Different Americas

George W. Bush, like the old European monarchs, claimed he possessed inherent rights and implied that those who question such prerogatives might have treasonous motives. “As President and Commander-in-Chief, I have the constitutional responsibility and the constitutional authority to protect our country,” Bush responded to stories of his authorizing wiretaps on US citizens without getting legal permission. Bush then turned on the leakers.

“It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in a time of war,” said Bush. “The fact that we’re discussing this program is helping the enemy.” Bush did not consider “shameful” the 2003 disclosure of a covert CIA operative’s name to the media (Valerie Plame) by members of his staff. Nor did he recall that he assured the public that “a wiretap requires a court order It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand, when you think Patriot Act, constitutional guarantees are in the place” April 20, 2004

W didn’t seem to sense any contradiction between what he said and did. He also denied that the US practiced torture as the press revealed that his war on terrorism had spawned torture at Guantanamo, Cuba, Abu Ghraib, Iraq and at secret CIA-run prisons throughout the world. He also did not like the medias reporting on US agents kidnapping suspected terrorists and shipping them elsewhere (rendition) for torture and interrogation. For the Bush family such issues did not merit discussion as holiday conversation.

Indeed, the inner circle felt satisfied that on December 17, Bush had defined the proper position in his national radio address (and on TV). Wire tapping US citizens without warrants was “fully consistent” with his “constitutional responsibilities and authorities” (cnn.com, December, 17, 2005).

A week earlier he had snapped at a reporter who raised the constitutional question. “I don’t give a goddamn. I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way.”

One aide apparently said. “There is a valid case that the provisions in this law undermine the Constitution.”

“Stop throwing the Constitution in my face,” Bush screamed back. “It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!” (Doug Thompson, Capitol Hill Blue, Dec 8, 2005).

A Democratic Member of Congress told me that Bush’s display of arrogant power exceeded Nixon. “Bush justified his violation of laws by referring to a Congressional resolution to fight al-Qaeda, passed after 9/11, that he claims transcends the Fourth Amendment, the right to spy on US citizens because Presidents have inherent powers to fight wars that Congress did not declare. Constitutional law? Or fascism?”

Bush’s imperial managers invoke “national security” ­ without defining other than as “combating terrorism” ­ to justify circumvention of court warrants and congressional oversight.

The “important” people, however, bank presidents and corporate CEOs, ignore such trivia. They had deciphered Bush’s feeble “compassionate conservative” code before he ran for the presidency. They assured their stockholders that the Bush Administration aimed above all else to enhance the worldly proprietary interests of the super rich.

Bush has allowed an atmosphere of tolerance in awarding defense contracts, coincidentally, many of them to corporations that had also heavily contributed to the Bush political coffers or had close ties to the Administration. (Vice President Cheney’s old company, Halliburton, got no-bid contracts in Iraq.) “Executives at some companies with military contracts have increased their salaries by 200 percent since 9/11,” wrote Sarah Anderson (Alternet, Dec. 17).

The big oil companies also got huge windfall profits after Bush invaded Iraq. The film “Syriana” dramatizes oil tycoons and other corporate bosses paying fortunes to lobbyists to get the powerful to support Middle East war. The rest of the business elite takes for granted ­ as it normally does — that the government will protect the interests of the very propertied classes. The moguls therefore seem uninterested when the Bushies disregard traditional rules and abdicate conventional responsibility.

Congress, for example, under Bush’s guidance, cut food stamps and Medicare as Members rushed to adjourn at the end of the year ­ parties at home and a little campaigning for the 2006 elections. That’s Washington’s political culture. The vast public, more than half of which will not vote, gets distracted and possesses little memory.

In Oakland, California, part of that public, some not yet of voting age, struts down a street where the faces are black, Asian or Hispanic. Many do not speak English. The teenagers dressed in baggy pants, grew up in these grey streets, flanked by decaying warehouses, garages, body shops and taquerias. A group of Central American day laborers wait for work on a corner where old newspapers blow and empty plastic soda cups litter the sidewalk. Occasional cars stop and hire some of them to help move furniture or clean a back yard. The Central Americans ignore the black teenage posse.

A passing patrol car slows down. The cops stare at the men on the corner ­ illegals? — and at the swaggering teenagers. If the boys change their choreography to indicate that cops intimate them it would amount to surrender. So they maintain hip hop rhythms. The cops ooze by, then speed up. A radio alert to stop a real crime? Two boys run combs through their carefully coiffed hair, as if to call attention to the expensive sculpting on the tops of their heads. Several turn up the volume on their digital music players so they can parade in rhythm to the hip hop.

The kids don’t demonstrate any overt acknowledgement that they might have won a very minor stare-down skirmish in their never-ending struggle for respect. Later, they will probably discuss it at length. On the street, however, they maintain the cool façade, based on protocols that predate them.

They will retreat to someone’s house, smoke weed, or crack and talk shit about possible future crimes and fantasies of owning expensive cars. No one will mention Bush or his policies, which have curtailed their access to medical care and cut down on the food stamps their mothers can obtain.

Their street lives focus on the enemy gangs and the ubiquitous cops. When cops stop them, it means automatic search. If cops find drugs or drug paraphernalia, it means Juvie. A Public Defender usually won’t have time to prepare a case, so the kid serves time. That’s American life.

In Piedmont’s hills, teenagers don’t walk the streets in groups. They drive expensive cars and wear whatever their expensive tastes dictate. They don’t achieve identity, respect and self-esteem through things. They’ve always had everything they wanted.

Unlike the teenagers in the flats, the Piedmonters understand that the primary job of police is to protect them and their property in case larcenously intentioned kids from the flats should wander up there. The Piedmont kids drink and use drugs, just like the gang bangers. But the police stop them only if they’re driving out of control ­ for their own protection. When a rare bust occurs for DUI or possession, high priced lawyers convince judges to offer their young clients probation ­ or find technicalities on which to get them released.

Such class segregation, with a heavy racial component, has existed for centuries. So, what’s new? Some African Americans have acquired wealth and even own houses in Piedmont. Millions more have joined the middle classes. But the destiny of the majority, the poor black, the Hispanic and Native American people, remains unchanged.

In Washington, the Bushies hope the political class will forget or overlook the policy peccadilloes and instead count their money made from tax cuts and the loose atmosphere provided by Bush’s incompetent regulators to get rich on insider trading.

The boys in Oakland have little to trade. Many will not graduate from high school and will find their way into the California prison system. “The majority of inmates come from the poorest sectors and are mainly Hispanic and black,” said a nurse who has worked at two California state prisons. “In the Youth Authority [men between 18 and 25] at Chino lots of the guys expect to join their fathers and grandfathers at Folsom and San Quentin [state prisons].”

Two of the baggy pants wearers tell me, smiling, that they have friends and family in the system [prison]. One considers joining the army “and going to Iraq or wherever.” The others laugh when a boy yells: “Someone gonna put a cap in your ass over there.”

The Piedmont kids will go to expensive colleges, graduate and become CEOs and professionals ­ like their parents. On New Year’s Eve, both sets enjoyed parties, booze and drugs, sex and making resolutions. They, like the Bushies, were F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “careless people.” In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald described how “they smashed up things and creatures and retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

So Happy Clean Up for 2006!

SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.



SAUL LANDAU’s A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD was published by CounterPunch / AK Press.