The flag flew at half-mast above a White House bathed in wan midwinter light as I walked past this morning. Quite a change, I couldn’t help reflecting, from the weekend I spent here two years ago, when the nation’s capital – and much of the nation – was electrified by the coming of a new president.
That time, as workers put the final touches on the reviewing stand from which President Obama and his family would watch the Inaugural Parade proceed down Pennsylvania Avenue, you couldn’t get near the iron fence separating the public from the front lawn of the executive mansion, but everywhere you looked mothers, fathers, grandparents, too, many but far from all African-American, were edging their way as close as they dared to point out to their children where the president was going to live.
It felt as though everything was going to be different from now on, and I suppose it has been, but in hardly any of the ways we might have imagined. Obama has his enemies, of course, and a virulent and vocal lot they are, but despite their success – thanks in large part to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and the poisonous but entertaining blandishments of the talk radio hatemongers – in dominating the political discussion, they remain a minority. Obama’s real problem is with his supporters, and even more so with the millions who, while not fully enthralled with him, were ready, following the sickening plummet into moral, intellectual and political squalor that characterized the Bush years, to cast their doubts aside and give the new guy a chance.
The palpable sense of disappointment and discontent abroad in the land arises not so much from the belief that Obama has tried and failed, but that too often he has failed to even try. For many, the final straw was the giant step toward national bankruptcy that he, in concert with fanatical and fiscally irresponsible Republicans, took by extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy – the same tax cuts that had taken the healthy, balanced budget bequeathed to the nation by Bill Clinton and turned it into a deficit so deep we may never recover from it.
Obama argued – albeit quite feebly – that he had no choice, that a right-wing minority party in thrall to what even the first President Bush aptly termed “voodoo economics” should be allowed to dictate this ruinous agenda because otherwise it would block the passage of a couple of the Democrats’ pet programs, namely the continuation of tax cuts for the middle class and the extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.
It might seem churlish to stand in the way of any extension of unemployment benefits at a time like this, and almost as bad to deny the middle classes their tax cut, but the price Obama paid was far too high. Even the most amateur of political observers knows that once the Republicans have succeeded in driving the national debt to even more disastrous levels, they will set up a hue and cry to “balance the budget” by eviscerating health care, Medicare and Social Security. Standing up to them while they were still in the minority would have created some temporary hardship, but the battle lines would have been clearly drawn: all but the most obtuse Americans would have seen that the Republicans were prepared to drive the entire country into penury in order to continue their wholesale transfer of wealth from working people to the wealthy.
Instead, by joining in what was branded as a “compromise” but really constituted wholesale surrender, Obama has ceded the high ground to the the Republican wrecking crew who will continue to get away with branding the Democrats as being responsible for the ravaged budget, and will almost certainly be able to extract even more disastrous “compromises” that undermine, perhaps irrevocably, the social and physical infrastructure of an already visibly declining nation (if you doubt the latter diagnosis, take a trip across the Canadian border and see how that “socialist” nation is thriving in comparison with our own).
You could be forgiven for guessing otherwise, but I didn’t hop the Megabus (very cheap, reasonably comfortable, and dealing yet another death blow to the heinously overpriced Amtrak; just don’t believe their promises of free Wi-fi, which exists but mostly doesn’t work) down to Washington to brood about and belabor the sad state of the nation. No, actually I was here to see a show celebrating the 10th anniversary of the still ridiculously young Max Levine Ensemble, backed by some of their best musical friends in the form of Good Luck, Bomb The Music Industry, and Delay, the MLE’s long-time comrades in, if not arms, certainly exuberance, hijinks, and pure, passionate devotion to music and community.
So, a good lineup, you might say, well worth a four-hour trip down I-95, even one that started in a blinding snowstorm that dissolved into blinding sunlight halfway across Pennsylvania. But then came Saturday afternoon, which I had intended to spend wrapped up in scarves, gloves and hats (at least one hat, anyway), wandering around some of the wind-whipped national monuments. Instead, like many millions of Americans, I was unable to tear myself away from the horrendous spectacle unfolding in Arizona, so much so that I very nearly ended up missing the show I had originally come to see.
Many commentators have pointed out the sense of déja-vu, how in the midst of vitriolic campaigns waged by right-wing militias and doctor-murdering fundamentalist “Christians,” Timothy McVeigh laid waste to the Oklahoma City federal building and the lives of 168 people inside it. This Saturday’s carnage didn’t reach those levels – not for want of trying, I fear – but if anything, the rhetoric that preceded it, set the stage for it, was even more fervid and demented.
The right wing raced to do damage control, rolling out apologists to trumpet the “He was mentally disturbed; nobody’s responsible” line, or its alternative version, “Everybody’s guilty of using strong language; it’s not just one side.” One porcine talk show host (no, not Rush Limbaugh; some minor leaguer so obscure I can’t remember his name) had the temerity to compare the “hit lists” and “2nd Amendment solutions” espoused by the more rabid fringes of the Tea Party to Patrick Henry’s immortal “Give me liberty or give me death,” neglecting to mention that Henry spoke those words in the course of establishing a nation, not in a desperate attempt to protect the profits of health insurance companies and the rights of psychopaths to carry automatic weapons into Starbucks.
Sarah Palin, one of the most egregious offenders, tore herself away from promoting her (soon-to-be discontinued) TV show long enough to issue an anodyne statement of condolence, but had no comment whatsoever about the gunsight map that had targeted Congresswoman Giffords’ district or her shameless “Don’t retreat, reload” rhetoric. Instead, she and her staff responded in Orwellian fashion by scrubbing the internet as thoroughly as possible of the violent words and imagery that she’d spent the previous two years promulgating.
Will she get away with it? Probably, though there’s reason to hope that the American public, as after Oklahoma City, might be sufficiently sobered to step back from its flirtation with and indulgence of the deeply disturbed rantings, threats and lies circulated by the likes of Palin, Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their legions of lesser imitators. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s Palin who has shown the sharpest political instincts thus far; widely derided as a dumb ass, she has shown an unerring instinct for covering her backside and minimizing the ability of her critics to pin on her the well-deserved label of terrorist cheerleader.
These are ugly times, perhaps unprecedentedly so. I’d like to believe that we’ve had a wake-up call jarring enough that some sanity and decency might again begin to prevail in American political life. Such commodities having often been in short supply, I’m not holding my breath, but one can always hope. Frankly, we haven’t got much else to cling to at the moment.
That being said, I got up early this morning, hopped another Megabus on which the Wi-fi also didn’t work but everything else did, and was back in Brooklyn 45 minutes ahead of schedule, 20 minutes later and about $80 cheaper than Amtrak would have gotten me there, and thanked my lucky stars that Washington is as far away as it is, and that Sarah Palin’s America, at least for now, is still a little farther.