font-family: 'Arizonia', cursive; Michael Stichauf - "As I understand it now...'til it changes"

Monday, November 11, 2013

Three Presidents- Three Missed Opportunities
 As I listened to an interview on the radio, I was reminded of three Presidents and their opportunities to change the culture of secrecy and deceit that is characteristic of the U.S. government. I want to discuss why, I believe, Presidents Carter, Clinton and Obama weren't able to capitalize on these opportunities.

When Jimmy Carter assumed the Presidency, in January of 1977, he was in a most advantageous position. On the heels of the disastrous presidency of Richard Nixon, Carter seemed to be the right man, at the right time, for what was to prove to be, a most difficult job. The public had just found out about “Watergate”, “The Pentagon Papers”, “The Plumbers” (the secret group tasked with plugging “leaks” coming from the White House), the break-in at Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office (Ellsberg is the man who “leaked” “The Pentagon Papers” to the newspapers) and the Church commission. Voters were FED-UP! With the abuses of power of their government fresh in their minds, they wanted someone they could trust and they wanted someone they thought could change the culture of secrecy and deceit that had become the Government of the United States of America. Carter solidified the public’s belief in himself, as an honest man, with two things that happened leading up to his election as President. The first was Carter’s statement that, “I will never lie to the American people”. An extremely important statement considering the fact that President Nixon, during a press conference about “Watergate”, said emphatically, “I am NOT a crook”! The second was Carter’s unprecedented interview with “Playboy” magazine where he made the comment that he had, “lusted in his heart”. The American people had never met a man such as Carter who they had a chance to vote for. And vote for they did!

Bill Clinton ran for president during a time when, I think, the American public was just plain tired of twelve years of Republican rule in the executive office. The Soviet Union and communism, in general, had suddenly and shockingly collapsed (in the feared eastern bloc countries). The threat of “global thermal nuclear” war was now just a memory in the collective consciousness of the American people. America was also realizing that “trickle-down economics” was a fraud perpetrated by the Republicans on the American economy and it was being exposed by the downturn the economy was taking as campaign season started. Voters were ready for a change. They wanted someone who wasn't a part of the old guard and they wanted someone who was electrifying! Bill Clinton filled both those rolls. Clinton talked about wholesale changes to the climate of secrecy that the Reagan and Bush presidencies created after Jimmy Carter. One of the things talked about was opening the UFO files (I want to say up front that I’m not making a case, pro or con, in regards to UFOs). I’ll never forget a question that was asked of Clinton during a press conference. When someone asked him about whether he was going to make the UFO files public, Clinton responded that he would because HE, HIMSELF, WAS INTERESTED to find out about what we knew! Clinton also thought that it was time that the American people knew what the government knew in regards to the Kennedy assassination. He felt that there were facts that were being hidden from the public and it was time to put an end to that. I believe it was in 1995 that Clinton set up a commission to gather facts about the investigation that were missed or OMITTED by the Warren report. He was definitely on to something because the Secret Service got wind of the commission BEFORE Clinton made it public and DESTROYED EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF INFORMATION that they had ONE WEEK BEFORE the commission began! How convenient considering the fact that it now looks like the last shot that hit Kennedy in the head (which mortally wounded him) was from an accidental discharge of the AR-15 rifle that a S.S. agent was holding in the car directly behind Kennedy! Again, by the time Clinton decided to run, the American people were tired, for example, of the secrecy that led to the Iran- Contra situation and everything that went along with it.

Barak Obama was elected because of the excesses (financially) of the two wars that we were fighting, as well as the lies that were finally uncovered that got us into the wars, initially. America watched as then Secretary of State, Colin Powell, told the U.N. about WMDs and other lies and half-truths. It was this speech that basically sealed Sadaam Hussein’s fate. The public was also tired of Dick Cheney’s bullying. His steamrolling tactics put a heavy strain on his relationships with Donald Rumsfeld and others in the “Dubya’s” cabinet. The “Cheney apparatus” was basically a shadow administration with Cheney as the “shadow President” or puppet master, pulling Dubya’s strings as he made the key wartime decisions that, secretly and possibly illegally, led us into our war with Iraq. Once these lies and covert activities were discovered, the public was fed-up with a war that they were being told could go on for decades! It was, AGAIN, a case of the public refusing to put ANOTHER MEMBER OF THE OLD BOYS NETWORK back into office. They rejected John McCain in favor of a fresh face and a vision of hope that people so dearly needed in the face of 6-7 years of war and an economic collapse with historic possibilities. Like Bill Clinton, Barak Obama touched people at a visceral level. His speeches spoke of hope and “change we can believe in”. “Change” is what the voters wanted again. They listened as Obama talked of ending the war once in office. He adamantly spoke of closing “Guantanamo Bay”, a promise that was number one in the hearts of a great number of American voters. Just this one promise could have been the garneror of a huge majority of Obama’s votes! It was, and is, an issue that struck people at such a gut level because of the acts of torture perpetrated on the prisoners of war. Americans were ashamed of these acts, dare I say, crimes! Closing Guantanamo was a way for these Americans to forgive themselves and hopefully, for the world, to forgive us! It never happened!

Each of these men had ideal circumstances for them to take advantage of when they chose to run for the presidency. It’s impossible to know whether these men chose to run because they saw the opportunity that was handed to them or if they were going to run anyways and circumstances happened to break right for them. In any event, all three circumstances, all three opportunities and all three men came together to create “a perfect storm” for change to the government of the United States of America”.

Change is a strange thing. If we took a hard look at ourselves, we’d realize that there is a fear of change, in varying degrees, in all of us. The fear comes from the thought of us being taken out of our comfort zones. As we go along in life, we all have to adjust to change as we try to embrace the new things that are occurring around us and to us. We make changes to adjust to a new job, a new boss and new personalities in an environment that we must accept. We make changes to adjust to a new living environment, such as buying a home. Change also represents “something” that we CAN’T control. Consequently, we strive to create situations and environments that are to our liking and won’t change UNLESS WE WANT THEM TO.

The United States Senate is an old and staid institution. Once referred to as “The Old Boys Club”, they have been famous for being set in their ways. The U.S. House of Representatives, although slightly more progressive (at times), is also an institution set in its ways. These two institutions would have to be changed in order for these three men to create a new environment of openness in our government. Since the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, power has been increasingly flowing towards the president. Slowly but surely, the legislative branch of government has taken a back seat to the President. Presidential power reached its zenith with the George W. Bush administration. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Congress granted Bush unprecedented powers. In essence, they really felt that they had no choice, lest they be accused of being “unpatriotic”. This was a very real fear considering what Cheney and his “crew” did to anyone that they felt got in their way. The Congress though, was able to increase its power of secrecy precisely because of the “culture of fear” created by the very attacks on the towers. Everyone agrees that the failure of our intelligence agencies was at the root of our inability to know that the attacks were coming. Consequently, the President, in conjunction with the Congress, created a larger National Security “world”, as opposed to “community” to try to make sure that we don’t get caught with our proverbial “pants down” again. Just another tool for the “G” to use to collect more data and keep more secrets from the citizens, not just of the United States, but also of the world.

Another “institution” that would need to change would be the large and sprawling apparatus referred to as the “Civil Service Community”. More specifically, “Career Civil Servants”. Any government as big as the U.S. Government needs people to staff the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of everyday jobs that are required for a government to run smoothly. Growing ever larger as the years have passed, they too jealously protect their jobs and fiefdoms. This institution (for lack of a better word) is a lot harder to get a grasp of. They’re like trying to grab gelatin, as it oozes through your fingers while grasping at it. It absolutely is the largest group to try to corral in order to change the culture of silence and secrecy.  

Although all three Presidents came to power with great hopes and dreams, they were walking into a situation that was doomed from the start. The branches of government, that they so desperately needed help from, had their heels dug in deep to keep anyone from taking more of their cherished powers from them. It simply was doomed from the start. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango”, and the Government wasn't dancing!

Another problem that each of these men had was that they were all outsiders. Both Carter and Clinton were Governors of states and southern states, for that matter. As the southern states lost respect because of their defiance of the “Civil Rights Act”, their Senators and Representatives slowly lost their influence as well. Therefore, two men from the South, although elected President by the people of the United States, weren't given any respect from the Congress as a whole. They certainly weren't the men that the Congress would have chosen. An example of how important it was to have the backing of the houses of Congress is Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and the terrific amount of legislation that he was able to pass. From 1931 through to 1961, the South had a lock on the speakership of the house. In fact, Sam Rayburn from Texas held the speakership for 17 out of 21 years from 1940 until his death in 1961.  As Rayburn’s protégé, Johnson learned from the “Master of the House” and was himself referred to as the “Master of the Senate”. Although Johnson lost Rayburn’s influence in the house, he had learned enough from him to get what he needed legislatively, when he needed it.

As Jimmy Carter took over the Presidency in January of 1977, he brought with him his “Georgia Mafia”. Every President brings with him to the White House the people who got him there. The problem with Carter’s advisers was that they refused to bend to the will of the “Washington way”. They rubbed the Washington social scene the wrong way, choosing to keep their “Georgia skin” and preferring to go to country music concerts instead of the symphony. Now, that might not have been so bad, if they were willing to learn how to work with the Congress. Carter’s congressional liaison, Frank Moore, was a novice on the national level. He never established a relationship with Tip O'Neill and they down right refused to play the political game of “trading favors” to get legislation passed. Even Lyndon Johnson, with the influence that he had, knew his influence sprang only from his ability to know what it was that every single member of the Senate wanted in order to get his vote. That’s not only how you get legislation passed, it’s how the game of life is played. Carter refused to allow Moore and Hamilton Jordan (another member of the Georgia Mafia) to play this game of “give and take”. They never had a chance from the get-go. As stated before, the Congress is an institution, set in its ways, whose members do not intend to pass legislation for an inconsequential, inexperienced, soon to be one term, Southern President. These members of Congress, fearing the loss now of their “pork”, refused to give up one of the last things that they still had to get themselves re-elected. Jimmy Carter’s high idealism of refusing to trade “pork” for votes, couldn't even get the Democrats to help him out. It was the Senators’ and the Representatives’ fear of losing control of their ability to guide their destinies by not being able to bring jobs and money back to their states and districts, that doomed Carter’s hopes of fundamentally changing government. I believe Carter felt that if he could have four years of passing legislation, in this new “pristine” (without the “dirty” backroom deals that Carter found to be revolting) fashion, it would start a proverbial snowball effect, forever changing the way the Congress conducted its business. To Carter’s credit, he certainly stuck to what he believed in. He never wavered in his four years from this tactic.

Bill Clinton was elected because of the growing frustration with the previous twelve years of Republican dominance of the White House. He had the misfortune though, of coming into office at a time in history when politics was becoming “toxic”. After winning the White House for the last three elections, the Republicans developed an arrogance that absolutely blinded them to the fact that now that there was no Soviet threat, the American public was turning its focus inward and they didn't like what they saw. Americans were finally concluding that they were sold a bill of goods about “trickle-down economics” (Repubs. are still advocating for it) and the example of its failure was evident as the economy was in a down-turn as we entered the campaign season for the 1992 Presidential elections. “It’s the economy STUPID” became a famous Clinton campaign slogan. Being embarrassed by losing the White House to a relatively unknown southern Governor, the Republicans hit back. We all agree that Bill Clinton was no saint. All the sordid information that came out, starting in the campaign, deserved to come out. After all, we are talking about shedding the cover of secrecy in government. Yet, Newt Gingrich and the Republican’s took it too far. The nastiness and downright lies went too far, setting an example for the kind of politics we have today. Yes, the voting public needs to be informed but when that goes too far and lies start to dominate the atmosphere, we get to the point that we’re at now... dysfunction! As Barak Obama has discovered, the Republicans have no shame and that started with Bill Clinton. Now, to be fair, the Democrats have their “snakes” but you’d be hard pressed to count them on one hand. Newt’s “orchestration” of “his” government shutdown was a blueprint for today’s version that we are just coming out of. What is so baffling is the fact that they couldn't see the forest for the trees. How could they have overlooked the fact that Newt’s shutdown ruined his career and only served to bolster Clinton’s ratings! What the Republicans decided in 1994, to refuse to work with Bill Clinton, they have carried over to today with President Obama. It has created an environment of total stagnation. Again, more deceit and secrecy.

Another Republican answer to being embarrassed by Clinton’s election was to cede control of the party to the radicals. A situation that the moderates have yet to wrestle back from them. Again, as with Jimmy Carter, Clinton was an outsider. But, Clinton learned from Carter’s mistakes. He had experienced people with him who knew how the culture of Washington was and was willing to play ball with the Congress. Unfortunately, for Bill Clinton, he made a couple of early mistakes with the Congress which almost sidelined his Presidency the minute he made the first one. That first mistake was putting his wife Hillary in charge of the Democrats’ first attempt at “Health Care Reform”. If there was anyone that the Republicans despised more than Bill, it was Hillary. Her attempt at health care was doomed from the start. Even with Clinton’s more experienced advisors, I think that this move (Hillary wasn't elected to anything yet) upset even their closest Democratic supporters.

As I stated before, there is an inherent adversarial relationship between the Congress and the White House. This is true even when the President’s own party holds sway in both houses. Such was the case with President Carter’s presidency. In fact, the 95th Congress was the first one since 1965 where any party, in this case, the Democrats, had a filibuster proof 60% majority. Yet, Carter’s tactics would deepen that adversarial relationship and be the reason behind him losing an unprecedented opportunity to put his stamp on a new culture in American politics. In Bill Clinton’s case, he only had a Democratic majority for his first two years. The last six years of Clinton’s presidency was a brutal exercise in futility that was highlighted by the government shutdown, bitter political accusations and eventually his impeachment trial. It seems that Clinton’s impeachment was a forbearer for the next two presidencies to have to worry about because politicians realized how damaging this could be to a President. What I’m talking about is the fact that both Bush and Obama have had to worry about their political rivals making accusations of impropriety and there being this hush-hush talk of impeachment. There never was a beginning of such events, but there were rumblings that lie just underneath the surface.

Today’s relationship between President Obama and the Republican controlled Congress is, and will be, legendary. I don't need to go into the specifics because anyone interested in reading this post will know the highlights, and lowlights, of this relationship. What I will say is that because of the relationship, America got a watered-down Healthcare bill. That’s both parties’ fault.

President Obama started out on the campaign trail as, what some would say, a “Maverick”. His campaign’s ability and connection to social media fueled a finance juggernaut that no one had seen before. He had financial advisers, initially, who gave him terrific advice as he campaigned his way to the Presidency. Remember, America was just hit with an economic catastrophe that threatened our financial existence. Unfortunately, in the interregnum before he took office, Obama was told that his financial advisors would never be confirmed for the positions that he wanted for them and in no uncertain terms- “get rid of them now”! He caved, a bad example to set before he even took office.

Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay was a key factor in him being elected. Yet, as the beginning months of his Presidency passed, people started to realize that Obama wasn’t going to keep this promise. We need to remember that Obama’s advisers were some of the same people who worked for Clinton. Men like Rahm Emanuelle were tough scrappers who’d been bloodied in the congressional wars of the 1990s. They knew what was going to be needed to make Obama’s presidency a success, or so they thought. What they did do was to realize when it was time to acquiesce and compromise. I believe that is exactly what Obama did with Guantanamo. It is useless to beat your head against the wall when you know it will never crack! Obama learned that sometimes it’s better to go along to get along.

I also think that Obama came to realize that what he wanted to do, open up the government and its secrets, pull us out of Iraq and restore the civil rights that had been trampled on by the Bush administration, were actually things that were going to be a great benefit to him in the end. Being able to finally track down and kill Osama Bin Laden was the decisive factor, I believe. The huge National Security World was reaping great benefits for Obama and it was simply too tempting NOT to use their information. Obama has made the “Drone Program” a fixture in the war on terror and has already learned how to fend off questions about the programs legality. As we watch Obama over the years, we can visibly see him change from an outsider to someone who is starting to fit in with “business as usual” I fear it is basically too late for the latest attempt by a President to change the culture of secrecy and deceit in government. This President has chosen to use the new laws to gather information to his advantage as opposed to change them and restore the civil liberties of the American public. Again, another chance for change is lost.

Trying to write about how to change the culture of the career civil servant is extremely difficult. Because these individuals are private not elected employees, there is no way to get to understand each individual’s thinking. There are possibly millions who have different political beliefs and they are loyal NOT to the President in power but to their immediate boss and possibly HIS/HER political leanings. The fact remains that these people have a job to keep and they too, will do what’s needed to keep that position. Trying to get the State Department to change the way they do things in their everyday functions, was and is, an impossible task that every Secretary of State, over the last 50- 60 years, has commented on. It just doesn’t happen overnight. Unfortunately, these are the very people who make the government work on a daily basis!

We are at a crossroads today as to how our government will function given the ferocity of the accusations thrown across the aisle from Republican to Democrat and Democrat to Republican. There is gridlock, the likes of which we’ve never seen before. People are frustrated and we’ve yet to find anyone who can fix this mess. Three different Presidents have lost opportunities to change the culture of secrecy and deceit  as well as divisiveness that threatens the world’s greatest Democracy. No, I’m not a “sky is falling” type of guy, nor do I think our system of government will fall. I do believe though, that if something isn’t done soon, America will have consequences to pay that I don’t believe we can contemplate now!

So, again, that’s “As I understand it now... ‘til it changes.” Let me know what you think.

Michael K. Stichauf