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by Alexander Cockburn, December 14, 2011
When in doubt, wheel on Teddy Roosevelt. It’s in every Democratic president’s playbook. TR was president from 1901 to 1909. He was manly, ranching in North Dakota, exploring the Amazon and nearly expiring on the River of Doubt. He was an imperialist con amore, charging up San Juan Hill, sending the Great White Fleet round the world, proclaiming America’s destiny as an enforcer on the world stage. He loved wilderness, mostly through the sights of a big game hunter’s rifle — a wilderness suitably cleansed of Indians. “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians,” he wrote in The Winning of the West , “but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”
When necessary he could play the populist rabble-rouser’s card, flaying the trusts, railing against “the malefactors of great wealth”. But on TR’s watch the modern, centralized corporate American state came of age. H.L. Mencken writes of him in Prejudices II that
“Roosevelt, for all his fluent mastery of democratic counter-words, democratic gestures and all the rest of the armamentarium of the mob-master, had no such faith in his heart of hearts. He didn’t believe in democracy. He believed simply in government. His remedy for all the great pangs and longings of existence was not a dispersion of authority, but a hard concentration of authority. He was not in favor of unlimited experiment; he was in favor of a rigid control from above, a despotism of inspired prophets and policemen… He was for a paternalism of the true Bismarckian pattern, almost of the Napoleonic pattern – a paternalism concerning itself with all things, from the regulation of coal-mining and meat-packing to the regulation of spelling and marital rights… When he tackled the trusts the thing that he had in his mind’s eye was not the restoration of competition but the subordination of all private trusts to one great national trust with himself at its head.”
Mencken compared TR to the German Kaiser:
“Both dreamed of gigantic navies, with battleships as long as the Brooklyn Bridge. Both preached incessantly the duty of the citizen to the state, with the soft-pedal on the duty of the state to the citizen. Both praised the habitually gravid wife. Both believed in the armed pursuit of the lower fauna… Both were intimates of God and announced His desires with authority.”
LBJ loved TR for his “toughness.” Draft-dodging Bill Clinton invoked TR as his ideal. At least Johnson and Clinton had elements in them of TR’s most admirable trait – gusto, something of which Obama is dismally devoid.
But now Obama has seized on TR as his role model in denouncing those destroying the supposed guarantee of the American Way, strangely defining TR’s philosophy as one guaranteeing that every citizen gets a fair bounce on the trampoline, soaring into the safe harbor of “the middle class”.
As for imperial destiny, last month Obama did his own reprise on the Great White Fleet, opening a new US Marine base in Australia and shaking his fist at China.
Last Tuesday in Osawatomie, Kansas, where TR, attempting a political comeback in 1910, slagged corporate power for the benefit of his audience of 30,000 prairie populists, Obama told a crowd of 1,200: “At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement.”
He went on: “There are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess.”
Obama and crew are obviously betting that there won’t be too much unseemly sniggering at the sight of a president thus blithely denying the prime feature of his conduct during the worst economic crisis in 70 years, which was to pick an economic team – Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary, Lawrence Summers as his chief economic adviser — determined precisely to “return to the same practices that got us into this mess,” to head off any serious economic reform of those institutions and practices that prompted the great crash of 2008.
Obama could have played the populist card back at the start of August amid the Republicans’ efforts to force savage cuts in the social safety net. But he blinked. Now, four months later, there’s the Occupy Wall Street movement reminding Americans that in practice as opposed to rhetoric Obama has been a doughty protector of the 1%. OWSers heckled him fiercely in New Hampshire three weeks ago.
But of course Republicans aren’t going to be attacking Obama as the pawn of the bankers. They favor the absurd script that designates him as a closet commie, scheming night and day to bring the most bloodthirsty scenarios of Karl Marx to fruition. So from their point of view the Osawatomie speech was gratifying vindication of all their most lurid charges.
Ever the trimmer, Obama was obviously aware that with this lunge into rhetorical populism he was exposing himself to just such charges. So amid his execrations against the Republicans for not supporting the Democrats’ effort to extend the 2% reduction in the payroll tax, he suddenly threw in a homage to deficit reduction, thus doing a mini-reprise on his collapse in August.
The irony is that the continued reduction of the payroll tax Obama is campaigning for means that the Social Security fund is getting 2% less. Even though the missing 2% is supposedly meant to be replaced by money from elsewhere in the federal budget, the drop in Social Security revenues from the payroll tax will allow those urging “reform” of Social Security – i.e., its eventual destruction – to claim ever more fiercely that the system is in budgetary crisis.
A new poll out of Iowa, scheduled to hold its Republican caucuses a month from now, shows Newt Gingrich now well ahead of Mitt Romney. Whatever his own many substantive flip-flops, Gingrich is certainly capable of making fun of Obama’s gyrations. After Osawatomie he swiftly designated Obama as President Food Stamp, thus highlighting Obama’s failure to lower the unemployment rate significantly, and also supplying a racist subtext about Obama’s supporters. It won’t be hard for Gingrich to flip through Obama’s speech and point out the contradictions.
Obama at Osawatomie: “Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper.” True – and Gingrich can point out that Democrats cheerfully voted through the trade pacts that allowed this to happen.
Final caution: careful how you bet on the outcome in Iowa. The New York Times, which in concert with CBS, conducted that recent Iowa poll, points out that only “30% of likely caucus-goers say that they had been contacted by the Gingrich campaign, raising questions about his ability to identify his supporters and lure them to more than 1,600 precinct caucus locations on a winter night. By comparison, 60% say that they have been contacted by the [Ron] Paul campaign and 47% by the Romney campaign, underscoring a stealth operation that has been under way for months.”
Thus far Gingrich is running a shoestring operation. He’ll have to weather possible adversity in Iowa and New Hampshire before getting to friendlier territory in South Carolina and Florida. ·
Meanwhile supporters of Ron Paul eagerly devour reports of his campaign’s diligent grass-roots organizing in Iowa and New Hampshire and scan their crystal balls for omens of a January surprise on the order of Gene McCarthy’s ambush showing against LBJ in New Hampshire in 1968, followed by victories against Bobby Kennedy in Wisconsin and Oregon.
One of the strongest arrows in Paul’s quiver is his anti-imperialism and anti-interventionism and so some were shaken by an interview Paul recently conducted with the right-wing Newsmax:
“Newsmax: What then, if anything, should we do for Israel?
Ron Paul: We should share intelligence for mutually agreed-upon goals. We should honor our pledge to refuse any arms sales that would undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.
But we should stop interfering with them. We should not announce bargaining positions even before she begins her negotiations. We should not dictate what she can and cannot do. We should stop trying to buy her allegiance. And Israel should stop sacrificing their sovereignty as an independent state to us or anybody else, no matter how well-intentioned.”
Sending me this exchange, Jeffrey Blankfort commented: “Maybe the Republican Zionist Coalition will give the old boy another look.” John Walsh, an ardent Paul fan strove to reassure me:
“Of this a friend writes me: ‘It’s a tack he’s taken for years: calling for non-intervention in Israel’s disputes by saying it’s bad for Israel. He may be right; he may be wrong. I’m just interested in the non-intervention.’
I tend to agree. I think the Jewish Republicans knew exactly what they were doing when they told him he was not welcome to their debate today. That with RP’s call for friendship with Iran and his consistent non-interventionism is about all I can hope for now.”
Dead Indians? Multiply by Five
Did you catch the New York Times’s “On this Day” for December 3?
“ON THIS DAY
On Dec. 3, 1984, more than 4,000 people died after a cloud of gas escaped from a pesticide plant operated by a Union Carbide subsidiary in Bhopal, India.”
Not even in the ballpark. Back in June, 2010, we published P. Sainath’s commentary on the light sentences handed out by an Indian court:
“Over 20,000 killed. Over 500,000 victims maimed, disabled or otherwise affected. Compensation of around 12,414 rupees per victim on average on the 1989 value of the rupee. $470 million total. (And that divided between 574,367 victims.) Over a quarter of a century’s wait. To see seven former officials of Union Carbide Corporation’s Indian subsidiary sentenced to two years in prison and fined $2100. Not a single person from the far more responsible parent US company punished.
“Yet, the notion that the main injustice to Bhopal is a failure to extradite then UCC chief Warren Anderson from America is mildly ridiculous. Trying to evade the lessons the 1984 Bhopal Gas disaster threw up on the tyranny of giant corporations is completely so. Well over two decades after its MIC gas slaughtered 20,000 (mostly very poor) human beings, Bhopal still pays the price of Carbide’s criminality. (Evident from the long-term impact on the health of the gas-affected. And from the poisoned soil and water around the former Carbide plant.) While the Indian government’s appalling Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill, if adopted, would give legal cover to such conduct across the country.
“Bhopal marked the horrific beginning of a new era. One that signalled the collapse of restraint on corporate power… Seven years after Bhopal, Larry Summers, then chief economist at the world bank, wrote his infamous memo. This said, among other things: “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Less Developed Countries]?” Summers suggested that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” Summers was to later say that he was joking, being sarcastic, and so on. Few buy that pathetic plea. Still, he went on to become President of Harvard and is now President Obama’s chief economic adviser, And his memo’s logic holds in the real world. It is exactly what has happened since Bhopal.”
Today Union Carbide is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Dow Chemical Company, which has just adamantly refused yet again to give the victims any money.
Dow Chemical is currently a prime sponsor of the upcoming Olympics in London, arousing a storm of protest in Britain and India. The company is commissioning 336 fabric panels, each 25 meters high and 2.5 meters wide, to embrace the Olympic Stadium for the Games, featuring its red diamond corporate logo. Jacquelin Magnay, Olympics Editor of the Daily Telegraph reported back in August that “London organizers, in an unusual step, have awarded the company the right to have advertising on the panels from the time of installation, expected to be finished around Easter, up until June 26, 2012, which is the date that the official Olympic period begins. The IOC has demanded that all Olympic venues remain free of advertising during the Olympic period but the logo will be displayed in the lead-up to the Games and during the test events at the Olympic Park.”
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.