February 12, 2016

Fighting the dysestablishment

From our overstocked archives

Sam Smith, 2012

Having challenged the establishment my whole life, I’m feeling a little down right now. It is one thing to take on an elite revered by presidents, academics, media and the public for their illusion of wisdom and knowledge and quite another to find oneself in the ring with a mob of fools, prevaricators and pathological bullies whose only claim to fame is their claim to fame.

Allen Dulles has been replaced by Donald Trump, Katherine Graham by Sarah Palin, McGeorge Bundy by Lindsay Lohan. 

To be sure, the old establishment was repeatedly cruel, hypocritical and wrong, witness the Harvard intellectuals who helped talk LBJ into entering and staying in Vietnam. But one could embarrass them, and with a strong enough anti-establishment convince the public that something was badly wrong. It was tough but – as the civil rights and peace movement discovered – you could win if you fought long enough.

The current dysestablishment, on the other hand, makes little sense and possesses less. It shuns rational thought, words or action. And it is encouraged by a media that is content to speak in the same meaningless abstractions created by lobbyists for political marketing purposes.

The real has been replaced by adjectives. Politics has become just another form of advertising. Which is why both major presidential candidates seem so removed from us. They move, speak and think in a way carefully designed to sell an image that will get them through one particular day. They are staged people being shown to voters like staged homes being shown for sale.

And presidential kitchen cabinets these days are not composed of establishment figures in law, politics and foreign affairs but of clever hustlers in the techniques of Madison Avenue – as well as those seeking to parlay public service into later private profits.

One turning point came when Clark Clifford - the classic presidential adviser  to Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Carter –– got caught at the till and was indicted in the early 1990s for his dealings with BCC and First American Bank. 

A publisher’s plug for a Clifford biography gives a sense of how important he had been:

As a powerful corporate attorney, he advised Harry S. Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Jimmy Carter. As special counsel to Truman, Clifford helped to articulate the Truman Doctrine, grant recognition to Israel, create the Marshall Plan, and build the North Atlantic Treaty Organization…  Johnson named Clifford secretary of defense in 1968, but their warm relationship was strained when Clifford concluded that there was no plan for victory in the Vietnam War and that the United States was in a “bottomless pit.” Even Carter, who kept his distance from Washington insiders, turned to Clifford for help.

There has not been anyone close to him since. And his sharp decline into a grand jury indictment is a good metaphor for what has happened to the designated “wise” of America. Clifford was both one of the last of the old wise men and one of the first of the new hustlers.

If you think I’m exaggerating, I offer the view of perhaps the greatest establishment suck-up in Washington, Sally Quinn, who recently wrote: 

In April, at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, my husband, Ben Bradlee, and I found ourselves sandwiched between the Kardashians and Newt and Callista Gingrich. Heavily made up and smiling for the cameras, the reality TV family and the political couple were swarmed over by the paparazzi, who were screaming and shouting the celebrities’ names to make them look toward the cameras for that million-dollar photograph.

It was telling that Vanity Fair had bought more tables at the dinner than most of the Washington news organizations. 

On the way home … I suddenly realized that this grotesque event signaled the end of power as we have known it. That dinner — which seemed to have more celebrities, clients and advertisers than journalists and politicians — was the tipping point.

Power in Washington used to be centered on the White House, the Congress, the Cabinet, the diplomatic corps and the journalists. Today, all of those groups depend on money for their very existence. The real power lies with the lobbyists, the money-raisers, the super PACs, the bundlers, the corporations and rich people. 

It is not that America should be run by a squad of snobbily sanctified, but that a country without respected voices outside the direct political game is too vulnerable to the whims of chameleons, card sharks and the stupid. This is America today; there are just too few good answers in the sounds it hears. 

Further, because rationality plays such a minor role in public thought, it is far more difficult to confront. It’s the difference between being just wrong and being plain crazy. And because so much of the country accepts the craziness as truth, it is much harder to fight.

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