Back in 2004, I was involved in giving John McCain an award for his stand against media consolidation. There were several times after that when something outrageous he said or voted for or against made me regret I’d ever been involved!
But say what you will about him—and so much has been said and written this last couple of weeks—McCain had the courage of his conservative convictions and never lowered himself to loud-mouthed insults or petty, bigoted name-calling.
Whether you thought him right or wrong, by all accounts, John McCain was a dedicated public servant with a bawdy wit and love of country. And the days of memorials and funeral services for him were a potent reminder of what the country is supposed to be; not the nonstop train wreck we’re now experiencing. Saturday’s event at the National Cathedral was, as Susan B. Glasser of The New Yorker wrote, “a meeting of the Resistance, under vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows.”
McCain’s death also conjured stories of his military career as a Navy A-4 Skyhawk pilot and five-and-a-half years as a POW in Vietnam, which reminded me how Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting—and sometimes misquoting—a line from the movie version of James Michener’s Korean War novel, The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
An admiral stands on the bridge of an aircraft carrier, marveling at the self-sacrifice of the brave fighter pilots under his command. In awe, he asks, “Where do we get such men?”
McCain would have been among their ranks. But sadly, you could ask the same question of the clique of moneyed kleptomaniacs with whom Donald Trump has surrounded himself, although the answer would have to come from quite a different movie.
Where do we get such men? To quote Morticia Addams in the gruesomely hilarious Addams Family Values, “It has to be damp.”
Damp, murky and stinking of venality and corruption. Over the months of this misbegotten White House, we have seen the Washington swamp not drained but freshened with a whole new supply of frogs and snakes. It’s a crime spree that makes the Grant and Harding administrations look like Toys for Tots.
At least Ulysses S. Grant didn’t seem to know about most of the extortion and bribery that was being transacted under his nose, even the kickbacks engineered by his own brother. And apparently, Warren G. Harding comprehended very little about the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, the selling of US Navy oil reserves to private interests that wound up with his interior secretary, Albert B. Fall, cooling his heels in prison.
He was the first presidential cabinet secretary to do so. But not the last. And we can do it again.
Harding’s administration was so notorious for grift and graft that the highest compliment that could be paid presidential pal Frank Scobey, the director of the mint, was that he “did little damage during his tenure.” Would that it were true of the current gang grinding the government into the muck at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
This president knows exactly what’s going on. The Trump administration’s litany of fraud began from the very first day. Just for starters, there’s that $107 million slush fund of money used to pay for the inauguration, an amount far in excess of what was spent by previous presidents, much of it from dark money groups and some from foreign sources. Greg Jenkins, who headed George W. Bush’s second inaugural committee, told Pro Publica and WNYC public radio, “They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did. So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”
With the August 31 guilty plea of lobbyist and Paul Manafort associate Sam Patten there’s new evidence of illegal contributions for inaugural tickets from a Ukrainian oligarch whose description seems to match that of Serhiy Lyovochkin. He served as chief of staff to exiled, pro-Russian Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych (like Trump, a former client of Manafort’s).
But the inauguration money merely was the opening kickoff. Deeply into the sordid game now, we know too well that the man whose career was built on ego, excess, bad loans, lies and bankruptcy has brought all his best practices to Washington and all, as he bragged, “the best people.”
It has come to this: The other day, The New York Times felt compelled to publish an entire list headlined, “From Criminal Convictions to Ethical Lapses: The Range of Misconduct in Trump’s Orbit.” It lays out the misdeeds of everyone from Manafort and the two Michaels—Cohen and Flynn—to “Cabinet Officials Who Misspent Taxpayer Dollars or Violated Ethics Rules” and members of the White House staff.
The list isn’t comprehensive in that it fails to include Trump himself or to enumerate the seemingly endless cascade of reports of officials being swayed by corporate lobbyists and the 1% to do their bidding, slashing regulations and creating cushy conditions for business.
It doesn’t include the obsequious hangers-on toadying and marching to the authoritarian drumbeat of the incumbent and his associates. Or the Stephen Millers who would make the pigment of your skin a crime, or those such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who would privatize schools, deepen student debt and use federal monies to give guns to teachers. (You have to wonder if whoever set loose her $40 million yacht in Lake Michigan this summer was seeking a metaphor for our ship of state, unmoored and adrift.)
Nor does the list include the members of Congress who, same as Trump and his family, see government as a massive ATM. The coincidence that the first two members of the House to endorse Trump’s candidacy, New York’s Chris Collins and California’s Duncan Hunter, should each be indicted within weeks of each other, one for insider training (on the White House lawn yet), the other for the misuse of campaign funds, has a remarkably tragicomic symmetry. It all would be incredible if the arrests hadn’t happened in these halcyon days when we’re forced, like Alice’s White Queen, to believe six impossible things before breakfast.
Of course, Trump doesn’t see these prosecutions as examples of the Justice Department doing what it’s supposed to do, but of not doing what he demands; in this case, keeping two miscreants in their safe GOP House seats. “Two easy wins now in doubt,” he rage-tweeted, as former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates declared, “Repeatedly trying to pervert DOJ into a weapon to go after his adversaries, and now shamelessly complaining that DOJ should protect his political allies to maintain his majority in the midterms, is nothing short of an all-out assault on the rule of law.”
There is, however, the tiniest of tiny motes of truth in Trump’s persecution complex. So far, he and his cronies are being singled out and pursued to the full extent of the law—and not just by Robert Mueller’s probe but at least six other lawsuits. This in some ways makes the pursuit of Trump and Co.’s shady enterprises an anomaly.
That’s because, as The Washington Post recently reported, “Overall, the number of new white-collar crime prosecutions brought by federal investigators has fallen to its lowest level in more than 20 years, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. There are projected to be fewer than 6,000 of these prosecutions in 2018, down from more than 10,000, when the number peaked in 2011.
“Meanwhile, penalties against corporations and their executives imposed by the Justice Department sank from $51.5 billion in 2016 to $4.9 billion during Trump’s first year in office, according to consumer advocate Public Citizen.”
So the Trump White House is avidly passing around get out of jail free cards to other business buddies even as rich guys Manafort, Cohen, et al. are in the dock facing time in orange jumpsuits. Nice.
In the meantime, Trump is “studying” whether or not to torpedo a pay raise for federal employees even as a new report from the Urban Institute finds, “Nearly 40 percent of adults report that they or their families had trouble meeting at least one basic need for food, health care, housing, or utilities in 2017. Though these difficulties are most prevalent among those with lower incomes, material hardship extends across the income distribution and affects families with and without workers.”
Such are the ironies that mark our lives these days. The news revolving around John McCain’s passing already has been overcome by the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and the incendiary details from Bob Woodward’s new book about Trump. We move on in dread of each day to come, then look at those in power and wonder where the heroes are, the leaders who will shout no, as the poet Yeats would say, to the rough beast as it slouches toward Bethlehem.
Where do we get such men? Where do we get such women? Where do we find the heroes? In truth, we’re already here, in the streets and as already proven, at the ballot box. A leader totally and completely without character can be weakened and removed. It’s up to us. We can be the heroes. But we have to move fast.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.