Everything old is new again

Back when my dad and grandmother were alive, I used to hassle them with questions about two historic periods.

From my father, I sought details of the McCarthy era. I didn’t know what a “Red” was, but I was just old enough to recognize that Senator Joe was doing something of which sensible people disapproved. I couldn’t understand how, if nearly everyone thought he was nuts, even an important man could push the country around.

From Grandma, I wanted to know about the Great Depression. She’d been a young single mother then, when that was scandalous. I’d read a little about hard times, mostly in a book of contemporary cartoons. I wanted to hear about businessmen selling apples on corners, and of stockbrokers plummeting from upper floors, pitter-patter like hail onto Wall Street.

Over the last few years, George W. Bush has given me insight into the first period. Now, barring a miracle, it looks like I’ll get to experience the second.

Seriously, could things be more screwed up? Has any administration, through incompetence, fate or design, approached this level of disaster?

Bush’s projected 30-day revenge-for-daddy war, predicted to end in open arms and bouquets, is dragging toward its sixth year. Our other war, the one that may be justifiable, remains on hold until we can untangle ourselves from the first one. Dig in, troops. We’ll have reinforcements there by April or so.

Osama bin Laden is still loose or still dead, depending on whom you believe (a recent rumor holds that he was killed months ago, but that the DNA analysis won’t be released until nearer the election. I’d believe it if the same rumor hadn’t circulated in 2004 and 2006). Our emergency response system, run under the traditional Republican principles of cronyism and sinecure, has arrested its slide only because Hurricane Katrina made further neglect a political risk.

America, a country that once honored dissent and respected dissenters, is locked into a bitter 50.1/49.9 division on every issue. That’s the Bush legacy, assuming Great Depression II doesn’t turn us back into a nation of hunter/gatherers: His tactics have deliberately destroyed Americans’ willingness to put differences aside and work toward a common goal. However the election turns out, can you imagine the two factions sitting down, nodding warily all around, then saying, “OK, that’s over. Now, we have 47 million people who need health insurance. Let’s fix them up. We’ll hash out the fine points later"?

The greatest injury, though, may have been to our faith in government.

I know, that trust has been out of fashion in some circles for a long time. Often, though, people who reflexively distrust government are ideologues-of-convenience. Witness the recent bailout, when many who’ve rejected government as an unwanted intruder managed to choke back their revulsion long enough to get their hands out.

No, the true disaster of the Bushies is that they’ve destroyed public trust in our most trusted institutions. The Pentagon and Department of Defense, the CIA, the Justice Department, even the sacrosanct Supreme Court operate under cumuli of suspicion: Is the FBI actually investigating that charge of voter intimidation, or is it part of the right-wing cover-up? Are the justices after justice, or merely advancing their agenda?

Even the soul of our system, the way we elect our leaders, is suspect. One survey I saw recently said that 45 percent of Americans believe it’s “likely” or “possible” that ballot results can be manipulated; 1 in 5 say it’s already happened.

And here’s a telling point: When I read that, my first thought was, “What’s wrong with the other four?”