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Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Boiling the Frog 

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
-- E. Burke
It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake.
-- H.L. Mencken

Which brings us to "Sucking Democracy Dry," a righteous tirade by hellfire preacher Rick Perlstein in this week's Village Voice:
Yet the "process," by many accounts, is not just broken but shattered, intentionally ground into dust by Karl Rove and his Republican campaign machine. "What these guys do every day, as a matter of course, without thinking twice about it, would be dramatic transgressions even under Nixon," [former Clinton speechwriter] Jeff Shesol admits from his Dupont Circle office, crowded with paraphernalia from Democratic triumphs past. He's just amazingly quick to dismiss the notion that there's anything a Democratic presidential campaign can do about it. "It is very hard for most people to look at Bush and see him as an extremist," he says. "It is very hard to make that charge stick to a guy who seems so down-home, so commonsense, such a decent man."

It's a telling formulation: Highly placed D.C. Democrats accept Bush's public image as a fait accompli—a kind of semiotic unilateral disarmament. So they don't even bother to case the weapons in their arsenal. I remind Shesol of the NBC report last spring—never effectively rebutted by the White House—that revealed the most Orwellian face of the administration imaginable: that "before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out" the terrorist operations of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but didn't because it "feared destroying the terrorist camp in Iraq could undercut its case for war against Saddam."

"Wow," Shesol responds, with a breath of surprise. George Bush sold out our security in order to pull off a sales job; that, certainly, is not an "elite" message. That's not a "process" story. So why don't we hear it?

"I—don't—know," Jeff Shesol answers. He sounds defeated, as if Republican traducing of democratic deliberation was something like the weather, beyond anyone's power to change. "How is it that a month's worth of airtime is sucked up by the Swift Boat Veterans?" he asks, bewilderment in his voice. "How is it that a month of our national attention is consumed by this, and not some of these other questions, is a very difficult thing to explain. And until we can really understand how that happens, I don't know that we can effectively respond to it."

Epstein called arguments focusing on injury to democracy a "sideshow": better to focus on executive mismanagement. He adds, "Most people would rather vote for the guy that stole the other guy's lunch money, rather than the guy who complained that his lunch money was stolen."

Ever since the days of Joe McCarthy, the claim that a made-up charge by one side is no longer an outrage if the wronged party gets a chance to refute it has been an easy refuge for journalistic scoundrels. When Republicans accused someone of being a Communist, newspapers reported it, true or not; then they reported the victim's outraged denials, the day's work done—no matter that the person's life might now be ruined by the merely invented accusation. With a setup like that, the side willing to say anything to win will win every time.

Greenfield disagrees. "McCarthy won for about two years, and then the tide turned," he says. Nowadays, it would happen even faster, what with blogs and all. "When somebody starts really playing with the facts, there are so many people on every side of the issue ready to jump on you," he says. "Call me an optimist."

I call him an idiot. This is a country where 42 percent of Americans believe Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks, where telling lies before the truth has time to put on its shoes—lies that won't have time to get exposed before the votes, whether the electorate's or the Supreme Court's, get counted—has been Karl Rove's modus operandi since he stole the election for chairman of the College Republicans National Federation in 1973. Punks like Greenfield are Rove's best friend: He's already decided in advance that both sides are equally bad.

A coup? Deep Faith is convinced some might even welcome it. "It makes me wonder, if something really bad happened, and the Bush administration was able to have a coup and be in permanent charge," he tells me, sinking into his living-room couch, scaring the hell out of me, "who among my folk would seriously protest, if they could get a slice of the pie? 'We could go in there and reverse all this judicial precedent we don't like!' "

That Kingdom of God they keep talking about, he reminds us, the hunger for which is now the fuel of the Republican engine, "is not a democracy."

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