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Words of Power #19: Colbert and McGovern Echo Murrow and Eisenhower, Is the U.S. Nearing Its Tiananmen Square Moment?
Sometimes there is a clash between the public interest and the corporate interest. A telephone call or a letter from the proper quarter in Washington is treated rather more seriously than a communication from an irate but not politically potent viewer….To a very considerable extent the media of mass communications in a given country reflect the political, economic and social climate in which they flourish….We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information. Our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late…
EDWARD R. MURROW, RTNDA Convention Chicago, 10-15-58
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together….
Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1-17-61
There is, of course, an almost overpowering urge to write about Porter Goss’s sudden resignation after only one year as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). It is tempting to ponder whether or not, despite vehement denials, Goss's fall is related to the sordid tales of poker and prostitution at the Watergate Hotel. Those are the rumors swirling around the criminal investigation of disgraced and imprisoned former Rep. Randy Duke Cunningham (R-CA), as well as other Congressional Republicans. (Follow this story at Talking Points Memo and TPM Muckraker)
There is also an almost overpowering urge to write about the U.S. Secret Service’s release of logs pertaining to the visits of disgraced and convicted Republican Jack Abramoff to the White House: “Abramoff was a $100,000 fundraiser for Bush [in 2000] and lobbying records obtained by the AP show his lobbying team logged nearly 200 meetings with the administration during its first 10 months in office on behalf of one of his clients, the Northern Mariana Islands.” Pensitor Review, 5-3-06)
But there will be plenty of opportunities to write about these two stories. They are not going away. Hopefully, the facts will only become clearer over the next few months. Instead, in this posting, I will take a broader, more historic perspective.
Over forty years ago, two renown Americans delivered prophetic, cautionary speeches about grave and, at that time, almost imperceptible threats to the Republic. Their extraordinary life experiences had led them to look into the future with caring and clarity, and what they saw caused them profound distress.
And, so they spoke out.
In 1958, Edward R. Murrow, speaking to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, warned of dangers of allowing corporatism to stifle journalistic freedom in broadcast media. And, in 1961, in his farewell address to the nation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, warned of an emerging “military-industrial complex” that would threaten “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” if not reigned in.
Now, six years into the 21st Century, we are in the throes of the crisis that they foresaw, and foretold, in the hope that it would be forestalled. It was not.
Consider some compelling evidence of recent days:
President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution….Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. Charlie Savage, Boston Globe, 4-30-06
Bush is weighing "the criminal prosecution of reporters under the espionage laws". Since the Washington Post exposed the existence of CIA "black site" prisons holding detainees without due process of law and the New York Times disclosed the president's order to the National Security Agency to engage in domestic surveillance without legal court warrants, the administration has applied new draconian methods to clamp down…At Bush's orders dragnets are being conducted throughout the national security bureaucracy in search of press sources…. Sidney Blumenthal, Ridicule and contempt: An imperial president is smothering the system of checks and balances, imperiling free speech, 5-4-06, Guardian
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Tuesday that a Republican proposal in Congress to set up a watchdog over the federal courts is a "really scary idea." Ginsburg told a gathering of the American Bar Association that lawyers should stick up for judges when they are criticized by congressional leaders. "My sense now is that the judiciary is under assault in a way that I haven't seen before," she said…."It sounds to me very much like the Soviet Union was ....That's a really scary idea," said Ginsburg… Associated Press, 5-2-06
Torture and inhumane treatment are "widespread" in U.S.-run detention centers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba and elsewhere despite Washington's denials, Amnesty International said…."The U.S. government is not only failing to take steps to eradicate torture, it is actually creating a climate in which torture and other ill-treatment can flourish," said Amnesty International USA Senior Deputy Director-General Curt Goering. Richard Waddington, Reuters, 5-3-06
And what is the one-lie-fits-all rationale for this accelerating descent into Neo-Totaliarianism? Well, the so-called “global war on terrorism,” of course. And how is that going for the “Decider”?
More damning evidence from recent new stories:
The Taliban and Al Qaeda are everywhere," a shopkeeper, Haji Saifullah, told the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan...The arrival of large numbers of Taliban in the villages, flush with money and weapons, has dealt a blow to public confidence in the Afghan government, already undermined by lack of tangible progress and frustration with corrupt and ineffective leaders…. Carlotta Gall, New York Times, 5-3-06
ABC analyst Tony Cordesman, who also holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the exorbitant costs come down to poor planning. "When the administration submitted its original budget for the Iraq war, it didn't provide money for continuing the war this year or any other. We could end up spending up to $1 trillion in supplemental budgets for this war." ABC News, 4-20-06
The number of terrorist attacks worldwide increased nearly fourfold in 2005 to 11,111, with strikes in Iraq accounting for 30 percent of the total, according to statistics released by U.S. counterterrorism officials yesterday. Although only half of the incidents resulted in loss of life, more than 14,600 noncombatants were killed, a majority of them in Iraq alone and 80 percent in the Near East and South Asia. Washington Post, 4-28-06
Recently, in the midst of this self-induced superpower meltdown, which has already wrought havoc on the U.S.'s political institutions, and crippled its national security posture, two more individual acts of courage, caring and clarity of mind were added to the heroic litany of principled resistance (e.g., military and intelligence professionals like Newbold, Drumheller, Wilkerson, Odom, and media celebrities like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks, etc.).
At the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, comedian Stephen Colbert performed an act of political courage worthy of the great nation that Murrow and Eisenhower warned us we would lose if we did not fight (within ourselves) for it.
Standing a few harrowing yards away from George W. Bush, Colbert, publicly, personally, and unflinchingly, confronted Bush with his own horrific image in the shining mirror of parody.
It was Shakespearian. “The play’s the thing, in which we capture the conscience of the king.” It was Shamanic. For those few moments, Colbert was more than a comedian, he was a tribal medicine man attempting to cast demons out of a possessed chieftain.
Colbert really got inside Bush’s psyche, and also invoked the undercurrent of fear flowing everywhere in the land, when he joked that although he had New York Times columnist Frank Rich (who has been savagely critical of the Bush administration) scheduled for an upcoming show, he would “bump” Rich if Bush would come on instead: “I've got Frank Rich, but we can bump him. And I mean bump him. I know a guy. Say the word.”
But perhaps the most significant aspect of Colbert’s performance was that his heat and light were not just directed at Bush, but also at Beltwayistan’s enabling edifice, i.e. the US mainstream news media, the right-wing extremists on the US Supreme Court, and the Republican leadership in the US Senate:
I am appalled to be surrounded by the liberal media that is destroying America, with the exception of Fox News….But the rest of you, what are you thinking, reporting on NSA wiretapping or secret prisons in eastern Europe? Those things are secret for a very important reason: they're super-depressing. And if that's your goal, well, misery accomplished. Over the last five years you people were so good -- over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out. Those were good times, as far as we knew. But, listen, let's review the rules. Here's how it works: the president makes decisions. He's the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put 'em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know - fiction!
Justice Scalia is here. Welcome, sir. May I be the first to say, you look fantastic. How are you? [After each sentence, Colbert makes a hand gesture, an allusion to Scalia's recent use of an obscene Sicilian hand gesture in speaking to a reporter about Scalia's critics. Scalia is seen laughing hysterically.] Just talking some Sicilian with my paisan…
John McCain, what a maverick!...By the way, Senator McCain, it's so wonderful to see you coming back into the Republican fold. I have a summer house in South Carolina; look me up when you go to speak at Bob Jones University. So glad you've seen the light, sir. Stephen Colbert Transcript, Daily Kos, 4-30-06
Several days later, in Atlanta, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld spoke at the Southern Center for International Studies. His speech was disrupted several times by protesters from World Can’t Wait (WCW). Three of them were removed from the auditorium. At the conclusion of his speech, Rumsfeld took questions from the audience.
Ray McGovern, who spent 27 years as a CIA analyst, and had delivered Presidential Daily Briefings (PDB) during the Reagan-Bush administration, stepped to the microphone.
McGovern, the founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) confronted Rumsfeld over the pre-war disinformation campaign about the status of Iraq’s WMD programs:
RAY McGOVERN: And so, I would like to ask you to be up front with the American people. Why did you lie to get us into a war that was not necessary and that has caused these kinds of casualties? Why?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, first of all, I haven’t lied. I did not lie then. Colin Powell didn't lie. He spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence Agency people and prepared a presentation that I know he believed was accurate, and he presented that to the United Nations. The President spent weeks and weeks with the Central Intelligence people, and he went to the American people and made a presentation. I'm not in the intelligence business. They gave the world their honest opinion. It appears that there were not weapons of mass destruction there.
RAY McGOVERN: You said you knew where they were?
DONALD RUMSFELD: I did not. I said I knew where suspect sites were, and we were --
RAY McGOVERN: You said you knew where they were, “near Tikrit, near Baghdad, and northeast, south and west of there.” Those were your words.
DONALD RUMSFELD: My words -- my words were -- no, no, no, wait a minute! Let him stay one second. Just a second.
RAY McGOVERN: This is America, huh? Go ahead....
The next morning, in an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez on Democracy Now!, McGovern was asked to explain what was going on off-camera at that moment:
RAY McGOVERN: Well, curiously enough, a very large man came down with a white coat on, and he stuck his elbow into my chest and started pushing me back. And I pushed back, literally and figuratively. And it was the moment of truth…
Democracy Now!, 5-5-06
And again, just as Colbert’s most significant jabs were not at Bush, but at the enabling edifice surrounding him, and protecting him (even now), McGovern’s most profound insights were about Rumsfeld’s audience. rather than about Rumsfeld himself: Well, Amy, just listening to this little clip here, I find it scary. These were ostensibly educated normal people, and their reaction was very much like the one that Goebbels stirred up. You can see it was a very unfriendly audience to anyone who posed any kind of question to the Defense Secretary. So -- and listening to it, I'm sort of scared, because if this is indicative of the brainwashing that has taken place, it's going be a long, long struggle to speak truth to power, as Fannie Lou Hamer so famously said…
And so, here we are, lost in the sand storm of menace and mayhem that Murrow and Eisenhower warned us against.
Thinking of Colbert, McGovern and the others, the image of the Chinese protester who stood in the way of the Red Army tank during the Tiananmen Square massacre, keeps coming into my mind.
Do you remember the 1990s? If we engaged China, it was thought, that totalitarian society would in time become more like the US and its European allies, i.e. open, respectful of dissent, protective of civil liberties and human rights, and indulgent of a free and independent news media. Of course, tragically, the opposite has become true. The U.S. today has more in common, politically, with Red China than it does with our once and future allies in democratic Europe. The U.S. is moving toward a one-party system, in all but name, with cheap labor, an unprotected environment, a huge market, and a tightly leashed news media (although it is controlled by corporate power rather than state power)
Three years ago, I was watching Chinese TV news at the Shangri-La Hotel in Hong Kong. I was struck by how much more informative it was about world events than what was being proffered up by the major network and cable news organizations in the US. Of course, after an hour or two, I realized that although there was an impressive amount of news and analysis about the rest of the world, there was hardly any real news about events in China itself.
But then Chinese TV viewers are still better informed than US viewers, because US TV viewers are getting almost no real news or analysis on either foreign or domestic affairs.
As a media professional, Murrow would have been proud of Colbert.
As a servant of the people, Eisenhower would have been proud of McGovern.
Will there come a time sooner than later when U.S. military veterans, students, workers, educators, religious leaders, scientists, artists and yes, business professionals, career civil servants and journalists, gather in the commons across the U.S. and erect Goddess of Liberty statues, just as the Chinese protesters did in Tiananmen Square? And what will happen then? Which way will the tank turn when it is confronted by the Bill of Rights written in flesh and blood?
The words of Edward R. Murrow and Dwight D. Eisenhower are not the words of wild-eyed radicals.
They are the words of people who knew and loved the promise of the U.S. and its Constitution.
It is still not too late to heed them.
Richard Power is the founder of GS(3) Intelligence and http://www.wordsofpower.net. His work focuses on the inter-related issues of security, sustainability and spirit, and how to overcome the challenges of terrorism, cyber crime, global warming, health emergencies, natural disasters, etc. You can reach him via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, go to http://www.wordsofpower.net/