"What the hurricane exposed is what the progressive advocate Robert Borrosage calls the “catastrophic conservatism” of the long right-wing crusade to denigrate government, ‘starve the beast,’ scorn its purposes and malign its officials.Veteran reporter, founding director of the Peace Corps, long-ago LBJ press aide, newspaper editor, author, and recently retired public broadcasting icon Bill Moyers gave a formal address this past September at the annual fund-raiser for the Texas Observer.
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They came [to Washington D.C.] to lead a revolution and stayed to run a racket. They don’t believe in government except as it enriches them."
-- Bill Moyers, The Texas Observer, Sept. 30, 2005
Few outside the state noticed. But the speech is now on the web -- and it's a lollapalooza. Moyers gives historical context to why the Bush administration's chaotic and corrupt response to Hurricane Katrina was perfectly predictable -- and worrisomely symptomatic of greater dangers.
If it seems to you, as it does to many, that a lot of our institutions -- the government, politicians, political parties, public corporations, and even those who lay claim to wearing the mantle of religious leadership -- have been deliberately misleading the people for narrow selfish aims, Bill Moyers' speech convincingly makes the point that it's no new thing.
"What we're seeing today," he says, "has been forty years in the making." It was born in Texas in the 1950's, when the the state ranked "next-to-last in the South in education, health care, and programs for the poor," the press had fallen silent about "racism, poverty, and corporate power," and there was an underclass -- consisting of both Mexican Americans and women -- who were allowed "dog work" but were kept in their place far from power.
Being a celebration of Texas Observer's 50th anniversary, the speech is rich with praise for the magazine's co-founder, Ronnie Dugger, and his circle of courageous contemporaries in Texas journalism who labored to do "what journalism does best: setting the record straight." Many went on to international fame as writers, editors, novelists, and celebrated investigative reporters. All were guided by an aphorism Dugger coined in Observer's inaugural issue 50 years ago:
Telling the whole truth is not an exercise to be limited to children before they reach the age of reason. It is the indispensable requirement for an effective democracy. If the press and the politicians lie to the people, or hide those parts of the truth which trouble the conscience or offend a friend, how can the people’s falsely-based decisions be trusted?In Moyers' view, there were two prominent features of those not-so-long ago "toxic" times in Texas. They are all too recognizable today, as well.
The first was that "Texas was a one-party state at the time... [O]ne-party government is dangerous, no matter the party," he warns.
The second was phony public piety that ran rampant in those years -- just as it does today. "Texas," Moyers says, "is run by the rich and the righteous, and the result is a state of piracy and piety that puts the medieval papacy to shame."
America is not yet a theocracy but Texas almost is and the Republican Party already is... .Moyers finds ample contemporary evidence for this culture of pious piracy in George W. Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina.
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The phenomenon of our time is how the religious, political, and corporate right, under the cloak of ‘moral values,’ has forged a mighty coalition for the looting of America. With one hand they stretch upward for the pearly gates, and with the other they reach down and behind your back to pick your pocket or your purse.
Their appointed poster boy is George W. Bush. Everything he knows, he learned here in Texas. Unfortunately.
First he joked about the fun he had as a frat boy in New Orleans. When a reporter pressed him on what had gone wrong after the hurricane struck, he indignantly asked: “Who says something went wrong?” His manner would have surprised no one who read the profile of Governor Bush in 1999 by a conservative journalist who reported how Bush had made fun of Karla Fay Tucker’s appeals to be spared the death penalty. The journalist – a conservative, remember – wrote that Bush mocked and dismissed the woman, like him a born-again Christian, as he depicted her begging him, “Please don’t kill me!” But she had not said that. Bush made it up. An indifference to other people’s reality remains the mark of the system of privilege and patronage that is Texas politics.Other examples of classic Texas corruption and phony piety abound in Washington's early response to the hurricane catastrophe. "No one," Moyers says, "embodies more clearly the ethos of this administration than the President’s buddy Joe Allbaugh."
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What the hurricane exposed is what the progressive advocate Robert Borrosage calls the “catastrophic conservatism” of the long right-wing crusade to denigrate government, ‘starve the beast,’ scorn its purposes and malign its officials.
We know now the results of their social ideal – the “You get yours/I’ll get mine” ethic as opposed to shared sacrifice and responsibility. It’s as if they had scissored out of their Bible, “I am my brother’s keeper.”
When he took over FEMA, he described the agency as “an oversized entitlement program” and told states and cities to rely instead on faith-based organizations. Sure enough, after Katrina struck one of the first faith-based organizations lined up at the front door was Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing. Although he had only recently called for the assassination of a foreign head of state and had prayed in public for God to open some Supreme Court vacancies “one way or the other,” Pat Robertson’s organization got one of the first faith-based grants for relief of the Gulf Coast. According to a Christian magazine, he is using some of those tax dollars to help rush 80,000 Bibles to the stricken region.So instead of the public 'relying' on faith-based charities, the opposite happened: the Government funded the religious charity! Who authorized spending taxpayer money for Bibles before bottled water? Mike Brown, lobbyist Joseph Allbaugh's hand-picked successor.
Brother Allbaugh, meanwhile, was already down there. He had earlier turned the leadership of FEMA over to his old college roommate ‘Brownie,’ and set up a lobbying firm located near the White House. Soon he was facilitating business for contractors in Iraq and running another company that provides security for private companies operating there. (You have to wonder where he learned about Iraq or security while running FEMA or, before that, running George W. Bush’s political campaigns in Texas.)Moyers has invested a lot of faith in journalism as a bastion of liberty against corrupt cronyism and hypocritical "homegrown Ayatollahs." He might be right that "bold journalism in Washington today would ... tell the truth about how the political, corporate, and religious cartel are hollowing out our middle class, punishing working people, and looting the future. "
It turns out that Allbaugh’s entire complex is housed at the Washington lobbying and law firm of Barbour, Griffith and Rogers. Just who is the ‘Barbour’ in that lineup? None other that the former chair of the Republican National Committee, Haley Barbour. The ‘Rogers’ is Ed Rogers, Barbour’s partner, who is also -– hold your breath –- one of Allbaugh’s vice presidents. (I almost forgot: The President’s brother, Neil, has been a paid consultant to Allbaugh; maybe he taught him about Iraq by osmosis.)
Haley Barbour is now governor of Mississippi, where he will play a big hand in passing out your tax dollars for reconstruction. And where did Joe Allbaugh head right after Katrina? One guess. You will not be surprised to hear that on September 1 the Pentagon announced a major contract for repair of Naval facilities on the Gulf Coast to Halliburton, whose chief lobbyist is … are you sitting down? Joe Allbaugh.
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In the same spirit right-wing senators couldn’t wait until the winds and water died down before leaping to their feet to announce that it couldn’t be a better time to put the repeal of estate taxes back on the legislative agenda. And corporate lobbyists were swarming over Capitol Hill beating the drums for more tax reductions and more loopholes and exemptions and for the lifting of environmental safeguards along the Gulf Coast.
This is what they’ve done. They have taken the notion of the Commonwealth, the public good -– the ‘We the People’ in that magnificent preamble to the Constitution -– and they have soaked it in the sanctimony of homegrown Ayatollahs, squeezed it through a rigged market, and auctioned it to the highest bidder for private advantage, at the expense of working people, their families, and their communities.
It's a bracing vision. But not every community has a Texas Observer. Washington D.C. once did -- it was called the Post -- but it certainly doesn't have one any more. The days of "Woodward and Bernstein" have morphed into "Woodward the Scrivener."
So, now it's up to rest of us.