I was heading to bed with my lovely fiancee the other night here at Nosmo King World Headquarters, when she asked me how things got to be the way they are. We had been talking about the upcoming Presidential election, and how she had to search to find articles that actually said anything at all about John McCain (even on his own website, it's all about the “scary” African-American man), and how Everything was Bad for Obama (His being smeared, his reacting to the smears, Hillary rallying her supporters for him or not, etc. etc.). Since I'm approximately one billion years older than her, and since I'm very sure of myself and like to shoot off my trap, it was her lucky night. Or something. Anyway, as we turned out the lights I gave her something scarier than any ghost story, the least -soothing lulllaby in creation-- my understanding of how we got to this point in our political culture and media, where the Democrats end up playing “Heads I Win, Tails you Lose” because it truly is the only game in town.
Where I start the game is where I first became aware of it: Vietnam. That was the first and only war where we were all truly “in country”. I would watch the footage as they aired it on the evening news-- the dirt and mud and blood of the footage, the danger and chaos palpable; and them some DoD flack giving casualty totals in the thousands suffered by the other side while our soldiers smoked contemptuously behind him, not believing a word of it. It was the first time that everyone got to see our Government lying to our faces (before the Pentagon realized how malleable the press was, how easily they would roll over for Access-- like I said, a long time ago.). And it had a catastrophic effect on everybody, in one way or another. Confronted by this, people had to react. Some people took the opportunity to bring radicalism above ground, and began to doubt everything (well, a lot of things-- another thing I remember from personal experience was the unreconstructed sexism of most leftist hippy males.) Others doubled down, and believed that the Government must have a good reason for lying to us, and trusted that what we were not being told outweighed what we were seeing. Into this environment came the second incarnation of Richard Nixon, a thin presidential margin breaking his way for once.
It needs to be brought up that Nixon, despite being well-known, was something of an outsider in Washington circles-- famously and beautifully described as a man whose friends hated him. His administration was full of all kinds of California guys and Miami guys whose loyalties were to Nixon and not the party. Further, Nixon was suspect economically to the preponderance of Republicans-- wage freezes, OK, but price freezes? A flirtation with a guaranteed national income, ferchrissakes? So Nixon was not necessarily the kind of guy who could expect the love of everyone in Washington, and not even from his allies. Probably one reason that a skeptical press (skeptical from the Vietnam eyes/ ears disconnect) was given the OK to go after him by their corporate owners (by more than one corporation as it turned out.). Talk about winning friends and influencing people. As we all know, Nixon went down. But he resigned ahead of being tried, impeached, and thrown from office. Congress had given him the preview of what was to come, and Nixon – with a golden parachute of a pardon probably guaranteed by Gerald Ford-- jumped first. But the press-- abetted by official public Washington -- got all the credit. The press had brought down a president! The Fourth Estate had triumphed over the first! And there was much rejoicing. But-- (speculation to follow)
For about 28 seconds or so. Then the corporate press began getting memos from their old money pals, on expensive raised monogram stationary, probably saying something like “OK, but just this once. Best, Old Money”. Because Nixon was the last of the Republican Socialists. His ratfucking of his enemies, his shredding of the Constitution; his venomous but sub rosa racism-- all fine with the powers that be; it was his refusal to hate the poor unto death that made him expendable. Reagan and Ford-- Corporate Shill, Superficially Bumbling Apparatchik --duked it out in 1976, the Coke vs New Coke war for the top spot of the Republican party; but neither of talked of price freezes and national incomes-- Ford's economic plan began and ended with the WIN button, and Reagan had been in the pocket of General Electric for so long he had developed lint-breathing gills.
Appearances had to be kept up, though. And here is where a few tropes that we all recognize seem to have been born. The first grew naturally out of the Fairness Doctrine: equal time, and equal treatment. So the newly skeptical and empowered press was unleashed on Jimmy Carter-- despite his not having any teams of burglars, not having shredded the Constitution (much), not having any record of depredations against the commonweal to speak of (well, does membership in Trilateral Commission count?) . His only commonality with Nixon was that he was an outsider, with all these funny-talking Georgians in his wake; he had done nothing to merit the critical coverage and scrutiny Nixon got and deserved. But equal time and equal treatment must be preserved. So came the second trope: Carter's sins must a priori be just as bad as Nixon's. I remember a gushing firehose of negativity going at Carter pretty much all the time, and the tone of the coverage just assumed you should hate him this much-- he was a PRESIDENT, fer cryin out loud, and they do horrible things. Like explore the firebombing of think tanks that are critical of you (Nixon). Or ask people to turn out the lights (Carter). Anyone can see the equivalence here, right? Well, if you don't, you should.
With Reagan's triumph in 1980 (aided by some timely meddling with the Iranian hostage-holders; just like Nixon's people did in 1968, and Bush II attempted with the color coded terrorism alerts in 2004-- but no one could call that a pattern, surely.), the perception was that yet another outsider had come to Washington. But in fact, Reagan was a sticky chocolate bar to the tastebuds of corporate America. So it was deemed that Reagan should not suffer the fate of his two elected predecessors ( Where does Ford fit in here, you ask? Ford, of course, doesn't coun t. He was expected to pardon and falll on his sword, and he did.). Now the solons might say to me that Reagan got plenty of critical coverage. And he did, I remember that much of the 80's, as much as I try to forget the hair, movies, clothes etc etc. But the difference was that for Reagan, there was no AMPLIFICATION. The stories were allowed to be published, and then generally not commented upon, except for lengthy, end-of-investigation reports that only die-hards would ever read. If one goes back to those reports, the scope of the Reagan administration's criminality is of Nixonian dimensions. But, at least he let us keep the lights on.
In a final irony, in 1987, the Fairness Doctrine, which gave us equal time on television and inspired the destruction of Carter's presidency, was repealed. This did not improve things for the Democrats, as Reagan's followers stepped up to the microphone and began spewing contrafactual hatred, untempered by any need to present an opposing viewpoint, accompanied by all kinds of amplification-- the same talking points from one pinheaded goon to another, endlessly parroted by pig-ignorant Jaspers eager to hear themselves on 20 seconds of radio air. Clinton's impeachment grew straight out of this-- pure entrapment, ask a question nobody has any business asking, and prosecute the inevitable lie. Somehow, it's always bad news for the Democrats, but that's mostly because there's no perspective ever given about the long strange trip we've been on. And Democrats continue to hope that a very slightly left Jesus will lead them to an electoral bonanza, and they will not have to get a their hands dirty with a common rhetoric, consistent talking points, and (God forbid) party discipline. And the media will continue to tell us that Republicans and Democrats are the same, so they must treated the same. Except when they're not, and then one must still say that they are, and always have been. The traditions of American politics and journalism demand it.