Thursday, November 13, 2003

Corrupt or fanatical
When my mother was sick earlier this year, and before we knew she had cancer, my wife and I used to drive over to her house to spend weekends with her. The trip is five hours each direction, so we got to talk a lot.

On one trip, we got into a variation of the old stupid or evil debate. You know the one; do Bush and his camarilla behave the way they do because they are stupid or evil? We all know it’s a trick question. The correct answer is that stupid and evil are not mutually exclusive categories; it’s perfectly possible (heck, probable) that they are both stupid and evil. On this trip we started handicapping the various administration insiders as either corrupt (opportunistic, cynical, lying out of calculation) or fanatical (true believers, naive, lying out of self-delusion). I put Dick Cheney down firmly on the corrupt side. Now I’m having doubts.

Over the last two months or so Cheney has clearly revealed himself to be a true believer. The current Newsweek profile explains how he came to associate and surround himself with a crowd like Ahmed Chalabi and the neo-con American Enterprise Institute who had a particular narrative to sell. Cheney came to believe their story and as VP selectively read only that intelligence that supported the narrative he already believed. Newsweek grants this dangerous act of self-deception far more dignity than it deserves, characterizing him as a Cassandra and Hobbesian (apply the Clinton test; how would a pessimistic, self-deluded Democrat be characterized?)

Normally, it wouldn’t matter if the vice president was barking mad or not. No one cared what the VP thought. As FDR’s first VP, Cactus Jack Gardner, famously put it, “the vice presidency isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” (Personally, I don’t think he said “spit,” but that’s neither here nor there.) Unfortunately, that’s changed in the last decade or so. Gore and Cheney have each been described as the most involved VPs ever. Cheney, powerful and self-deluded on matters of war and peace, is one of the most trusted advisors to perhaps the most un-curious, intellectually isolated, and ill-informed head of state ever to hold office outside a hereditary monarchy.

And according to a new Gallup poll, we like Cheney, we really like him. Fifty-five percent of Americans view Cheney favorably this week. His numbers are far less volatile than Bush’s. At this point I should say one of those rude comments about the American public that rich, white, Republican opinion makers like to point to when they denounce the Left as The Elite. I’m too tired to think of anything clever; insert your favorite Mencken quote here.

This is interesting. While Cheney, clearly deluded and bearing major responsibility for getting us into this unnecessary war, retains the support of the majority of the American people, his old comrade Rumsfeld has become a lightening rod for the administration’s failed foreign policy. Charles Rangel has 26 House Democrats ready to support a resolution demanding Rummy’s resignation.

Rumsfeld openly lies, denies the words that just issued from his mouth, and bullies anyone who calls him on it. We have grown tired of his shtick. Once we thought him gruff and loveable; now we just find him a boorish loudmouth. Cheney, on the other hand, sticks to his guns. Despite the fact that everyone knows he’s wrong, we admire his conviction. When we say, “Oh my God, he really believes it,” our pity is mixed with more than a little admiration.

Irony is one of the great myths of the age. We continually tell ourselves that no one believes anything any more and so we stand in awe of a defiant believer. (It doesn’t matter that this bit of wisdom is completely wrong and that belief is all around us.) This is where the fanatics have the advantage over the corrupt. They have sincerity. Americans like sincerity. In one of my favorite aphorisms, Eugene Weber said, “Sincerity has no intrinsic value. A sincere fool is still a fool.” He’s right, but no one cares. We like our sincere fools.

Rumsfeld is a lying, corrupt old bastard, but it will be a shame if they manage to make a scapegoat out of him for the failure of the whole administration. If he goes and Cheney stays, then the administration gets credit for cleaning house while the same dangerous structure of fanaticism, willful blindness, and ignorance that caused the war will stay in place and be encouraged to continue on the same track.

Our one hope in all of this is that corrupt or fanatical like stupid or evil is a trick question. It’s perfectly possible to be both corrupt and fanatical. And Cheney is both. Before he was a neo-con nutcase, he was a bloodsucking oil executive. His old instincts never died, they were merely supplemented by new bad character traits. There is still hope that the sweetheart deals for the energy sector will come back to drag him down into hell (or at least retirement with a generous golden parachute). Our best hope is not to quickly get rid of Cheney or Rumsfeld but to hope they stay on and become bigger liabilities as the election grows closer.

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