All the tales of the Titanic sinking in the North Atlantic are so very civilized. You know them from the movies – that 1997 one directed by James Cameron and starring the ever-irritating and then wispy Leonardo DiCaprio, and the quite substantial Kate Winslet, who had to reluctantly drag the young and silly Leonardo along as she tried to save the film too. And there was A Night to Remember, the 1958 thing – almost a documentary. And there was the 1996 television mini-series with George C. Scott. What was General Patton doing on that sinking ship? No, Scott was playing Captain Edward J. Smith – as Patton. It sort of worked. And there are others. It’s a fine story.
How does it go? Ah, we’re dealing with the British. It was women and children first, and only sniveling cowards try to break that rule. The captain goes down with the ship – and the string quartet (or whatever) refuses to abandon ship, and calmly plays “Nearer My God to Thee” as it all comes to an end, to comfort the doomed. Oh yeah, there’s the plucky and brash American woman who keeps everyone’s spirits up with her never-say-die attitude. It’s great stuff – noble and uplifting.
As the anniversary rolls around again – the ship sank on April 14, 1912 – it seems a story from another universe, not related to this one at all. In this universe, when a ship goes down things get ugly fast.
How so? You might read John Dickerson on the current state of things with the administration – Every Man for Himself.
John Dickerson is the chief political correspondent at SLATE and author of On Her Trail, his biography of his mother, Nancy Dickerson, the first woman television news star, a real reporter and one sharp lady. So the son knows the Washington world of political infighting. He grew up on it and reports on it now. And he sees what is now happening – an almost total breakdown in discipline. Think of the Titanic with a crew and passengers all from with South Park, or Monty Python (see The Argument Sketch – “Don’t give me that, you snotty-faced heap of parrot droppings!”). Calm and noble sacrifice are not the order of the day – although some sappy Christian Rock band playing “Nearer My God to Thee” might be a good idea right about now.
John Dickerson says nothing about the Titanic, of course. He just notes that while the president seems to have started some serious thinking about building his presidential library there’s a whole lot of trying to pin blame on the hapless, finger-pointing at the defenseless and general backbiting.
Witnesses have told congressional investigators that the chief of the General Services Administration and a deputy in Karl Rove’s political affairs office at the White House joined in a videoconference earlier this year with top GSA political appointees, who discussed ways to help Republican candidates.
… On Wednesday, Doan is scheduled to appear before Waxman’s committee to answer questions about the videoconference and other issues. The committee is investigating whether remarks made during the videoconference violated the Hatch Act, a federal law that restricts executive-branch employees from using their positions for political purposes. Those found in violation of the act do not face criminal penalties but can be removed from their jobs.
… In several recent statements, Doan has said she did nothing wrong. She said her troubles are the result of retaliation by the inspector general over her efforts to rein in spending and balance the GSA budget. Doan, a wealthy former government contractor who sold her company before taking over the GSA last May, has hired three law firms and two media relations companies at her own expense to handle inquiries from the federal investigators and the news media.
“Ever since I made the decision to restore fiscal discipline to all divisions within GSA, I have had to face a series of personal attacks and charges,” Doan said in a March 7 statement.
Finger-pointing works too –
Not long after President Bush was first sworn in, White House political guru Karl Rove and his lieutenants met with officials of nearly every Cabinet agency to brief top officials on the latest polling data and issues that could influence voters and key constituencies.
But the departments of Justice, Defense and State were exempt. Given their missions – to administer federal laws, protect national security and conduct foreign policy – it was considered inappropriate to make such partisan presentations to them.
Nonetheless, suspicions that the White House’s partisan political priorities may have made their way into Justice Department decision-making have grown in recent weeks.
… Some Civil Rights Division veterans – mostly Democrats – have been expressing concern for months. But last week more officials spoke out about what they described as a pattern of partisan decision-making on individual cases.
They said their superiors, who were political appointees, repeatedly bottled up cases that might harm the electoral position of Republicans while encouraging the staff to pursue matters that might damage Democrats’ prospects.
And you have your backbiting –
The leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies said yesterday that Bush administration political appointees repeatedly ordered her to take steps that weakened the government’s racketeering case.
Sharon Y. Eubanks said Bush loyalists in Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales’s office began micromanaging the team’s strategy in the final weeks of the 2005 trial, to the detriment of the government’s claim that the industry had conspired to lie to U.S. smokers.
She said a supervisor demanded that she and her trial team drop recommendations that tobacco executives be removed from their corporate positions as a possible penalty. He and two others instructed her to tell key witnesses to change their testimony. And they ordered Eubanks to read verbatim a closing argument they had rewritten for her, she said.
None of this is good when the ship is sinking.
As mentioned elsewhere the Justice Department’s White House liaison, Monica Goodling, has refused to testify before the judiciary committee because she is worried she’ll be blamed for the controversy over the eight fired US attorneys and her lawyer explained in a press release that she would take the Fifth, Dickerson notes, in part because one of her former bosses at the Justice Department was blaming his false testimony on her, claiming that Goodling “did not inform him of certain pertinent facts.” Ah, it’s HER fault!
And it gets more complex –
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, also appears to be worried about the free-floating blame game, but for him it is a reason to testify before Congress. Gonzales publicly blamed his ex-aide for misleading Congress, and Sampson is fighting back. (A leaked memo from the White House obtained by ABC news puts the blame on Paul McNulty, Gonzales’ deputy, for not sticking to his talking points when he testified before Congress.)
Oh my! And this come just after the Scooter Libby trial – the defense arguing that the vice president’s former chief of staff was the victim of a nefarious plot by his former colleagues to make him take the blame for outing that CIA agent. In was an inside view of the bridge of the ship, where everyone was deciding who was the fool who didn’t notice that iceberg, or something like that. Someone had to take the fall for the screw-up, even if the ship was sinking.
To be fair, Dickerson notes that all administrations produce unhappy people in the second term. He mentions Clinton’s second term and the books by George Stephanopoulos and Robert Reich that weren’t very nice. The Bush folks just started early – with books from Paul O’Neill, David Kuo, and Richard Clarke. But the idea here is we have something a bit more blatant. Dickerson quotes “one former senior administration official” (not saying who, of course), saying now the change “is that it feels like it’s every man for himself.” Perhaps they know the ship is sinking.
And here’s the dynamic –
When Libby was first ensnared in the firestorm over prewar intelligence in October 2003, his boss Cheney immediately blamed the White House and CIA, but that was just in private. In those days, and until recently, really, the intergovernmental sniping that did go public was usually in the newspapers and came from anonymous sources. That limited the damage.
… Now it’s all happening in public and in real-time. The Democrats who now control Congress can haul people in to testify, and that increases the incentive to turn on someone before he or she turns on you. The blame-shifting may be your best bet to get out of public, career-ending trouble. This is how prosecutors flip witnesses: We have a criminal justice system that relies far more heavily on plea bargaining than on trials because the incentives almost always line up in favor of ratting somebody out.
Yep, the fired attorneys are speaking out. And even if they wanted to keep quiet, congress will call them in for public hearings, not just a private chat about this all. Those midterm elections actually seemed to have changed things. There’s nowhere to hide. It seems “elections have consequences” and all that.
But it’s more than that –
Staffers worried about their post-administration jobs are concerned that they’ll lose opportunities in the private sector if their reputations are tarnished and not repaired before Bush is out of office. The president’s low popularity and dwindling time in office mean that he doesn’t have much political capital left to protect anyone outside the White House. And according to Scooter Libby’s lawyers, Karl Rove will sell you out to protect himself.
So you’re on your own.
And the odd thing is, so is the president –
Hill Republicans don’t want to expend political capital protecting an unpopular administration whose officials are causing self-inflicted wounds. “They’re sick of carrying water for them,” says a veteran Republican strategist. That’s why Gonzales has no strong Republican defenders in the Senate and an increasing number of detractors. When Sampson testifies Thursday, his former boss Orrin Hatch will no doubt reiterate his support to fend off anyone in the Justice Department or White House trying to load onto Sampson undue blame.
That is just how things are – every man for himself. It’s Titanic time. And George Bush is hardly The Unsinkable Molly Brown, bravely singing “I Ain’t Down Yet.” That was Debbie Reynolds. One shouldn’t confuse the two.
Okay, things aren’t that bad. There is other news. When in doubt make fun of the French.
And here’s some help from Clair Whitmer, in The Headlines You Skipped Over.
Consider this –
La palais du justice in La Roche-sur Yon (Vendée) was the locale this month for the very last candle auction in France.
What is a vente à la bougie? This tradition for conducting a sale by auction of property dates back six centuries; during such an auction, the officer of the court supervising the sale lights two candles – one after the other, the life of each candle lasting one minute. Bids are accepted until the second candle goes out and whoever made the last bid before the dying of the light wins.
But the regulating authorities of property seized by the state, les ventes immobilières sur saisie, have decided to replace this ancient custom with a clock that counts down the seconds.
Loss of a charming custom or belated farewell to a medieval relic? Too late to weigh in… it’s gone.
It must have been bad news for Cachelec, the only French manufacturer of the candles specially produced for this ritual. But don’t worry about the Montélimar-based company becoming another victim of French de-industrialisation; there’s still life in its other product lines, the wax and seals for French mairies and the toe-tags specifically produced for French cadavers.
Ah! That takes your mind off things here, as does this –
In 2005, 121,591 French families chose cremation for the body of a loved one, according to the Fédération Française de Crémation (FFC). (A surprisingly high number considering that cremation is not a Catholic tradition; only 778,025 bodies were cremated in the US in the same year.)
But apparently, according to French law, the state had never really weighed in on what to do with the resulting ashes. But on March 12, the Ministry of the Interior issued a new regulation authorizing families to keep the ashes at home – in the backyard presumably – or even to disperse them in nature as long as the family files a declaration of its intentions with the appropriate mairie and agrees not to dump the ashes in a public place.
As there is no fine or other punishment specified for not filing such a declaration, the law, in effect, means: not much. According to the FFC, only six percent of the remains of the remains end up in mausoleums intended for this purpose, les columbariums or jardins du souvenir. This means that most of the ashes are already simply returned to the family, including the three percent the FFC says are being dispersed in nature.
The new regulation is, however, in danger of being overturned. A senator from the Loiret, Jean-Pierre Sueur, doesn’t like the idea of the ashes being left to the family’s discretion. What if they dump them in the déchetterie? What to do if someone asks in their will for their remains to be mixed with those of the family dog?
M. Sueur wants to prevent any such eccentricities. Last summer, he submitted a law that would prevent families from burying or otherwise retaining the ashes at home; the Assemblée never voted on the text, but Sueur has asked that, despite the publication of the new regulation, his proposal be formally examined during the next session.
Ah, such news is morbidly refreshing. The traditional candle industry in turmoil and what to do with those ashes – this takes one’s mind off big political matters.
And then there’s the French Jack Kerouac (sort of) –
This free-wheeling journalist with a bike and mike is what Démocratie participative is really all about.
Raphaël Krafft is out there somewhere today, presumably hoping the cold snap snaps, on a political Tour de France; he is traveling across France (an itinerary of some 4,000 km) on his bicycle and filing radio reports with everyone he meets, everyone he meets, that is, who plans to vote in the upcoming election. You might have heard his reports, in French only of course, on the France Culture radio station, which has been broadcasting them every morning this month.
But you can catch them again on his blog-site [http://www.bicyclette2007.com/], which recounts his voyage à bicyclette dans une France qui va voter. For expats, the site has a dual appeal; his reports faithfully reproduce the voice of l’Hexagone, both in terms of political viewpoints but also the varied accents and vocabulary of the regions he visits. And you can listen as many times as you want or need to understand…
Krafft invented this genre of bike-side reporting, by the way, while traveling across the US and filing his reports to American university radio stations.
Perhaps we need him back here again. All this “inside the Beltway” maneuvering in Washington is hardly the stuff of Démocratie participative – participative democracy. What do most folks elsewhere really think of all this pinning blame on the hapless, finger-pointing at the defenseless and general backbiting as the administration (but not the “ship of state”) sinks? One suspects they’re not impressed.