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Democracy, Soviet Style
May 31, 2002
By Patrick Ennis

In the late 1980's, Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev introduced a new word to the world's vocabulary. The word was glasnost, the Russian word for openness. The famously closed and repressive Soviet state became less so, to the elation of western leaders and media, who hailed "Gorby" as a bold and courageous reformer, and to the consternation of old-school Soviet Communist hardliners. This affront to traditional Soviet orthodoxy led to an attempted coup by these hardliners in 1991, and the new policy of openness led to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the reunification of Germany, and finally the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself into a loose confederation of autonomous republics.

Gorbachev himself, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, is much more fondly remembered outside his own country than within it. One of the most important lessons that can be learned from the ordeal of Gorbachev and the Soviet foray into openness is that, well, openness has consequences. Had Gorbachev not insisted on opening the once totalitarian regime to scrutiny and criticism, in effect modeling himself more along the lines of hardline predecessors Nikita Kruschev and Leonid Brezhnev, the U.S.S.R, might still exist, as a superpower and as a major player on the world stage. And Gorbachev himself probably would still be relevant, instead of just a minor footnote in the history of the late 20th century, fading quickly from memory.

One that seems to have taken this lesson to heart is our own Dear Leader, president George W. Bush, who in any case often seems nostalgic for the cold war era. Perhaps we should not be surprised.

Back in August, 1999, before the GOP primaries even began, Bush was asked by a reporter from the Dallas Morning News whether he had ever used illegal drugs. He famously waffled, and to this day has never provided any direct answer. Then there was his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1976, an incident which never would have seen the light of day if not for the diligence and boldness of a journalist at a Fox affiliate in Maine, where the incident happened, whom rumor has it is now reporting on penguin migrations from a frigid outpost in Antarctica. At this revelation, he demonstrated his skill at damage control by glibly -- if a bit sheepishly -- telling reporters that he had kept it private for the sake of his daughters. How convenient, if ineffective, as their behavior since his inauguration indicates. So much for openness. But Gorby showed us where that can lead.

After having the presidency controversially bestowed upon him, for reasons that may never be fully revealed, by a preponderance of Supreme Court justices in Dec. 2000, Bush set about making his cabinet selections. While drawing well-deserved praise from the press for the racial and ethnic diversity of his choices, it was also noted that loyalty appeared to be a key criteria. Several picks had experience in the administrations of his father, pres. George H.W. Bush, and/or in his father's predecessor, conservative icon Ronald Reagan. Dubya himself, who as an unofficial troubleshooting aide to his father was known to complain bitterly about leaks, apparently had learned from that experience as well about the utility of keeping secrets.

Since Sept. 11, which so far is and shall likely remain the defining event of the reign of George II, there has been the Enron debacle, involving the administration's outright refusal to make public the minutes of energy policy meetings attended by Enron officials, prompting an as yet unresolved lawsuit by the Government Accounting Office. Vice President Cheney defended the stonewall, saying the intent was to restore some executive authority which has been allowed to erode in recent administrations. Nice, subtle dodge, Mr. Vice-President. If anyone else asks, just refer them to the Federal Bureau of None-Of-Your-Damn-Business.

More recently, we have the revelation that the administration had indeed received indications that al-Qaeda may be planning hijackings of American commercial aircraft prior to Sept. 11, news that might have been much more easily explained had it not been sat on for 8 months after the attacks, an attempt at secrecy that prompted even USA Today's milquetoast moderate Walter Shapiro to criticize as unnecessary and suggestive.

Referring to Iraq and its president, Saddam Hussein, on the possibility of the return of international arms inspectors to that country to search for evidence of chemical, nuclear, and biological weapons programs, Bush said "We expect there to be openness. People who have something to hide make us nervous". But who was the last American president to be so obsessed with keeping so much of the public's business from the public's scrutiny? Indeed, his infamous and mistakenly public characterization of New York Times reporter Adam Clymer, in an aside to Cheney when he thought the microphone was off, as a "major league asshole" may have stemmed from the former's attempt to glean information from him, which is apparently like trying to get cash donations for Planned Parenthood out of Pat Robertson.

He and his disturbingly pious Attorney General, John Ashcroft, have even set up Soviet style gulags for suspected al-Qaeda terrorists at a naval base in Cuba, which now hosts "guests" from more than 30 countries and where media access is ruthlessly controlled. There is no doubt; this particular president would more admire Kruschev than Gorbachev, whom he would probably deride as a bleeding-heart liberal. But don't expect him to tell you that, either.

The White House is often referred to as "The People's House". Of course, it was built with and is maintained with public funds, and its ostensible purpose is the administration of the nation's business, a most public mission. If this is the rationale used for the demands for public accountability of Bill Clinton's antics in the Oval Office, even those he himself may have considered private, fine. But let's have no double standards. We understand that some secrets need to be kept in name of national security, but this is a very broad category that is all too easy use as a convenient rug under which to sweep any and all potentially embarrassing dirt. Such an exploitation would not only be unworthy of a great people and a great nation, but necessarily leads to suspicion over time.

And the sky-high approval ratings generated by a sense of urgency and need for unity in the wake of Sept. 11 will not prevent that forever. Already, Democratic congressional critics Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney, who questioned the president when it was sheer heresy to do so, see their stock on the rise. And this obsession with secrecy, coupled with a press emboldened by the revelation of the pre-Sept. 11 hijacking warnings, will only add more fuel to the fire.

But Bush is the type of president who would prefer the kind of code of silence found in corrupt police departments and in the mafia to Gorbachev-style glasnost.


Patrick Ennis: articulating the perspective of the liberal, secular midwestern underclass because, frankly, somebody's got to.

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