Entry from July 26, 2002

Not surprisingly, the media are already writing Dick Cheney’s political obituary. The headline in David Wastell’s report from Washington in the London Sunday Telegraph says “Cheney’s job at risk,” and Mr Wastell thinks that “Dick Cheney may be sacrificed to distance the administration from corporate scandals.” Showing that great minds think alike, perhaps, Garry Trudeau has typically been making the same joke, an imaginary conversation between the President and Vice-President in which the former tries to persuade the latter to take the fall for the administration, every day for a week.

Mike Allen and James V. Grimaldi in the Washington Post likewise hint that Cheney is “a liability on the GOP balance sheet” and Dana Milbank of the same paper is already hinting darkly of a possible criminal conspiracy:

When Cheney left Halliburton in August 2000 to be Bush”s running mate, the oil services firm was swelling with profits and approaching a two-year high in its stock price. Investors and the public (and possibly Cheney himself) did not know how sick the company really was, as became evident in the months after Cheney left.

I love that “possibly Cheney himself” in parentheses to allow for the possibility, however remote that Mr. Cheney’s stock transaction might have been legitimate. “Whether through serendipity or shrewdness,” Milbank acknowledges, “Cheney made an $18.5 million profit selling his shares for more than $52 each in August 2000.” He has to admit that the date was of significance for reasons that had nothing to do with any awareness that Cheney might have had of trouble ahead for Halliburton, since it was in August of 2000 that he was chosen by George W. Bush as his vice presidential running mate. But the coincidence is just too much for the journalistic, scandal-hunting mind, and so Cheney must be supposed to have a cloud over his head and to be in danger of being dumped from the ticket on the basis of the merest shadow of a suspicion.

From here it seems to be, at least for the ragged end of the journalistic fabric, but a short step to blaming Cheney for pretty much everything that has gone wrong with the U.S. economy, as Joie Chen of CBS did (as noticed by the Media Research Center of Alexandria). “In Houston, Hartford, Macon, Georgia, anxious small investors pin the blame for the falling stock market on Mr. Cheney,” she said in an ostensible news report — and then, to prove her claim, stuck her microphone in the face of a demonstrator in Macon (not identified as a demonstrator) who obediently said that “The Golden Years are no longer golden because of the Cheneys of the world.”

No “media bias” there, is there? But even the less blatantly activist reporters like Dana Milbank found potentially career ending blame for Mr Cheney in the fact that “the humbling of Halliburton raises doubts about Cheney”s stewardship there and, by extension, his reputation as a smart executive bringing a businessman”s acumen to the White House. Likewise, Roland Watson in The Times of London writes that “Mr Cheney’s business nous, part of the reason he was plucked on to the Bush ticket, is failing to stand up to scrutiny.” Apparently, the journalistic standard of honor, like that of the most primitive peoples, regards not just peculation but any failure as a disqualification for public life.

But then we know that that is not true. Honor for journalists is a matter of no interest until they have an excuse for hinting that the political opposition hasn’t got any. Then they will always find someone, as Allen and Grimaldi do to shake his head and say, along with James A Thurber (no kidding!) of the American University Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, that such a lot of wild accusations in the media “could undermine people”s trust in Cheney and make it harder for the administration to move ahead with its own agenda.”

This is just exactly wrong. No one is so perfect that trust in him could not be thus “undermined” by fanciful and speculative charges such as these. If the trust were not already undermined by years of scandal-mongering, these would not be stories at all. The foundation of all political honor is trust, and America has a long tradition of giving its leaders the benefit of the doubt, of wishing to think well of them rather than badly, which are the infallible hallmarks of trust. That all changed as a result of Vietnam and Watergate. Suddenly we got into the habit of thinking the worst of our leaders, and that has led to 30 years of the scandalous press we have now.

Where there is trust, the very whisper of mistrust would be enough to make a government official resign. In such a case the unusualness of suspicion’s being directed at him would make him a distraction to his colleagues and his party and to government institutions in general. But where mistrust is the order of the day and scandal, or pseudo-scandal, has become routine, there is no trust to be undermined. Nowadays officials from the President on down are mistrusted from their first day in office by the opposition and the media, at least, and so there becomes no way of distinguishing between this routine mistrust and that which genuinely might require a resignation or a dismissal.

The result, as we are seeing in the Traficant case, is that no one ever resigns, even over genuinely scandalous behavior — even when caught, like Traficant, dead to rights with his fingers in till. If you don’t trust me anyway, Traficant might very reasonably say, why should I be ashamed (let alone resign!) for having forfeited your trust? So long as journalism’s raison d’etre is to uncover discreditable realities underlying the official façade of public life — which in practice means finding anything which can be made to look discreditable — there can be no trust, or shame, or honor in public life. And, naturally, the keepers of the façades, put into defensive mode by this predisposition of the scribbling classes, will build them to look as ugly and forbidding and uninteresting as fortresses, rather than making our public institutions the things of beauty they might otherwise be.


Martin Wooster writes to praise the redesign of the site. Thanks, by the way, to Dusty Gulleson and Dawn Wyse and to David James, wherever he may now be, for the brilliant caricature of me as I was 20 years ago; another long-lost friend, Mark Hodgin, is the one on the right. But Martin goes on to ask if the “Diary” feature means that I have now become a blogger. I have already admitted as much (see Diary of June 4th), but privately I would still like to distinguish between the Diary, which I regard as a Chips-from-the-Workbench feature rather than an excuse to put everything I think about up on the web for a notional public to read and comment on. But perhaps I am being unfair to my fellow bloggers. You be the judge.



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