He’s Not Going Anywhere

If Donald Trump dropped dead tomorrow, his presidency would go down as a bizarre, disgraceful failure—albeit a unique, memorable and morbidly entertaining one.  Eight weeks in, the Trump administration has earned every ounce of skepticism that a majority of the public has nursed since Day 1, swerving wildly between quasi-authoritarian histrionics and clueless, bumbling ineptitude—“malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one journalist put it.

In fact, Trump will not be checking out anytime soon, as doing so would violate Lewis Black’s first general rule of health:  “The good die young, but pricks live forever.”

Sorry, folks:  Not only is this roller coaster of shame real, but it has barely left the goddamned gate.  To ask—as one does—whether this president’s noxious mixture of cruelty, duplicity and cynicism can be sustained at its current velocity for another four years is to miss the main point.  Of course this horror show will continue exactly as it has begun:  Trump has neither the inclination nor the ability to behave as anything other than what he is.  His appeal, his “brand”—his very identity—hinges on his being a vindictive, ignorant jerk 24 hours a day, and he is not about to elevate the interests of the republic above his crippling need for unending praise and attention.

I bear this bad news having just re-watched Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic Nixon—a film that, at this moment, I would recommend to every man, woman and child in America—or at least to anyone who requires some historical perspective on the seemingly unprecedented political quagmire we find ourselves in today.  As past presidents go, Richard Nixon is and will forever be the Rosetta Stone for understanding the machinations of Donald Trump, and Stone’s exuberant dramatization of Nixon’s life is an invaluable visual document of modern American history at its worst.

The first thing to recall about Nixon, our 37th president, is that he was an unconscionable scumbag.  A vile, ugly, selfish, paranoid, shameless, cynical, racist crook.  An opportunist and a con man.  A liar and a cheat.  A hollow shell of a human being who exerted bottomless energy toward political score-settling and practically none at all toward making America a better place to live.

The second thing to recall about Tricky Dick—and boy did that nickname say it all—is that, in his five-and-a-half years in office, he got a hell of a lot of things done, many of which unambiguously pushed our country forward in lasting, meaningful ways.  Apart from opening China to the West and fostering friendlier relations with the Soviet Union, Nixon became a partner in the environmental protection movement—signing the Clean Air Act and establishing the EPA—and was the first president to propose a universal government healthcare system that, nearly four decades later, would provide the basic framework for the Affordable Care Act—the 2010 bill that, as the aforementioned Lewis Black quipped, could’ve easily been called “Nixonicare.”

Nixon accomplished all of those commendable things and more, and we can’t pretend that he didn’t.  He was a ruthless, cold-hearted bastard, but by God, did he deliver.

The strategy of Oliver Stone’s movie—as embodied by its titanic lead performance by Anthony Hopkins—is to portray Nixon’s presidency as a grand Shakespearean tragedy, with its title character as a man who had the potential for everlasting greatness but was ultimately felled by his own flaws—in particular, his pathological habit of getting in his own way through bouts of self-pity and self-righteousness—weaknesses present in all national leaders, but rarely in such outrageously lethal doses.

Watching Nixon today, it becomes glaringly evident—if it weren’t already—how profoundly the worst instincts of Nixon mirror the worst instincts of Trump—not least the two men’s shared contempt for “elites” and any notion of a free press—with the latter president possessing even less self-control and self-awareness than the former, not to mention less intelligence and less expertise in anything even remotely to do with government.

If Nixon had a secret sauce—an X factor that enabled him to ascend great heights despite his deadly failings—it was the amoral political instincts that allowed him to personally profit from—and often stoke—divisions among different groups of people.  Domestically, this included the late-1960s racial tensions that helped him scare white people into voting for him in the first place.  Globally, this same habit was manifested in the rivalry between China and Russia, which Nixon was able to parlay into a set of mutually beneficial deals that America still enjoys to this day.

In other words, even Nixon’s finest moments were borne of his basest impulses.  The Machiavellian tactics that proved so effective in Beijing and Moscow originated from the same dark corner of the president’s brain that led him to brazenly interfere with the Watergate investigation and to use government money to cover it all up.  He was a crafty dealmaker and a common criminal, and you couldn’t have one without the other.

Which brings us to the most important—and most dangerous—lesson from the Nixon era:  Americans do not care if their president is corrupt, so long as his corruption redounds to the benefit of the public at large.  As a rule, if the economy is humming along and civil unrest is kept to a minimum, few citizens will bother to look very closely at any shenanigans that might be occurring in the executive branch.  As any pyramid scheme victim will tell you, why ask questions when everything is going so well?

Indeed, given the facts of history, it’s worth arguing that Nixon’s eventual (and richly deserved) downfall was as much a product of a depressed economy as of a sudden interest in rule of law by American voters.  While correlation does not necessarily prove causation, one can’t help but notice that, from early 1973 onward, Nixon’s free-falling approval rating tracked almost perfectly with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, suggesting that had the Watergate scandal not coincided with a general economic downturn—and, with it, a growing public disgust with Washington, D.C.—Nixon may well have rode out whatever allegations Congress and The Washington Post hurled at him throughout 1973 and 1974.  After all, he did win 49 states in the election of 1972.

Does this mean Donald Trump could commit a slew of impeachable offenses, yet remain in office for his entire term, provided the stock market doesn’t crash and the country doesn’t devolve into complete anarchy?

Yes, dear reader.  That’s exactly what it means.

If Nixon teaches us anything, it’s that the American presidency is just about the most secure job on planet Earth.  Despite all the malfeasance that has been committed over the last 228 years by most of the 44 men in that office, Nixon is still the only one to have departed prematurely without dying—and bear in mind that the “smoking gun” in Watergate only came to light as the result of an audio recording that Nixon himself made.  If those famous White House tapes didn’t exist—or were never publicly released—Nixon may well have stuck around until January 20, 1977, leading us to wonder if there’s anything the president of the United States cannot get away with, if he gives it the old college try.

With Donald Trump, that’s what we will continuously be finding out for the next 46 months, if not longer.  Having demonstrated, ad nauseam, that he cares about nothing but himself and is prepared to violate every political norm in the book in order to get what he wants, Trump is practically daring us to use the Constitution to yank him offstage, and if it turns out the American public doesn’t have the fortitude to pressure Congress into doing so, it is Trump who will have the last laugh, and we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.


Character Is Destiny

Donald Trump has been president for all of two weeks, yet already he has proved himself the most brazenly Nixonian person to ever sit in the Oval Office—Richard Nixon included.

How much of a paranoid megalomaniac is our new commander-in-chief?  Well, for starters, it took Nixon a full four-and-a-half years to dismiss his own attorney general for failing to carry out the president’s imperial agenda.  Trump?  He took care of that on Day 11.

There’s a classic saying, “History doesn’t repeat itself—but it rhymes.”  Of course, historians love to draw parallels between the past and the present in any case, but the truth is that some connections are so blindingly obvious that we needn’t even bring experts to the table.  We can do the rhyming ourselves, thank you very much.

At this absurdly premature juncture in the life of the new administration, it has become evident—to the shock of no one—that the Trump White House is destined to most resemble Nixon’s in both form and effect, and there may be no surer means of anticipating this West Wing’s machinations—good and bad, but mostly bad—than through a close study of the one that dissolved, oh-so-ignominiously, on August 9, 1974.

In light of recent events, we might as well begin with the Saturday Night Massacre.

In the fall of 1973, President Nixon was drowning in controversy about his role in the Watergate caper, thanks largely to the efforts of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox.  Suddenly, on October 20, Nixon decided he had had enough and ordered his attorney general, Elliot Richardson, to fire Cox ASAP.  Having promised to respect Cox’s independence, Richardson refused to comply and promptly resigned, as did his deputy shortly thereafter.

Once the dust settled and Cox was finally sacked by Solicitor General Robert Bork (yes, that Robert Bork), it became clear to every man, woman and child in America that the president of the United States was a crook and a scumbag—albeit a cartoonishly sloppy one—and so began the suddenly-inevitable march to impeachment that would end only with Nixon’s resignation in August of the following year.

What’s the lesson in all of this?  For my money, it’s that if the president feels he cannot do his job without depriving America’s chief law enforcement officer of his, something extraordinarily shady is afoot, and it’s only a matter of time before the public—and Congress—demands some manner of accountability.

Cut to the present day, and the constitutional (and humanitarian) crisis that Donald Trump pointlessly unleashed by banning all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.—along with immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries—and then firing Acting Attorney General Sally Yates when she proclaimed the order illegal and instructed the Justice Department to ignore it.

For all that differentiates the Saturday Night Massacre from the Muslim ban and its aftermath, both events present a commander-in-chief with an utter, self-defeating contempt for basic rule of law and all institutional checks on his authority.  Just as Nixon believed he could sweep Watergate under the rug by canning its lead investigator, so does Trump think he can essentially wipe out an entire religion’s worth of immigrants from the United States by disappearing any Justice Department official who regards the First Amendment as constitutionally binding.

(Notice how Trump justified the firing of Yates by accusing her of “betrayal”—as if the attorney general’s loyalty to the president supersedes her loyalty to the law.)

Of course, the nice thing about the Constitution is that it exists whether or not the president believes in it (as Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t quite say).  The trouble—as the nation learned so painfully with Nixon—is that justice can take an awfully long time to catch up to the president’s many dogged attempts to dodge it—especially if he has a gang of willing collaborators in Congress.

In the end, the reason Watergate exploded into a full-blown cataclysm was that Richard Nixon was a fundamentally rotten human being—a callous, cynical, friendless sociopath whose every move was calibrated for political gain and without even a passing consideration for the public good.  For all that he spoke about standing up for the common man, when push came to shove the only person he really gave a damn about—the only person he ever lifted a finger to protect—was Richard Nixon.

Does any of this sound familiar?  You bet your sweet bippy it does.  In the frightfully short time he’s been president, Trump has shown a remarkable knack for mimicking every one of Nixon’s faults—his vindictiveness, he contempt for the press, his insecurity, his dishonesty, his propensity for surrounding himself with racists and anti-Semites—while somehow skirting any redeeming qualities that might make his presidency tolerable, despite all of the above.

Indeed, to the extent that Trump is not the absolute spitting image of America’s all-time champion of corruption, he is demonstrably worse.  After all, Nixon was historically literate, intellectually curious and, from his experience as a congressman and vice president, highly knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of Washington deal making.  He was a scoundrel, but a reasonably competent one with several major accomplishments to his name.

Can we expect Trump to achieve any sort of greatness in the teeth of his many weaknesses?  If these first two weeks are at all predictive of the next four years, I see no reason to think so.  Whereas Nixon was a gifted strategic thinker with a deep sense of history and geopolitics, Trump has over and over again professed a proud and stubborn ignorance of any matter that does not directly involve himself, and seems to derive all his information about a given subject from the last person he spoke to about it.

The Greeks had it right:  Character is destiny, and there’s just no coming back from a veritable avalanche of fatal flaws.  We can pray all we want that the president will suddenly discover the value of temperance, deliberation and any hint of public virtue, but we’d only be denying a truth that has been staring us in the face from the moment Trump announced himself as a figure of national consequence.  He is who he is, he will never get better, and our only hope is that this new national nightmare won’t last quite as long as the last one did.

Hillary Clinton for President

What is the absolute worst thing you could credibly say about Hillary Clinton?

That is, once you remove the sexism, paranoia and conspiracy-mongering that define—if not consume—so many of her most passionate, deranged critics, what is the central compelling argument against Hillary being elected president of the United States?

I don’t know about you, but I’d hazard that her pathological duplicity will always take the cake.  The view that Clinton is inherently dishonest—that she fudges the truth even when it serves no strategic purpose—has dogged her for the better part of a decade now, not least with me.  Ever since her 2008 primary fight with Barack Obama, I have consistently doubted Clinton’s basic integrity and judgment whenever she’s on the campaign trail, suspecting that her pursuit of power has become so all-encompassing—and her protective shell so thick and impenetrable—that she can’t help but look shady whenever she finds herself in a political and/or ethical bind.

Oftentimes this criticism is unfair.  The authoritative fact-checking site PolitiFact has characterized 51 percent of her public statements as “true” or “mostly true” and another 24 percent as “half-true,” meaning that she outright lies only about one-quarter of the time—a fairly impressive batting average for such a high-profile figure.

And yet I must say—based on what is directly in front of our noses—that, on multiple key occasions, she has more than lived up to those worst elements of her reputation.

Consider, for instance, the way she reacted to Bernie Sanders’s demands to release transcripts of her highly-lucrative speeches to Goldman Sachs.  Accused of being dangerously close to Wall Street and the big banks—and issued a direct challenge to prove otherwise—Hillary and her supporters’ two-pronged response was to insist that a) It wouldn’t be fair for only Clinton to expose herself in this way, and b) There’s nothing interesting in those speeches, anyhow.  Trust us.

Surely I don’t need to spell out why that combination of non-answers is such a glittering red flag for someone running as a champion of the working class?  If there really isn’t anything surprising or incriminating in those talks—if they are as innocuous as we are led to believe—what’s the justification for keeping them a secret?  What is the political benefit of stonewalling about something that—according to Hillary—is no big deal in the first place?

There’s nothing conspiratorial in looking at baldly evasive behavior and concluding the person in question is hiding something that, if it became known, would imperil his or her chances of being elected leader of the free world.  As a rule, public officials do not go out of their way to conceal information that makes them look good.

During the Watergate investigation in 1973-74, Richard Nixon attempted to keep his White House tapes private because he understood that once their contents became public, his presidency would be over.

However, what Nixon did not understand—and what Hillary Clinton and every other 21st century politician damn well should understand—is that everything becomes public sooner or later, which means that any concerted effort to suppress information is indicative of either extreme paranoia or actual wrongdoing.  While Clinton has never once been found guilty of the latter—despite the GOP’s best efforts—her clear and ongoing penchant for the former counts as a serious character flaw that, if she is elected, will inevitably cause unnecessary and utterly avoidable problems for her in the Oval Office.

(As a footnote:  Thanks to WikiLeaks, some of those speeches were released last month.  While they did, indeed, reveal a cordial relationship between Clinton and various Wall Street fat cats, they were evidently not damaging enough for the public to ultimately give a damn.)

Now, I’ve written about all this before—as has virtually every other political junkie on planet Earth.  I mention it again now as a reminder—to myself and others—that we all must enter Election Day 2016 with both eyes open.  The choice America makes today will have enormous global consequences—good ones, bad ones and everything in between—and each of us needs to assume a measure of personal responsibility for how we mark our ballots this time around.

My own model for how to do this is Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher whose “categorical imperative” theory of ethics intoned, “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”

In the context of a presidential election, I take Kant’s commandment to mean:  Cast your ballot on the assumption that it will actually determine the winner.  Presume every race—presidential, congressional, mayoral, etc.—is an exact tie the moment you enter the voting booth, and that you will be held personally liable for what happens thereafter.

In other words, don’t vote for merely symbolic reasons and/or to make yourself feel morally superior.  Don’t vote strictly as a form of protest against a system you don’t like, or based on an imagined, ideal version of America that doesn’t exist.

I wonder:  Of the 5 or 6 million people voting for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, how many really, truly want him to be the most powerful man on Earth?  How many of his supporters saw that interview with Chris Matthews, in which Johnson couldn’t name a single foreign head of state, and thought, “Yup, that’s the guy who should be in charge of the world’s indispensable superpower”?

None of them, I hope.  From his (admittedly rare) public appearances in national media, Johnson has revealed himself to be a total dunderhead on issues of major global importance, and had he gotten even a fraction of the coverage that the two major-party candidates have received, he likely would’ve come off as even more ignorant than he already has.  Had he opted to run in the Republican primaries instead, he would’ve been knocked out in a week.

In truth, Johnson isn’t a serious alternative to the two-party system so much as an idea of one.  As with all protest candidates, his supporters are voting for him because he can’t win, illustrating that third-party voting is the ultimate expression of cheerful abdication—a way of participating in the democratic process without having skin in the game once the dust has settled and the business of governing resumes.

It’s a pretty neat trick, when you think about it—the electoral equivalent of having your cake and eating it, too.  You can rest easy about having exercised your most elemental democratic right, while also smugly bragging, to yourself and your posterity, that you bear no responsibility—none, I say!—for the unholy mess that ensued when the rest of America didn’t follow your lead.

If that helps you sleep at night—makes you feel pure and clean and leading a life of high principle—I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop you.  I’m sure that in some parallel universe—or perhaps some past or future life—I, too, have drunk the alluring elixir of the Lost Cause.  Indeed, it was just last March that I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries, and that’s gotta count for something.

But the fun, hopeful part of this election ended a long time ago, and I have since resigned myself to the depressing fact that the universe does not always give you precisely what you want every minute of every day.  And when your favorite dish is no longer on the menu, you have to suck it up and move on to Plan B.

In this case, Plan B involves a woman who understands the intricacies of Washington politics and the intrigues of international relations as deeply as anyone who has run for president in my lifetime.

Hillary Clinton will make many mistakes while in office, will alienate much of the country most of the time, will always be under a cloud of suspicion for behavior both real and imaginary, and will never be as naturally charismatic and hip as her predecessor and former rival, Barack Obama.

And yet—on this day, with the choices that are in front of us—Hillary Clinton is the last best hope for an America whose values I share.  Values like pluralism, multiculturalism, rule of law, religious freedom, sexual freedom, marriage equality, gender equality, racial equality, diplomacy, free trade, environmental protection, a free press, and the principle that healthcare should be a fundamental human right.

I voted for Hillary on October 24, the day the polls opened in my home state of Massachusetts.  It was not the most enthusiastic I’ve ever been at the finale of a presidential election.  However, given the alternatives, this was by far the easiest decision I’ve ever made in the sanctity of a voting booth.

I knew exactly what I was getting myself into.  I understood the risks, the drawbacks and all the horrible, terrifying unknowns.  But life itself is a risk, with every choice we make riddled with possible complications that we may or may not be able to anticipate.

And in the end, I find there is no amount of personal reticence toward Hillary Clinton that can outweigh the fact of two of the most powerful words in the English language:

“Madam President.”

We Will Survive

Given the choice, which of the following would be the more unnerving prospect:  That Donald Trump becomes president and effectively destroys the entire world order, or that Trump becomes president and does a perfectly decent job?

Over the past year, we Trump skeptics have spent so much time imagining the catastrophic consequences of a theoretical Trump presidency that it has barely crossed our minds that he just might be up to the task—or, more precisely, that our fears of what his leadership style would mean for the future have been unduly exaggerated.  That upon becoming the most powerful person on Earth, Trump might finally come to his senses and behave in a more cautious, dignified manner on the world stage.

Admittedly, the reason none of us has entertained this notion is that everything Trump has ever said and done has indicated the exact opposite.  Whether through his infantile personality, his lack of basic knowledge about policy or his propensity for flying into a tizzy whenever anyone calls him out—especially if that person is a woman—Trump has made it impossible for any reasonable observer to give him the benefit of the doubt:  The preponderance of the evidence suggests a disaster in the making.

But what if we’re wrong?  What if Trump surprises us by proving himself a competent, solid leader who manages America’s foreign and domestic affairs with grace, fortitude and good humor?  What if he lays aside his rougher edges and characteristic bile and somehow wills himself into an able statesman?

Or—if that scenario seems too outlandish—suppose he abandons some of his baser instincts in the Oval Office and muddles through four years of minor accomplishments and periodic setbacks, amounting to a presidency that, while hardly great, is finally regarded as a respectable effort and a mere blip in the ongoing saga of republican governance?

Indeed, the prospect of a boring, so-so performance from this man seems to be the one eventuality that both Trump’s fans and haters neither want nor expect—perhaps because it simply doesn’t compute that such an explosive character could possibly be middling.  In the hysterical environment in which we live, today’s electorate is convinced that a President Trump would be either a towering success or a catastrophic failure.  (We should add that, given the differing values of these two camps, it’s possible that, four years hence, both will claim to have been correct.)

And yet, if history teaches us anything, it’s that the U.S. presidency is a fundamentally stable and moderating institution—strong enough to endure even the likes of one Donald Trump.

Taking a cursory view of all U.S. presidents to date, we find that a small handful were truly great, an equally small handful were truly terrible, while the remaining several dozen landed in the giant chasm in between.

What we find in all cases, however, is that not a single one of those 43 men has caused the American republic to collapse or the entire planet to explode—i.e. the two things that half the country more or less assumes will happen under a President Trump.

Whether the presiding administration engaged in open bribery (e.g. Grant and Harding), imperial overreach (Johnson and Bush), nuclear hot potato (Truman and Kennedy) or domestic genocide (Andrew effing Jackson), the country itself managed to endure—both while and after such dangerous men stood at the helm.  To date, no chief executive (try as they might) has succeeded in fully negating the principles of the Constitution.

(For our purposes, we’ll allow that the Civil War—the closest America ever came to disintegrating—was the culmination of a 73-year-old argument as to what those principles actually were, and was not the fault of a single leader.)

The short explanation for our system’s remarkable buoyancy is that the Founding Fathers hit the jackpot by dividing the federal government into three equal branches, with a bicameral legislature and a Supreme Court acting as checks on executive power.  This way, whenever the president does go too far, the remaining branches are empowered to rein him in and/or throw him out until Constitutional equilibrium is restored.  While this arrangement has never operated flawlessly and the power of the presidency has grown with each passing administration, it has worked just well enough to keep things chugging along.

Now, it’s possible that the United States has merely experienced 229 consecutive years of dumb luck and that Trump is now the right guy at the right time to give the Constitution that one final nudge over the cliff.  He certainly professes to care not a whit about the separation of powers, and we have every obligation to take him at his word.

Or rather, we don’t, because when has Trump’s word ever meant anything?

Don’t forget the one thing about Trump that we know for sure:  Whatever he says today has no bearing on what he might say tomorrow.  On matters related to policy and governing, he plainly doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about and, when asked a direct question, he reflexively spits out the first thought that pops into his head, no matter how incompatible it might be with all his previous statements on the issue—including, in some cases, what he said just a sentence or two earlier.

Nope.  It’s like we’ve been saying for months now:  Trump is the world’s most transparent con man whose only instinct is to say and do whatever he thinks will induce others to bend to his will.  Like every avaricious, status-obsessed windbag before him, he cares nothing for the public good except for how it might enrich him personally.

But here’s the thing:  Trump is not the first presidential candidate driven almost exclusively by narcissism and greed, nor would he be the first commander-in-chief bereft of a basic sense of right and wrong.

These are hardly attractive qualities in a leader of the free world, but they are not—in and of themselves—a hindrance to a competent and fruitful presidency, and even failed presidents can do genuinely good things.  Consider, for instance, that although Richard Nixon gave the world Watergate and four decades of cynicism about public officials, he still found time to open China and establish the EPA.  Or that while George W. Bush was unwittingly fostering a terrorist breeding ground in the Middle East, he was simultaneously funneling billions of dollars to diseased-ravaged countries in Africa, reportedly saving over one million lives and counting.

Long story short (too late?):  Just as Trump himself should quit being so inanely confident about his ability to foster a magical new American Eden, so should we dial back our own assumptions that, if given the chance, he would fail in a million different ways—or worse, that he would “succeed” in the most frightening possible sense.

It’s not that Trump has shown any real propensity for intellectual growth (he hasn’t), or that his whole candidacy has been an elaborate performance masking a much more serious and learned man (if so, he hides it well).

Rather, it’s that the presidency—that most peculiar of institutions—has a way of scrambling the expectations of every person who enters into it and every citizen who observes the machinations therein.  Like no other job on Earth, it has a way of turning great men into cowards and mediocrities into legends.

The truth is that we can’t know what kind of president someone will be until it’s too late to stop them.  With Trump—arguably the most erratic person to have sought the job in any of our lifetimes—this uncomfortable fact becomes all the more self-evident.  If we agree that he is inherently unpredictable, we must allow for the possibility that, once in office, he will do things that we have thus far failed to predict, and that we just might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Speak No Evil

Thomas McCarthy’s new movie Spotlight has been likened, in both form and quality, to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men.  The comparison may at first seem like a cliché, but after seeing both movies this past weekend—the latter for the fourth or fifth time—I realize the connection is both unavoidable and entirely germane.

When you get right down to it, Spotlight isn’t a companion to All the President’s Men so much as a remake.  While the two films are by no means identical—they take place in different cities at different times and have completely different plots—their agendas are one and the same, and they succeed for exactly the same reasons.

The agenda, then, is to demonstrate how justice and democracy cannot exist anywhere without freedom of the press, and how investigative journalism itself is a long, difficult, boring process that—counterintuitively and against all common sense—makes for positively riveting cinema.

It’s easy enough to talk about the preeminence of the First Amendment and of speaking truth to power, but Spotlight goes a step further by showing us how near-impossible that task really is—even for the most well-equipped and widely-circulated newspaper in town.

McCarthy’s movie—in case you’ve been kept out of the loop—is about how the Boston Globe in 2001 uncovered evidence of rampant sexual abuse of children within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, which the church’s leadership—up to and including Archbishop Bernard Law himself—spent decades covering up.  All told, some 250 Boston-area priests were alleged to have sexually molested young boys and girls, with the “official” victim count at 552.  God knows what the true figure really is.

Like Pakula’s film, which famously recounted the Washington Post’s investigations into Watergate, Spotlight features a small group of unknown reporters undertaking a methodical, comprehensive, long-shot project to reveal that a gargantuan and revered American institution is rotten to the core.  In All the President’s Men, that institution was the federal government during the Nixon administration.  In Spotlight, it’s the Catholic Church.

The bottom line—the implied moral to the story—is that were it not for the Spotlight team’s exhaustive and heroic efforts, the Globe’s revelations about predatory priests and a corrupt hierarchy could very easily have remained a secret forever, denying justice and any kind of closure to an entire generation of molested kids, not to mention all the generations that came before.

To this conclusion, one might naturally ask, “How?”  How could that many children be raped—physically and emotionally—without a single one of them speaking up and being heard?

Spotlight’s answer:  Many of them did speak up, but nobody wanted to listen.

Fourteen years after the fact, we now know beyond doubt that the Catholic Church  in Boston engaged in a conspiracy of silence on the epidemic of sexual abuse, moving problem priests from one parish to another while saying nothing publicly about what those priests were up to.  (It was as a direct consequence of the Boston revelations that similar scandals came to light in virtually every Christian country on Earth.)

What we didn’t know—at least not as fully as we should have—is that the archdiocese was not the only player in this terrible drama.  Far from acting alone, Cardinal Law and his gang received a crucial assist from the people in the pews:  those in the Catholic community who loved and respected the Church and would never, for a moment, have entertained the possibility that a member of this institution could do something wrong—let alone something criminal and obscene.

For millennia, clergymen of all faiths have served (often rightly) as the most trustworthy members of society—men of education, wisdom and unimpeachable moral fiber.  It didn’t hurt that, in the case of Catholicism, these men also had God on their speed dial and could invoke divine punishment or reward to bend their parishioners to their will.

And so whenever there was a whisper about some priest doing this or that to the altar boys under his tutelage, most Catholics—including a few who worked at the Globe—dismissed the allegation before the thought could even settle into their minds.

Like a parent who hears that his son is dealing drugs or a Patriots fan who learns that Tom Brady was doing something fishy with those footballs—or, indeed, an idealistic citizen who views the government as a benevolent force for good—churchgoers could not bring themselves to see what was directly in front of their nose

They didn’t want it to be true, so they convinced themselves it was false.

That, in so many words, is what journalism is for:  To tell you what you’d rather not hear.  Reporters have resources and privileges that ordinary citizens do not, which makes it inevitable that the press will disappoint your rosy views of humanity every now and again.

As such, it also means that news outlets will forever be on the front lines in the battle for truth, justice and accountability.  Reporters and editors have no professional obligation except to find out what the hell’s going on.  That’s why movies about newspapermen tend to be so entertaining:  Sometimes fact really is more compelling than fiction.  In a moral universe, it’s the only thing that matters.

As with all major institutional scandals, the details mean everything.  The triumph of Spotlight is that it allows the survivors of the Church rape epidemic to have their day in court—that is, to explain precisely what being held captive by a priest entailed—along with those who had everything to lose from the publication of this story, from the archbishop to the priests to the family members who chose to look the other way.

In so doing, the film shows how the process of newsgathering is inherently a dreary, depressing, often hostile endeavor in which powerful forces will try everything they can to prevent you from doing your job.  A job, we might add, that depends overwhelmingly on cooperation from the public, which includes those same institutions.  The term “Gordian Knot” leaps oddly to mind.

To break the Watergate caper, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward needed to draw connections between key White House figures—“follow the money,” they were sagely told—and they did so by extracting information from witnesses who had every reason to keep their insights to themselves.  Some of this involved misdirection and sleight of hand—asking a witness to “confirm” information you don’t actually know is always a neat trick—some involved dumb luck, and some required nothing except patience, asking the right questions and a near-pathological refusal to take “no” for an answer.

With Spotlight, it’s déjà vu all over again.  The Globe team, working separately and together, accumulates its information through a combustible mixture of instinct, legal wrangling, library basement research and good old-fashioned interviewing.  A late-inning confrontation between Michael Keaton and a representative for child victims is a virtual carbon copy of Dustin Hoffman’s run-in with a Florida lawyer with a cabinet full of crucial documents.  In both instances, the reporter explains that his paper is running the story with or without this person’s cooperation, so he might as well stand on the right side of justice.

Long story short (too late?):  Revelatory, in-depth reporting does not happen by accident.  It’s the result of thousands of man hours of detective work—and all the court orders, dead ends, slammed doors and wrecked lives that go with it—and when is it done carefully and seen through to the end, it can change the world.

The Globe would eventually print more than 600 articles in connection with the Church abuse tragedy, for which the paper was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.  It’s worth noting that the award—the most prestigious in all of American journalism—was not in the category of “Investigative Reporting,”  “Explanatory Reporting” or “Local Reporting,” although any of those would surely have fit the bill.

Rather, the Pulitzer Prize Board saved the Globe’s output for its most distinguished category of all:  “Public Service.”

Petty Crimes and Misdemeanors

Now that most of America’s grown-ups seem to have realized that impeaching President Obama would be an exceedingly stupid idea, we can more clearly reflect on the 40-year anniversary of when hounding the commander-in-chief from office made absolute perfect sense.

It was indeed on August 9, 1974 that President Richard Nixon ever-so-reluctantly bode farewell to the American public, following some two-plus years of high-level shenanigans all piled under the heading of “Watergate.”

The whole saga, from the break-in to the resignation, has been rehashed so many times in the last four decades—in books, films, TV programs, newspaper articles and the ever-expanding collection of Oval Office tape recordings—that it has become increasingly impossible to wrench any new or interesting insights from one of the more embarrassing episodes in U.S. politics.  We have acquired new facts, but no new truths.

But of course we continue yapping about it all the same, the Nixon era remaining the most potent of narcotics for political junkies—perhaps because it contains so much junk.

Watergate deeded the baby boom generation a whole dictionary of political clichés—uttered today without a smidgen of hesitation—and the event itself has become a cliché.  Having nothing fresh to teach us, but apparently incapable of dislodging itself from the country’s collective subconscious, the drama that crippled and ultimately destroyed the Nixon presidency and forever poisoned the public’s relationship with its leaders has, rather amazingly, evolved into a nagging bore.

The dirty little secret—the fact that our wall-to-wall nostalgia-fests tend to obscure—is that Watergate was not the worst crime ever committed by an American president.  Not by a long shot.  Alongside other executive malfeasance down the years, Watergate might not have been nothing, but it was a fairly minor transgression when you consider all things.  It is not worth the extraordinary attention it still garners, and the numbing effects of constantly reliving it do not make matters any better.

I’m not just talking about the break-in itself—namely, the bungled attempt by Team Nixon to get a leg up on the Democrats in anticipation of the 1972 election.  (Against George McGovern, Nixon won the contest by a score of 49 states to one.)  Most people agree that, while sleazy and illegal, the burglary was a silly little farce that hardly threatened the integrity of the republic or constituted a grave beach of White House power.

Considered in today’s environment, where everyone is secretly recording everyone else and everybody knows it, the Watergate scheme seems positively quaint.

Indeed, in the usual narrative, the whole point about the adage, “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up,” is that the Nixon administration’s single-minded obsession with suppressing any and all incriminating evidence about the burglary was, itself, the raison d’être for punishing Nixon in the first place.  Had Nixon simply allowed the investigation to take its course, some heads would still have rolled, but Nixon’s would have not, and the country would have moved on.

The real offense, as it were, was thinking that because he was president, he could control the dissemination of facts and avoid being held to account.

It was the principle of the thing, as high school principals like to say.  It’s not that President Nixon and his underlings did anything major.  Rather, it’s that they went to such elaborate lengths to evade responsibility for something minor.  In other words, they demonstrated that they were inherently untrustworthy.

In this way, we could establish that, in practice, there are two forms of presidential crimes:  actual crimes and suggestive crimes.

The former are those that directly and plainly harm the republic.  Historically, these would include the Harding administration’s exchange of no-bid contracts for bribes with oil companies, or the Reagan administration’s exchange of money and hostages for weapons with Iran.

The latter, meanwhile, are the indiscretions that are not inherently destructive, but which indicate that far worse shenanigans are on the way.  Or at least that they bloody well might be, and you’d be well-advised to prevent them while you still can.

To wit:  When President Bill Clinton was found to have committed perjury regarding whether Monica Lewinsky was more than a mere pizza delivery girl, no serious person asserted that an affair between the president and an intern was, itself, a cause for serious concern as to the well-being of the United States.

No, the refrain was always something along the lines of, “If Clinton will lie under oath about an affair, then what won’t he lie about?”  Clinton’s brush with impeachment was, in effect, an indictment of his character more than his actions.

The question with Clinton—and also with Nixon—is this:  If the act itself is not an impeachable offense, then why is lying about the act any worse?  We might agree that dishonesty is inherently bad—and that perjury is inherently very bad, indeed—but let us not suggest for a moment that all lies are created equal, or that all abuses of executive power are equally harmful to the country or the office.

Does this mean Richard Nixon should not have been subject to articles of impeachment?  Not in the least.  The bases for impeachment are deliberately broad, and Nixon’s actions regarding Watergate all-but-demanded the three charges he faced—namely, “obstruction of justice,” “abuse of power” and “contempt of Congress.”  We can argue about whether the rules are just, but Nixon most certainly broke them.

What I would argue, however, is that the Watergate affair is far overrated in our collective consciousness of the last half-century in American history.  As with the Kennedy assassination and the September 11 attacks, we have come to regard the investigation and its findings as a “loss of national innocence,” whatever that means.

What Watergate really did was confirm a few things that we already knew but apparently were not prepared to admit out loud.

Power corrupts.  Richard Nixon was a paranoid scoundrel who surrounded himself with other paranoid scoundrels.  Ambitious men, once in power, will go to extraordinary lengths to stay in power.  Follow the money.

Were any of these things actually revelations in 1974, or were they merely the end of a happy self-delusion on the part of the entire country?  Albeit with four decades for us to think it over, the answer today would seem to be self-evident.

More to the point, so long as the darker side of government is, and has always been, a simple fact of life, what exactly was so tragic and violent about being made aware of it once and for all?  Isn’t it in our best interests to know what our elected officials are up to, rather than remaining ignorant and assuming everything will turn out fine?

Indeed, Watergate may well have been one of the best things ever to happen to us.

Party to a Scandal

It seems somehow profane—if grimly appropriate—that America is spending this Memorial Day weekend sifting through evidence that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has become so unwieldy, antiquated and (in some cases) corrupt that some ailing veterans have effectively been left to die in the waiting room, and then, for good measure, had their files deleted or fudged, so as not to arouse suspicion in the agency.

Let us hope the timing of this horror story does not become even more tragically ironic by carrying on until the eleventh of November.

In the meanwhile, as Congress, the executive branch and the fourth estate proceed to ascertain precisely what malfeasance occurred at the VA and to what extent, we can take mild comfort in the assurance that such a thorough investigation is now taking place—albeit after an unpardonably long period of not taking place when it could have.

Further, we might take the opportunity to examine how and why this story came to the public’s (and Washington’s) attention and, more broadly, why certain scandals are dealt with and why others are ignored.

To be sure, some of these so-called investigations are bald, cynical displays of partisanship—a means by one political party of humiliating the other in order to curry favor with voters, no matter how silly or innocuous the supposed crimes might be.

Into this set can be placed the Republican Party’s continued fascination with the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012. The allegation, as it were, is that the Obama administration knew immediately that the assault had been premeditated, but publicly asserted otherwise in order to avoid looking weak in the months leading to the 2012 election.

It would be a compelling story if there were any evidence to support it, but alas, there is not. Instead, there is the steely determination of some in the GOP to keep this narrative alive for the purpose of making President Obama look bad and effecting the rise of a Republican majority in the Senate in November’s midterms.

But what about the real scandals in the recent past—the ones that truly do undermine the integrity of our democratic system? Is the official scrutiny of these also irretrievably tethered to partisan political calculations?

It would appear so, albeit with varying degrees of importance.

The Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up might have been textbook examples of justice obstruction and abuse of power, but the Senate hearings on the matter convened in a Congress that was heavily Democratic, and therefore predisposed to making President Richard Nixon’s life a living hell. Likewise with the Congress in 1987, during the investigations of the Iran-Contra caper.

Would these prosecutions have proceeded with Republican chairpersons? We cannot know for sure.

In any case, what does it take for the majority party in Congress to embark upon a full and honest accounting of crimes committed by officials in the same party? How does the rare comprehensive ethical housecleaning in government come about?

In an early episode of the ABC drama Scandal, a gang of political operatives hatches a scheme to commit a particularly heinous offense against the democratic process. When one of the conspirators expresses moral qualms, another pipes in, “It has to be unanimous. The only way we trust each other is if everybody’s ass is on the line.”

I think that’s the answer. In order for the investigation to be bipartisan, the scandal has to be bipartisan. The only way one political party will purposefully inflict self-harm is when the other party is in the line of fire as well.

That, in so many words, is what has occurred at the VA.

Yes, the sorts of book-cooking and wait-listing that have so enraged folks across the political spectrum have undoubtedly occurred on President Obama’s watch. But it is equally plain that the root causes of these digressions—namely, the horrifyingly sloppy and short-sighted ways in which the nation has sent its young men and women into war in the first place—is the responsibility of nearly every administration over the last half-century, Democratic and Republican alike.

This point has become well-understood among the electorate, and so both wings of Congress can (and now do) feel free to right this wrong without fear of being singularly throttled for it on the first Tuesday in November. Everyone’s posterior is already on the line, and so if there is to be punishment, it will be felt by all. Politically-speaking, it’s a wash.

Taking all the above to be true, we are left with the frustrating prospect that politics really does drive policy, and always will. That a party will always put its own interests before those of the country, whenever the two conflict.

How do we get them to stop? Only by ensuring that the party’s interests are America’s interests as well, and that’s an undertaking that can only begin at the ballot box.