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Monday, December 09, 2019


H.L. Mencken

As Election Day approaches, I often find myself thinking of H.L. Mencken. Particularly during off-year contests. “The Sage of Baltimore,” as he was known, expressed lifelong disdain for politicians, and his mordant wit made him very funny about it. “Democracy,” he wrote, “is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Mencken’s heyday was the 1920s, in the shadow of the Great War. Unlike most contemporary pundits, he felt no need to express false pieties or flatter his audience. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people” he argued.

Decades before the birth of Donald Trump, he anticipated the great man’s arrival on the American scene:

“As democracy is perfected, the office [of president] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people….On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

And an ignorant blowhard at that. If that opinion makes you feel personally affronted, well tough. Send me an insulting e-mail if it makes you feel better. But there won’t be much point arguing about it until 2024—assuming we’re both still here and that Trump himself hasn’t dropped dead or gone to prison.

Because the real deal on the mid-term elections is that they just don’t matter a whole lot in terms of serious changes in the body politic. The U.S. Constitution is pretty much set up to prevent it.

A recent, typically solemn New York Times headline: “Democrats, on Defense in Blue States, Brace for a Red Wave in the House.”

“Reality is setting in,” reads the subhead.

Meanwhile, what’s a near-certainty is that neither party, in either the House or the Senate, will win anything close to a veto-proof majority. So that even if Republicans do take over the House of Representatives—as the opposition party normally does during midterm contests—all they’re really going to do over the next couple of years is put on a show. A Fox News-themed extravaganza.

They’ll shut down the January 6 House Select Committee in favor of investigating Hunter Biden, the president’s troubled surviving son. You’ll learn more about Hunter than you ever wanted to know. There are even said to be titillating videos, although their provenance is unclear. The younger Biden’s purloined laptop was out of his hands for more than a year, making suspect any revelations it holds.

What relevance this has to the actual governance of these United States—unlike the Trump offspring, Hunter Biden holds no public office and has never been taken to meet the Queen—will likely also remain unclear.

Theatrical indignation, however, is almost certain. Look for putative Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy to do the job President Trump tried to strong-arm Ukrainian President Zelensky into performing. He won’t be able to help himself. They could even end up turning Hunter into a sympathetic figure.

Did I say “Speaker McCarthy?” There’s even loose talk among GOP stalwarts of electing former President Trump as Speaker of the House. There’s no constitutional requirement that the Speaker be a voting member, nor free of criminal indictment, for that matter. So, it’s theoretically possible, and if the Big Man wanted it, I can’t imagine GOP congressional invertebrates denying him.

Yowza! Talk about getting value for your entertainment dollar What a spectacle that would be.

Back in what passes for the real world, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), currently the third-ranking Republican in the House, has expressed enthusiasm for the idea of impeaching President Biden for crimes as yet defined. QAnon-friendly Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), of “Jewish space lasers” fame, has reportedly filed five congressional resolutions to that effect.

On his part, Kevin McCarthy has said he doesn’t believe the public would tolerate a presidential impeachment.

As there’s zero chance of getting 67 Senators to convict, impeaching Biden would seem an obvious non-starter.

But that implies a degree of political realism that may or may not be found in a Republican Congress. Even so, far more likely are what Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times calls “government shutdowns and debt-ceiling hostage dramas.” Several GOP congressmen have made it clear to reporters that they will demand deep cuts in domestic spending, which they say are needed to shrink the federal budget deficit and stifle inflation.

Never mind that the Biden White House recently announced that the budget deficit this year dropped by $1.4 trillion—the largest annual decline ever. Last year it fell by $350 billion. Under Trump, of course, the budget shortfall increased by $400 billion annually, due to his corporate and millionaires tax cuts—pretty much his only legislative accomplishment.

But GOP voters either don’t know that or refuse to believe it, so it looks like we’re in for another fiscal high-wire act.

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Kenneth Starr

For anyone who criticized the late Kenneth W. Starr in life, it might be prudent to observe the ancient Latin injunction: Say nothing but good of the dead. Or to step by in silence.

Yet the career of the former federal appellate jurist who served as Whitewater independent counsel and instigated the impeachment of President Bill Clinton merits rigorous attention, if only because his story illuminates so starkly the hostility of the religious right and the Republican Party toward American women.

No doubt Starr would protest that assessment and instead call attention, as he so often did, to his pietistic moralism. He always peppered his speech with phrases like “as we say in the New Testament,” and once sent forth a flack to inform Washington reporters that as he jogged along the Potomac River every morning, he sang Christian hymns.

That posturing went on full display during the Whitewater probe that he steered into a sex hunt. He was appointed by a panel of right-wing Republican judges after they forced out the moderate Republican Robert Fiske, who was about to end the fruitless investigation. From the beginning, Starr was tainted.

Whitewater was in fact a dry hole, because the Clintons had lost money on the ill-fated land deal and done nothing wrong. Having promised and failed to bring down both Bill and Hillary, he tried to resign– and then was forced by outraged conservatives to resume the hunt with his tail between his legs. It was not long before he started searching for a way to shape the prurient gossip about Bill Clinton into a criminal prosecution.

At that point, Monica Lewinsky fell into his clutches, thanks to Linda Tripp, a vindictive “friend” who also happened to be a conservative zealot, and Lucianne Goldberg, a scheming literary agent who had once spied on reporters for Nixon. Starr mercilessly exploited the young woman who had entered into an affair with the feckless president. Rather than accept a proffer that had been given to his own prosecutors, Starr tormented Monica (and her mother!) for months with threats of prison, unless she told the untrue story he wanted to hear, and wore a wire into Oval Office.

He concluded the investigation by humiliating both her and the president with the publication of The Starr Report, described aptly by critic Renata Adler as “a voluminous work of demented pornography.” By then Starr’s manic invasion of what many Americans regarded as private behavior had turned the public decisively against him. His inquisition crashed, along with his lifelong yearning for a seat on the Supreme Court.

In the ensuing episodes of his life, Starr confirmed all the suspicions about him aroused by the Lewinsky debacle. His professed concerns with morality and the protection of womanhood proved time and again to be a scrim for his worldly priorities of profit and power.

In 2007, Starr joined the defense team of Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy pedophile who had raped many underage girls and ultimately committed suicide in a Manhattan jail cell. He arranged for Epstein to obtain a sweetheart plea deal from US Attorney Alex Acosta, who had worked under him at Kirkland & Ellis, Starr’s longtime law firm. When exposed a decade later, this revolting scheme forced Acosta’s resignation from his Trump administration post as Secretary of Health and Human Services. Yet Starr’s “morality” easily accommodated this lucrative and depraved bit of lawyering.

Even so, a few years later Baylor University, a Baptist religious institution, named Starr as its president and chancellor. The university had reason to regret that choice soon enough, when Starr was revealed to have repeatedly concealed an epidemic of rapes at the school between 2012 and 2016. The Baylor regents bounced him from the presidency after an independent investigation of his conduct, and he subsequently quit his posts as chancellor and law professor in disgrace.

When Starr returned to the public stage as a lawyer for Donald Trump during his first impeachment, nobody could still pretend to be surprised by his hypocrisy. Untroubled by Trump’s history of boastful adulteries and serial abuse of women --including his first wife, who had accused him of marital rape -- or his hush payment to porn actress Stormy Daniels, Starr liked to talk about how proudly he had voted in 2016 to prevent a Hillary Clinton presidency. Naturally, Trump eulogized him as “a great American patriot.”

How did Starr’s perverse style of conservatism, supposedly motivated by Biblical rectitude, inform his abuse of the heroic Lewinsky and his subsequent excusal of rapes and rapists? Apparently, he justified it all in the name of his godly mission. But now we have the whole sordid record of how he used virtue as a cover for vice. It is impossible to find in this reactionary figure even a trace of respect for female dignity and equality.

And now we know just how deeply embedded his pious misogyny is in the modern Republican Party that still admires Ken Starr.