Sturm: Draining Washington’s swamp, Fred Thompson-style
November 12, 2015
"I often long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood," joked Sen. Fred Thompson, the "Law & Order" star who recently died. A real-life prosecutor and Watergate counsel, Thompson formulated the famous question that hastened Richard Nixon's downfall: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?"
If you believe this question still delivers political accountability, Think Again. Alas, the Watergate era's bipartisan commitment to equal and impartial justice has been rendered obsolete by lawmakers who often operate lawlessly. Capturing the hypocrisy, comedian Bill Murray tweeted: "So, if we lie to the government, it's a felony. But if they lie to us its politics."
Bernie Sanders is right. A few rich people shouldn't run the country. But neither should a few politicians, as America's founders understood. That's because "even good people do bad things," Thompson lamented, observing, "Some of our folks went to Washington to drain the swamp and made partnership with the alligators instead."
Designed to limit and restrain power-hungry alligators, our liberty-preserving system reflected our founders' insight that "men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious," as Alexander Hamilton put it. "Let no more be heard of confidence in man," Thomas Jefferson argued, "but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution."
Yet so politicized is Washington, even institutions charged with equal enforcement of laws (the Justice Department and the IRS) ride a merry-go-round of evasion and unaccountability, abetted by politicians who defend the indefensible and political media whose untrustworthiness rivals that of Congress.
Not surprisingly, Americans are searching for "anti-politicians" and rejecting the herd-like media's monopoly. Witness Ben Carson's recent $4 million fundraising haul from small donors. Viewing the media as more interested in discrediting than investigating, the concern isn't media scrutiny but its unequal application.
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Comparing the IRS and Benghazi scandals to Watergate, journalistic sleuths Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have criticized the media for abandoning their role to safeguard the people from the government, appearing instead to protect government officials from Americans.
Unlike Watergate, both controversies were dismissed as political witch-hunts. Virtually unnoticed was last month's Justice Department decision to drop charges against IRS officials — notably Lois Lerner — for abuses of power. Will the FBI criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton's classified-information violations also be whitewashed, unlike the cases of two former CIA directors who were held accountable for similar violations?
Also headed for history's dustbin is the Benghazi tragedy that resulted in four American deaths. After Clinton testified before the House Select Committee on Benghazi last month, reporters marveled at her lawyerly obfuscations, calling her testimony a "political victory."
Though the hearings established what Clinton knew and when she knew it, reporters noted instead her calm demeanor under questioning. Imagine Woodward and Bernstein covering Nixon's burglars as if they were Broadway performers.
Her never-before-seen emails confirmed that she intentionally lied when she publicly blamed an anti-Muslim video for what she simultaneously told her family was a premeditated al-Qaida-like attack on our consulate.
But as Clinton once asked, "What difference at this point does it make?" Do the incompetence, avoidable deaths, lied-to victims' families, stonewalling, covert server and unaccountability really not matter?
National Journal pundit Ron Fournier, a longtime Clinton fan, thinks "it makes all the difference" to an electorate that's lost trust in government and politics. About Clinton — whose honesty rating in the Quinnipiac poll is the lowest among presidential candidates — Fournier wrote: "Only the most blindly loyal and partisan voters will accept her word and ignore the serial deception."
Voters also feel deceived by Congress, especially after former House Speaker John Boehner's last official act — the secretly negotiated, accounting-gimmick-laden budget bill that passed in the dead of night without review or debate.
Suspending the debt ceiling and painstakingly negotiated spending caps, this deal means that by 2017, Congress will have authorized an additional $15 trillion in debt since George W. Bush's 2001 inauguration. That's three times more debt in 16 years than was accumulated in the prior 200 years.
Touted as bipartisan, the irresponsible budget deal confirms retired Sen. Tom Coburn's insight: The problem isn't that politicians can't agree; it's that they've agreed for decades "to borrow and spend far beyond our means" and the Constitution's boundaries. It's "the very problem our founders sought to avoid — a deeply indebted government that's threatening the survival of our republic."
Absent Constitutional guardrails, a shared belief that no one is above the law, and watchdog media that enforce accountability, Nixon-like alligators now rule Washington. Thompson was onto the solution when he joked that should scientists ever learn to resurrect extinct species, we "might want to start with the Founding Fathers."
Think Again — while we can't bring back our founders, we can restrain Washington's alligators by being informed and engaged citizens and by heeding Jefferson's warning: "The greatest danger to American freedom is a government that ignores the Constitution."
Melanie Sturm lives in Aspen. She reminds readers to Think Again. You might change your mind. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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