For most of our recent history, the Only in America declaration conjured up U.S. economic and military prowess, technological superiority, agricultural output, leadership in higher education, healthcare, movies, and music, and our unique devotion to human rights, equality, and First Amendment freedoms.
From time to time, however, the American dream has taken profoundly embarrassing and sometimes frightening hits as with Nixon’s “Everything you ever wanted to know about Watergate is included in these transcripts” – Clinton’s “I never had sex with that woman”- or Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld’s myth of a nuclear armed Iraq.
The first four weeks of the Obama administration have uncovered a level of vulgarity, ignorance, greed, egomania, and blatant dishonesty which, if left unchecked, threatens our long term leadership role in world affairs.
It is inconceivable that Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly have emerged as the undisputed power brokers for the G.O.P. at a time when only five states with 20 electoral votes now lean red. O’Reilly has stepped up his demand that we deport 11 million immigrants, while Rush fervently hopes that “Obama fails.” This, in spite of two wars, a near total collapse of the world economy, and the absolute certainty that by 2030 the majority of Americans will be non-white.
No where has unregulated gluttony, greed, and incompetence been more obvious than with our largest commercial banks, investment banks, mortgage brokers, and insurance companies. By lending freely to millions of uncreditworthy people to buy wildly overvalued real estate and then bundle up these toxic mortgage backed securities in the form of bonds to be sold around the world as insured low risk investments, confounds all but the most sophisticated financier, in retrospect the ultimate oxymoron.
Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, WaMu, Wachovia, RBS, Citigroup, Bank of America, even Goldman Sachs, except for a massive taxpayer funded bailout, bankrupt. One would think that the former “Masters of the Universe” who orchestrated the catastrophe would be humbled and looking for ways to change their business model in order to help undo the punishment absorbed by so many ordinary Americans.
Not to be. Perhaps taking their cue from Blago, who proclaimed his innocence, while being impeached by his own words and unusually corrupt behavior while serving as Governor of Illinois. After his impassioned claim of railroading by a kangaroo court, was kicked out of office by a unanimous vote of the Illinois Senate. In spite of his upcoming criminal trial, Blago still sees himself as presidential timber.
This same delusional behavior must account for Citibank’s new print campaign- “Providing stability – Securing the future”, the decision to take delivery of a new $42 million private jet, the eleventh in the fleet, and join their fellow failures in paying out $20 billion in bonuses to those captains who ran their ships on the rocks. Not to be outdone AIG, the first major bailout recipient and the leading creator and marketer of credit default swaps which sank the company, awarded on average retention bonuses of $1.3 million for each of 400 executives in the group responsible for the disaster.
This behavior, in some way seems even more onerous than the incredible dimensions of the Madoff Ponzi scheme as Bernie is, after all, a common thief, who like many con artists in the outlaw fraternity, find a way to swindle, on a massive scale, friends, family, and charitable foundations.
In America the bigger the lie, the more sincere the liar, the more likely the charlatan will find believers. That the rich and powerful, the professionals who manage large charitable, endowment, and investment funds, would accept the impossible purported annual returns claimed by Madoff is absurd.
Perhaps the Madoff effect explains the Bush-Cheney position that water boarding is not torture, and Bush’s definitive “we do not torture” in the face of Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, and offshore CIA run detention/interrogation centers.
There is no doubt that the worldwide oil industry cartels profiteered outrageously as crude oil reached $147 a barrel in 2008. While it may be a reach to lump Chavez, Putin, OPEC, and Exxon Mobil in the same pot, at least Chavez used the bonanza to help the poor, while Exxon devastated the average commuter, nearly bankrupted the independent gasoline retailers, and in spite of a 70 percent 4th quarter drop in the price of crude, reported a $48 billion after tax profit, the largest ever in the history of U.S. business. Obscene? The Chairman announced the company’s continuing commitment to exploration. Exxon could have bailed out General Motors and Chrysler without adversely affecting their balance sheet. In retrospect, an excess profits tax on big oil made a lot of sense.
Obama ran and won on a commitment to change: civility, science, intellectual curiosity, diversity, and inclusiveness – an end to the politics of personal destruction. Rick Warren may oppose Roe v. Wade and gay marriage, but is a strong environmentalist and committed to ending homelessness, poverty, and disease. It is hard to doubt the President’s legitimate interest in bipartisan solutions, as his staff and cabinet appointments reflect a mindset that makes socializing with George Will logical and right. As the $800 billion stimulus /jobs creation bill , an imperfect work in progress, is the number one priority, how to explain the House passing it without a single Republican vote?
For as long as the writer can remember, unfortunately too long, the Democrats, with some justification, have been labeled “the tax and spend crowd”. Reagan introduced the don’t tax and spend, trickle down, supply side theories carried on unsuccessfully by Bush Sr. Clinton, the only moderate in the last four commanders-in-chief, taxed and spent carefully, giving the country eight years of peace, prosperity, full employment, fiscal restraint, and a huge budget surplus. Bush Jr. gave the wealthiest Americans and business massive tax cuts, and then led us into a war and an economic tsunami which has not only produced huge deficits, but has shaken the world.
It is unlikely that Obama and his team have all, or many of the answers. It is tragic and inexplicable, however, that the don’t tax/don’t spend divide allows for no compromise. People who live and travel on boats have long recognized that while the bow of the boat may be dry, if a leak occurs aft everyone better start bailing or all feet will quickly get wet.
While it would be unfair to say Only in America where celebrity doping is concerned, as the Russian weightlifters, Chinese gymnasts, and European cyclists have a long established tradition of artificial enhancement, only in the U.S. have our national pastime’s highest paid megastars elevated steroid use and abuse to such a pinnacle of public interest. And nowhere else, when nailed, do these superheroes lie so blatantly, even to Congress, special investigators, and federal grand juries. No one watching the Popeye like physical transformation and improved performance of Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Roger Clemens in the twilight of their careers could possibly attribute the change to weight rooms, diet, and personal trainers.
Even more disturbing, the ownership and management of professional baseball generated enormous revenue and profits, knowing full well how these role models produced their results. Sometimes a lesser player would be disciplined by not having a contract renewed, even if he admitted doping, but never a superstar. It is still possible that some billionaire owner, desperate for a winning season will re-sign Barry Bonds, the poster boy for arrogance and contempt for the system. Fans, only this week learned the A-Rod has joined the fraternity.
Football has not been immune. Only in America could a dirt bag like Jerry Jones end up owning America’s team, The Dallas Cowboys, and continue to receive adulation in spite of hiring dirt bags like Barry Switzer to coach his team, and embracing thugs like Pac Man Jones.
Less than three years ago Michael Vick was football’s highest paid player. After being convicted of lying to a grand jury about his ownership of a dog fighting business, he is soon to be released from prison, bankrupt, but quite confident of returning to the game. Michael and his brother, also a convicted felon, did more to elevate Virginia Tech to the elite ranks of Division I football than any other players. The tragedy of the Virginia Tech shooting rampage did the same for Wayne LaPierre, the NRA chief, who concluded that lives might have been saved if the student body were all carrying concealed weapons. Only in America, leadership in search of a new OK Corral.
There are countless superstars who have created new highs for stupidity and self destruction. Plaxico Burress and Michael Phelps may have temporarily reached the pinnacle. Plax visits a strip club in Manhattan with an unlicensed loaded revolver, safety off, stuck in the waistband of a pair of sweatpants. The gun slips down, goes off, and shoots him in the leg. This from a Super Bowl MVP with enough arrests for beating women and lawsuits from unpaid creditors to fill a short novel.
Phelps, an utterly charming 23 year old, only months after eclipsing Mark Spitz and every other superstar in Olympic history with eight gold medals in Beijing, gets himself photographed at a college party sucking on a marijuana bong. With the ink not dry on tens of millions of dollars in endorsement contracts, Phelps is suspended for three months from competitive swimming, and Kellogg rips up his cereal deal. While he is more than likely to recover, as pot smoking could not have enhanced his prowess in the pool, stupidity thy name is Phelps. While Michael will never be recognized for academic excellence, 1st graders know that all cell phones take pictures. Only in America would A-Rod lie, then admit that he lied when caught after years of performance enhancing doping, and fully expect to collect all of his $250 million contract, and go directly to the Hall of Fame.
Ours is unquestionably the greatest nation on earth. This continues perhaps more for our ability to overcome our warts, lesions, foibles, con artists, racists, child molesters, corrupt politicians and greed driven captains of industry, than for our underlying values which theoretically govern our approach to the world. At least, up until now, after the smoke clears and the rubble is removed, the good guys usually win.