PRESIDENT BUSH is scheduled to visit us here in Ecotopia later this month. How should we welcome him? Should we welcome him at all?
Bush is slated to visit Portland and Seattle in quick succession Aug. 21-22. This state has been welcoming sitting presidents since Rutherford B. Hayes visited the territory in 1880. Hayes, too, you might remember, was the victor in a stolen election. His opponent in 1876, Democrat Samuel Tilden, won the popular vote; Hayes wound up winning by a margin of one in the Electoral College after 16 weeks of unseemly wheeling and dealing. Until 2000, the election of 1876 stood alone as the sham and shame of our electoral process.
This trip down presidential memory lane was spurred in part by the current exhibit at the Museum of History and Industry, “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden” (through Sept. 7). It comes to us from the Smithsonian and was funded, in part, by Ken Behring, the former Seahawks owner who tried to steal the team and take it to Los Angeles but instead sold it to Paul Allen, who keeps it here while he steals from us.
But don’t let that deter you from seeing the show, which humanizes the men who have occupied the highest office in the land. Upon entering, you will see portraits of all 42 presidents in chronological order. Perhaps it is the blemish-disguising misty light of history, but it’s hard not to see this display as akin to those evolution charts showing bent-over apes slowly turning into upright human beings. Perhaps creationists could be persuaded by evidence of the advanced and undeniable devolution exhibited here. The chart begins with Washington, Adams, and Jefferson and ends with Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II. Who’s next, Bobo?
The exhibit also offers some intimate insights through everyday presidential items. No, Monica’s dress isn’t there, but you can meditate on a pair of unstained scarlet silk pajamas worn by Warren G. Harding. A man who would wear such pajamasin a style that could only be described as Hef-meets-Fu-Manchuwould be capable of anything, as, apparently, the lusty, scandal-plagued Harding was, even if he doesn’t look it in the old newsreels. Harding, by the way, died on the way home after visiting Seattle. Just opening in New York is a play on the subject of Harding’s death. In the play, Mrs. Harding poisons her philandering husband with bad crabhopefully not obtained at the Pike Place Market.
IF I SOUND particularly cranky on presidential matters, it’s partly this summer’s unrelenting dry, hot weather, which has made Mossback uncomfortably crispy. But it’s also because of further reminders that our politics have sunk so low. Last week I watched a PBS special on the 30th anniversary of the Senate’s Watergate hearings. This was the time during which former Nixon aide Jeb Stuart Magruder supposedly provided the long-missing smoking gun on the Watergate burglary by saying he overheard Richard Nixon approve the break-in during a phone call with Attorney General John Mitchell. Likely, the reformed Magruder, who retired from active ministry in the Presbyterian Church in 1998, is still perjuring himself with his too-good-to-be-true revelation. But whatever his claim, it’s a sideshow compared with the film footage of the Watergate hearings of the summer of 1973. It offers documentary proof that once upon a time, a criminally bad president actually had a loyal opposition with brass balls. The media challenged the status quo, the public was outraged by malfeasance, and the Congress actually stood up to the president. Imagine that.
Watching footage of North Carolina Democratic Sen. Sam Ervin rip apart such witnesses as John Erlichmanthe Seattle attorney who was one of the chief players in Nixon’s crimes and the Watergate cover-up was striking. Not bad for a man Nixon dismissed as alcoholic and senile. With the exception of Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, where are the Sam Ervins today who dare to demand the truth from power? Where are the Republicans like Howard Baker who will not kowtow to a deceitful White House? Frighteningly, demanding the truth from power and insisting on adherence to the Constitution seem old-fashioned and quaint nowrelics like William Howard Taft’s mustache cup.
THE WATERGATE SCANDAL was supposed to usher in a new era of honest government, but the cynical legacy is that both parties grant each other a kind of immunity when it comes to genuine corruption. The impeachment and investigations of Clinton were designed to discredit the process, not the president. Thus, special prosecutors have disappeared, congressional hearings have no teeth, and most Americans seem immune to outrage. Those who express outrage, like our own U.S. representative, Democrat Jim McDermott, are scorned as traitors. Nixon claimed to be a wartime president and demanded immunity and privilege from critics and opponents. Bush II claims to be a wartime president, and many of his supporters view challenge as a kind of treason.
Well, if vocal criticism of Bush is treason, then let’s commit treason with patriotic fervor. In a couple of weeks, Dubya will be in town. This is a chance to remind himand the timid oppositionthat many of us here in the blue-state Northwest not only remember what democracy looks like, we know what it sounds like.
So, yes, let’s welcome the president by making democracy roar in his ears until they ring.