Editorial: Celebrating the Small Changes

By Becky O’Malley
Tuesday August 28, 2007

For many months, there was a bottle of champagne in our office refrigerator, being saved for the day Karl Rove was indicted. The donor wasn’t a member of the reporting staff, since they are expected to preserve the appearance of political neutrality, but I’m pretty sure that if and when Rove had actually been indicted everyone, including the reporters, would have accepted a celebratory glass with enthusiasm. It didn’t happen—Rove was allowed to slither off the scene without going to jail, an over-enthusiastic former sales manager popped the champagne cork for some petty triumph, and the focus shifted to Alberto Gonzales as villain-du-jour. (Meanwhile, the odious Rummy had also left the building.) 

The permanent villains, of course, are still Bush and Cheney. It seems that most thinking people have decided that George W. plays Charlie McCarthy to Cheney’s Edgar Bergen. For you youngsters, Bergen was a famous ventriloquist, and Charlie was his dummy. The true fan may remember that McCarthy had a good line of facetious chatter, but there was another dummy, Mortimer Snerd, who was the real card-carrying dummy in the act. He never said anything that wasn’t very very stupid. On the current Washington stage, Alberto Gonzales seems to have gotten the Mortimer Snerd role. 

Not only has he lied repeatedly, he’s lied about lying, again and again, and he seems to have thought he could get away with it. He’s contradicted himself, on camera, about things he originally said also on camera. As my grandkids would say, how dumb is that?  

He’s become a figure of fun for his pathetic attempts to cover his tracks, but the bad deeds he facilitated were not at all funny. He turned the respected position of U.S. attorney into a political patronage job. He cooked up a warrant-less electronic surveillance program after the Sept. 11 attacks, and tried to sucker his ailing boss into going along with it. And much more. 

He’s been a prime target for the impeachment frenzy now sweeping some segments of the left. There are many who seem to believe that if we can just burn enough of the bad Bushies at the stake, figuratively speaking, the nation will be delivered from evil. Would that it were so simple.  

From time to time in my youth I read things about an amorphous philosophical tradition which united a lot of varied theories under a banner labeled Personalism. I have no idea where the discussion had gone since then, but the invaluable Wikipedia, rightly or wrongly, today lists three main pillars of the definition of big-P Personalism: “1. Only people are real (in the ontological sense), 2. Only people have value, and 3. Only people have free will.”  

That’s way too confusing to discuss in this space, but it does suggest to me that many observers and would-be actors on the political scene suffer from a kind of creeping lower-case personalism. That is to say, they seem to think that if we can just get rid of all the bad actors the stage will be clear for progress to continue its forward march.  

This is similar to the Great Man view of history, and also to the popular interpretation of Dick the Butcher’s remark in Henry VI, part 2: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” This quote is generally used in an anti-lawyer context, but it more properly should be interpreted as showing that villains want to get lawyers out of the way so they can carry out their nefarious plans.  

Gonzales in particular, though a lawyer himself, was clearly trying, at the behest of his principals (whoever they were) to get rid of the honest U.S. attorneys so he could do what he wanted. It didn’t work. 

But it’s also a dangerous mistake for the good guys to think that getting rid of the individuals who seem, as of now, to be personally responsible for what’s going on will solve many of the country’s problems. If we could have impeached, in one fell swoop, Rove, Rumsfeld, Gonzales, Cheney and Bush, we’d still have a mess in Iraq which would not easily be cleaned up. 

All of the above, plus many Democrats, now seem to be gravitating to the position that getting rid of the current premier of Iraq will fix things there, and that’s not true either. And remember when we thought Ashcroft was the villain? He’s actually come up a notch in public esteem since we heard how he defied Gonzales from his sickbed. (Whatever happened to Colin Powell, by the way?) 

On the public stage, the actors come and go, but the problems remain. Even on a local level, it seems than some can’t be persuaded out of the little-p personalist analysis that improper choices by officials exercising free will have gotten us where we are today. Our local villains are distinctly minor league, not in a class with the truly wicked Gonzales, Cheney et al, and they’re even less potent, of course. But that hasn’t stopped calls for the replacement of the city attorney along with most of her staff, nor chilled the triumphal cheers that greeted the resignation of one high-level planning official.  

Many of the same people sincerely believed that the last mayor was a scoundrel of the deepest dye, and are now shocked to conclude that her replacement is even worse, though their political philosophies appeared to differ at election time. Others held the reverse views of the two mayors, but it hasn’t made much difference either way. Ugly development continues apace, lining the same pockets as it goes on its merry way.  

The current president of the University of California is departing under a cloud, but it’s foolish to expect much to change there either. The institution will continue to swallow up the cities it inhabits, student fees will continue to rise, executive compensation (that’s pay for administrators in plain English) will continue to be exorbitant.  

Are there systemic solutions for all these problems? Earlier primaries? Shorter campaigns? Abolish the Electoral College? Get rid of district elections? Elect the Regents? Preferential voting? Public financing of campaigns? Spending limits? Many novel ideas are proposed, but few are proven to work.  

There are two words that should be kept in mind when suggested quick fixes to political systems are being evaluated: Ed Jew, the poster child for the law of unintended consequences. Two probably adequate politicos were passed up in favor of a fresh face under a new preferential voting scheme, and look how much trouble it’s caused. 

My favorite French proverb is “Plus ca change, plus la meme chose”—the more things change, the more they remain the same. Changing faces doesn’t seem to do much, but changing the rules can’t be relied on to do the right thing either.  

Nevertheless, it’s satisfying to see Gonzales on his way out the door in disgrace. We can only hope his replacement isn’t worse.