Airlines, Presidents and Institutionalized Lies

Folks who work in the airline industry cannot differ from the population in general in terms of their proclivity toward mendacity. Yet, as every air traveler understands from repeated experience, stewardesses/stewards, pilots and check-in folks at airlines lie over and over again in their arrival and departure communications. They do not tell the truth — instead, they always — always — exaggerate what is possible into expressions of the probable and the spin is unidirectional: it’s always the most optimistic possible.

This is institutional, not personal. Grant airline folks this: they must communicate within a complicated context of air traffic control, equipment and personnel readiness, and customer service guidelines. Not to mention the stress that most regular travelers feel — and that the airline folks must feel themselves.

Airlines, however, are not unique in institutional mendacity. As is made extraordinarily clear in Daniel Ellsberg’s Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, so is the insitution of the presidency when it comes to foreign policy.

His book recounts the institutional pressures that make it prohibitive for presidents to even consider options that might be construed as ‘losing’ — in the history recounted in his book, ‘losing Vietnam’. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon all demonstrated that this institutional defect was bipartisan. It was a disease that infected Democrats and Republicans, men of reasonable honor and intellegence as well as the reverse.

Ellsberg’s tale, among many other things, conveys how essential it is for other branches of government as well as the press to do their job if our nation and the world are to be spared the costs of this institutional mendacity. His book is terrifically well written — it’s like a thriller yet better because it’s nonfiction.

As you might expect, the book is a record of our experience in Vietnam. Yet, while Ellsberg never mentions anything beyond 1974, the book is also a preview of Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror. Every mendacious act of the presidency has been replayed — right down to last week’s visit to Baghdad and the Rovian inspired political messages now being echoed by a press and Congress yet to wake up to their Constitutional responsibilities.

And it is this last point that makes the final paragraph in Ellsberg’s book so devastatingly tragic. Having wrapped up his story with the indictments and resignations of the key players in the Nixon administration (including Nixon himself) — all of whom conspired actively to lie their way toward a policy far beyond what the public wanted or a functioning democracy and rule of law would have permitted — Ellberg writes :

“What we had come back to was a democratic republic — not an elected monarchy — a government under law, with Congress, the courts, and the press functioning to curtail executive abuses, as our Constitution envisioned. Moreover, for the first time in this or any country the legislature was casting its whole vote against an ongoing presidential war. It was reclaiming, through its control of the purse, the war power it had fecklessly delegated nine years earlier. Congress was stopping the bombing, and the war was going to end.”

We are now approaching four years since Congress fecklessly handed over the war power to the Bush Administration and nearly as long since Bush — and his team — embraced the institutional mendacity of the highest office in our land to commit the lives, honor, treasury and fate of our nation to three wars — Afghanistan, Iraq and terror. There have been more than 20,000 U.S. and hundreds of thousands of non-U.S casualties to date along with hundreds of billions of dollars spent. The ‘brand’ of the United States is linked to torture, unilateral war, and the rule of personality over the rule of law — causing hundreds of millions of people both at home and abroad to live in fear of the Bush Administration.

For some time now, the popular press has bandied about the question: Is Iraq another Vietnam? Remember that the feckless press fought hard against this idea for years — editorial boards censured anyone who suggested the word ‘quagmire’ — and politicians who dared to utter it knew they were risking the Big Smear from Bush, Cheney and others.

What’s fascinating about the Ellsberg book, though, is how it portrays something far more profound than this. Yes, Vietnam and Iraq bear many resemblences (and, some important differences: for example, Vietnam from the mid-1940s through to our exit was a battle for national independence while Iraq has always had about it — even under Sadaam — the barely suppresed conflicts more akin to civil war).

But, what’s far more critical than the resemblences of the actual conflicts is the direct, straight-line identical institutional defect that contributes to situations like Vietnam and Iraq. Same institutional defect; different players.

The Presidency itself is broken in this regard. And, what is terribly worse, the insitutional mendacity that Truman through Nixon parlayed into national tragedy in foreign affairs has metasticized into reigning policy in all matters: economics, emergency management, science, the environment, the separation of powers, judiciary appointments, the Constitution, the rule of law, elections, civil rights and more.

Ellsberg recounts the famous line of John Dean that ‘there’s a cancer on the presidency’. With the expansion of institutional mendacity to domestic as well as foreign affairs, we now live in an age where the presidency itself is a cancer on our nation.

Notwithstanding the Bush Administration’s broad gauged criminal assault on it, however, the Contstitution — and the institutions it set up to deal with monarchial tendencies in the executive — can still act to protect our democratic republic.

But, to do so, the human beings in those institutions must stop being feckless.

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