By Tom Maertens
Published in the Mankato Free Press, Sept. 28, 2014
An August Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll demonstrates the extent of Americans’ lost optimism.
When asked if “life for our children’s generation will be better than it has been for us,” 76 percent said no, and only 21 percent agreed. That was the worst the poll ever recorded; in 2001, 49 percent were confident and 43 percent not.
The pessimism extended across the political spectrum, regardless of wealth, gender, race, region, age and ideology.
Some of the pessimism is likely due to the 2008 economic meltdown and slow recovery that followed.
Others attribute it to political obstructionism in Washington, an unwillingness to address even simple problems. Dana Milbank, writing in the Washington Post, attributed the gridlock to two decades of scorched-earth politics.
The trend toward extreme partisanship began under Richard Nixon who presided over a break-in of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate, and a series of other crimes, all in the service of winning reelection in 1972. Among them was the political sabotage of the “plumbers,” which included burglary, distributing forged documents, and bugging, all directed at Democrats. The Nixon administration then attempted to use the FBI, the CIA and the IRS to cover up their crimes, as the Washington Post documented at length.
Wikipedia lists sixty-nine government officials who were charged with crimes and forty-eight who were found guilty, including two attorneys general, Mitchell and Kleindienst, and Nixon was forced to resign.
This was a record of corruption and criminality later exceeded only by the Reagan administration, the most corrupt in US history: Wikipedia lists 138 Reagan administration officials who were indicted for various offenses.
It was also Nixon who empowered the “dirty tricks” of Lee Atwater, who taught a seminar on such tricks to young Republicans, including Karl Rove. It was Atwater, as George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager, who created the infamous, and racist, Willy Horton ad that helped Bush defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988. Although Bush denied it, it was later shown that he had authorized the ad.
And no, both parties do not do it.
While Nixon was associated with the criminal activity collectively known as Watergate, it was Newt Gingrich who instituted many of today’s scorched earth policies.
After taking over as Speaker of the House in 1994, Gingrich took several steps to enforce a highly partisan discipline on Republican House members.
One was for him to appoint all committee chairmen rather than following the previous practice of allowing committees to vote in their chairmen. Not surprisingly, he appointed people who supported his partisan style of governing.
A second was to stop his caucus from fraternizing with “the enemy” at the usual cocktail parties and weekend BBQs with their Democratic colleagues. To break up the collegiality, he directed Republicans to get out of town on weekends, preferably to return to their districts.
A third effort was a coordinated campaign of partisan name-calling, drawing from his suggested list of derogatory terms to be used in referring to Democrats. For example, he urged House Republicans to use words like “sick,” pathetic,” “traitor,” “corrupt,” “illegitimate” or “criminal” when referring to the Clinton administration, according to “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” a memo Gingrich sent to fellow House Republicans in 1994, described in Sidney Blumenthal’s “The Clinton Wars.” He once called Bill Clinton “the enemy of normal Americans.”
Lyons and Conason ("The Hunting of the President") reported on the Gingrich-led series of formal House investigations of Bill Clinton, part of a long-term campaign by the right wing labeled “The Arkansas Project.”
David Brock ("Blinded by the Right") has detailed the 16 House investigations, including allegations that the Clintons “misused” the White House Christmas Card list – for which the House took 130 hours of sworn testimony – and that Clinton illegally fired White House travel office employees. I know from personal experience that the White House professional staff spent countless hours responding to a continuing stream of House subpoenas.
The “corrupt and criminal” charges later boomeranged on Gingrich. He was the first speaker to be brought before the full House of Representatives on ethics charges; he faced 84 ethics violations, according to the Washington Post, including tax cheating and converting campaign funds to personal use. He was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee and fined $300,000. Gingrich acknowledged making “inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements.” His top henchman was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who set a record by being reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee four times. He was later convicted for fund-raising abuses, which was overturned by a stacked Republican appeals court.
Gingrich didn’t quit his hysterical partisanship just because he was thrown out as speaker. In 2011, he wrote in his book “To Save America,” that the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress represent “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.”
Such extreme rhetoric is characteristic of today’s Tea-party led Republican Party, which is not the party of Lincoln, but the scorched earth party of Newt Gingrich.