By 2012, college professors will stare into the glazed eyes of their students as they refer to non existent weapons of mass destruction and routine torture of suspected terrorists. Like the Vietnam War (estimated 4 million Vietnamese and 55,000 plus American casualties), and Watergate, these scandals occurred, in students’ minds, sometime after the Greco-Roman era.
Way back in 1973 White House staffers broke into Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office complex. In 1969, Seymour Hersh had revealed a story covered-up by the Pentagon. US troops had slaughtered civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. In 1972, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein investigated a simple 1972 “break-in” at the Watergate Democratic Party offices. After Nixon’s inauguration their story developed into the major scandal of the era. The public learned about Nixon operating a secret government, with “plumbers” working for CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President). This shadowy squad investigated unwanted “leaks” by breaking into offices. A secret stash of money located in the safe of the Commerce Secretary Maurice Stans supported their antics. Stans ran the Finance Committee to Reelect the President. The scandal grew as Deep Throat – later revealed as Mark Felt, Number 2 at the FBI–fed leads to Woodward, like Nixon secretly taping all conversations.
Congress investigated, found a cover-up and top White House officials went to jail, including White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman and top presidential adviser John Ehrlichman. In addition, Nixon’s tapes confirmed Attorney General John Mitchell’s participation in planning meetings for the Watergate break-in and subsequently for the cover up. In 1972, Mitchell tried to quash a forthcoming Washington Post article about his relation to another secret money stash designed to get damaging material on the Democrats. “Katie Graham’s [Katherine Graham, the Post’s publisher] gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s published.” (The Post deleted “tits”)
Nixon resigned in shame in 1974. The Watergate Scandal provoked a governmental process that produced remedies for corruption. The criminals went to prison.
Since then, scandals have meant lead stories with staying power. Both President Reagan and Vice President Bush were implicated in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal (selling missiles to Iran with the proceeds going to the anti-Sandinista Contras, specifically forbidden by Congress.) Not one major conspirator paid a price.
In 2009, a horny politician succumbed to an Argentine vixen’s wiles. The hot-blooded Latin lured super family-values centered Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) just as the Jewish, collagen-lipped White House intern previously seduced Bill Clinton. As if!
21st Century “news” features lusty headlines over dull wars, budgets and taxes. Political sex scandals offer vicarious enjoyment. Political heavies slip into errant mode – or slips something of his into something of hers – so fascinating that even Hollywood celebs take a back seat.
“Scandal is our growth industry,” wrote Mark Danner. “Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal.” (The New York Review of Books, December 4, 2008)
By September, Governor Sanford’s foibles faded as did those of Senator Ensign (R-NV) and his six figure payoff to the wife of his aide. The media turned to a less compelling scandal: torture. Once a war crime, torture has evolved into an “issue” as Danner observed, “something one can stand on either side of. Something we can live with.”
2004 Abu Ghraib photos and General Taguba’s report on torture indicated that authorization to torture came from the top — President, Vice President, Defense Secretary, with a flimsy justification written by a White House legal lackey. Unlike Watergate, Congress did not investigate torture. The intrepid Hersh, however, revealed important details of the sordid story of Abu Ghraib. A few low ranking soldiers got charged.
Bush’s and Cheney’s lies, designed to scam the nation into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, remain “old news” or history. Even last month’s events have faded into a no man’s land, where information falls like perpetual hail to numb the human brain. Years ago, maybe in their parents’ or grandparents’ eras, journalism meant investigating the government and corporations, the seats of power, the sources of corruption and lies.
Current scandals distract. The empire has begun its descent into chaos. Congress votes vast sums to fight un-winnable wars against technologically inferior opponents and wrings its collective hands over spending on tens of millions of Americans who worry about meeting basic needs.
After “Watergate,” the media continued its perpetual affair with scandals, but ignores the big ones: “our wars” – including the one on terror. Those who without legal reason got us into them have left their legacy. Can Obama refuse it and get out of Afghanistan. It’ll take more than another scandal to create the courage — and conditions –for him to do it.