When the Extraordinary Becomes the Norm

A minor gratification to the student of political history is the opportunity to sneer at past generations. With a quiet air of superiority, he may wonder what manner of fools were they, that they could not comprehend what was going on right in front of their eyes?

How could a demagogue like Hitler take over Germany, an advanced nation with a highly educated middle class? How could a Stalin become the uncrowned emperor of a sprawling land, one moreover which had so recently had a revolution overthrowing a monarchy? How could an Islamic theocracy overtake a nation like Iran, which was by all accounts the most westernized in the Middle East? How did Beirut, often called the Paris of the East, disintegrate so quickly into a war-torn hell-hole? How did these remarkable transformations happen?

A casual glance might make them appear to have happened overnight. The inevitable compression of time when looking at historical events causes us to juxtapose in our minds events with several years between them, often for no better reason than that they appeared close together in a book. But a deeper inquiry will show up this fallacy. It took Hitler a good five years to consolidate his hold on Germany. It took Stalin a decade after the death of Lenin to fully grasp power. And the Iran hostage crisis notwithsanding, it took Khomeini several years to turn Iran into a place where a fatwa could be issued to kill some faraway writer — and be taken seriously. Lebanon’s militias were fifteen years in the making.

Though the Second Law of Thermodynamics dictates that entropy (chaos) shall ever rise, this indicates aimless drift rather than decisive deterioration. The late Nirad Chaudhuri, a lifelong student of decaying civilizations, was of the opinion that decline required as just much leadership as did ascent. To paraphrase the old poster, ‘To err is human, but to really screw things up takes sustained effort’. How does the world’s longest democracy permit the hijacking of its most sacred processes? Why would the country permit draconian laws abridging the very freedoms upon which it was founded? Why would it countenance the disenfranchisement of large swaths of its own electorate? Why would it mutely tolerate the use of dubious voting devices that would undermine the entire basis of fair voting? How could it, in the heyday of the Information Age, manage to be misled into a briar patch entanglement in Iraq? And at the end of such a glorious era of bungling, why would the election be such a close thing?

One can imagine a person two hundred years hence, studying the history of our times (in Chinese?). As they would other decaying civilizations, they would look at ours with some wonder. How did such a remarkable system collapse? Why did it systematically accomplish its own downfall by overspending, overpopulation, pockmarking its hillsides with housing developments, depriving its children of education, exporting its jobs, and embroiling itself in debilitating wars abroad?

A common theme appears to run through every deteriorating society — the extraordinary progressively becomes more and more acceptable, accepted — and normal, in that order. Like graffiti in the neighborhood, one is aghast when one first encounters it, but soon one stops noticing it.

The balance of powers enshrined in the Constitution is intended to prevent exactly such wanton decay. Executive excess was to be held in check by Congress. One powerful person could be driven mad by power, so the thinking of the founders went, but it was unlikely that 535 others would follow suit.

But what if this actually happened, and a pusillanimous legislature prostrated itself tamely when faced with a mix of blandishment and threat? The extraordinary would have come to pass. As it has! While a mere burglary outraged us only three decades ago, acts far worse scarcely raise an eyebrow any more. We live in times where the trivial (“Here’s breaking news on the Scott Peterson Trial”) gets prodigious amounts of press, and the vital (“Diebold Machine voting results cannot be verified”) goes largely unexamined. An age where the extraordinary has come to be accepted as ordinary.

Agonizing over the slipping away of his beloved Constitution in an age of inanity, a public figure has written a book with an apt title, ‘Losing America’. If anyone is qualified to write such a book, it is he. Imagine the fate of the hero in the movie, Planet of the Apes. His tragedy is his alone. No one else realizes what has been lost. He beats his head against every wall, appeals to every one of his colleagues, pleads for them to consider the glorious heritage of their magnificent institutions, all to no avail.

Such is the plight of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va), the lion of the Senate, author of Losing America. Sen. Byrd has drawn up as stinging an indictment of the Bush Administration as anybody could. Over the past four years, his spirited speeches from the Senate floor, reminding that enfeebled institution of its true duty, have offered shimmering glimpses of what the Senate ought to be. Losing America is to America’s politics what Silent Spring was to its environment, an urgent wake up call.

The book takes us through the last four years, laying bare the cavalier irresponsibility, chronic mendacity and unprecedented ignorance which characterize this president, and the brazen combination of smugness, incompetence and arrogance that marks his cabinet. Packed in this brief but powerful volume is a tour of the Bush presidency, written in a way that makes the blood boil by reliving the succession of horrors it has perpetrated. Sen. Byrd is a scholar of both American and European (particularly classical, I think) history, and the book makes good use of his knowledge. He has been in the Congress for 50 years, and draws telling comparisons to show what we have become.

Above all, the book is refreshing in its frankness. It is free of Washingtonese in general and Kerry’s Disease in particular, that art of the artless platitude. Here is an example of what I mean. Bush has just announced a homeland security initiative (which the White House had earlier done its utmost to resist) in front of the TV cameras.

“Bush turned to Speaker Dennis Hastert and to the majority and minority leaders of both houses for remarks. Then, with brief apologies, Bush announced his imminent departure for St. Louis to make a speech. As he pushed his chair away from the table, I asked to be heard. ”

“…I noted that the president wanted quick action on his ‘homeland security package’ but I had never been informed of just what was in the ‘package’. I had once heard one leader at the table vow passage of ‘this thing’ by Election Day. I repeated that, as yet, ‘I don’t know what ‘this thing’ is’. The president responded with a non-sequitur, thanking me for my statement and assuring me that it would be considered. Then he promptly rose and headed out the door. Amazing. I might as well have been reciting a recipe for Christmas fruitcake. My opinion of meetings at the White House hit a new low. I was struck by the president’s dismal performance. To say it was mediocre would be a gross exaggeration. He was disorganized, unprepared, and rambling. This fellow was all hat and no cattle, as they would say in Texas. It was obvious that he had no idea what was in his Department of Homeland Security proposal, nor did he seem to care. The gratuitous “thanks to members” was so phony it bordered on an affront. I had sat in meetings with many presidents: John Kennedy knew his subject… (more about other presidents and their qualities)…Bill Clinton, likable, jovial and with a vast knowledge of policy on a wide array of topics which he liked to display. But this president, this Bush number 43, was in a class by himself — ineptitude supreme. This meeting with Bush the Younger had topped anything I had seen, from Truman on, for absolute tripe!”

One can only wonder where he might be in the polls if John Kerry ever spoke this way. It is instructive to recall that Truman used the plainest language and overcame Dewey.

Disgusted as he is with this president, he reserves his bitterest words the current day United States Congress. A Congressman and Senator since 1953, and a historian of the Senate to boot, he never thought he would see his beloved institution fall to this low point:

“Senators were content to play it safe, to argue, say, over federal judges, an important matter, but not compelling on the brink of war…the world was in turmoil, we were on the precipice, and the Senate was in full denial. Having handed Bush carte blanche by passing the Iraq war resolution, it wanted no more to do with the matter. It had washed its hands and taken an aspirin… Privately, members would engage, expressing horror at Bush’s path; wonder at his radical reshaping of America’s foreign policy in a scant two years; dismay at his lack of experience, amazement that he had been able to blend the images of bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the public mind; and anger over the arrogance of Rumfeld, Wolfowitz, and others in the Bush administration.”

” But there was not a lot of eagerness to say anything on the record. Why bother? Why rock the boat? Oh no — just reach for the phenobarbital and listen to the siren calls. What an odyssey. Where was public dissent? “

And this of the Democrats (with Majority Leader Daschle himself having introduced the White House War resolution):

” …what the situation finally came down to was action on HJ Resolution 114, passage of which was now a foregone conclusion in the Democratic-controlled Senate. We had been swept away by campaign fever. Some high-priced pollster had apparently convinced the Senate Democratic leadership that we could ‘get the war behind us’ and change the subject to that of the flagging economy, where the election prospects would appear to be more favorable to the Democrats. What nonsense. The White House war machine was in full tilt. They would keep the focus on ‘terror’. There would be no ‘getting it behind us’, I told the caucus, so why hurry with the resolution? …Why, thirty days before a congressional election, when politics so distorts every issue and so grips the mind and soul of everyone running, were we choosing tomake such a critically important decision? ”

“I made an urgent public plea to Joe Lieberman and Tom Daschle, who were driving toward a hasty vote: please cancel the order for a cloture vote. It would be unpatriotic to not ask questions. My plea came to nought…Paul Sarbanes, my friend and a man of piercing analytical ability — surely one of the best minds in the Senate — remembered dealing with the Panama Canal treaties. Debate had begun on February 6 of 1978 and ended on April 8 of that year. We had spent twenty-one days on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, twenty-three days on the energy bill, nineteen days on the trade bill, and eighteen days on the farm bill; yet we were about to spend only a week debating whether to give this bellicose and secretive president unfettered authority to take us to war. We were being stampeded. And anyone willing to look a fact in the eye knew it.”

Despite Robert Byrd’s heroic resistance, the resolution passed, with twenty-nine of fifty Democrats voting for it. Jim Jeffords (Independent) and Lincoln Chafee (R) voted against. Byrd writes,

“Never in my half century of congressional service had the United States Senate proved unworthy of its great name. What would the framers have thought? In this terrible show of weakness, the Senate left an indelible stain upon its own escutcheon. Having revered the Senate during my service for more than forty years, I was never pained so much.”

“On the eleventh of October, the Senate gave Bush what he wanted. The damage done, it adjourned on October 28 for the midterm elections. When we reconvened on November 12, we had lost the majority.”

Thus did Daschle, Gephardt and Co., stuck in a blue funk about being labeled ‘unpatriotic’ if they did not support the war, engage in all their obsequious contortions to avoid squarely opposing the rush to war, only lose the moral high ground and the senate majority for the Democratic Party. To quote a line used about supine businessmen during India’s Emergency, ‘When asked to bend, they offered to crawl’. John Kerry too, we need scarcely add, was among those voting for the resolution. Looking at all the troubles Kerry now has explaining his vote, Byrd might have added from Shakespeare, “Had I but served my god with half the zeal I served my king, he would not in mine age have left me naked before mine enemies.”

The book includes eight of his senate speeches in an appendix, all of which (and more) can be found on the senator’s website (http://byrd.senate.gov). Without ever saying so, the case to dump this administration shines through page after page of this brief volume, with a clarity that eludes George W. Bush’s main opponent. Senator Byrd writes with a keen sense of history, an outrage at what has happened to his beloved Senate, and a deep anxiety for the future of the Constitution.

A bell of alarm from a public servant of unusual erudition and unflagging idealism, this gem deserves to be read by every American.

NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN is a writer living on the West Coast. His writings can be found at http://www.indogram.com/gramsabha/articles. He can be reached at njn_04@yahoo.com


/>Niranjan Ramakrishnan is a writer living on the West Coast.  His book, “Reading Gandhi In the Twenty-First Century” was published last year by Palgrave.  He may be reached at njn_2003@yahoo.com.