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Erica Jong

Erica Jong

Posted: January 16, 2008 02:27 PM

It Was Eight Years Ago Today (But It Seems Like Eighty)


In the year 2000, that great and glorious year that was supposed to "change everything," I wrote an article for ELLE magazine called "Bushwhacked." I can't remember what they retitled it. It was published in the late summer of 2000, two or three months before the presidential election.

I think I said -- (can't find the damned thing) -- that I was absolutely disgusted by the campaign then in progress. I had met Al Gore at a fundraiser and thought he was brilliant. And a good speaker. And a decent guy. I couldn't understand the press about him, which seemed to me to assault him for possessing functioning brain cells. I was astounded that journalists seemed to love this dumb frat boy named George W., who glad-handed the press while they made fun of this brilliant man (Al Gore) who had a good grip on foreign policy, the environment, the economy (we had a surplus then, remember?) social issues, civil rights for minorities and majorities (women's rights).

Plus -- his wife Tipper Gore wanted us to address the problem of depression in America as a mental health issue. She understood that we were losing an opportunity if we failed to understand the epidemic of depression in adults and adolescents. Here was a smart woman with a smart husband, a woman who cared about the health of the electorate vs. a smirky dumb-ass who lied about his drinking and sobriety, lied about his National Guard Record and had a wife who nodded behind him as if she had no ideas she wanted to express -- which turned out not to be true -- but that came years later.

Al Gore was so obviously the superior candidate that it seemed absurd that anyone would ever consider voting for George W. Bush.

But the press hated Gore and loved Dubya -- as he was then called. Monica Lewinsky was still occasionally in the news -- though she was long gone from Bill Clinton's life. And Al Gore hadn't cheated on Tipper, but what the hey! Guilt by association. No one questioned it. They were both Democrats, weren't they? And Gore was too nerdy for America. Or so they said. We never questioned journalists about why they hated him so. We never questioned getting raving opinion on our news pages instead of hard news. We never questioned that the presidency was a popularity contest.

Then came the election of 2000 -- that comic masterpiece. Remember Florida? Remember the "hanging chads"? Remember the votes that disappeared or weren't counted? Remember the black people in Florida who were turned away from the polls? Remember the long gap between the election and its outcome? Remember the Supreme Court anointing King George II?

It was really disgusting. I was numb. How could my country be so stupid, so corrupt, and so shortsighted? Had we become a banana republic? Not yet. Things were pretty good under Clinton: a bouncy economy, jobs for most, a long overdue acknowledgment that health care needed fixing -- if not the correct fix itself -- Ruth Bader Ginsberg appointed to the Supreme Court, more progressive women appointed to political office than at any time in history, no bullshit about that rarest of procedures -- "partial birth abortion" -- an understanding that a woman's body and mind were one and that if a woman and her family could not raise a child, it was her sad, unwelcome choice not to have it. Kinder in the end to terminate the pregnancy than to drop the child off a bridge -- like that poor benighted father of a few weeks ago -- or beat it to death because you were a drug addict or starve it to death because you were mentally ill and undiagnosed. Also there was no war, declared or undeclared, nor screaming and yelling about patriotism and how you were a traitor if you questioned war as a solution to everything under the sun.

The Geneva Conventions still stood. The Constitution had not been shredded. We still had oil we could mostly afford. We still had a dollar we could exchange for other currency without screaming uncle. We still had The Bill of Rights, Habeas Corpus and other quaint and ancient standards. We still were known as the country of freedom. We still abjured torture and other cruel and unusual punishments -- even if some people in the military went nuts and did it -- but at least we did not sanction them.

We still had the ability for women to declare when they were ready to responsibly raise a child. We still had the understanding that bringing up an adult takes 20 years and a village of elders, not nine months. We still had Bill Clinton who still took advice from Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman who had made mothers and children, family leave, civil rights and children's rights her priority during her entire career, who traveled around the world to meet foreign leaders, who supported the rights of minorities and women wherever she went and who was respected internationally for her intelligence and heart.

So the election of 2000 came and came and came and went on and on and on. When George II was finally put in office, I thought -- I'm not really sympathetic to him, but how much harm can he do? After all this is still the land of the free and the home of the brave, we'll never allow a dictator like Richard Nixon again. We'll never have Watergate again. How bad can a president be in this great country? Just wait.

So now we had a passel of arrogant neo-cons in the White House and they were trigger-happy. George W. Bush was mad at Saddam Hussein for "trying to kill my Daddy" but some people -- like General Colin Powell and George Bush -- pappy -- the First thought that, bad as he was, we might get still worse problems if we tried to depose him.

Iraq might deconstruct. Oil might go up not down. Sunnis and Shias might try to kill each other. Kurds might want their own country. Iraq, after all, had many different peoples who didn't trust or like each other. People who read books knew that. People in our Diplomatic Corps knew that. Generals of the first Bush war in Iraq knew that. The Jews had fled Iraq after prospering there for thousands of years. The Christians were such a tiny minority they always felt they should leave for fear of fundamentalist Islam. Other religions and tribes were nervous. Iraq was not so much a nation as a collection of uneasy tribes.

And Saddam was a tyrant, but he was our tyrant. After all, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush I had helped install him in the hope he would keep the Soviets away -- we still had the Soviet Union in those days, after all.

The Saudis and the Syrians were, after all, worse than the Iraqis. They were manipulating oil prices. And arming terrorists. Saddam at least wasn't doing that. We could watch him and see what weapons he really had or did not have. In fact we were doing that.

Okay, Bush was in bed with the neo-cons and right-to-lifers but how awful could it get? We could barely imagine it. Maybe the neo-cons wanted to bomb children abroad and the Christian Right wanted to outlaw birth control and abortion at home -- but hey they were Repugnicans -- what did we expect? We would get through it, we thought.

Then came 9/11 -- which supposedly also "changed everything." On a gorgeous day of blue skies in New York and D.C., towers came tumbling down on their own footprints -- unlike any bombing ever seen. The Pentagon was deeply wounded, and it all seemed to be the work of educated Saudis, who were trained in Afghanistan by something called "The Base" or al Qaeda that we'd never really focused on before. Only intelligence professionals knew about it. It seemed to be led by someone called Osama Bin Laden who was born in Saudi Arabia, but came to hate the place -- though his family had become rich there -- but he hated the West more.

Apparently he longed for an ancient Islamic Caliphate where women wore veils and men married many wives and women and children knew their place, didn't talk back or vote or drive or date or fly in planes. He hated the kind of country -- like Iraq under Saddam or Iran before the Islamic revolution where women were integrated into teaching, government, diplomacy and trade. He wanted to turn back the clock about a thousand years.

Where had Mr. (or Sheik) Bin Laden suddenly come from? Well, apparently our government knew all about him and had been told by President Clinton to keep an eye on him. But George Dubya didn't want to be briefed by a Democrat -- whoever he was. And Dubya hated Saddam Hussein for "trying to kill my daddy." So, during the summer of 2001 he ignored a memo that said BIN LADEN DETERMINED TO STRIKE IN US. He was busy clearing brush on his Texas ranch. He was busy vacationing. He told Condi Rice it didn't mean a thing and she backed off. When various security experts and diplomats told him to listen up about the threats in presidential briefings, he shut them up -- or fired them. He didn't want to know from such things. When his national security expert came to him and Condi and Dick C. "with hair on fire," warning of possible attacks from Islamic fundamentalists, he just balked. What, me worry? was his mantra -- like Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine.

So 9/11 came and went -- and whether it was an attack from abroad or a conspiracy of some sort -- is not the point of this essay. Perhaps it was a sort of Reichstag fire, perhaps not--the Bushevicks treated it as such and took the opportunity (long wished for and planned for) to pass all sorts of nasty laws restricting everyone's freedoms.

So now we take our shoes off checking in and our carry-on luggage is screened and there is a no-fly list for writers and intellectuals who dare criticize the Bushies, or who have funny names or who happen to be Muslim or who happen to have an uncle named Abdullah.

Our rulers (the oligarchs like in Russia) don't care about any of this cause they fly in Air Force I or II or private corporate jets or jets they own, or jets their pals and contributors own. We get the problems flying while we basically bankroll their air travel. Air travel has become so disgusting that ordinary Americans envy the oligarchs their personal aircraft which nobody but the rich rich -- or politicians -- can afford.

Next, the Busheviks cut taxes on the rich and raised taxes on the middle class and working class, saying it would stimulate the economy, while actually it just made working people poorer and middle class people more unable to make ends meet. But Bush and Cheney liked the have-mores better than the have-nots. The have-nots were not their base. They didn't give campaign contributions or shop at Neiman Marcus. The have-nots couldn't really protest, being too busy making ends meet, driving kids to school, working two or three or four jobs. You gotta have leisure to get involved in politics and leisure takes, you guessed it, moolah, dough, bread, bucks.

Then the Bushies began their favorite game -- whipping up war. There were orange, pink, green, blue, rainbow-and-stars alerts. There were announcements about them on the so-called "news" all the time till the comedians laughed the absurd warnings off the air. There were dire predictions about mushroom clouds and smoking guns and loose nukes and stuff.

Never mind that Bush had broken all the treaties designed to keep nukes under lock and key. So now we had a nuclear U.S., a nuclear Pakistan (nuke-u-lar, he said), a nuclear Israel, a nuclear China, a nuclear UK, France. But we reserved the right to get mad at sovereign nations who wanted to arm. (We liked to arm our buddies -- like the Saudis -- we're still doing it-- but we got mad at Iraq, which we had previously armed because we didn't like them anymore).

So what if it made no sense? So what if Bush the First had said, don't get rid of Saddam. He may be a horrible tyrant but he's holding the country together. So what if Colin Powell had said -- if you break it, you gotta fix it -- which ain't easy. They wanted war. They believed everything the Iraqi expats (like Chalabi) told them: it would be a cakewalk, roses strewn before us, Iraqis kissing our troops, and the like. So we bombed the hell out of them -- "shock and awe" -- and mothers and children died and fathers died, but it was all worth it because Saddam caused 9/11 even though he didn't!

This brings us to about 2003 -- Mission Accomplished! The war drags on and little kids in Iraq are being burned and losing arms and legs, but it's worth it because Saddam caused 9/11. Karl Rove steals from Joseph Goebbels brilliant playbook. The Big Lie is repeated so bloody often that a lot of busy people working three jobs, believe it. (If you keep the people working hard enough, they have no time to read. You just lie to them and do photo ops and you hope they don't dig deeper). Then you release your poisonous propaganda through Fox News and GE TV and who knows the diff? The profiteers are happy. They love war. The oil companies are happy. Iraq is the biggest financial boondoggle of all time. So what if the deficit goes up? We're a strong country. We can take it. War costs billions. And billions. And billiions. Money disappears in Iraq. Piles of dollar bills in countless numbers and war material and ordnance and anything else you can name -- antiquities that map our entire civilization, oil, equipment for war, equipment for peace, water pipes, medical supplies, you name it. While this grubfest is going on, mothers back home are sending body armor to their soldier boys so they won't die. Apparently our government can't afford it. We can afford billions for the profiteers, but no bulletproof vests for our kids. We can afford an immense embassy being built in Baghdad, but not enough money to renovate our V.A. hospitals, nor treat the wounded, nor give counseling to G.I.s suffering from post-traumatic stress. Clearly this is hypocrisy to end all hypocrisies but you dare not criticize the war effort for fear of being attacked with not being patriotic and not supporting the troops.

So it goes, as the great Kurt Vonnegut would say. I could detail all the hypocrisies of Cheneybush or Bushcheney, but you know them as well as I. Thus we lost eight years of our lives. Some mornings I woke up so depressed about the state of our nation that I could barely read the papers. I wanted to lose myself in 19th century novels -- Bleak House, David Copperfield -- or sink into Sappho and ancient Greece, the subject of my 2003 novel, my eighth. I wanted to read Herodotus, not the depressing spate of books about how our beloved country was self-destructing out of stupidity, greed, hypocrisy, lack of leadership and lies. I wanted to read the ancient Greeks. I wanted to move to Europe, Italy, France -- anywhere. Even boring, politically correct Canada seemed an option. (At least they hadn't put the warmongers in charge). Or Ireland or Greece.

We "chose" Bush in a popularity contest settled by a Supreme Court packed with GOP trusties and look what we got.

You'd think that after eight years of Bushwa, we'd look deeper at the candidates and what they read, what they think, what they've done all their lives. You'd think we'd notice that Hillary was always for kids and mothers and flex time and family leave. You'd think we'd notice that the people of New York State hated her at first as a carpetbagger but then fell in love with her because she did so much for them -- even in the formerly Republican areas upstate. You'd think we'd notice that Obama is extremely promising as a leader but a bit unseasoned. You'd think we'd notice that the press is anointing him without much inquiry while enthusiastically smearing HRC. You'd think we'd notice that electing a new face is not as important as looking at thirty-five years of passion for civil rights, women's rights, the Constitution. You'd think we'd mistrust the press a little more because the press just loved smearing Al Gore before he was a Nobel-ist. He was always very smart. Do we need the dynamite factory to validate our perceptions? Apparently.

Even today, Alessandra Stanley, covering the rather dull amity and politesse of the Democratic debate of January 14, 2008 (politeness is always dull to our hyperbolic press) for the New York Times, said that Hillary was "using niceness as an ice pick." The other candidates, Obama and Edwards, were just polite. They were merely nice.

This sexism is still invisible to us -- especially when it comes from women writers. It's just Ms. Stanley's opinion that Hillary uses niceness as an ice pick, but her opinions are not on the opinion page.

Once upon a time -- way way back in the Pleistocene -- there used to be a difference between hard news and opinion, but that distinction is now gone. So we must be aware of it--or we'll be screwed again like in 2000.

I'm thrilled that this seems to be a Democratic year and we have a choice between a woman and an African American, but we can take nothing for granted. I will work my tail off for whichever Democrat gets the nomination. I've already sent money and I expect to send more. I've already written articles, books, poems, parodies and will write more. I've spoken for the cause and will speak more. However the one thing I can't do is reform our irresponsible press. I can blog till the cows come home, but if the voters refuse to look at Hillary's record, and refuse to read and research, I can't shove my passions down their throats.

The truth is all candidates make promises -- that's the nature of campaigning. George W. Bush pretended to be a compassionate conservative, a uniter not a divider. He said he was against nation building. His actions were always the opposite. I think Obama's heart is in the right place. I like him. I will work hard for him if he's nominated, but I really don't know him. His record is sketchy.

I know Hillary's record. She has made some whopping big mistakes -- but she admits them and she has shown an incredible capacity for change and growth. I trust change. I trust growth. The presidency, JFK said, is not a very good place to make new friends. Nor is it a place for on the job training. It is not one job but many. It takes passion, ideas, vision, eloquence, but it also takes experience, administration and seasoned judgment. Hillary has these things. Obama is as untested and untried as George W. Bush was (and Gore was not).

Do we need another president learning on the job? I think not -- even if his heart, unlike Dubya's, is in the right place. Give Hillary a break. She has always come through for her constituents. Isn't that what we need to know more than eloquence, promises and hope?