I don’t know about the “pure political theater” part. What seems to me to be pure political theater are the Whitewater hearings and/or Monicagate. Or pretending to fly a fighter jet and then pretending to make an aircraft landing and then standing under a sign that says “Mission Accomplished,” in an airman’s suit, when the mission is not in the least accomplished. Political theater is what happens on Fox News political talk shows where administration lackeys who work for the network scream at guests *they* invited to the show, call them stupid and tell them to shut up.

Personally, I don’t think Alberto Gonzales belongs in that class of performer. I’m not even clear he is such a bad attorney general, except for using the Patriot Act to violate the civil rights of citizens and non-citizens alike, which was bad, you must admit. Oh yes, and promoting the idea that non-citizens have no rights a white man must respect. That too was bad. But I’m not sure about the firings of those federal prosecutors. One of the things I love about the scandal of the Eight (or the Nine, depending on if you count the fella who resigned before he could be fired, and not to be confused with the Three, who used play lacrosse for Duke) is that Republicans *and* Democrats are acting as though this has never happened before in living memory. Fire a Federal employee because s/he initiated an investigation that could be politically compromising? Who would do such a thing?

So acting in my capacity as a professional (I like to pronounce that “perfessional” just like the President does) historian, I have come up with a list of Attorneys General who did worse things and/or were more corrupt than Alberto Gonzales. My idea is that this piece of political theater could be a musical. The plot would revolve around poor Bert, trying to decide whether to resign, and AG’s from the past would come back, tell their stories in song, and give him advice. In true Thornton Wilder style, Arlen Specter and Patrick Leahy could be “the stage managers.” George Bush would not appear, but occasionally his voice would boom into the audience: “This is pure political theater!”

The other characters would be:

Edward Bates, Abraham Lincoln’s attorney general between 1861 and 1864, who looks in this picture like the former owner of the Bates Motel, but this was actually pretty conventional for the mid-nineteenth century and no one was frightened by it. Bates was the man who told the President it would be perfectly ok to suspend habeas corpus. It was not perfectly ok. And we are living with the consequences of it today in Guantanamo prison and various secret CIA hellholes around the globe.

Attorneys General Amos T. Akerman, George H. Williams, Edwards Pierrepont and Alphonso Taft, who were appointed by Ulysses S. Grant and presided over two of the most corrupt administrations in the history of the United States, except perhaps for the current one. The high point, perhaps, was the Credit Mobilier scandal, which was uncovered by the New York Sun in 1872 in a vain attempt to prevent the re-election of Grant. Credit Mobilier was the Halliburton of its day and was exactly what it sounded like: money (in the form of Union Pacific stock) moving around Washington in suitcases and ending up in the hands of Congressmen who voted to sell the American West to the rail road for peanuts.

Alexander Mitchell Palmer, appointed by Woodrow Wilson, and responsible for the infamous Palmer Raids, in which the civil liberties of immigrants and radicals were abrogated in the name of national security. Remind you of any other period in history?

Harry M. Daugherty, appointed by Warren Harding in 1921, and acquitted of charges of trying to defraud the government during the Teapot Dome Scandal in 1924. And yet – why were Department of Justice operatives delivering money in suitcases for the administration and burgling congressional offices in their spare time? And how was it that the party that pushed Prohibition elected a President who kept an openly “wet” White House without the man responsible for enforcing Prohibition knowing about it?

John Mitchell and Richard Kleindienst appointed by Richard Nixon. Enough said. Icky, icky, icky.

Edwin Meese appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1985. Does the word “WedTech” mean anything to you? This was the Credit Mobilier — or the Halliburton –scandal of the 1980’s. One or the other. And Meese also wasted millions of U.S. dollars investigating the distribution of pornography as cover for Ronald Reagan’s inability to do the two main things he had promised the evangelical right wing: presidential acts banning abortion and establishing school prayer. Oops.

Now, imagine all these fellas on stage, singing their advice to Alberto Gonzales at the top of their lungs. I want Tony Kushner to write the book with me, and maybe Stephen Trask, of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” fame, to do the music and perform it live on stage. This would all give it a truly queer twist.

Now that’s political theater, friends. George Bush ain’t seen nothing yet.

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