“….In the real world, you sometimes have to employ extreme and extralegal methods to preserve the very system whose laws you’re violating.” – G. Gordon Liddy
The big yellow bus was in its usual slot, third back from the old Dixie Highway and close by the brick walls of the ancient schoolhouse. When I climbed the steps, the driver was crying, her shoulders curled over the steering wheel as she sobbed, unabashedly. Snow swirled into the open bus door, and I listened as her radio explained that the president of the United States was dead, murdered on the streets of Dallas. How did things work for the country when something like this happened?
I watched his accused assassin get shot a few days later on live TV and then the president’s funeral with its six white horses and the boots mounted backwards in the stirrups. I did not begin to truly understand my country until my best friend Gary brought me a copy of Mark Lane’s first book, “Rush to Judgment,” which proved the Warren Commission viewed its job as covering up the killing of JFK instead of investigating what had really happened.
I was just a boy that November day in 1963 and it would be a few decades of reading and research before I learned that John Fitzgerald Kennedy had made it clear that he was tired of the morass developing in Vietnam and had indicated he was going to start the drawdown of troops at the end of 1963. The president had signed National Security Action Memorandum 263 with those orders included but also instructed that the reduction in force was not to be made public until the beginning of the new year. The domestic political, economic, and military forces that conspired to kill Kennedy wanted a war and were angry about his attempts at détente with Russia and Cuba. But those weren’t the only reasons he was eliminated.
When JFK was succeeded by LBJ, a man who secretly despised him, America escalated the conflict with a false flag incident at the Gulf of Tonkin, and hundreds of thousands of young men were shipped into combat using a specious political theory that Communism had to be stopped in Southeast Asia before it reached our shores. Our country has never owned the truth that those lives were wasted. I watched friends stumble off to kill people they knew nothing about in a country they had never heard of. A few never returned, and all of those who did were not the same.
I went to a university but became eligible for the draft lottery and every male student born the same year had their birth date painted on a little ball and dropped into a hopper that spun the numbers. Usually, mornings in the dorm basement TV room were quiet but the day of the drawing, as Christmas vacation approached and a cold Canadian wind blew across our beautiful campus, we were all solemn and worried as we gaped at hazy television screens. A man in a suit appeared on screen and reached into a clear plastic orb and took out a ping-pong ball with a date written onto the side. He announced the first one and I heard someone across the room scream.
As the numbers pulled out of the hopper got bigger, the chances of being drafted inversely decreased. I drew 32, which meant that after I got my degree, I was certain to be inducted and sent to basic training and on to Southeast Asia. I was unable to go more than a few minutes without thinking about my impending fate. The TV room emptied slowly as students learned of their military value. A few were sitting in corner chairs and sobbing. The same government that had created policies to provide me resources to attend college and get an education was about to send me off to die in a rich man’s war. I began making hitchhiking trips to Washington, D.C. to march in the streets with my generation, protesting the immorality of the War in Vietnam. I had no idea if our presence made a difference. I still don’t. The draft ended with the beginning of the Paris Peace Talks, a negotiation that ought to have happened almost 60,000 lives earlier, a disproportionate number of which were poor and black and accepted the military induction because there was no other work.
By the end of that decade, Iran had launched a revolution that was a response to a U.S. facilitated coup a quarter-century earlier. The grandson of Theodore Roosevelt had organized the overthrow of the democratically elected president of Iran and installed an American puppet named Shah Reza Pahlevi. He opened the Parabas Oil Field to British and U.S. energy companies, took his share of the skim, and used secret police called SAVAK, to torture and kill political opponents. SAVAK members were trained at my university up in Michigan and managed to keep the Shah in power long enough to buy billions in U.S. military equipment before the 1979 uprising led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who took hostage more than four dozen Americans at our embassy. This country’s relationship with Iran has never recovered from our treachery. It may never.
A failed military rescue of the captive Americans in Teheran led to the election of Ronald Reagan, a president who vilified the very government he was sworn to serve. The B actor was a D president who sent the message out to voters that the scariest words in the English language were, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” He seemed determined to prove his point. His vice president, a Texas oilman named Bush, put in motion an illegal operation to fund the overthrow of a Nicaraguan revolutionary government by trading guns and drugs and money, which, oddly, armed Iran. The U.S.-backed Contras marched the jungles by day but ate and drank well in the evenings, courtesy of American taxpayers.
I was a young TV news correspondent and was assigned to cover congressional hearings on the illegal war and its attendant financial transactions. A Texas Republican, U.S. Senator John Tower, commissioned a report on what became known as Iran-Contra, and, which, unsurprisingly found that it was all quite improper but well-intentioned and no one was indicted or even held accountable. President Reagan, and former CIA chief and Vice President George Herbert Walker Bush, were not found to be complicit, which I thought to be hilarious. Asking questions of Senator Tower at his Washington news conference proved to be futile. I was mildly chastened by my employer when I went on the air and referred to the Iran-Contra report from Tower as “a number two Mexican dinner with at least one taco missing.”
When the first Bush became president, I put on my boots and cowboy hat and tux and reported live from his inaugural ball. Everything was celebratory because we were supposed to believe he was a man groomed for his job and could not be more qualified. I wanted to talk on the air about his CIA background and his manipulations of the truth, but the venue wasn’t suitable, and my career already felt tenuous. Bush proved his loyalties to the oil industry when he sent American troops to Kuwait to chase Saddam Hussein’s soldiers away from the precious oil reserves and back into Iraq. Only a decade earlier, the U.S. had sent a once and future Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to meet with Hussein and arrange to give him Sarin gas to shoot on rockets into Iran. But suddenly our sons and daughters were eating desert sand to protect oil reserves while the children of Kuwaiti princes were dancing and drinking in Paris discos.
I watched the young Americans embrace their crying families in departure ceremonies where the bugles blew at Fort Hood and Fort Bliss, and they flew off to glory in the spring of their year. I remember asking a crying seven-year-old little girl if she thought the country might need her daddy. “No,” she sobbed, uncontrollably. “I need my daddy.” I never learned if she got him back.
The next president’s most pronounced sin was his sexual weakness. His indulgence in an affair with a White House student intern was viewed by conservatives as sullying an office Americans held sacrosanct in their red, white, and blue hearts. Never mind that it was the same oval room where presidents had sanctioned U.S.-sponsored and implemented political assassinations of foreign leaders and had bombed innocent populations that might have found themselves living somewhere that needed to be destroyed to protect our national security. Right and wrong got measured by degrees instead of black and white morality.
His first failed decision, though, was to allow the tanks to roll on citizens at Mount Carmel. David Koresh and his Branch Davidians were crazy, but if you believe in the Constitution, no laws had been broken. I spent all 52 days of the standoff reporting from the scene and wondering what was really transpiring. Texas Child Protective Services had investigated his compound several times and found no violations. His right to guns was also protected, and if authorities had wanted to arrest the cult leader everyone in Waco knew he ran on the Baylor University track almost every night, his band played at the same local pub on Thursdays, and he worked on cars frequently at a country garage. Instead, the feds touched a flame to his clapboard compound and dozens died in an unholy fire, including twenty children. Trees and name plaques commemorate the dead on the prairie east of Waco. Foreign visitors are the ones who still care and walk among the ghosts. Their only question is, “How did this happen in America?”
The second Bush president lied his way into office and then lied his country into an unnecessary war. When he ran for governor of Texas, I was on a televised debate panel and asked him how he managed to get into the National Guard as a pilot when there was a five-year waiting list in most cities. He claimed to have simply walked up to Ellington Air Force Base and applied at a time they needed new pilots. The answer was nonsense because every AFB in the country was overrun with pilots who were home from Vietnam who wanted to keep current and provided all the flying required for base activity and training. Bush got a million dollars of flight school because his father was a congressman who got his son’s name placed on a Texas political list to get into the guard to avoid combat in Vietnam.
I spent years filing FOIA requests to acquire documents that would prove he had washed out as a pilot and skipped town to go work a campaign for his father’s friend in Alabama. Bush went AWOL but his file was scrubbed, and a West Texas rancher claimed to have the missing documents. He refused to provide them to me for a book I was writing about Bush and the National Guard, but he did give them to Dan Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes. She was convinced by forensic experts they were real and Rather reported on Bush’s desertion of duty. The anchorman asked me to go on the CBS Evening News with him to talk about my research, which I did, and I told him that I was certain that what the documents claimed was true, but I could not speak to their provenance. He later lost his job under political pressure from the right.
Bush’s National Guard fabrication was quaint compared to the ones he told to set the Mideast aflame. After the 9/11 attacks, the Texan and his vice president and defense secretary began to cook intelligence to make it look like Iraq and Saddam Hussein were involved in the New York tragedy, and that he was developing weapons of mass destruction. They knew neither claim was true. The invasion occurred just as my first book on the president was published and offered a warning regarding his counselor Karl Rove and the president he cultivated. While the real villain, Osama bin Laden escaped through the mountains of Afghanistan, Bush was engaged in a delusion he was settling his father’s unfinished business from the earlier war against Iraq. Instead, he was trying to reconfigure the Mideast and make it friendly for America’s global oil partners. “Iraq,” one of his cabinet members said, “Simply floats on a sea of oil.”
There are no accurate numbers to account for Iraqi dead, but estimates are all over a million and the birth defects caused by depleted uranium dust from exploded armaments have manifested throughout the babies born in the Basra region of Southern Iraq. Apparently, because the horrors in Iraq were insufficient, Bush sent our soldiers to Afghanistan and America got bogged down in a 17-year war that accomplished nothing but death and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to lose to the Taliban. Defense industry stocks continued to soar, though, as drones and missiles and bombs were continuously brought to market. With the country’s international funds frozen to keep them out of the hands of the Taliban, millions are now starving in the wake of America’s departure.
I toured a great deal in support of my three books on Bush and the lies that were the foundation of his administration. The publications raised my profile, and I became a frequent guest on MSNBC political talk shows with their prime-time hosts. I got email threats against my life and attendees at book signings tried to intimidate me into staying off airplanes because they were dangerous for certain kinds of writers. But I remained hopeful that I might explain the real dangers associated with Bush and his crony Karl Rove and the alternative realities they constructed for political influence. Lying, which used to cost politicians their careers, became a tactic under Rove’s guidance. Deny the truth and shout the lie until the public cannot discern the difference. In the decade of the 80s, Rove began the political strategy of challenging election results, claiming in an Alabama judicial election, that his candidate had won, and the ballot counts were wrong, and recounts were essential, and courts had to get involved or the electoral process would lose integrity and never again be trustworthy. He was wrong. He lied. But his rhetorical infections got into our democracy.
We all regained some optimism for America with the election of Barack Obama, our first black president, but the GOP leader in the U.S. Senate made it clear his entire purpose was to make certain Obama was in office for one term. The idea of political compromise to achieve progress for the taxpayers and the country was abandoned for the pursuit of power. Obama was elected twice but became more of a cultural and political icon than he was an accomplished president. Republican obstructionism prevented real policy changes. The notion of a national health care system to cover the poor and uninsured seemed to animate insurance companies and health care providers with a fear their flow of cash might be mitigated. A diminished Affordable Care Act survived as Obama’s legacy but the idea of giving all Americans complete health care coverage, a simple right in the rest of the developed world, remains an impossible dream in the U.S. because the industry is too profitable and its lobby too powerful.
The racists who could not abide a black man in the white house were animated when the spray-tanned specter came down his golden elevator. His dog-whistle was broken, and white, conservative humans heard his call that he didn’t like people of color, either. His properties had excluded them from residency with legal maneuvers. His candidacy was powered by dark money from Russia and corporate contributors who were able to pump cash into the rich man’s campaign because our Supreme Court had ruled that corporations were people. The message was about making America great again, but his goal was to do the exact opposite. He signed orders to turn national parks into strip mines, put his wife and son-in-law in charge of policy, and opened his arms to the historic enemy of Russia, a nation that had messed with our increasingly fragile electoral process. While millions were stricken by a pandemic virus, he talked about how it would go away in days and then speculated bleach or fiber optic lights inside the human body might offer a cure. He weakened NATO with threats to withdraw, rhetoric that played a direct role in emboldening Putin’s assault on Ukraine at the cost of millions of disrupted lives.
He attempted a coup, lined up phony electors, wanted voting machines confiscated, tried intimidating state election officers, and facilitated an assault of the U.S. Capitol Building, one of the most sacred symbols of democracy in human history. His followers still believe him, but their cult has morphed into a belief system so absurd they spent days in Dallas waiting for the assassinated JFK and his dead son to return to assist Trump in re-taking control of the country. The best thing ever said about his true believers is that they are a “basket full of deplorables.” Their politics have spread like intellectual gangrene across the land and are destroying the health care rights of women, banning books, turning people with gender identity issues into icons of evil, and prompting the illegal arrests and denial of rights to immigrants, huge numbers of which stand at our border because of our foreign policies in their homelands.
Trump followers at the state level are passing laws to make it harder to vote, legislation designed to constrain minorities and middle- and low-income earners, his co-conspirators that tried to pull off a coup are walking free. There seems to be no possibility of a voting rights act and the MAGA crowd’s racist sentiments continue to spread throughout the culture with violence against people of color by police and angry individuals who only know they hate people different from them but are usually not sure why. The citizen participants in the January 6th riots, meanwhile, are slowly being prosecuted while the ex-president and his chief of staff and a Supreme Court justice’s wife and Trump’s advisors and his children continue to live without accountability. Skepticism in the foundational principle of equal justice under the law has turned into outright disbelief and a conviction the wealthy and powerful will get away with their crimes and Trump will run again and might win. No one seems able or willing to stop the cascade of events that is taking the United States toward its inevitable end.
We are a broken land.