Democratic Underground  

The Calm Before the Swarm
August 1, 2003
By Raul Groom

I am driving on East-West Highway on a Tuesday evening. This is usually an egregious error, one that will get you nothing but ride on a four-lane parking lot, with thin, shrewd-looking men and plump, sensual women skipping by as you baste in your two-ton steel furnace, getting lightheaded from carbon monoxide. The sight of six feet of empty space leads to a mad flash of honking and squealing and engine noise, and more than a few accidents. People are overcome by the urgency simply of living in this city where something VERY IMPORTANT could be going on while they are stuck waiting six cycles to cross 16th street. They lose their minds with fear and greed and hold on for dear life as they plunge toward the only thing in this crazy burg worth fighting for—a Better Place in Line.

But not tonight. Washington, D.C. has been shaken in recent weeks, and we have fallen into a bit of a lull. No one knows quite how to proceed through the maze of contradictions and black-comedy hijinks that suddenly revealed itself when the Bush Administration pulled back the curtain on their New American Century, a creature so hideous and ridiculous that not even Bush himself could bear to look at it. He wisely booked a flight to the ranch in Crawford to contemplate the upcoming football season and field questions about his golf swing. The rest of us are stuck here trying to make sense of it all, and we're having a tough go of it. There is nothing more disorienting to a DC resident than getting the inkling that maybe, just maybe, the head of the line isnít quite what itís cracked up to be, and when the National Security Advisor and the CIA Director are on the short list to have their underpants run up the flagpole, vertigo is already setting in.

Me, I think I'm going to hole up in the place for a few days, drink gin, and draw up some counter traps and draw plays for William Green. If Bush can take his mind off his problems by thinking about the Texans or whatever no-hope Lone Star team he's pulling for this season, I ought to be able to get a little mental health mileage out of my Brownies.

"I, too, I have been under the spell. For me it has been a street leading into the unknown."

—Joseph Conrad

Personally, I am getting very worried. Not by world events, heavens no—calamity is a staple of my existence, like motor oil or burritos—but by the fact that I have finished Generation of Swine, and I have no other Hunter S. Thompson in the house. I've been thinking for days about buying something, anything to keep me plugged in to that mysterious river of absurdity and gluttony that runs beneath the world, bubbling up at times to maim, drown, and destroy. To try to fight the battle on the surface is a sucker's play, and Mama Groom only raised sharks.

But I've just bought a condo, and there's a wedding coming up, and I can't just be running around buying new copies of old books when my shelves are stacked with ones I desperately need to read because I've been telling people for years I've already read them. As such, there are only two choices—I can start shrieking in the rain and guzzling turpentine like an honest lunatic, or I can finally take another stab at reading Nostromo. If there is direct line to the polluted, viscous ichors that ooze through the veins under our happy American masks, it is the merciless dagger prose of Big Joe Conrad. Not even T.S. Eliot can help us now.

Though it may seem like only yesterday to John Poindexter, who just today was referred to in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as "the retired rear admiral who helped design a plan for illegally diverting Iranian arms sales proceeds to Nicaraguan rebels," it has been almost 20 years since a presidential administration has been in such serious danger of blowing the entire operation on some crazy dead-draw pot of drugs, gambling and fascist thugs. With our buddies selling opium by the metric ton just to try to keep up with the Taliban weíve supposedly routed in Afghanistan, and American troops digging in for a long, expensive struggle a couple of doors down, things are starting to get black-tar sticky. Comparisons between the current Presidentís adventures in Central Asia and Bush I's assault on Iraq are inevitable, but the Big Story of 2003 is going to be just how close the Bush clan has come to giving its enemies—they are many, and not all of them wear donkey cufflinks—another bite at the apple that slipped tantalizingly away from their inept drunken head-bobbing in the winter of 1986-87.

The players may have different names, but they are playing the same old roles. This time it's Bush himself as the brain-dead actor, with none of the style or plastic grace that Reagan brought to the role, but all of the plausible deniability and then some. When all is said and done, few of us will believe Bush knew what was going on, and nobody will think he understood any of it. He's as safe as Reagan, though he forgot the part about getting reelected before the administration had to face up to its demons.

Cheney takes the role of Bush's old man, the Head Spook, and in this case the sequel may even be better than the original. It never occurred to Poppy, a lifelong company man, to sell out the CIA Director when the heat got too close, but Cheney, an oil-soaked greedhead whose loyalties lie quite elsewhere, never hesitated. If the Argonauts manage to navigate this particular pass, which makes Scylla and Charybdis look like a couple of banana-scented tropical breezes, they owe Uncle Dick an orienteering merit badge, a harem of $300 hookers and a lifetime supply of nitro-glycerin.

As Richard Cohen pointed out last week, there seems to be a long line of stooges ready to take the fall early and slink back to the private sector before things get too dangerous and people start using words like ďsubpoena.Ē Unfortunately for Condi Rice and the two-bit CIA underling who supposedly bowed to the White House pressure to clear the State of the Union speech, they arenít cut out for the role of short-term scapegoat. Hadleyís loyalty to the Administration is questionable at best; he can't be cut loose. Rice just canít seem to open her mouth without saying something incriminating, and without Karl Rove around to hold her hand, that would only get worse. Thus Bush has undercut everyoneís Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card by going on TV and accepting some vague and toothless form of responsibility. This is no time for people to be abandoning ship, and Admiral Dubya is battening down the hatches.

The bit players in this saga have yet to fully emerge, and the storyline is still very muddy, but as we look back through history and remember Iran/Contra and all it taught us about how to react when you discover the White House is full of thieves, con artists, and power-mad sociopaths, we can make at least one prediction.

The stuff that went on out in the open—half-baked intelligence about uranium in Africa, misrepresented reports about aluminum tubes, or any of the rest of the fun pap thatís been in the news lately—is Not The Story.

The Story has yet to be discovered. Itís hidden somewhere in a forgotten pile of documents, waiting for the right set of hands to come along and hold The Story up to the right pair of eyes, who can pass The Story along to the right editors, with just enough swagger and reckless machismo to think that they can be the ones to finally break The Big One. A receipt for a security system, perhaps, paid for on the wrong credit card. A note about raw opium being loaded on a plane, written in language just a little too blunt or explicit to be explained away as a political allegory or an idle daydream.

We wonít know it until we see it. But when we do, it will be like that moment on a busy highway when you see an opening and instead of sliding into a closer, hotter, more confusing mess than you were in before, you actually somehow find a way through to daylight, punch the accelerator, and roar past a slow-starting MetroBus to freedom. It doesnít happen often in this city, but there is an eerie calm on our streets this week, and the scent of The Story is growing riper by the day. The next generation of scandalmongers and low-lifes has discovered the word processor, and if the folks in the cushy seats arenít afraid, we will in time at least teach them to hate us, and curse our names.

The weasels are in the tunnel, and the hog is slow, and getting tired.

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