Wednesday, April 13, 2005

The Freakiest People on the Planet

They were such nice guys. God-fearing, patriotic and rich. A real principled bunch of regular Texas folk, generally ... Honky Tonk Payola and Problems with the E-Mail Server ... Constant Cash Flow Problems, Useless Press Releases and a Dim Voice in the Distance

"The American system is the most ingenious system of control in world history. With a country so rich in natural resources, talent and labour power the system can afford to distribute just enough wealth to just enough people to limit discontent to a troublesome minority. It is a country so powerful, so big, so pleasing to so many of its’ citizens that it can afford to give freedom of dissent to the small number who are not pleased. There is no system of control with more openings, apertures, flexibilities, rewards for the chosen. […] There is none that disperses its’ control more complexly through the voting system, the work situation, the church, the family, the school, the mass media – none more successful in mollifying opposition with reforms, isolating people from one another, creating patriotic loyalty."
- Howard Zinn, from A People’s History of the United States, first published 1981

The game itself does indeed get heavy at times. You shouldn't go gallivanting around picking fights or putting the hammer down on your enemies unless you're absolutely free of dander, excrement and bad intentions. No skeletons in the closet, Sparky: no loose hotel room receipts or secret vices or shady deals with a paper trail ... because if your sordid past outweighs your political capital or reputation, not even Jesus H. Christ can save your vote or your soul, and the lobbyists and party pimps will cash you out as firmly in their column come vote time. If you took payoffs from Indian Casinos in the name of party dominance and dissecting the electoral map, the K Street boys with the dark suits, designer sunglasses and silver briefcases will come knocking in the wee hours of the morning to confront you with hardcopies of the emails that you thought were completely destroyed, in which you once referred to your key Native American clients as "monkeys" and "idiots" or the tribal leadership as "Chief Running Scam" and "Keeping Two Books."

When you get caught playing dirtbag, you're screwed. The cost of your vote just hit rock bottom - zilch - and your supporters back home and your interests are worth about as much as Atari or Digital Equipment stock.

Every once in a while a major political player goes up in flames in a way that kindles the concept of spontaneous combustion, just like we're about to witness with The Bugman, and it goes a little like this: On Monday morning, on the first day that the new UN Ambassador nominee goes up on the Hill for filleting and grilling, you - the treacherous and ambitious party insider and House Majority Leader with more than a few skeletons in the backseat of your limo - are working the hallways of the Rayburn Building in good - albeit, a twisted sense of good - faith, basking in all the attention and requests for a moment to speak about a new appropriations measure when you hear a dim voice in the distance calling your name. You battle an urge to ignore it, then glance down the hallway for your office door to see a smiling, crisply attired young operative of about thirty five years, waving at you to join him for a brief but important discussion.

"Nice to see you, Tommie Boy," he says. "My name's Clayton B. Normal. I've been sent here from the White House and we'd sure like you to come out hard on the flank on this Social Security Bill we're working on. You can call me Clay."

You let out this sheepish smile, but remain silent - waiting for Normal to continue with his pitch. There's going to be a price, and you've been down this road before so you want to fish out this hole before calling it a great deal.

But Normal is already lining up a few more staffers with his hand gestures, settling his sideways gaze on a hot little staffer in black pumps who just started working for Congressman Raptures ... then just as suddenly his expression turns hawkish and he starts rambling about how he always wanted to be one of those pilots in Air America that supplied Cambodia and Laos with supplies and armaments, but the politcal bug caught him and he never looked back ... "And well, goddamned Almighty, we are going to really need these last few votes ... "

You flash an impatient grin and scratch at an ear, wanting to get down to the details. But Normal starts shouting down at a Senator, then turns back again and says: "Holy Mother of Christ, Tommie Boy, I'm really sorry to leave you hanging out here like this, but I have to chase him down. That Senator over there is a regular on Meet the Press and he promises to deliver us half an hour on Sunday morning." He lets out an impish grin and extends his hand for the first time: "Perhaps we can chat over dinner about this? I know this little out of the way place that does a fascinatingly devine carpaccio and tuna nicoise. You game?"


He nods at the only demand you've made thus far, in an almost mocking tone. "I'll phone your office with the details. How's about eight ... tonight?"


"Perfect," he replies gleefully. "Say, Tommie Boy, we can take a scramble in my new 645Ci convertible - take in the sights, come to an understanding over a 1996 Bien Nacido and little thing on the side."

Christ! He's got the 6 Series, a rag top, two hundred bucks a bottle ... Normal is big-time and here for the kill.

"We'll meet at the place by seven thirty," he says, clucking his tongue and pointing to nobody in particular. "Sharp."

Later that night in that out of the way place that Normal described, half sick from the warp speed transport in the BMW - now praying that your wife won't call to wish you a merry good night.

"Listen, Tommie Boy." Clayton B. Normal, grinning like a lion with a small animal in its mouth. "It kinda pains me to have to do this to you. After all that you've done for the party and all - "

"It's all a bunch of shit - the fucking press is responding to leaks and hearsay."

"Really? That's too bad. And I just wanted to lock up that dirty little vote of yours, along with a few of your colleagues."

"Dirty? Wait on there a minute, Clay ... This whole thing is crap; we never took anything that wasn't locked down."

"Bullshit! You've got JOD looking into your travel arrangements. Your lobbyist buddies are talking to the opposition already, Tommie Boy. But heck ... if we weren't on the same side, we would have tossed you under the bus long ago."

Anger mixing with the first bottle of Bien Nacido, a dull throb behind the eyes. "Fuck you, Clayton! This ain't about sides or there ain't no I in team horseshit! If you need my vote - or want me to lean on a few guys for theirs - you damn well know how to put it into play. So save the circus tent speech for the focus groups and fundraising tables in Des Moines."

Normal lets out a heavy grin. "Speak to me, Tommie Boy - what would it take for you to deliver your vote and a few others? Become a party chairman, what?"

"You're fucking A-right! You know what kinda shit storm you guys got me into back home, Clay? When I went back there over the holiday, those liberal vandal bastards spraypainted "Pimp" and "Theif" on my driveway. My fucking driveway! And stretched toilet paper from my goddamned trees."

"I know. But you did call those people monkeys."


"Look at these, Tommie Boy. Some of the most vile and repugnant messages I've seen come out of the Congressional e-mail system."


Normal slides faxed copies across the table.

"Jesus Mother of God!"

"No kidding. That's what I said when I first saw them, Tommie Boy."

"Never! This wasn't me who wrote these! I would never say such a thing about ... Christ, why in God's great name would I ever say such things!"

"That's why these e-mails are disgusting things, Tommie Boy. Never mind the stuff we could allege when you sit down and read between the lines. You're lucky somebody didn't leak them to the press already - or call the IG." Normal starts banging his fist to stress the point that he is about to make. "That's the lead story for the News at Six in Odessa and Peter Jennings. Next thing you know - Stewart and Leno and Letterman start pissing on your grave."


"Yes, Tommie Boy - and now you gotta pay for your sins, big fella."

"How so?" A pregnant silence. "Like what are you talking about ... exactly?"

Normal reeling in the big fish now, flashing a cocky grin. "Votes, Hoss. And Gold Member treatment at the Rules Committee when we decide to use it. Get all your boys in line and tellem to 'go fetch' - especially the California Closetboy in charge of rules, he better deliver the goods."

Quiet rage in all the non-verbal expressions, a guzzle from the wineglass after a heavy pour. "You fuckin' monsters! You're telling me that the White House sent you to blackmail its own Majority Leader? A friend of a friend, right?"

"Don't be so dramatic, Tommie Boy. This is called alliance building and shaping the public policy debate."

"In this climate I can't guarantee anything. Not without some budget giveaways. And besides, Clayton, they all want something in return."

Normal motions for the check. "Spare me the grubby details. I think in big concepts and my mind is only good for speeches, columns and white papers. But you should get yourself immersed in a way that instills accountability and measurability in your communications plans. Just have seven votes off this roster of names by the end of business Friday. If they come through when the time comes, we'll be sure to burn those credit card receipts along with these e-mails."

"Gimme a break ... by Friday? I'm leaving this rathole."

Normal shifts to his feet and reaches out for a handshake that is not returned. "Nope, Tommie Boy. I'm leaving - and I think you need to dedicate a little more time to consider the possibilities. Just make sure that your life doesn't take a turn for the worse."

Alas, total castration at the highest point of the curve ... a scene like this could go on for hours, and it gets replayed day after day in the world of organized politics. Rewards and threats are all part of the gameplan, and it becomes easier to orchestrate once the bright shining glare of election season subsides. All the smiling never leads to laughter and an appreciation for the subtle details is better left to the high-stakes strategists and high-visibility spokesmen of their time, who develop messages and tactics to lead opinion during the most intense public debates of the new Congressional session. Theirs is a gig too deadly serious and expensive for the less inclined - and the political leader, just like his master motivator, is not too different from a crackhead interrogating the emptying streets for spare change along with washers and subway tokens substituting for spare change.

The payoff is extremely high in both unhinged worlds, for those who are into the chaotic parade - but anyone who has ever been cornered by an angry yet preoccupied junkie with a vibrant sob story to share will tell you that it's a fear of the unknown that motivates the sudden reach into your pocket for a quick donation to the cause.

Politics - as Tom DeLay knows it - is really no different. There is nothing but extreme highs and terrible lows when dealing in the total involvement of any rapid-response public policy debate - especially when you're keeping score on so many fronts that you begin to feel more like a wiseguy sharking money to degenerate gamblers than you do the House Majority Leader.

As far as we can tell now, there is no point in kidding ourselves about what Tom DeLay and his cronies truly want for America in the New Century. When he glares out the window of his spacious office and sees the greater Washington power structure converging at his feet, he doesn't imagine "legislators" or "honorable public servants," he sees "price tags" and "marks that can be bought" like cheap, toothless hookers in Atlantic City. Little systematic parasites that are all there to serve his every whim and his personal firesale of the American Dream, and he's prepared to drive a wooden stake in the heart of the Great and Very Democracy that put him in the place where he stands today.


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