A friend in D.C. with whom I was having a conversation remarked on the timing of our discourse with words to the effect of: “It’s a hot time in the old town tonight.” The headlines are definitely interesting: Benghazi, the IRS selective investigation of conservatives, plus a whole host of other issues — any of which would be front-page news by itself — are jockeying for a position above the fold.
It’s that crowded; almost like the planets were lining up. The ancients had a word for this kind of alignment of celestial objects: disaster — meaning “ill-starred.” The headlines look like The Onion on steroids:
“A Saudi man was arrested at Detroit Metropolitan Airport after federal agents said he lied about why he was traveling with a pressure cooker, according to a court documents filed Monday.” — Reuters.
“FBI surrounds house of Saudi student after sightings of him with pressure cooker pot.” — Daily Mail
Obama calls controversy over Benghazi talking points a “sideshow” — L.A. Times
“Abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell found guilty of murdering three babies” — Chicago Tribune
“‘You don’t want the IRS ever being perceived to be biased and anything less than neutral in terms of how they operate,’ said President Obama.” — Politico.
The Onion, except they’re real.
And then there’s the big one about the wholesale seizure of an entire news agency’s phone records by the administration to find a leak:
The Justice Department used a secret subpoena to obtain two months of phone records for Associated Press reporters and editors without notifying the news organization, a senior department official tells NBC News, saying the step was necessary to avoid “a substantial threat to the integrity” of an ongoing leak investigation.
Yep, it’s a hot time in the old town tonight. So my first reaction in the conversation was to wonder whether these were “emergent events,” or just happenstance. “Emergent events”: a fancy way of saying that several different elements have come together in an unexpected way and now the whole shebang is going critical, like a reactor running out of control. The alternative is to posit coincidence and simply believe fate conspired to release six months’ worth of scandals in the same week.
Fortunately, we won’t have to speculate for long. If this malevolent alignment of stars is the karma all coming together, then the next few weeks will feature an increasing spate of these things. Like a building in the process of collapse, first one beam goes, then two, then three, and before you know it the whole tower is gone. That will be noticeable, even in the glittering and impressive District of Columbia. If it’s coincidence, then after this big spurt of news, the Washington Post will go back to reporting local crime.
There’s a good chance it’s emergent for the simple reason that it is difficult to think it is the handiwork of Republicans.
They seem to have been busy finding a way to do just enough: go six inches into the tunnel of Benghazi; fail to find the IRS audit until the administration itself pre-emptively leaked it and forced them to notice. And their handprints appear to be on none of the godawful news stories that are breaking out all over.
But it looks like they’ve no choice. The subpoenas are being reluctantly generated faster than anyone likes and criminal lawyers are turning out to be a very scarce and necessary commodity.
If the Republicans come in on this — which they must — it will be as a way to avoid the scandal of saying nothing. And that suggests that trouble engulfing Capitol City will affect not just a party, but will go to the heart of business as usual. The insiders are discovering that something’s not quite right any more; something has backed up in the plumbing. Things are not going away like they should. Not for the administration. Maybe not for anybody.
Perhaps the narrative is now being stretched to the breaking point by all the blunders of the past. It’s like a garbage bag that’s managed to hold up this far, but no further.
Most presidents have second-term crises. But this seems bigger than that; not the second term of a president, but the tenth-term crisis of a system, one that grew up years ago and can’t make it another step.
One of the most interesting things about these headlines is that none of them are about their apparent subject: believe it or not, the problem is not about pressure cookers, local crime in Philadelphia, a sideshow in Libya, or the propriety of a national security subpoena. Those are just proxy words, code phrases that the media uses in place of verboten things which it is bad manners to address directly.
The real subject is power, money, and lies, and they way these work together by the Potomac. We’ll know that the next phase is here when the conversation starts using the actual names for all the things we dare only glimpse in a dim and darkened mirror.