Culture Rover

#122 - The Blackout Zone

As usual, Joan Didion has new insights into the collective psychodrama of political life in the United States.

In her article, "Cheney: The Fatal Touch," she sheds light on what she calls the "blackout zone" of the Vice-President's office, where all democratic processes seem to go to die at the hands of the unitary executive. She does so not through tracing the particular administrative and bureaucratic workings of Washington, but by probing Cheney's history and character.

The article reveals a number of intriguing facts that I did not know. First, Cheney's parents were New Deal Democrats in Wyoming, a state dominated by Republicans. Didion reports that Cheney's father said, "You can't take my vote for granted," when Cheney first ran for Congress as a Republican.

Second, Cheney essentially owes his career to dirty tricks (from sabotaging moderate V-P Nelson Rockefeller during Gerald Ford's presidency to the recent Joe Wilson/Valerie Plume brouhaha) and to Donald Rumsfield, who helped his star rise in Washington during the Nixon administration.

Third, we learn that Cheney is not on the cutting edge of politics, not in the avant-garde of turning the threat and fear of terror into political capital. Rather, he is fighting old battles, namely Watergate and the Iran-Contra Affair. Instead of viewing these as ethical and criminal violations, Cheney interprets them as struggles over constitutional power.

As Didion explains: "Watergate, Cheney has long maintained, was not a criminal conspiracy but the result of a power struggle between the legislative and executive branches. So was the 1973 War Powers Act, which restricted executive authority to go to war without consulting Congress and which Cheney believed unconstitutional."

Similarly, Didion picks up on a recent Cheney reference to uncover his involvement in the minority comments filed during the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings in Congress. As she writes, "The 'mistakes' in Iran-contra, as construed by the minority report, had followed not from having done the illegal but from having allowed the illegal to become illegal in the first place." In other words, the problem was not that Reagan or his administration had done anything wrong; the problem was that they had not claimed the full power of the executive branch.

The implications, which are obvious, but took so long for anyone to realize, are that Cheney is an old warhorse - a 1970s or 80s Chevy Oldsmobile - trying to ram his way through the traffic jams of a profoundly new situation in America and the world.

No wonder things have gone so miserably awry in Iraq, New Orleans, and elsewhere. The rights of the executive branch seem to trump all else in Cheney's worldview, even the country that the executive supposedly rules. "The very survival of the executive species," Didion claims, "was seen by Cheney and his people as dependent on its brute ability to claim absolute power and resist all attempts to share it. Given this imperative, the steps to our current situation had a leaden inevitability."

This all led to Iraq and other disasters of the past six years. But, why? Why was Cheney so bent on seizing power? Who is the man behind the curtain (certainly not a voting booth curtain, by the way)?

For Didion, Cheney is not ideologically driven. He has made common cause with neoconservatives, but he is not absolutely one himself. Hence, he stayed with Gerald Ford in the 1976 Republican primary rather than siding with Reagan, as other neocons did.

Behind his concern for the executive branch, Didion argues that there lurk two deeper, more sinister, motivations: economic gain by the privatization of war (by the likes of Halliburton, which, of course, Cheney had been CEO) and the seizure of pure Machiavellian control by Cheney himself.

The blackout zone is so dim, so unknown, so lacking in a paper trail or a logical narrative, that Didion must call up a classic American metaphor to describe Cheney: "The personality that springs to mind is that of the ninth-grade bully in the junior high lunchroom, the one sprawled in the letter jacket so the seventh-graders must step over his feet."

This may be preposterous, but somehow Didion's metaphor made me think: somehow there is a link between Cheney, Columbine, and the spectacle of 9/11 (which Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold themselves had imagined undertaking before their school massacre). There is something in that primordial ooze of male adolescence at stake in these unrelated episodes -- a blackout zone filled with nightmares, hormones, and lunch money.

By Didion's account, we are stuck in this junior high from hell for two more years. Let's hope at that point, we graduate.

20 November 2006

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