Criminals and 2016 Again
‘Crime’ is a by its nature a limiting word. Republican Rome preferred terms that amounted to an infraction of dignity, or a ‘delict’—a sin. For a while, Romans didn’t even have a law of murder, so much as a socialised process of bounty, vendetta or forgiveness by the heads of families that seems in the modern world to have transferred to some Islamic communities.
By contrast, The Greeks—such a sweeping term-- viewed that which offended conscience as a crime. Hence one reading of the word amnesia to mean ‘forgetfulness of sin’. In addition, since authorities from time immemorial have sought to ground their legitimacy in the appearance of natural things, defeating crime can in a way be presented as upholding nature against chaos and disorder. Law and order and, if you like, anti-entropic. This is why it is Kings and Authorities and self-constituted servants of Order and system-builders who like the idea of crime, since it follows that there are criminals from whom the ruled and the rules have to be protected.
In the common law tradition, we blend these ideas into the default state of criminality. It is important to us that an accused, to be guilty, has to have had both a guilty mind, which can be recognised as such by a jury and by themselves, and to have committed the guilty act or failed in the guilty omission; in, to coin a phrase, what they had done, and in what they have failed to do. Our trials lend themselves not just to the drama of the state applying its vast power against the citizen, therefore, but also to the intimate examination of the mind of the accused. The processes by which we judge people, and by which we build cases against them, are vitally affected by this dual drama.
The problem is that, in politics, the state’s agents often act in ways, and with motives, that most of the ruled would consent to but which are from any objective perspective disordered. They might do things which can be objectively justified from some utilitarian or collective ethic, but which if applied by individuals would produce a vicious anarchy. States might make war, for example; they might track, or arrest, or kill, or disable those whom they have identified as enemies or potential threats. They may use regulation and taxation and their capacity to write rules to validate their behaviour, or to enhance it. There is in all systems a necessary quantum of patronage which can hold political coalitions together—what Plunkitt of Tammany Hall called ‘Honest Graft’. As long as states can lay a claim to govern and in part to protect distinct sovereign areas, or distinct cultures, these licit ‘politically validated’ acts will be with us.
Much of the time, much of this apparently criminal behaviour on the part of the state or its agents is celebrated, excused or ignored. As the past few years have shown, few of us lose sleep at an assassination here, a drone strike there, or the questionable disbursement of finances in traditional political ways. Hypocrisy is, if not a virtue, a civilised vice. Sometimes, but not often, the public have or are incited into a moral fit, but the tide often contains intimations of its own withdrawal. It leaves us with neat cultural myths and songs, or misunderstandings, like Canute at the seaside, or the fairy-tale of Watergate, or that song about Jimmy Carter saying yes from 1976. These things and an empty space of the sort which anger leaves as a hangover.
With the waning of a faith in universal reason and the modern idea of absolutely common humanity untouched by culture, and its replacement with a more naturalistic, romantic, and discriminating view of cultures, we have also rebuilt the idea that there are people who are ‘them’ and people who are ‘us’. The elaboration of the modern media and corporate society has had no small part in this, but the ultimate reasons are probably ingrained in our nature. Sometimes, people accede to or revel in badness, and others have to respond or stay silent. Those who oppose it often end up, well, crucified.
Presidents and the coterie of those who make up the public and the shadow governance of an organisation are also, in a way, creatures of their system. It’s a peculiar modern fallacy to believe that leaders can do too much; the difference, for instance, between a Napoleon after Elba or an Emperor Norton of San Francisco is really that between a man with followers and a man with an indulgent but ultimately indifferent audience. Nothing more. One was a star who affected history, the other a joke. One had followers. One also had access to those mysterious levers which join souls to duty, rather than indulgence. Jim Callaghan once noted that it wasn’t when people snarled at you that you knew you had lost power and influence; it was when they laughed. Whilst this is the reverse of Ghandi’s favourite dictum (and typical of the bully that Sunny Jim could be) I think that there is something in it.
Yet we subject leaders, in our occasional fits and spasms of public morality, to the idea that there are criminal rules for them, that tenuous international society is a kind of authority, that they can be judged by forms and minds other than those of their people in elections, and to the idea that they should be held to the standards of ordinary life, even when we know that the world after a certain altitude meshes with the darkness of a predatory jungle from which we wish to be delivered.
To call a political leader a criminal is therefore to say a certain set of things, not necessarily cumulatively or consecutively. Either they have broken a law of nature which you think exists; or they have broken an actual law and have no defence; or they have stayed within the law, or done something extralegal, but yet done something which you think should be illegal. The term ‘criminal’ is also sufficiently serious that one has to distinguish the phantom of ‘civil crimes’ such as torts which are extremely serious but which no one has ever prosecuted as a crime, from crime itself, and also real crimes have in some way to be ranked according to the judgment of those who would acquit or convict.
This is why it is very difficult to call Presidents of the United States, or the senior leaders of its regime, criminals in the normal sense. However, this is my blog and I want to think about how one could contextualise the election of 2016, and any candidates within it, in relation to putative criminality in the past. I’ll leave the mental health of past and present leaders for another blog. Let’s start with a list of indictments which could have been, then one of those which were, and follow with one that might have been.
The Worst Things in American History Which Could Form the Basis of A Criminal Indictment Against Leaders and For Which There is Evidence
1. Genocide of the Native American Peoples
3. The conduct of the Civil War and the betrayal of African-Americans
4. Treason against the United Kingdom or the United States
5. The Use of the Second Atomic Bomb
6. Firebombing, carpet-bombing and campaigns of mass destruction in Europe and South East Asia
7. Chemical and Biological War in Korea
8. The Mexican War
9. Conspiracy to subvert other governments across the Americas and the World
10. Campaigns of Terrorism or Assassination
11. The organised use of the government against innocent citizens, from tax investigation to miscarriages of justice, persecution, and assassination.
12. Aiding and Abetting National Socialism before 1933 and doing the same for Nazis after 1945.
The Things which Have Actually Led to Impeachments
1. Andrew Johnson pardoning Southerners and attempting to organise a non-Republican Union Party
2. Richard Nixon. Just in general.
3. Bill Clinton lying about an intimate relationship with an intern whilst on oath.
The Things That Probably Ought to be in The Mix
a) Thomas Jefferson’s Louisinana Purchase and attempted Impeachment of Judges
b) James Buchanan’s negligence
c) Lyndon Johnson’s Behaviour after the Kennedy Assassination
d) Franklin Roosevelt’s negligence before Pearl Harbor
e) The Nisei Camps
f) The Iran-Contra Affair
On looking at the lists above, it is difficult unless one has met American journalists and political activists to reconcile their general indifference, amounting sometimes to taking offence, at the first list with their passion over the second and their dismissal of the third. Sometimes the mind boggles.
It’s important at an early point to note that the founders of the American Constitution—who are not the same people necessarily as the men of 1776—were hard-headed, practical and more Hobbesian than Lockean. They understood what graft and patronage and ambition and faction were, and built it into their system. So, when reformers stand up and claim that it is vitally necessary for, say, an independent civil service on British lines to exist, or that there is too much cronyism in the American system, the only proper response is to say that, from a certain point of view, a system of cronyism, patronage, gerrymandering and administrative bias is the American system. The Federalist Papers, written to explain the constitution by its supporters make this clear. Not only is the ruling passion of the noblest mind ambition, but the genius of the system was that shifting groups and demagogues were meant to be balanced against each other in the House of Representatives, and then against the Senate, and both against the presidency and electoral college, which in turn were part of a federal order which was originally quite flexible. America was a balanced republic, not a pure democracy, and it was a Darwinian one at that. The mutant best suited to their environment, not the changeling who was superior, was the one who would succeed.
So, with all that made clear, it becomes difficult to identify ‘criminals’ per se in the presidency to the point where one could list the qualities that you didn’t want in a 2016 contender. The traditional list would start with Richard Nixon, I guess, and LBJ would be in the dock too as principal co-defendants. Then there would be a second dock, Italian-style, which caged a larger number; James Polk, Bill Clinton, Franklin Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland, Warren Harding, Rutherford Hayes, both Bushes, Harry Truman and possibly Lincoln would be in that stand. That would leave, twiddling in the civil pens below, the likes of Buchanan, Kennedy, Madison and Jackson.
The trouble with indicting Richard Nixon with anything is not that there is no evidence of bad behaviour during his administration, or indeed during his whole career. Before the plumbers, for instance, who fixed leaks, there was the ‘townhouse’ campaign funding scandal, and alongside, the use of the IRS, the treasonable relations with South Vietnamese President Thieu before the 1968 election, the bombing campaigns in the Indochinese peninsula, and the activities of the CIA in Chile and elsewhere during Operation Condor. A variety of minor financial felonies and misdemeanours are also probably open to discovery, such as the funnelling of money to Nixon’s brother, or his friend Bebe Rebozo, or his use of White House funds and the Secret Service as personal chattels. He probably even kept a couple of gifts too. Finding indictments isn’t the problem. The real problem is twofold. In most cases, other people or agencies suggested, planned or executed the acts which one would seek to hang on Nixon if he was being prosecuted. Secondly, there are a huge number of defences available.
Richard Nixon took the fall for a system which was created and sustained in large part by precisely the sort of people of whom he had been rightly suspicious. Watergate, for instance, by all appearances, seems to have been a project of John Dean, aided by shady veterans of the anti-Castro wars who could legitimately be linked to the numerous murder plots of and then against President Kennedy, and turbocharged by loons like Gordon Liddy and the darkest parts of the CIA. Townhouse was a George H.W.Bush affair, in cahoots with the Agency, which is why George didn’t get to be Vice-president, and Rockefeller did, though Bush did eventually get the much more important jobs of CIA Director and Ambassador to China. The Thieu initiative was as much Henry Kissinger’s as Nixon’s, if not more so; and anyone familiar with the career of the United States elsewhere in the Americas since the 1890s would be, I would argue, flabbergasted to hear that Condor and the various Cuban shenanigans based out of Nicaragua were Nixonian initiatives.
Nixon could be in this position because of a unique combination of knowledge and longevity. From 1946 to 1974 he had been, in turn, a Representative, Senator, Vice-president, presidential and gubernatorial candidate, and President. Nixon had involved himself with the defence and foreign policy establishments, J Edgar Hoover (with whom he had played cards regularly, and controlled the anticommunist hysteria), Joe McCarthy, the early plots against Castro, and a huge swathe of the Republican Party organisation. He was a perfect candidate to know what had happened, and he developed the delusion as some do that knowledge was a form of active power—that it made it possible for him to ride the tiger and control the system. It’s very obvious, however, that a career built on running against the Eastern establishment, the CIA and the Dewey-Rockefeller Republican party, from the background of a poor boy from the West, whilst building a new electoral mandate was more dangerous than being a part of that establishment. The anti-Nixon is George Bush. Bush’s hands were dipped in all the blood Nixon’s were, and some more besides—yet when, seriously, was Poppy Bush arraigned? He came close in Iran-Contra, but slipped away in a typically deft fashion. It was Nixon on whom the faults of American society were projected, Nixon who ultimately had no friends but acquaintances, and Nixon who was used and dumped. I think that he got that in the end.
None of this is to clear Richard Nixon. At numerous points in his career, he had had the chance to redeem himself. He didn’t. He simply embraced the logic of powers and principalities, and suffused his inner world with the idea that only he could overcome great crisis, usually self-generated, preclude Soviet attacks on Berlin, and thus save the world from the one sure flashpoint of nuclear war. The truth of the bible is never more evident, however. What does it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul? Nixon was raised up and dashed by people who knew, or who at a more popular level understood, that he was in effect a kind of willing scape-beast. Not a goat, certainly; more a kind of mangy lone wolf whose adopted pack had predictably turned upon it. His downfall was neither the greatest hour of the media nor of the political gangs of America.
There is no-one like Richard Nixon on the horizon who is even looking for nomination in 2016, bar one (or perhaps, since Bill and Hillary Clinton are in some sense a conjoined being, two). The nearest analogy to Tricky Dick is the former Secretary of State, Senator from New York, and First Lady. Her experience in 2008, however, is illustrative of her Nixonian problems in gaining and winning nomination. Hillary knows where bodies are buried, certainly. She knows the secrets of the American deep, at first hand and vicariously.
I’d argue that Mrs Clinton has more pre-presidential weight than Nixon in policy terms, but she has shown herself to be a far worse campaigner. The reality is that she should never have lost the nomination of the Democratic Party in 2008. Her campaign director’s explanations for why that was—that the rules were not understood—is frankly incredible, and her inability to grasp the most obvious of points belie the idea that she can arise easily again in 2016. Readers of the blog will know that I thought Huckabee, Obama, and Palin the most interesting candidates of 2008, but that until relatively late I thought that Hillary and possibly Rudy Giuliani would be the nominees. What really seriously started to swing me was a silly little thing. Hillary held an online poll; it selected an upbeat, edgy number called ‘suddenly I see’ as the song people would most like to hear as her campaign tune; she went on video, pretended to rock a little, and then ignored everyone. People who do silly sophomore things like that don’t get elected.
Herf defeat and subsequent service as Secretary of State has taken some of the heat away from the Nixonian-style hatred she used to meet, and therefore from the wish of her opponents to investigate her. In fact, measured by hatred, it’s far more likely that other 2016 candidates, such as Rand Paul or Jeb Bush will be subjected to Nixon-style partisanship than Hillary will this time. It’s also difficult to link her to serious scandal in a way that was easy to do with RMN. Nixon’s peculiar criminality and the associated projection and gestalt of national sin and sacrifice is not coming back.
In any event, the ‘biggest’ criminal—in terms of real crimes as well as political crimes committed—to sit in the White House isn’t Nixon at all. On any serious analysis, that dubious honour goes to Lyndon Baines Johnson. If a defence of higher motives existed, he would no doubt qualify on the basis on which many academic liberals excuse him—that he wanted to do great things for society, but that they required him to be elected. Johnson had a bad dose of the lesser evils, the argument might go, and anyway, he left the US with social programmes and racial settlements which focussed a generation’s attention and activities on the nature of American freedom in a way not done since the Civil War.
The other defence for Lyndon might well be some combination of automatism and insanity. He was, for most of his life, in the grip of his own volcanic need to lie, dominate, and control. This need was self-medicated with drink and sex, but ever present and in the way of a sickness.
Yet what a sickness. Johnson entered politics on the back of FDR’s patronage; he then proceeded through a famously stolen election to the Senate, which he came to dominate as few except maybe Henry Clay, John Calhoun or Stephen Douglas had done before. In office as Majority Leader, he diverted huge sums of money to the space programme in his native Texas, and reaped rewards from a variety of Byzantine and monopolistic schemes. Often, he would leave his wife in charge of these, not least the family broadcasting business built up from state-acquired licences. Were it not for the assassination of President Kennedy—the details of which, for whatever raison d’etat, he covered up against what he later said was his better judgment—he would have had to resign because of his association with Bobby Baker. Baker, often called Johnson’s other side, was a career criminal and power broker who built up a huge business fleecing individuals from the comfort of the Senate administration. Johnson’s other identifiable crony, Mac Wallace, was worse; a murderer and cleanup man directly linked to at least three killings. A palm print matching that of Wallace on the better part of 20 points was found in the Texas School Book Depository on the arrangement of boxes that constituted the alleged Assassin’s ‘nest’. More than any other leader, Johnson was directly responsible for the Vietnam war and its escalation, as well as for the invasion of Dominica. Johnson also indirectly caused the death of two airmen whom he insisted fly to meet him as a Senator despite weather warnings on a trivial pretext; a small thing when you consider the people killed in Vietnam, but revealing to my mind. He who kills a person kills a world entire, and all that.
Johnson was a monster with an intimation that he had a soul. Given that, his agonies in office, and his grand attempts to build a ‘Great Society’ (in itself a Catholic phrase picked up by one of his exhausted staff, whom he treated as servants) essentially broke America, he should be judged grandly rather than pettily. The President of the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, Medicare and Medicaid, and the War on Poverty was also the President of Martial law, Agent Orange, the contemptuous and contemptible treatment of all around him, and basically psychotic.
There’s no Lyndon running this time either. The thought of any analogy—bits of John McCain and Dick Cheney inserted into Elizabeth Warren—doesn’t do one any good. It’s after lunch.
So, barring some great revelation, that means that America in 2016 is going to find an underpowered Hillary as the nearest to one of the titans of past criminality and hatred. It doesn’t leave much in the second rank. In addition, the media under pressure of blog and external competition are now doing better jobs of pulling candidates apart before they get to the presidential level. Johnson and Nixon’s flaws were well known before they were in office to political insiders and those willing to plough through hardback books and political magazines, but these days they’d both have a hard time getting off the ground. Electing criminals is out, so, really, it’s the potential for criminality in office that will have to be assessed.
And that is difficult. The President of the United States is now the chief cog in a system which, since Gerald Ford, has made it very clear that he can do little to impede the policies or to abort the technologies which have come to define modern politics. Modern America is a kind of vast media-corporate Empire, in which praetorian guards of pollsters, lobbyists and agency heads collude with Congress to, for example, force healthcare reform into the arms of the big pharmaceutical and insurance companies, just as the farm and fast food chain has developed into a kind of hydra ever since Earl Butz. The Military-industrial complex is now but one of many which subsist in ways that Gilded Age robber barons would have wet themselves to attain, ducking and diving globally here, electronically there until vast accounting imbalances are mirrored by diversion, waste and a collective will to control which will just not go away. Honest presidents will not take on the prison-industrial complex or the gun companies in any serious way, any more than they can challenge hedge funds or oil firms. Criminal ones will find, as real criminals do, that it makes a lot more sense to seem legit and to go along whilst occasionally droning someone these days.
There are very few independent gangs left in US politics. At the moment of their triumph—they have held all the offices and may do so again without anyone having gone to jail—the Bushes seem somewhat alone. The Kennedys, Symingtons, Stevensons and Rockefellers are around but have given way to some Augustan form of equestrians, their togas stored. Romney failed. The Clintons aren’t a dynasty and the children of former politicians in the Congress or statehouses are by an large through on quirks or no chips off the old blocks. Essential to the idea of assessing criminal capacity in office is to look at the behaviour of candidates within their syndicates or in inter-family relations, but these days, even Vegas has alcohol limits. What if a Godfather called a political meeting and nobody came?