During our first seven Pulitzer Prize quality episodes, we spent a thrill-a-minute evening at the Last Chance Democracy Café discussing economic inequality and the rising tide of plutocracy within the American political system. Then we changed direction slightly and during the next seven Nobel Prize quality episodes, we tended to other business. Beginning with tonight’s episode, we’re going home again . . .
The Last Chance Democracy Café:
Episode 15: One Ruthless Bunch
by Steven C. Day
People say I am ruthless. I am not
ruthless. And if I find the man who is
calling me ruthless, I shall destroy him.”
(Robert F. Kennedy)
“I think that one of the great problems
we have in the Republican Party is that
we don’t encourage you to be nasty.”
(Newt Gingrich visiting Alice in Wonderland)
Even those of us who revere the memory of RFK — and make no mistake, we should — must admit, if we’re honest, that his reputation for ruthlessness was often well earned, especially during his younger days. Equally well earned, of course, was his reputation as a passionate and unwavering advocate for social and political justice — his drive “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world.”
The ruthlessness displayed by today’s radical right, is rarely so nuanced, or, for that matter, so well offset by competing virtues — which is to say, I suppose, that while the end rarely justifies the means, noble ends are still much to be preferred to petty and selfish ones.
Tom had the look of a man with a plan as he said, “Zach, it occurs to me that we’ve been woefully neglecting your education.”
Zach’s facial expression was suitably noncommittal. He had cause to worry that Tom was about to launch into an hour long lecture on the economics of ancient Rome, or some such topic. That’s Tom. I remember one time he used a bad call at a baseball game as the starting point for pontificating for ninety minutes on the causes for the economic decline of the Netherlands in the 18th Century.
Fortunately, he had nothing quite so painful in mind this time.
“You started coming to The Last Chance Democracy Café, as I recall,” he continued, “because you wanted to learn more about the threat plutocracy poses to American democracy . . .”
Zach smiled, “Well actually, I also kind of like the beer.”
“And the burgers?” I added
“And the company, I hope,” added Horace.
“Definitely the company.”
Tom held his glass high in salute. “Still, we’ve been off topic far too long. So in order to get us back on track, I would like to propose a toast in honor of Brian Robin.”
“Who the hell is Brian Robin,” barked Winston.
Tom gestured to Horace, “Go ahead, tell him.”
“Don’t look at me.”
“Okay, Zach, how about you?”
Zach, who was in the middle of a long sip of beer, shook his head no.
“My, my,” said Tom haughtily. “None of you know . . . ?”
Tom’s bedside manor deficiency was on the prowl again. You can take my word for it that he wasn’t trying to be condescending. He‘s just utterly clueless as to what life’s like for those of us who don’t have photographic memories. In this instance, for example, I’m convinced that he was sincerely baffled by how anyone could fail to remember the name of a man involved in a fairly obscure news story published more than a year earlier. In Tom’s mind, it stood out as clearly as his own telephone number.
Now, scientists will tell you that there’s no such thing as a photographic memory — that it’s a myth. A few years back, Tom read all of the pertinent studies — some 700 hundred pages total, and he agrees completely with this conclusion. “No doubt about it,” he told me, “the studies definitely prove that there’s no such thing as a photographic memory.” And Tom ought to know, since he still remembers every word, every statistic and, for that matter, every comma in those 700 pages.
He continued, “Brian Robin worked as a sports writer for the Los Angles Times . . . not for the main paper, but its community edition in Ontario . . .”
“Ontario, Canada . . . ?” asked Zach in a surprised voice.
“No, Ontario, California. It’s smaller, warmer and has a governor who’s groped more women than Ontario, Canada . . . Anyway, Robin was reading Bartcop.com. . . . It’s a humorous liberal web page . . .”
“It’s a disreputable site, filled with vicious attacks on our president,” I added. “So naturally, it’s very popular among our customers.”
“Anyhow,” said Tom, “while reading the page he came across an item about . . .”
Horace interrupted, “Oh, he’s the guy Bill Thomas got fired.”
“Right. He was reading about an appearance Thomas made on CNN, where he had tried to blame Bill Clinton for Enron style corporate corruption . . .”
“Dufus,” said Winston.
“That’s exactly what Robin thought,” continued Tom. “So he slapped together an e-mail to Thomas, beginning with the words, “Surely you can’t be that stupid . . .”
“In other words, he was being charitable,” said Winston. “Giving Thomas the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t actually as stupid as he sounded.”
Tom laughed. “I doubt Thomas saw it that way.”
“So, he’s both a dufus and an ingrate? Now, there’s a pair to draw to.”
There was a new poster on the wall next to the large round table where we sit, by the way. It featured a large picture of a smiling Rush Limbaugh holding a large bottle of pills, with the caption: “All (Poor) Drug Users Should Go To Prison.”
Tom pressed on. “Unfortunately, Robin made a big mistake. His personal e-mail account was down. So . . . even though he was home, he sent the message using the Los Angles Times e-mail system, which was a violation of the company’s rules against sending personal e-mails . . .”
“Yeah, like that had never happened before,” said Horace, shaking his head.
“Right,” agreed Tom. “I guess there are personal messages and then there are personal messages. Anyway, here’s the really pathetic part: Two days later, someone from Thomas’ office called Robin to ask whether he worked for the Times. He answered that he did. Later that day, he was suspended. A week later, he was fired.”
Zach looked angry. “So you’re telling me that a United States Congressman . . . someone elected to represent us, was so vindictive . . . he actually set out to get some guy fired just because he sent him a nasty message?”
“You got it . . . Well, I guess we don’t actually know for sure whether Thomas himself was involved, or just his staff. But I’ll tell you one thing, he never tried to disavow it.”
“Bullshit,” growled Winston. “There’s no doubt about what happened. I can just see Thomas and the boys sitting around his desk yukking it up about how they got the bastard.”
The incident in question was actually even more pathetic than what Tom and Winston described. Bill Thomas isn’t just any member of Congress. He’s the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, making him one of the most powerful men in Washington. You’d think a guy like that — and his staff for that matter — would have better things to do with their time (no, with our time, they work for us, after all) than playing a petty little game of payback against a part time sports writer.
Of course, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me. After all, Bill Thompson is the same guy who, when he got mad one time, actually called the Capitol Police to try to get them to throw Democratic members out of a House library where they were caucusing.
In many ways, Thomas represents a caricature of the Republican congressional leadership as a whole — imperious, uncompromising, disrespectful of minority rights and ever willing to bend House rules where it works to his advantage.
“The guy sounds kind of childish,” said Zach.
Winston scoffed, “Childish . . . ? Hell, calling Thompson childish is like calling the Salem Witchcraft Trials injudicious . . . It doesn’t begin to capture the sheer meanness of the man.”
“But this isn’t just about Bill Thompson,” Horace said in a voice that was oddly solemn, given the raucousness of the conversation up to that point. “It’s about the broader issue of the ruthless way in which the radical right has been exploiting its growing power in this country and the way this, in turn, has been accelerating the tendency toward plutocracy in American governance . . . At least, I’m guessing that’s why you brought it up, Tom . . .”
Tom gave him a thumbs up.
As we were talking at the large round table, Donald, Marvin and Molly were caucusing at the bar. They had agreed to act as the judges in my Bushism contest.
The idea for the contest was for customers to submit their favorite example of a Bush verbal miscue and then to have the panel of judges pick the best one. First place prize was the George W. Bush dartboard we used in the lounge during the second week of March, which, by odd coincidence, had ended up with a pattern of dart marks that looked remarkably like a pretzel.
Let me be honest: As contests go, this one was fairly lame. Since we have Jacob Weisberg’s entire Bushisms series on a bookshelf in the lounge, all the contestants had to do to enter was to look up their favorite example in one of the books — hardly a grueling task. Still, our distinguished judges stood ready to carry out their duties. They proceeded as follows: Donald, who had been drafted as the de facto chairman due to his background in English, read each submission aloud and then each judge gave it a numerical score from one to ten. (The smart ass remarks in italic are my after-the-fact additions.)
Donald read the first Bushism: “I am going to work with every Cabinet member to set a series of goals for each Cabinet.” Jan. 2, 2001*
*I guess you can always use more cabinet space.
Back at the big round table, Horace was still leading the conversation. “Zach,” he said, “I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying that power corrupts and absolute power . . .”
” . . . corrupts absolutely,” Zach finished the sentence.
“Exactly. And I’m sure you also know that people often use that saying to make the point that checks and balances are needed in allocating governmental power . . .”
” . . . among the separate branches.”
“And that’s all true, of course . . . But I’ve got to tell you, in my opinion, that saying can also be a little misleading. Because stated in the absolute way it is, it sort of implies that it doesn’t matter . . . in terms of the corrupting tendency of power, who the people in power are. And that just isn’t true. It isn’t true at all. It matters a lot whether it’s, say, Bill Thomas, or someone else without his ruthlessness, who’s exercising that power.”
Donald was ready with the next Bushism: “For a century and a half now, America and Japan have formed one of the great and enduring alliances of modern times.” Feb. 18, 2002*
*And to think I thought the problems in our alliance with France were serious!
“Here’s an example that hopefully will help to make my point,” said Horace. “Did you know that following American Independence, some army officers actually pushed to have George Washington named king of the United States?”
“Yeah, I think I heard something about that in school . . . or maybe on the History Channel.”
Tom perked up. “You watch the History Channel? I’m impressed!”
“Well, actually I think I may have been surfing channels looking for a new music video.”
“However you learned about it,” grinned Horace, “I’ll bet you also learned that Washington quickly put a stop to such talk. And, not only that . . . he then went on, throughout the rest of his life, to use his extraordinary popularity to help nurture the American Republic, instead of using it to consolidate his own power . . .”
“And here’s the thing: I know this may sound petty, but I have to wonder . . . I mean, I can’t help but wonder, whether if it had been someone else . . . someone like George W. Bush, Tom Delay, or even our old friend Bill Thomas in that position . . . with that kind of power, would things have worked out the same way . . . ? Obviously, I can’t know for sure, but I can’t help but have my doubts.”
Meanwhile, back at the bar, Donald was reading the next Bushism: “It would be a mistake for the United States Senate to allow any kind of human cloning to come out of that chamber.” April 10, 2002*
*Considering the likes of Trent Lott, Bill Frist and Orrin Hatch, I couldn’t agree more. One of each is more than enough.
“Let me try to put things into context . . . ” said Horace. “Do you remember how on the very first evening you came here to the café, we talked about the way the increasing concentration of wealth in this country is . . . ”
” . . . leading to a similar concentration in political power, right?” Zach interrupted.
“Exactly,” smiled Horace. “And since you’re on a roll, do you happen to remember the next part of the equation?”
” . . . I think so. Isn’t it that if left unchecked this imbalance of economic and political power will inevitably . . . I guess, continue to feed on itself, to the end that as the wealthy become even richer, they also become even more politically powerful, and the more politically powerful they become, the more they’re able to use that power to make themselves even richer, and so on and so on and so on, until . . . well, until a point of no return is reached.”
“Damn, if all college students were as smart as you are, I might still be teaching” said Tom — high praise, indeed, coming from Tom.
Zach smiled appreciatively, but held up his hand for Tom to stop. ” . . . And at that point, I think you said, the United States will cease being a liberal democracy . . .”
“In any true sense . . .” Tom filled in.
” . . . and officially become a plutocracy.”
“Amen,” said Winston, speaking for the whole group.
Donald was reading the next Bushism: “For every fatal shooting, there were roughly three nonfatal shootings. And, folks, this is unacceptable in America. It’s just not acceptable. And we’re going to do something about it.” May, 14, 2001*
*Now there’s an agenda for America’s future: More target practice!
“Here’s a statement that may surprise you, Zach,” said Horace. “Not all plutocracies are created equal.”
“Meaning . . . ?”
“Meaning that, for example, a good argument can be made that . . . at least in a number of respects, the government of the United States, right after the constitution was adopted, was itself a plutocracy.”
“It certainly was a government run almost exclusively by the wealthy,” agreed Tom.
“But if it was a plutocracy,” Horace carried the thought forward, “it was plutocracy populated by the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to name just a few.”
“And the new Republic was safe in their hands,” said Tom.
Zach nodded, “I guess we were lucky.”
“No,” said Horace, “we were blessed. Because in different hands . . . in more ruthless hands, everything might have turned out differently.”
Winston stirred in his chair. “What my long-winded friends are trying to say” he began, “is that if we allow our nation today to continue in its current slide into plutocracy, there is very little reason to expect that we will be so fortunate this time around.”
Donald was reading the next Bushism: “And so, and my State of the . . . my State of the Union . . . or state . . . my speech to the nation, whatever you want to call it . . . speech to the nation . . .” April 9, 2002*
*It’s okay, George. If I told that many lies in one speech, I’d probably try to block it out of my mind too.
“Winston’s right,” said Horace. “What’s really scary today isn’t so much that political and economic power is becoming incredibly concentrated. It’s that it’s becoming incredibly concentrated in the hands of an incredibly ruthless collection of people.”
“To start with the most obvious example,” said Winston, “let’s not forget that this is the same bunch who stole the last presidential election. Think of what I’m saying — they actually went out and stole the most important public office in the world. And they did it right in front of our eyes. I mean, you have to give them credit, that’s pretty damn ballsy . . .”
“And pretty damn ruthless, too,” interrupted Horace. “Look at the things these people were willing to do to win! They deliberately disenfranchised thousands of lawful black voters, organized a riot to intimidate election officials in Miami-Dade County, engaged in highly questionable practices and probably out-in-out vote fraud involving overseas ballots, conspired to have the Florida legislature overrule the will of the voters and then, ultimately, turned to a highly partisan five person majority on the Supreme Court to put Bush into office against the will of the clear majority of voters . . .”
“And make no mistake,” said Tom in a deadly serious voice, “people who would do all that to get into power, will do almost anything to stay there.”
“And that isn’t just abstract theory,” added Winston. “It’s the daily reality of how these folks have been conducting themselves in office.”
Donald read the next Bushism: “The California crunch really is the result of not enough power-generating plants and then not enough power to power the power of generating plants.” Jan. 14, 2001*
*Come on George, if you’re going to lie to us, could you at least do so a little less verbosely.
“I’m not usually a man who’s at a loss for words . . .” began Tom.
Winston looked like he wanted to say something sarcastic, but he resisted.
” . . . but the ruthlessness of the right wing juggernaut that’s running all three branches of our government today is so pervasive, it’s hard to know where to start.”
“Kind of like being asked for a list of all the places where Ann Coulter could use plastic surgery,” interjected Winston. “I mean, where would you begin . . . ?
A quick aside: We have a strict rule here at The Last Chance Democracy Café against jokes based upon people’s physical appearances.
Although there’s an Ann Coulter exception.
Well, okay, there’s also a Rush Limbaugh exception.
And a Dick Cheney exception and a George W. Bush exception and a . . . but really, it’s a firm rule.
Tom continued, “Here’s just a small partial list of some examples of their ruthlessness, just a few things I can come up with on the spur of a moment: Like pushing governmental secrecy to the level of a police state, regularly accusing entire groups of honorable citizens, who just happen to oppose the administration’s policies, of disloyalty to the nation, pushing through an extremist legislative agenda absent popular support . . .”
“And don’t forget their thirst for revenge and their willingness to slander anyone who opposes them,” Horace jumped in. “And Bill Thomas getting that sports writer fired was just the tiniest tip of a huge and ugly iceberg . . . It started almost the moment the Bush Boys took power, with the false accusations that the Clinton people had trashed the White House on their way out. And, of course, there’s the disgraceful way, during the last campaign, that Bush and his far right cronies questioned the patriotism of Max Cleland . . . a man who only sacrificed three limbs for his country in Vietnam . . .”
“I’ll never forgive them for that one,” growled Winston. “There are some places you don’t go, no matter what the potential political payoff. Some things are still sacred . . . or at least they ought to be.”
” . . . And let’s not forget,” Horace continued, “the granddaddy of all slime attacks . . . the one that really ought to land someone’s butt in prison. I’m talking, of course, about the time the White House, in order to get back at Joseph Wilson for exposing one of their lies, leaked to the press the fact that his wife, Valerie Plame, was an undercover CIA agent.”
“I hear you, brother!” huffed Tom. “I would have sworn before that happened that there was nothing these thugs could do that would be so low that it would surprise me. And then they go and prove me wrong.”
Donald was reading the next Bushism: “Security is the essential roadblock to achieving the road map to peace.” July 25, 2003*
*Gosh, George, I always thought you were the essential roadblock to the road map to peace.
Then the judges took a break, so Molly could get back to working her tables.
But Horace was still going strong at the large round table, angrily rattling off examples of right wing ruthlessness. “One of the worst things is the administration’s utter contempt for the prerogatives of Congress . . . even a Congress their own party controls! Refusing to produce documents and witnesses needed for legislative oversight, bypassing the Senate confirmation process on controversial appointments through aggressive use of recess appointments, using administrative regulations to impose policy changes rejected by Congress . . .”
“And don’t forget the way they’re packing scientific boards and panels with political hacks, instead of impartial scholars,” added Tom.
“Or the redistricting farce in Texas,” I threw in.
“Or their continuing pattern of nominating ideological extremists to the federal courts,” Winston half shouted.
“Or claiming the right to lock up American citizens indefinitely, without resort to the courts, based upon . . . well, nothing more than Bush’s say so,” added Tom in a disbelieving tone of voice.
“Enough with the laundry list,” said Horace, slapping his hand on the table. “We’ve made our point. And there’s something more important we need to talk about — something, I have to tell you, that’s been keeping me up at night . . . Think about this: If this is how Bush acts when he knows he’s going to have to face the voters again, can you imagine how far he may be willing to go if he ends up winning in November? Remember that he can’t run again. So if he wins this time, he’ll be free from any type of electorally-induced restraint. And don’t forget that most political bookmakers expect the Republicans to hang onto control of both houses of Congress. My God, think of where that will leave us — unopposed power, stripped of virtually all accountability and combined with an almost unlimited degree of ruthlessness. It’s the recipe for a political apocalypse.”
Tom spoke in an uncharacteristically muted voice, “So I guess you can see, Zach, why we keep saying that time is running short to stop the triumph of plutocracy . . . frighteningly short.”
“There’s no debating that,” whispered Horace. “I just pray that it hasn’t already run out.”
* * *
When not busy managing a mythical café, Steven C. Day lives with his family in Wichita, Kansas where he has practiced law for 25 years. Contact Steven at .
© Copyright Steven C. Day. WGAw #974001