Sam Smith – I realized in the 1990s that I had stumbled upon the outlines of a new American political fault line. It was so new that it lacked a name, stereotypes, cliches, experts and prophets. In many ways it seemed more a refugee camp than a voluntary assembly, yet, as I thought about it, the more its logic seemed only concealed rather than lacking.
On one side were libertarians, blacks, greens, populists, free thinkers, the alienated apathetic, the rural abandoned, the apolitical young, as well as others convinced America was losing its democracy, its sovereignty and its decency. On the other side was a technocratic, media, legal, business and cultural elite centered in New York and Washington. At times it felt as if all of America outside of these two centers had turned into a gigantic, chaotic salon des refusés.
Another thing I noticed was that this was about far more than politics. A cultural and class coup was underway, of which the Clinton administration was a part, one that was creating a gated economy and transforming those outside the barriers into pliant, homogenized, multi-nationalized consumers for whom freedom, choice and democracy would atrophy into symbols of only virtual meaning. People like me were traitors to the cause.
Increasingly, the words of encouragement that I received came from somewhere other than my home town, a place whose conventional thinking I had happily challenged for nearly thirty years. In the 1960s and 1970s it had been no problem; there had always been plenty of similar voices and I never felt alone. Washington -- like Madison or Berkeley -- possessed a vigorous counterculture ready to strike out, provoke, and outrage and to enjoy every minute of it. Although by the 1980s the voices of protest had greatly dulled, dissent was still fair game as long as one's targets were Reagan or Bush.
In the 1990s, however, the Washington establishment simply closed down the marketplace of ideas. This involved not merely Democratic lawyer-lobbyists now pursuing openly the cynical abuse of government they had discreetly enjoyed during the Republican years. It included not merely journalists whose sycophancy towards the powerful was now promiscuously out of the closet. It also included the professional liberal establishment of Washington -- labor, feminist, and environmental leaders whose heady new access to government blinded them to how distant what they had once advocated was from what they were now willing to accept over -- or in return for -- lunch.
For mainstream Washington, there was no longer any politics, only deals. No victories, only leveraged buyouts. No ideology; only brand loyalty. No conservative and liberal, only Coke and Pepsi. . .
I had been trained to become one of the gray souls. I attended college with them, had reported their profoundly predictable and tedious rituals, and had argued with them at cocktail and dinner parties. I had learned what caused your host and hostess to squirm and others to avoid you. I had learned that no matter how righteous your views, the evening was reserved for confirmation and not revelation. Over time, if you don't follow this rule, you find yourself not only bowling, but also dining, alone.
My own invitations to such events, never sumptuous, became even rarer over times. Among the last prototypical Washington dinner parties I attended was during one of those episodes of military excess against a country roughly one-fiftieth our size in which we killed roughly fifty times more people than was necessary to accomplish roughly two percent of our stated goal.
It was a civil evening attended by several well-known Washington journalists, two of whom entertained us at length with clichés they obviously planned to launch against a broader audience in the near future. Their point was to impress upon us the magnitude of American geo-political responsibilities in Iraq and the similar dimensions of their own minds. In such ways do Washington journalists establish their reliability. Their support of power is often not really ideological at all, but rather just another form of social climbing.
I listened quietly as long as I could and then asked gently a question: "Well, how many more civilians do you think we need to kill in order to make our point?"
The room seized up. I parried a bit and then retreated, realizing that no good was going to come of all this.
On the other hand, something interesting did. Sitting next to me was the wife of one of the killer scribes, herself a noted journalist. She had said nothing but after I asked my question, she patted my arm and whispered "Good.". This nationally known reporter was ever so gently and civilly egging me on.
When it was time to leave, the wife of the other bumptious and jingoistic journalist -- a man familiar to any visiting the Sunday TV talk ghetto -- took me aside and remarked, "I'm glad you said what you did. My husband is such a hawk and I get so tired of it."
The hostess, standing with us, added, "Did you notice how all the men supported the war and all the women opposed it?
I had followed the fate of others who had challenged the Clinton myth and considered myself lucky. I took as a perverse sign of my sanity that people would ask me from time to time if I didn't fear for my personal safety. I had covered politics since Eisenhower and no one had ever asked me that before. And I was pleased by little signs that my efforts had not gone unnoticed - such as the black White House staff photographer who, upon meeting me and recognizing my name, smiled and said, "You're bad. You're bad!" I thanked her.
My next book was about repairing politics and the pattern repeated itself. Among the more mainstream media, only Weekend All Things Considered paid it any mind. The book received rave notices in populist and green publications and an excerpt was printed in Utne Reader along with an exceptionally kind profile by Jay Waljasper. But not only did the corporate media not mention it, it was ignored by such presumably friendly publications as the Village Voice, Nation, New York Review of Books, and the Progressive.
In part, I knew I was paying the price for my attacks on Clinton. With an overwhelming majority of the Washington media still solidly on Clinton's side, it took little more than a few snide comments over lunch or some phone calls to make one persona non grata in the club they call the nation's capital but regard as their own.
Only a few times was the hostility overt. Such as the time after I had appeared on the local NPR station and when I left the studio, the conservative black host Derek McGinty turned to the station's political editor, Mark Plotkin, and said, "He's banned" and I was. Several times when McGinty went on vacation Plotkin had me on, but the station manager noticed and told him to stop. I asked Mark why I had been banned and he said he thought it was for "excessive irony."
In fact, irony was risky in Washington. Once, I was on McGinty's show with Marion Barry who was complaining about how reporters always blamed him for all the problems of the city. "I don't blame you for all the problems," I replied "I just blame you for 23.7% of them." Marion said, "I'll take that."
Some weeks later, at a party, I told the story to a Washington suit. He listened absolutely straight faced and then asked, "How did you derive that percentage?"
Over the next two years I was dropped as a guest by Fox Morning News. A Washington Post reporter told me casually that, yes, she guessed I was on that paper's blacklist. And there was an end of invitations to C-SPAN after two appearances were canceled at the last minute, presumably by someone more powerful than the host who had invited me. My speech during the first protest over Bosnia was the only one deleted from C-SPAN's coverage - even though a folk singer saying that she was the "warmup band for Sam Smith" was left in.
Underneath the sturm und drang of political debate, official Washington -- from lobbyist to media to politician -- had reached a remarkable consensus that it no longer had to play by any rules but its own.
There was a phrase for this in some Latin American countries. They called it the culture of impunity. In such places it led to death squads, routine false imprisonment and baroque corruption. We were not quite there yet but we were certainly moving in the same direction and for some of the same reasons.
In a culture of impunity the rules served the internal logic of the system rather than whatever values ostensibly guided a country, such as those of its constitution, church or tradition. The culture of impunity encouraged coups and cruelty, at best practiced only titular democracy, and put itself at the service of what Hong Kong, with Orwellian understatement, referred to as "functional constituencies," which is to say major corporations.
Such a culture does not announce itself. It creeps up day by day, deal by deal, euphemism by euphemism. And in a culture of impunity, what replaces the Constitution, precedent, values, tradition, fairness, consensus, debate and all sort of arcane stuff? Simply greed. As Michael Douglas put it in one of his movies: "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works."