Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Whatcha Gonna Do When They Come for You?

Nothing short of a rigidly enforced federal law could make me watch the Academy Awards show. Jon Stewart has his days, but very few of those days have been as a stand-up comic. Sort of like Jerry Seinfeld. Mostly, though, I can't stand the self-congratulatory orgy of people who imagine themselves artists because they occasionally create a film more substantial than Porky's Revenge. The emptiness of celebrity is the great American curse, and if Brad and Angelina (or Brangelina, or Angrad) want to fly off and save Africa this week, I'm all for it. I just don't want to hear about it.

So anyway, unwilling to listen to a bunch of speeches thanking agents and cleaning ladies, and repelled by even the shortest musical number, I had no choice but to channel surf my way to amusement Sunday evening. The problem, of course, is that nobody counter-programs the Oscars and ESPN seems to have devoted the week to small time college basketball teams bidding to lose in the first round of the NCAAs (Bracket Busters, they call this, for reasons that don't interest me). That left me either with the Cooking Channel's "Tribute to Margarine" (I made that up), NASCAR's Auto Club 500 from Fontana, California (that one's real, unfortunately), or 60 Minutes on CBS.

I used to watch 60 Minutes back in the days of the giants: Rather, Reasoner, Bradley, Safer. Nobody could walk into an auto repair shop like Mike Wallace and confront the man who had just sold Wallace's producer an unneeded new carburetor, driving Bubba either to despair or to that awkward money scene where he charges toward the film crew with grease on his overalls and murder in is heart. It was almost enough to compensate for a few wasted minutes with Andy Rooney in which the house curmudgeon bitched about the intrusiveness of voice mail or tried to spell dirty words using the serial numbers on dollar bills (no, I didn't really pay close attention). Talk about no country for old men.

I'm going on a bit here, which you can blame on my over-the-counter cold medicine, but my point is that I was driven by my aversion to gold statuettes into watching 60 Minutes for the first time in many years. It was, evidently, an all-new episode (though as NBC reminded us some years ago, plugging their summer re-runs, if you haven't seen it, it's new to you). My first reaction was "Who is Scott Pelley"? My second was a bit more profound.

Don Siegelman, once governor of Alabama, now resides in a federal prison in Louisiana, convicted of bribery. He is not the first politician to head from the State House to the Big House, but his story has taken some unusual twists along the way. A Republican operative claims that Siegelman, a successful Democrat in a GOP-leaning state, was set up by Karl Rove, who used the U.S. Justice Department and its local prosecutors to take the former governor down before he could win back his old seat.

The problem with 60 Minutes, of course, is that it does not report news so much as it tells stories. The other side may be given a chance to respond, but once the producers decide that an injustice has been committed, there can be little doubt how the segment will progress. Karl Rove is an immoral weasel who may well deserve several prison sentences. Nevertheless, he was wise not to sit down with Pelley and answer a bunch of "Have you beaten your wife?" questions.

My purpose, then, is not to comment on the specifics of the Siegelman case. To hear Pelley tell it, it looks pretty bad. The program never used the term "political prisoner", but it sent a strong message that the former governor is locked up not for what he did (trading campaign contributions for favors) but for who he is. The former Republican Attorney General of Arizona, who has no apparent axe to grind, provides some devastating commentary about the disproportionate attention the case received as well as the bizarrely punitive actions taken by the trial judge, a Bush appointee who once served the Alabama GOP (and may still be doing so).

One thing, however, is clear: an administration that politicizes the Justice Department deserves precisely this kind of scrutiny. Bush and company forfeited the benefit of the doubt when they chose to retain and release U.S. Attorneys on the basis of their loyalty to the Republican cause and their willingness to draw the cloud of indictment over the heads of local Democrats who threatened Rove's drive toward a new Republican century. One gets the impression that the real point in the Siegelman case was to offer up an indictment during the primary election season that would cause the formidable ex-governor to lose his party's nomination to a lesser opponent (which is precisely what happened). The conviction, on what appears to be shaky evidence, was just gravy.

Janet Reno made a horrible, deadly blunder in her years as Attorney General under Bill Clinton, signing off on an unnecessary and deadly attack on David Koresh's cult compound in Waco, Texas. But while Reno's overreaction may have betrayed incompetence on her part, it did not involve the wholesale corruption of justice itself. By contrast, the Bush administration's U.S. Attorney scandal suggests a willingness to deputize federal prosecutors to use the criminal justice system to carry out partisan ends. This is, we can say without exaggeration, the stuff of dictatorship. Because the White House refuses to release information or make top officials available for questioning, we may never know how close we have come to the boundary which separates the rule of law and the tyranny of the state.

For its part, the Alabama Republican Party took the opportunity to respond to the 60 Minutes broadcast, and the result does not impress. As well as the expected denial, the state GOP added a bunch of gratuitous and irrelevant nonsense about the liberal media. They likely have little experience in the national spotlight, but this is not, needless to say, the way innocent people are expected to respond.

All in all, it was another depressing evening in what has become a depressing seven years. The show went on to feature the story of a Black Muslim bakery in Northern California which may be a front for a dangerous criminal outfit and may have had a hand in the murder of an investigative journalist. The Oakland Police Department came off as inept and even a bit intimidated.

If true, the story should generate outrage. But even with a death involved, it was not, in one sense, as scary as the Siegelman saga. Thugs and criminals are everywhere and they regularly shock the conscience. But even if the local police fail in their duty, one can always appeal up the ladder to state and federal authorities.

But what if the bad guys are the feds? What do you do then? Until we learn the full truth about what happened down in Alabama, that is the frightening thought that will continue to play in our minds.

Unless, of course, we tuned in to the Bread and Circuses extravaganza over on ABC.

No comments: