Can't Buy Me Love
March 17, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

During my vacation last week I happened to turn on CNN long enough to catch a bit of the flap over Kerry's supposedly-off-the-record comment about Republican operatives being "crooked." Predictably, the response from the right was that this was language "unworthy" of a future president. Personally, I think it is exactly the kind of language we need from our future president. We cannot get ourselves out of the hole we're in until we confront the fact that Kerry's aside acknowledged. Yes, the Bush administration is crooked. It's worse than crooked. It's corrupt to the core; and we have got to get that under control, because - as the news from Madrid emphasized this week - corruption is killing us.

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I first read a 1968 novel by Ayi Kwei Armah called The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. It's set in postindependence Ghana, after the high of the revolution has worn off and disillusionment has set in. At the opening of the novel, the protagonist passes a mound of filth that is rotting out in the street. On closer inspection he realizes that somewhere buried inside this mountain of stinking refuse there is a municipal waste basket. He remembers the government-organized PR blitz that launched the new sanitation system:

Like others before it, this campaign had been extremely impressive, and admiring rumors indicated that it had cost a great lot of money. Certainly the papers had been full of words informing their readers that dirt was undesirable and must be eliminated. On successive days a series of big shots had appealed to everybody to be clean. The radio had run a program featuring a doctor, a Presbyterian priest, and a senior lecturer brought down from the University of Legon. The three had seemed to be in agreement about the evil effects of uncleanliness. People were impressed.

However, most of the government money originally dedicated to this scheme disappeared into the pockets of various government employees. The culture of bribery that has infested every aspect of Ghana's new government siphoned off so much that there was not enough left to put out an adequate number of waste baskets - or, more importantly, to pay people to empty them. Consequently, the anti-litter campaign has only made the problem worse. People are dutifully putting their trash in the baskets - or as close to the baskets as they can get it--and the government is leaving it all to fester in the open air.

That image has stuck with me over ten years and many changes of life, and it's because it taught me a simple but powerful lesson. The problem with government corruption is not simply that it demoralizes and degrades the entire country, although that is certainly one of its main side effects. The real problem is that corrupt governments do not function. The more government money ends up lining everyone's pockets, the less there is for basic services; and in the end, a corrupt government has neither the will nor the means to fulfill any of its responsibilities, even something as basic as taking out the trash. Corruption at the top leaves the people at the bottom where Armah's protagonist begins: drowning in everyone else's shit.

To tell you the truth, as cynical as I have been for a long time about American politics I never thought I would see that kind of corruption in my own government. We are used to the idea that politics is a dirty business, that a lot of money changes hands and that our representatives will be, as the phrase goes, "beholden to special interests." What we are now seeing is on a different scale altogether. We are watching the end results - domestically and abroad - of an administration made up of people who have no ethical or even emotional investment in the institutions they control. This kind of mess is what inevitably happens when the people running the joint are devoted first, foremost and only to their own profit. After seeing the Bush team show no hesitation about perverting the democratic process and indeed the Supreme Court in order to get themselves into power, we should hardly be surprised that once there, they did not ask what they could do for their country, but rather what their country could do for them.

Slice into Bush's domestic agenda at any point and you come up with the same thing: a policy whose primary purpose is simply to channel more money toward a particular industry. Cheney's energy 'policy' is perhaps the most noxious example, but by no means the only one; consider the Bush team's approach to environmental protection, for instance. It's precisely because none of these policies contain even a vestigial trace of any sincere desire to improve the lot of American citizens that they have to ramp up the PR campaigns and come up with bizarrely Orwellian names like the Healthy Forests Initiative, which opens up national forests to logging, and the Clear Skies initiative, which allows companies to boost their pollution emissions. Then there are the tax cuts, which are doing nothing for the economy or for the government but plenty for people in the top 1% of the population. I could go on, but it all tends toward the same point: when this gang formulates a 'policy,' the absolute last question anyone on their team is asking is whether it is actually going to be good for the country.

One of the most-repeated lines from Suskind and O'Neill's The Price of Loyalty is Cheney's snap that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter." That statement makes no sense - especially coming from the party of fiscal responsibility - if the overall health of the economy is something that "matters." On the other hand, if all that "matters" is the continued power and prosperity of the Bush administration and its corporate sponsors, then Cheney's absolutely right: deficits are not going to affect that. After all, they'll be long gone before the bills come due.

And that's the logic driving everything this administration does, from its policies to its PR. Rove has gotten this crowd this far by sticking to the principle that image is everything and substance is nothing. Control perception, and reality can go to hell; in fact, it must, because any time that you spent trying to actually improve the state of the country is time taken away from the much more important project of securing your own re-election. Of course Bush has more time to go to the rodeo than he does to sit before the 9/11 commission. Going to the rodeo will help him; testifying before the 9/11 commission would only help the country understand what created the worst disaster in recent history and figure out how to prevent the next one. Naturally they want him at the rodeo. From Rove's perspective, that's a no-brainer.

The same attitude has produced the administration's increasingly dangerous failures in Iraq and the 'war on terrorism.' Why did we respond to an attack by a mobile, decentralized, highly flexible and adaptable international terrorist organization by waging conventional wars against two nation-states, one of which had no connection whatsoever to said organization? Because actually stopping Al-Qaeda was never the Bush administration's top priority. If they were really motivated by a sincere desire to dismantle the organization that pulled off the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor two and a half years ago and is now merrily exporting violence, terror, and grief to all corners of the globe, why in the name of sanity would they have decided to devote our army and our money to toppling a regime that was actually using its evil powers to suppress Islamic fundamentalism within its borders? And why would they have toppled said regime so incompetently that instead of replacing it with a new one, they have merely turned the country into a swamp of anarchy which is breeding new acts of terrorism daily?

No, there's only one way to make the Iraq war make any sense, and that is to finally realize that the Bush administration cares far, far more about making money than it will ever care about the welfare of Iraqis, Americans, coalition partners, or anyone else. What does it matter that the reconstruction of Iraq is not getting done, so long as Halliburton is being paid for it? What does it matter that our soldiers are given inadequate meals and equipment, as long as Kellogg, Brown & Root is raking in the dough? Actually doing the jobs they are assigned would only require these corporations to spend some of that government dough instead of keeping it; and they know that as long as they keep paying into the Bush team's campaign coffers, they will never be held accountable for what they do. Why do the job right when you can make more money doing it wrong?

The rot that has set in under the Bush administration is not simple incompetence - although there appears to be plenty of that, too. It is the unavoidable corollary of corruption. With no sincere commitment to the welfare of the country or its citizens, and with a campaign strategy that assumes at the outset that Bush's actual job performance will be utterly irrelevant to the outcome of the next election, there is no reason in the world that the Bush administration would ever bother to do anything right. And so the unavoidable conclusion is that until they are dislodged, our government will never really function again.

What we need, more than a change of policy or ideology, is a change to an administration made up of people who actually give a shit. We need people who, whatever their faults or weaknesses might be, still basically believe that the purpose of the government is to serve its citizens, and still respect the institutions charged with performing that mission. I have given up waiting for Prince Charming to sweep in on a milk-white steed, his noble carriage displaying a superb contempt for backroom deals and campaign contributions, the blade of integrity flashing with righteous anger as he cuts down the thicket of influence and cronyism that girds the walls of the Capitol and the White House so thickly that you can hardly see the marble. But surely it is not too much to hope that we can elect a politician whose venality is not quite bone-deep, whose cynicism about the process has not entirely strangled the faith in America and its possibility that drove him to do this job in the first place.

In the end, that matters more than any differences of policy or ideology. The Bush administration is out there now attacking Kerry's plan for dealing with the war on terror. No matter what Kerry's plan is, if it is driven by an actual desire to alleviate the real problem, then it is bound to be more successful than Bush's was. Because in that case, even if things go wrong at first, the Kerry administration will take the trouble to find out why, and correct the mistakes. Bush's administration could never be bothered to do that.

I hear the Bush administration is closing in on Osama Bin Laden, finally. That's nice. I'm sure it will give him a good bounce in the polls if they can bring him in next October. It might even get him another four years in office, though frankly I doubt at this point if anything short of an endorsement by Christ himself in person would win him the popular vote. It'll be way too late to do any good for the people who just lost their loved ones in Spain; but then why should Bush care. They're not going to be at the polls in Ohio and Florida next November.


The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally demented online audience since 1996. This week she would like to thank jpgray, Jack Rabbit, and the rest of her fellow DUers for pointing her to documentation of Bush's specific perfidies. More Plaidderian rantings can be found at the Adder's Lair at http://www.plaidder.com.