Summing up an entire year in a single word, a single concept, or even a single column is usually a fool's errand. That kind of distillation is especially objectionable during such dark times: there is something macabre about viewing tragedy as mere grist for the rhetorical mill. But such cold abstraction is the grind of history. And it is perhaps not too soon to take the measure of the year just past. In a year in which so much went wrong
and so much evil was exposed, I think the theme was clear: 2005 was the year of confirmation.
The word confirmation has more than one meaning of course. I mean it here as "additional proof that something that was believed (some fact or hypothesis or theory) is correct." In the world of American politics, things many of us suspected are now indisputable. For those of us who believed that the Bush administration was an unprecedented cesspool of evil and incompetence, and that the press has become complicit on both counts, 2005 supplied nothing that challenged us to revise our negative mental picture.
But lots of things that we believed were confirmed beyond a reasonable
Despite a parade of horrors plaguing the White House, perhaps the most significant belief confirmed this year was this: that the press has largely abdicated its watchdog role. Liberals have railed for years against the way the traditional media have happily volunteered to function as the right-wing's calliope.
In years past, most of the evidence was subtle and circumstantial.
That changed in 2005, which supplied a militia's worth of smoking
guns. The exposed failures of the press were legion, but the most egregious
tended to fall into two categories: individual bribery and institutional
In January, we learned that
Armstrong Williams was on the take to the tune of nearly a quarter million
with the Department of Education. Then it was columnist Maggie Gallagher's
palm being greased by HHS to the tune of more than $20 thousand,
a transgression she proved unable to recognize even after exposure.
Late in the year we learned that columnist and Cato Institute Senior
Fellow Doug Bandow could be yours (or, at least, Jack Abramoff's) for the low, low price of $2000 a
column. We always suspected that such conservative shills were metaphorically
in the pockets of cui bono. Now the literal truth of that sorry
fact has been confirmed. In the year in which Scott McClellan's
favorite lifeline was, shall we say, exposed as a literal whore, we
finally have confirmation that many of his colleagues were not much
The more systemic failure could,
if one is feeling charitable, be seen as a sort of Stockholm Syndrome.
Through a combination of intimidation and savvy cooption, the press
has come to identify with its right-wing captors. Again, the left
has railed impotently at least since the right-wing hijacking that sustained
the Whitewater, Travelgate and other dry wells until Ken Starr found,
dare I say it, his gusher. But 2005 brought a new interlocutor.
Patrick Fitzgerald's primary mission was certainly not to investigate
the nominal investigators in the press. But what his inquiry collaterally
confirmed " first about Judith Miller, and then about Bob Woodward,
and finally about the institutions that enabled and defended their betrayals
" was that star reporters at the two top newspapers in the country
had so utterly confabulated subject and object that they were no longer
capable of even recognizing their own job descriptions. Incredibly,
the reaction of their colleagues and editors after exposure of their
failures " especially Bob Woodward's enablers at the Post " only
served to show how these ethical lapses had become so pervasive as to
look like water to these remoras. In the end, that confirmation might
turn out to be more important than the formal convictions Fitzgerald
And then there were the revelations
of pervasive institutional-level collaboration " revelations that
should have shocked, but didn"t. We suspected that the high
throw-weight publications knew more about the misdeeds they never covered
than they let us in on, but now we know. In February, The New
York Times admitted that it spiked a pre-election story
on Bush's bulge in the debates with Kerry. Time Magazine admitted swallowing its pre-election knowledge
that Karl Rove leaked Valerie Plame's name and lied about it. And
finally, on New Year's Eve, the Times" Public Editor Byron Calame
told us that in this aspect, at least, he really is standing in the
shoes of the public: when he asked Publisher Pinch Sulzberger
and Managing Editor Bill Keller to explain why they sat on pre-election
knowledge of law-breaking by the President himself, they told him to go Cheney himself. The Times thereby confirmed that
the high-level dysfunction that gave Judith Miller and Bob Woodward
their megaphones continues to throw roadblocks, blankets and horse's
heads at the few reporters like James Risen who dare to see reality
and, worse, try to expose it.
Space and exhausted bile ducts
do not permit discussion of all the ugly confirmations we received in
2005 directly from the Bush Administration. Their shocking indifference
to Katrina's devastation (and, lest we forget, the Asian tsunami in
the first days of January) confirmed for many both our President's
incompetence and his congenital lack of empathy. The twin sagas
of Michael Brown at FEMA and Harriet Meiers as Supreme Court nominee
confirmed the inviolate ascendancy of patronage over competence. The
Administration's desperate defense of their right and ability to spirit
away, hide and torture anyone they damned well please, unencumbered
by even minimal oversight, confirmed that the President's repeated
asides about how much easier things would be in a dictatorship were not idle chatter. Scooter
Libby's indictment and Karl Rove's traitorous denouement confirmed
the recklessness of an administration and, for the umpteenth time, the
unbridled mendacity of a President.
There were a few happier confirmations,
of course. Bush's plummeting poll numbers and the categorical
rejection of Bush's brain-dead plan for destroying Social Security
confirmed that, mirabile dictu, there are actually limits to
the gullibility of the American public. And the dogged, exemplary
work of Patrick Fitzgerald confirmed that even in these dark days, Diogenes
could still find at least one honest man.
A few things remain unconfirmed
" the hapless Harriet Meiers, the scurrilous John Bolton, and for
the moment at least, the monarchist Samuel Alito. But the most
important thing that remains unconfirmed is whether the American people
still deserve the singular gifts deeded to us more than 200 years ago.
For now it seems that far too many would trade away the real freedoms
built into the tripartite structure that survived for so long in exchange
for the false comfort promised by despots.
So here's to a very different
2006, and to the follow-up column I want to write a year from now, to
be called "Conviction."
John Steinberg is a Senior Recidivist
with the Poor Man Institute for Freedom and Democracy and a Pony. He
bloviates regularly @ www.bluememe.blogspot.com.