There is a proverb attributed to Joseph Addison, the seventeenth-century English writer, which claims that “He who hesitates is lost.” Or in my case, “almost lost.” As I began to compose a column about several current events some weeks ago, I hesitated only to find that the situations changed so rapidly that saying anything seemed either premature or inaccurate. Take for example the Syrian sarin gas discovery that got Senator McCain’s knickers so mightily a-twist that he was ready to declare war all by himself if necessary. Then the UN reported that the poison gas was likely used by the insurgents that Senator McCain and many others support and devoutly wish to arm. (Now it has turned out that it was most likely the Assad government who done it after all. Apparently. Someone did.) That President Obama hesitated before throwing his weight behind military intervention did not strike me as timidity so much as prudence. Then Britain and France said it was OK to arm the rebels. Senator McCain showed up just across the Syrian border this week just to make sure that the good guys were still good guys. The Russians plainly aren’t, but if the lessons of Iraq mean anything, toppling a dictator and installing a “government” of a fragmented, divisive, hostile, and sometimes murderously partisan pack of rebels is not a recipe for success. (Iraq is another story: read it and weep.)
The home scene is hardly better in some respects. Like a dog with a bone, congresspersons will not let the Benghazi attack (among other things) recede into the past, but are digging frantically to uncover a cover-up. After all, didn’t the White House first claim that the attack was part of a series of incendiary assaults, prompted by a scurrilous anti-Islamic film, that had just erupted in Cairo, Tripoli, and other hotspots? Our Intelligence Services were admittedly caught flatfooted by a concatenation of strangely unrelated events, but somehow sensing a conspiracy in the rapid-fire clarifications seems far-fetched, to say the least. But with a House of Representatives intent on stymying or even crippling the executive branch, or at the very least embarrassing and discrediting it, perhaps that, like the IRS “scandal,” is about what we should expect. All that is lacking is a call for Ken Starr to return. Whitewater has not been forgotten.
Years back, one of my political science professors claimed that “politics is the art of the possible.” Not anymore. It appears increasingly that politics as practiced in the US is the art of partisan oneupsmanship. For instance, since the economy seems to be recovering rapidly, there has to be something that the Opposition can use to attack and if possible cripple the Administration. If one can’t be found, invent it. Take, for instance, the IRS turmoil.
Before and during the campaign season of 2012, there was a major flurry of applications — hundreds and hundreds of them, from groups applying for 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt status even though many even bannered the storied term “party” in their titles. As the New York Times reporters and other heartless commentators pointed out, there is a great advantage to securing such recognition: such groups would not have to disclose their donor lists.
Not that such groups would ever engage in political activity. Of course not. I seem to have had the mistaken idea that the “party” part of “Tea Party” meant “political party,” since they run and support candidates, host rallies, lobby politicians in Washington, throw mud, etc. But perhaps they just sit around in straight-backed chairs and read the Bill of Rights over a cup or two of Earl Grey. Patriots do that, they say. But when the IRS began to investigate the deluge of applications, red flags began to appear on the field of play. Cries of persecution were heard in the land and for all I know it might even be the case. How many left-wing groups using the terms “Tea Party” and “patriot” were investigated? It’s a fair question. No one likes the IRS, after all. (Who was it who said “The power to tax involves the power to destroy”?) But, it might be asked, weren’t these mild-mannered bureaucrats doing what they were supposed to be doing in their stifling little cubicles in Cincinnati? That is, making sure that groups applying for tax-exempt status were not in fact using the 501 (c) (4) appellation as a dodge to hide their donor lists?
In mid-April, first came the terror of the Boston Marathon bombing, followed by the pursuit and capture of the bombers. Then the little town of West, Texas was scorched when a fertilizer factory blew up, again captivating public attention for a while. Was it terrorism? Revenge? A White House cover-up? Does anyone remember?
Meanwhile, as a host of Congresspeople went into apoplexy over Benghazi and the IRS conspiracy, the viewing public (at least) was mesmerized by the dramatic events surrounding the Cleveland kidnapping case. By then, the previous cause for panic in the streets of April, bellicose North Korean posturing, had faded from our national media radar, although Kim Jong Un and his generals are still shooting off big rockets and making mean faces at the West. Austin, TX, seems to be safe from thermonuclear destruction for the time being, I’m happy to say. (I’m still not sure what Kim has against Austin. Dallas maybe or even Houston. But Austin? Where is Dennis Rodman when we need him?)
Soon weather matters again pushed everything aside for a couple of weeks, from the aftermath of October’s Hurricane Sandy to recent California wildfires, and weeks of unseasonal snow storms, hailstorms, and rain. A barrage of violent tornadoes, ice storms, wildfires, and flash floods arrested our notice, punctuated by reports from the seemingly endless Jodi Arias murder trial in Phoenix (and briefly, the reappearance of O. J. Simpson in court). Trains derailed and bridges collapsed. Parts of jetliners fell off and crashed into peoples’ houses. High school kids plotted to blow up their schools and pretty nearly did. Ricin-contaminated letters were sent to politicians in Washington and now New York.
As bridges fall, trains collide, and roads crack, the stalemate in Washington seems likely to last right up to the summer recess. Is it just spring fever or is something going seriously wrong — everywhere? Or is it just the ever-vigilant coverage of the media, social and otherwise, that makes it appear so?
By the way, the proverb about taxation was coined by that old firebrand, Chief Justice John Marshall, way back in 1819.
If there is any comfort to be taken in the defeat of Elizabeth Colbert-Busch by Mark Sanford, the disgraced ex-Governor of South Carolina, in the special Congressional election on Tuesday, it is probably to be found in the realization that Chicago is not alone in preferring party loyalty to public decency. Sanford may have been duplicitous, adulterous, deceptive, and furtive, but he is charming and above all, a Republican. Welcome to the U.S. Congress.