Foley's Follies, Public Coverups And Moral Panics
For almost a year—no, make that five years, maybe more, the GOP's top leadership hid a sex-scandal from the American people, involving Congressman Mark Foley cyberstalking House pages. Now, over the past three days, the GOP's top leadership has been involved in a public coverup of that longterm private coverup. It's not the first example we've seen of a public coverup by the GOP. Indeed, the seemingly paradoxical notion--a public act of concealment--dates back, in it's current incarnation, to Gerald Ford's Watergate pardon of Richard Nixon, the man who made him President. But unlike most GOP coverups, this one is about SEX, and for that reason, if no other, it has to be handled extremely delicately. Like a finicky explosive, it could easily blow up without warning.
Woops! It already has. But the GOP is still hoping against hope that they can control this thing, somehow, someway. Which means it’s a good time for some historical and cultural perspective.
As noted over at Talking Points Memo, Hastert’s sudden call for an investigation of anyone who may have been aware of the Foley matter—including "anyone outside the Congress"—could well be intended to “investigate ABC’s sources and see if they can find any Democratic Party and/or liberal interest group involvement in the IM leaks.”
As Republicans and the media who love them scramble to assemble narratives favorable to the GOP, it helps us keep our bearings if we realize that we’re in the middle of what’s become an increasingly common phenomena in recent years: the public coverup. Gaining some perspective on the generic phenomena can help us navigate the twists and turns of the specific one we find ourselves in today.
Once upon a time you just didn't do public coverups. It was considered an oxymoron. If something's public, it's not covered up. So the very existence of the form merits special attention.
What it indicates, simply, is that those who got caught are immune to punishment--at least the sort of punishment that the rest of us would get in similar circumstances. It is, in short, a declaration of fundamental inequality, of the reign of double-standards, privilege, power and hierarchy, rather than single-standards, rights, justice and equality. The former are conservative principles, the later, liberal ones. And thus it is that the dawn of the modern conservative age should rightly be placed with Gerald Ford's Watergate pardon of Richard Nixon. Public coverups require widespread collusion among elite groups (not just a single party), supported by shared norms—even if they are not the same norms shared by society at large. This includes significant elements of the “opposite party” as well as the punditocracy and political news press.
Public Coverups--A Brief Review
Ford paid a price for pardoning Nixon. Many believe it cost him the 1976 presidential election. Fast forward 4 years to the 1980 election, and we have Debategate, in which Jimmy Carter's debate prep book was stolen and turned up in the hands of Ronald Reagan's team. Had it been the other way around, all bloody hell would have broken loose, you can be sure. But that's the way conservative double standards work. Adding injury to insult, there was the GOP's "October Surprise" operation--a secret deal with the Iranian government to prevent release of the hostages until after the elections, thereby ensuring Carter's defeat. This qualifies as a public coverup because the hostages were released the day of Reagan's inauguration--a veritable red flag waving across the continents, saying "Lookie here! Lookie here!"
Of course, the American political class looked the other way. Yet, the October Surprise story never really went away, despite repeated attempts to stomp it out. There were a number of public coverups during the Reagan Administration, but none of them bigger than the Iran/Contra Scandal. This featured at least four separate stages of public coverup. First, the story was originally broken by Robert Parry of the Associated Press, but the DC press corps buried the story by taking Oliver North’s denials as definitive proof that Parry was wrong. They took North’s word because he was a major source of leaks for all of them. Second, after CIA operatives had been shot down in Nicaragua and the story broke overseas, the Reagan Administration investigated itself, with it's handpicked "Tower Commission" report. Third was the Congressional investigation, in which the Democrats--the majority party in both houses--promised in advance that impeaching Reagan was off the table, regardless of what was found. Although the Democrats carried it out, they clearly did so as a consequence of Republican threats--"No More Watergates" or else it meant war. The Democrat’s investigation also rushed forward recklessly without regard to undermining criminal prosecutions—such as that of Oliver North, whose conviction was later obtained, but then thrown out on appeals. Fourth was GHW Bush's pardoning of Iran/Contra criminals who could enabled prosecutors to convict him of perjury, at the very least--for his false claim that he had been "out of the loop."
Every step of the way, official actors in plain view—Republicans in the lead, but media members and Democrats playing crucial roles as well—undermined the process of bringing the facts to light, and holding those responsible accountable for their actions.
Moral Panics—A Brief Digression
The Clinton years saw a reverse variant, the inverse of a public coverup, in which there is a prolonged investigation of non-existent wrongdoing. The non-existence of an underlying Whitewater crime was certified first by Kenn Starr's predecessor Robert Fiske, second by the Pillsbury Report (a thorough investigation of the Whitewater affair by the lawfirm Pillsbury, Madison and Sutro, which was virtually ignored in the media because it systematically destroyed the facade of a genuine scandal), and finally by Starr himself, when he attempted to resign his position, before a storm of protest from rightwing activists forced him to stay on. (At the same time, Newt Gingrich flagrantly violated House ethics rules, escaping punishment on most counts despite being found guilty. Eventually, the GOP decided to essentially disable ethics oversight. A number of Clinton’s pursuers in the House turned out to be adulterers in their own right.)
This reverse variant—in which the total lack of wrongdoing is publicly exposed, and baselessly, but hysterically denied, over and over again—qualifies as a special case of another phenomena studied by sociologists: moral panics. Wikipedia describes them thus:
A moral panic is a reaction by a group of people based on the false or exaggerated perception that some cultural behavior or group, frequently a minority group or a subculture, is dangerously deviant and poses a menace to society. It has also been more broadly defined as an "episode, condition, person or group of persons" that has in recent times been "defined as a threat to societal values and interests." Examples cited by Wikipedia range from public hysteria over comic books in the 1950s, and backmasking (supposed backwards demonic messages in songs) in the 1970s and 1980s to McCarthyism in the 1950s and the day care sex abuse panic of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The idea of including Red Scares in this broader category is intriguing, and serves to underscore the political dimension in other not-so-overtly-political cases.
These panics are generally fueled by media coverage of social issues, although semi-spontaneous moral panics do occur. Mass hysteria can be an element in these movements, but moral panic is different from mass hysteria in that a moral panic is specifically framed in terms of morality and is usually expressed as outrage rather than unadulterated fear. Moral panics (as defined by Stanley Cohen) revolve around a perceived threat to a value or norm held by a society normally stimulated by glorification within the mass media or 'folk legend' within societies....
The term was coined by Stanley Cohen in 1972 to describe media coverage of Mods and Rockers in the United Kingdom in the 1960s.
Typically, moral panics frequently (but not always) involve actual wrongdoing, but the scope, intensity and significance are often vastly exaggerated. They also usually involve subjects with far less power and prominence than President Clinton. Still, he was the son of a welfare mother, who still retained a considerable connection with his roots—and this definitely offended the sensibilities of the Washington elite. So it’s really not surprising that Clinton received the moral panic treatment.
Public Coverups—The Review Continued
Then came the 2000 election, and public theft of the presidency. It was done right out in the open, for all the world to see. There were so many actors, and so many interlocking acts it would be impossible to fairly summarize. But in the end, US Supreme Court intervened, with every single conservative/Republican justice basing their decision on positions they had previously disavowed, if not virulently attacked.
Then came 9/11. First, Bush ran away and hid, but then was presented as an heroic figure. Then came the very public shift of focus from al Qaeda to Iraq, a shift in focus that (notwithstanding later revisionism) involved very public lying, arm-twisting, and acts of bad faith. After that, the outing of Valerie Plame, and the Whitehouse coverup baldly presented to the American people as Bush pledging to get to the bottom of it (even while doubting that anyone ever would.) There were other investigations as well--such as the 9/11 Commission, and the investigation into the Iraq War intelligence--which left gaping holes that remained unmentioned in polite company. And, of course, the Downing Street Memoes--also unmentioned in polite company.
The Form, Summarized
In the classic, full expression of these cases, there are three elements: (1) Prima facie evidence of criminal behavior--either of statuatory or political crimes (the "high crimes" of "high crimes and misdemeanors" fame.) (2) A pretence of investigation. (3) An obvious failure to fully investigate. Sometimes, the pretense of an investigation was simply dispensed with, while those who called for one were treated like psychotic leepers. But in any event the investigation was clearly understood to be primarily, if not entirely a matter of show, which is where we stand today.
The contrast with its opposite number—the moral panic—is clear. The subjects are pinnacles of social hierarchies, as opposed to despised outsiders. This drastically alters the nature of the pretended investigation, as well as the actual failure to investigate. In the Clinton impeachment, for example, the extensive rightwing efforts to bring Clinton down were laughed off by the official media. When First Lady Hillary Clinton brought up the existence of a “vast rightwing conspiracy,” she was dismissed with laughter—despite the fact that millions upon millions of dollars had been spent by rightwing ideologues, such as Richard Mellon Scaife, precisely for the purpose of bringing down a duly elected President.
The Unfolding Foley Coverup
Now let us summarize where we stand today, and the various elements requiring full investigation.
(A) Former Rep. Foley has at least engaged in predatory online stalking of several pages. His swift resignation strongly suggests there is something significantly more to be found. Multiple criminal violations are a distinct possibility, as is the possible criminal involvement of others in covering for him.
(B) By his own admission that Rep. Alexander, sponsor of one of the pages involved, upon being notified, did not go immediately to law enforcement, or those with oversight authority, but instead notified Tom Reynolds, chair of NRCC, a political organization. This strongly indicates the predominance of a political, damage-control response—not a responsible, law-enforcement or victim-protecting response.
(C) Reynolds helped keep the information hidden.
(D) Reynolds’ chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, had previously been Foley’s chief of staff, and that his change of positions roughly coincided with the time-frame in which Foley’s misconduct came to Alexander’s attention. We do not know if this was mere coincidence, or if Reynold’s change of employment was linked to the private coverup. Reynolds had recently been advising Foley as the scandal broke, before Foley resigned.
(E) Majority Leader Boehner was notified, but helped keep the information hidden.
(F) Rep John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who overseas the page program was notified, but helped keep the information hidden.
(G) Shimkus informed the page clerk, Jeff Trandahl, who resigned shortly thereafter.
(H) But Shimkus kept his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), in the dark, along with the other Republican on the committee, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV).
(I) Boehner originally said he had informed Hastert as well, But that subsequent pressure apparently caused Boehner to recant, and to help pressure the Washington Post to rewrite it’s own story to deliberately hide the rewriting.
(J) Nonetheless, Reynolds has independently said that Hastert was contacted.
(K) Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s resolution calling for an immediate investigation with a preliminary report in 10 days was effectively tabled, while the effect of delaying the investigation was hidden in media accounts.
(L) Speaker Hastert’s request for an FBI investigation was deliberately crafted to focus only on the IMs sent in 2003, and primarily on those outside the House—such as ABC reporters and their sources—thus directing attention entirely away from the institutional coverup that Hastert and the GOP House leadership had crafted for possibly as long as five years. The effect of Hastert’s request was not just hidden in the media, it was presented as a bold move for openness, calling for a full investigation.
(M) We have now entered the phase of a dispersed spin cycle. The central facts are deeply damning to the GOP, and so part of the effort involved is simply to disperse—attention, anger, understanding of what’s involved, everything, in fact. At the same time, those responsible for shaping GOP/conservative political are scrambling furiously to find the right unifying narratives that can save their bacon. Dispersion of attention must precede the roll-out of unifying narratives for the simple reason that they were neither ready to respond immediately, nor were they in a moral position to do so. The contradictions and betrayal simply cut too deep.
How Does This Help?
How do the concepts of moral panics and public coverups help us? The answer is simple: they provide a shared framework for making sense of the political landscape we find oursleves in. They help us make sense of what we are living through, and make it easier for us to talk to each other about it. But to do that, we need to flesh the concepts out a bit more by placing them in a larger perspective, and then saying a bit more about specifics.
The larger perspective is simple, really: traditional societies had relatively stable social hierarchies. Everyone knew their place. But as the pace of change in Western Europe began to accelerate with improvements in agriculture that made increased urbanization possible, a path of change was entered on that only grew more intense over the centuries that followed. Change inevitably meant disruption to established hierarchies, which occurred at many different levels and in many different ways. We know some of the major disruptions and subsequent reorientations fairly well. They have names like “The Renaissance,” “The Reformation,” “The Enlightenment,” and “The Industrial Revolution.” But there were many more hierarchy-disrupting changes than just these big ones. And through it all, there were some people who saw each disruption as a dire threat to God’s established order—they saw it, quite literally, as the work of the Devil.
Modern liberalism is very much a product of those changes, beginning with the Renaissance and it’s emphasis on humanism, on this-worldly concerns, and the celebration of humanity as created in the image of God. Religious tolerance was liberalism’s solution to the wars of the Reformation, which otherwise threatened to drown Europe in a sea of blood. And social contract theory was liberalism’s way of justifying the state from a bottom-up, pragmatic perspective, grounded in the consent of the governed, rather than a superstitious “Divine Right of Kings.”
All these different fundamental aspects of liberalism shared one thing: they were about coping with extraordinary social changes, minimizing the dangers they held, and maximizing the opportunities. While conservatives persisted in blaming liberals for catastrophic changes that turned their world upside down, liberals were all about making the best of things, and creating new ideas, new structures, new value systems in order to stabilize things without fighting the inevitability of change. In a very real way, liberalism was about creating the order and stability that conservatives longed for, but using a whole new set of tools to do it.
But the fixed hierarchies that conservatives worshiped were another matter entirely. These liberalism readily let go off. And not surprisingly, this is the real bone of contention between the two philosophies: Do we need a class of our “betters” to rule over us? Or can we rule ourselves?
This is what moral panics are all about: the periodic eruption of conservative emotion over perceived threats to the hierarchical order of things which they take to be divinely ordained. Some new social phenomena arises, symbolizing the rise of the untermenchen, and the “better sort” goes all a-twitter.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones with such feelings, of course. It’s partly a function of age. The 20-year old rebel grow up to be the 40-year old square, who still thinks the culture of their youth defines the very essence of hip, while their children’s culture is, well, quite possibly the stuff that moral panics of made of. We all know that individual anxieties raised by one thing can be channeled toward another, and so it is with moral panics for societies. Some people may be genuinely and primarily upset by the subject of the panic, but many more may have their social unease re-channeled from one object to another, as well as having it greatly amplified.
Public Coverups represent the reverse: instead of the rising of the untermenchen, it’s about the threatened fall of their betters, and preventing that from happening. Public coverups represent the parting of the raw desire to preserve power from the tissue of rationalizations normally used to justify power. They represent one long public lecture consisting of endless repetitions of a single sentence: “Do as I say, not as I do.”
The final piece of how this helps is by making sense of the little picture. Moral panics and public coverups are mid-level phenomena that give coherence to typical sorts of political moves that see in smaller bits and pieces every day. For example, favorite rightwing rhetorical tactics—demonization, false dichotomy, ad hominem attacks, red herring and strawman arguments are all what might be called “native species” in the terrain of moral panics. They’re equally at home in public coverups—although they tend to show up more often in defensive, rather than an offensive role—along with denial, displacement, and appeal to authority.
More generally, we can think of moral panics and public coverups as two poles in the magnetic field of rightwing politics. Moral panics are the negative (South) pole, representing their attitudes toward despised outgroups. Public coverups are the postive (North) pole, representing their attitudes toward venerated ingroups. By observing the larger-than-life contradictions that emerge in these dramas we train ourselves on what to look for in the everyday torrent of rightwing lies, myths, and spin, as well as the media narratives that support them.
What To Look For
What should we expect in the days ahead? Primarily, more of the same of what we’ve already seen: blameshifting (everybody’s done something wrong except Denny Hastert!), misdirection (let’s investigate everyone except Denny Hastert!), mischaracterization (it’s just raunchy emails!), blaming Bill Clinton (blaming Bill Clinton!), and the kitchen sink (the kitchen sink? Yup! The kitchen sink!)
And, yes, we can expect the Democratic establishment to disappoint us with how they handle this. Don’t they always? But probably less than usual. On the plus side, this is much more of an opportunity for Democratic challengers to be heard, and they are much less infected by Democratic insideritis. But even more on the plus side is this: people are disgusted. At some point, what political elite has to say just ceases to matter, and for a good little chunk of the electorate, we’ve reached that point. It doesn’t matter what anyone says. They’ve had enough.
And that’s precisely what the peddlers of moral panics fear most of all.