Blowing smoke. Clouding the issue. Passing the buck. Such idioms of serpentine slinking away in the grass from a burning controversy—evasion through diversion, deflection and denial—seem intimately associated with politicians, but rarely more so than this year. In just one week in late October, three extraordinary scandals—the beyond-1984 National Security Agency’s electronic surveillance-network, exposed by Edward Snowden; the Senate expenses scandal; the 416 crack-video—were dealt with by the US President, our Prime Minister and Toronto’s mayor sidestepping into more and more shit.
“Um, I’ll call you back … “
“These decisions are made at [the] NSA … the president doesn’t sign off on this stuff,”” said an anonymous senior US official to The Wall Street Journal, October 28, 2013, after German paper Der Spiegel revealed current German chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone had been bugged by the NSA since 2002.
The Journal article also noted, “Officials said the NSA has so many eavesdropping operations under way that it wouldn’t have been practical to brief [Obama] on all of them.” (And the NSA’s metadata-collecting is so voluminous that the agency’s been tracking, as just two examples, 60-million phone calls in Spain a month and nearly five billion cellphone calls a day worldwide.) But ignorance, in the face of overwhelming secret-surveillance, is a scary national defence. If the president can’t practically rein in or isn’t being allowed to rein in the NSA—can’t watch the watchers—who will or who can? It’s chillingly reminiscent of the scene in nuclear-war black-comedy Dr Strangelove, where the president asks about “Plan R” and a top general says, “You approved it, sir, you must remember … ” So far, despite calls to harness the NSA and limit their data-tracking and data-collecting powers, nothing has even been seen to have been done.
Senators? In Ottawa? You mean the hockey team boys’ club of right-wingers?
“How many members of the NDP are aware that [their] party leader not only claims expenses for court cases he loses, but also expects his political party to actually pay for him the damages imposed by a court of law?” said Stephen Harper on October 30, 2013, raising an 11-year-old event, when Thomas Mulcair was an MLA for the Quebec Liberals.
Harper raised this old news two days after Mike Duffy had declared in the Senate that Harper’s chief-of-staff Nigel Wright had arranged two cheques for him, to repay expenses and for legal bills, and that the PM’s Office had coached him on a story to tell about them. Harper had already prorogued Parliament for the third time in less than five years, a move many critics claimed was made to ensure the growing Senate scandal blew over. The result? Three senators suspended, even as one of them, Duffy, handed over his chain of email correspondence to the RCMP, who weeks later disclosed that the e-correspondence showed Wright’s complicity, but no conclusive evidence of the PM’s knowledge; Harper kept his head, barely, above the fray.
Fjording the chasm of a cracking mayor’s career
“I have no reason to resign,” said Toronto Mayor Rob Ford on October 31, 2013, after the news that Toronto Police Services recovered the long-rumoured and long-reported video of Ford smoking crack.
Some city councillors immediately called for Ford to step down while the air cleared. Ford admitted he “made mistakes” (including being caught by police surveillance cameras as he urinated curbside in broad daylight? Or getting wasted in city hall one St Patrick’s Day?) and that he had taken crack while “in a drunken stupor.”
But he denied addiction-problems and refused to resign, even after another video surfaced of him ranting and swearing about someone, saying he’ll “rip out his fuckin’ throat.” And even after he made crude comments about cunnilingus or declared he’d sue a waiter who said he saw him doing lines of coke in a restaurant or when he became a laughing-stock on American late-night shows, Toronto Council found it couldn’t force him to step down. A political death-spiral became more and more of a clown-car stuck doing donuts in Nathan Phillips Square.
Ford had already committed actual political sins while in office: soliciting lobbyists’ money on city letterhead for his private charity and voting on council to drop an investigation into the matter; proposing that watchdog agencies be eliminated soon after he was being investigated for misconduct; the list goes on.
Shocking acceptance speech from the biggest Dick of all
Meanwhile, with two shocking acceptances of harsh realities, Dick Cheney proved to be 2013’s winner of politics’ Least-In-Extreme-Denial award. In his first interview since a heart transplant, the former American VP, a survivor of five cardiac arrests (perhaps proving that Death has a sense of humour, though it remains unclear whom the joke’s on—Cheney or the rest of us), declared in a late October interview with ABC that his Republican party, in picking Sarah Palin for VP in 2008, made “a mistake.” Even more amazing? The heart—an organ metaphorically known for its compassion and love—somehow never rejected its recipient. So far, medical authorities have not revealed who, or what, the heart was transplanted from.