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Hullabaloo


Saturday, June 30, 2007

 
Integrity

by digby

Watergate conspirator Egil Krogh has an essay in the NY Times today that is worth reading. He writes about his experience in Richard Nixon's white house, when "national security" became the catch-all excuse for political lawbreaking and he explains how he came to regret what he had done:

I no longer believed that national security could justify my conduct. At my sentencing, I explained that national security is “subject to a wide range of definitions, a factor that makes all the more essential a painstaking approach to the definition of national security in any given instance.”

Judge Gerhard Gesell gave me the first prison sentence of any member of the president’s staff: two to six years, of which I served four and a half months.

I finally realized that what had gone wrong in the Nixon White House was a meltdown in personal integrity. Without it, we failed to understand the constitutional limits on presidential power and comply with statutory law.

In early 2001, after President Bush was inaugurated, I sent the new White House staff a memo explaining the importance of never losing their personal integrity. In a section addressed specifically to the White House lawyers, I said that integrity required them to constantly ask, is it legal? And I recommended that they rely on well-established legal precedent and not some hazy, loose notion of what phrases like “national security” and “commander in chief” could be tortured into meaning. I wonder if they received my message.




No, they didn't receive that message. With the demands for the pardon of Scooter Libby, we can see that today's entire Washington establishment, not just the Bush administration, believes that lawbreaking and smearing of reputations in the name of national security is just the "dark art of politics." Indeed, people who practice these "dark arts" are extolled as the greatest patriots in the land by people like the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Senators and national opinion leaders.

I think the reason for this is pretty simple. Modern Big Business Republicanism has thoroughly entrenched its amoral worldview into politics, which over time absorbed its belief that civic virtues are irrelevant. (The denizens of DC did, however, attempt to cover this worldly sin by adopting the GOP's cynical and manipulative stand-in for virtue --- puritanical sexual morality --- a grotesque and ill-fitting substitute for personal integrity coming from such decadent creatures.) Krogh must be pretty old by now and his sense of shame at having lost his personal integrity seems, in the words of David Addington, almost quaint. In today's world he's just a chump and a loser for ever believing he was wrong. There is no "wrong."

I remember after the 2000 election debacle, a rather exasperated acquaintance explained to me that Americans respect winners and it didn't matter how Bush took office, all that mattered was that he did. Even at my advanced age I was a bit shocked by such cynicism. But as I watched the way the media and the political establishment treated Bush, I had to admit that, at least as far as the leadership class of America was concerned, he was right. But it was even worse than what he said. There was a distinct undercurrent of special respect for the fact that Bush had not only won, but that he'd done it in such a way that everybody knew he'd manipulated the system and there was nothing they could do about it. That audaciousness made people bow down. On some level he wanted people to know he cheated and he wanted them to recognize that he got away with it. That's real power.

Of course Krogh is right about the administration. (In fairness, there are a few examples of people whose personal integrity forced them to resign, but precious few, and certainly none in the highest positions that could have made a difference at the time.) But this is a bigger problem than just this administration. It is a defining characteristic of our entire political culture. We are in an era of ruthless power politics --- institutions arrayed against institutions, levers of influence and action set against each other in a battle for supremacy. Those who have the superior ability to dominate and manipulate those institutions are able to advance their goals and agenda. The Republicans have been far better at this than Democrats.

So, it remains for liberals and progressives to figure out how to traverse this culture without losing their souls. It's clear that most of the DC establishment and the political media lost its way some time ago, allowing themselves to be led by corporate values and slick GOP public relations. It does us no good to be naive and expect everyone to "just say no" and "do the right thing." As I said, this is an era of power politics and if you don't exert power with intelligence and energy (and integrity) when you have it, average citizens who will pay the price when the Republicans return to power by any means necessary. The situation is what what it is, and if we are going to change it, it's going to take time and dedication to changing the entire political culture in fundamental ways.

The founders understood how power can corrupt, which is why they designed a clunky system of government that would impede its application. But nothing can stop it when so many people are working in tandem to do so. The answer then, is not to depend upon personal integrity but to insure that our systems are working properly and that those who corrupt it are held accountable for what they have done when they lose institutional power at the hands of the people. If there is one consistent mistake that Democrats have made over the past 40 years, it's the impulse to forgive and forget which has created a radical Republican party that believes it can get away with anything. ("Reagan proved deficits don't matter ... this is our due...") Our system has been so thoroughly corrupted by this lack of accountability that partisan impeachments, stolen elections and illegal wars are taken for granted as perfectly normal (if "dark") political arts.

So, as much as I value it as a personal virtue, personal integrity is beside the point. There have always been crooks and liars in politics. It's the failure of our institutions to properly guard their prerogatives and police the political system that is the true failure. And that is something that we can fix. The Republicans must be held to account for their reckless rule, and that means following these investigations all the way to 2020 if that's what it takes. We may not have time to impeach Bush or Cheney, but if we hold both houses of congress we have years to ensure that these crimes are not covered up and that the people of this country are reminded that corruption and cheating have negative consequences.

Maybe this guy can show everyone how its done.



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