The murk and dirt of the White House

At last, the everyday corruption of the Bush administration is gradually being brought out into the

It's now the cardinal rule of 21st-century politics: don't send even the most innocuous emails, to absolutely anyone, if you are a remotely important politician or government official. A very senior FBI man told me the other day not to send an email to his office: "Remember," he warned me, "emails never disappear if you know where to look for them."

He knows a thing or two about tracing emails. Because the FBI was able to retrieve thousands of them sent to and from the crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff (see the NS of 12 December 2005), Abramoff, a colleague and a congressman are now in the clink (with more heading there, too). But the Bush administration has still not learned that lesson, and was blithely sending potentially incriminatory emails to each other even after last November, when it had lost the midterm congressional elections and should have realised that in future a Democratic-controlled Congress would be able to subpoena past and present inter-office memos and emails.

Which, of course, is exactly what the Democrats have immediately set about doing. A few days ago, the Democrats got their hands on 143 pages of memos and emails sent from the justice department office of Bush's stunningly mediocre attorney general, 51-year-old Alberto Gonzales (hitherto best known for pronouncing that the regulations on POWs in the Geneva Conventions are "obsolete").

His chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, a lawyer himself, has already resigned and hired his own lawyer. It's only a matter of time before Gonzales goes: all that is saving him so far is that Dubbya cannot bear to think the media or the Democrats have forced him to sack anybody. Bush says he has "full confidence" in Gonzales, which places him in a minority of one in Washington.

It's hard to know which is more dangerous: the Bush administration's arrogance, or its ignorance. I will start explaining Attorneygate with an email sent by Sampson. It is about Carol Lam, the attorney who successfully prosecuted the Republican congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, whose egregiously flagrant corruption I outlined in that 12 December article.

Lam, a ferociously determined 47-year-old who specialises in fraud investigations, subsequently put Cunningham behind bars for eight years and had him fined $1.8m - but was not content to leave it there. She knew that Cunningham's corruption was only the tip of an iceberg which had myriad interconnections between politicians and lobbyists - and involved huge Pentagon contracts for the purchase of military equipment from various defence contractors, represented, inevitably, by lobbyists.

All of which meant that she was also actively investigating links between the Republican representative Jerry Lewis - chairman of the hugely powerful House appropriations committee until the party switchover in January - and his close friend Bill Lowery, a former Republican congressman who became a Washington lobbyist after leaving Congress amid rumours of corruption in 1992. Lam, was at the same time investigating the connections between Kyle "Dusty" Foggo, then the CIA's third most important officer, but who is now under criminal indictment for fraud and other corruption - and his close friend, a military contractor called Brent Wilkes. Lam believed that Foggo was using his position to push large contracts the way of Wilkes - in return for which he would be given, among other things, a lucrative post in Wilkes's firm after his retirement from the CIA.

With me so far? I have to say here in passing, alas, that the main reason the corruption which is so rife in Washington is not unearthed more frequently is that the trails are normally tortuously complex. But back to the emails: on 10 May last year, Lam notified the US justice department (of which Gonzales is head) that she intended to issue search warrants in the Foggo/Wilkes/ Lowery/Lewis investigations.

The very next day, Sampson emailed Gonzales's deputy: "The real problem we have right now is with Carol Lam." To cut a long story short, Lam then found herself one of seven US attorneys who were summarily told in phone calls last 7 December that they were being dismissed for "underperformance".

Let us examine briefly, too, the case of David Iglesias, 49, the US attorney for New Mexico, who was appointed by the administration in 2001 and subsequently rated by it as a "top performer". Republican Senator Pete Domenici got a bee in his bonnet that Democrats had been fiddling voter registrations in his state, and Iglesias was asked to investigate. Last October, Domenici phoned Iglesias, apparently to exert pressure on him to prosecute Democrats. When Iglesias told him he had no evidence to bring charges, Domenici abruptly hung up.

The following month, the senator (who, it has to be said, is not the brightest bulb on the planet) took his complaint straight to Bush. Then, although Iglesias was one of two of the 93 US attorneys who had set up task forces to investigate possible voter registration fraud, he too found himself dismissed last December, on orders from "on high", he now says with a knowing wink. Harriet Miers - the president's woefully underqualified counsel until her departure last January whom, ludicrously, he tried to appoint to the Supreme Court in 2005 - was told that the Domenici camp was "happy as a clam" over the sacking of Iglesias.

A third, last, example: Harry "Bud" Cummins, US attorney in Arkansas, was summarily sacked along with Lam and Iglesias to make way for an inexperienced lawyer named Tim Griffin, a former Republican speechwriter and protégé of Karl Rove. Getting him appointed was "important to Harriet, Karl [Rove] etc", Sampson explained in an email. In a chilling aside, Cummins was meantime being told that the department would "somehow pull their gloves off" if he made a fuss about his dismissal.

Sampson, by this time, was telling a colleague in an email that 80-85 per cent of US attorneys "exhibited loyalty to the president and the attorney general" and that the "vast majority" of them were "loyal Bushies". The problem was the remaining 15-20 per cent - all Bush appointees - who had turned out not to be the partisan prosecutors the administration had confidently expected them to be.

There are 93 US attorneys and all are political appointees, but once appointed their duty is to uphold the law and be strictly unbiased politically. Reagan, Clinton and Dubbya ended up in effect sacking all previously appointed US attorneys after they came into office - which they were fully entitled to do - but what is unprecedented is for an administration to fire its own appointees, not only for political disloyalty, but in the middle of a presidential term.

Rove, however, has perfected a modus operandi, dating back to 1986, of using US attorneys for political ends. Typically, a few weeks before a close state or national election, there will be mysterious leaks that the Democratic candidate is being investigated for something or other by a (covertly co-operative) US attorney - which inevitably, when confirmed by the obliging US attorney's office, results in adverse publicity for the Democratic candidate. Following the elections, of course, the "investigations" vanish into thin air. A study by Illinois State University found that between 2001 and 2006 - which is to say, the time Bush has been in power - 18 per cent of US attorney investigations of politicians have involved Republicans, but nearly 80 per cent were of Democrats. Far more Republicans ended up being charged, however.

The problem for the administration now, as ever, is that it simply can't get its stories straight. America's political scandals - from Watergate to the involvement of Scooter Libby in Plamegate - have gathered steam not from the original bad deed, but from the ensuing cover-ups and lies. What is now terrifying Rove et al is that the Democrats have already discovered that the administration has been lying here, there and everywhere - which it found it could do with impunity while there was a rubber-stamping Republican Congress that chose not to exercise oversight.

Thus, on 18 January, Gonzales told the Senate judiciary committee a blatant whopper under oath when he said the sackings were due to the "performance of individuals". The boneheaded Gonzales had apparently not woken up to the crucial fact that the Democratic majority now in Congress could get hold of documents showing that nearly all the individual attorneys had, in fact, received high job performance ratings from his very own department.

Three weeks later, his deputy, Paul McNulty, testified (also under oath) that politics had not been involved in the dismissals - and a fortnight later yet another official in the department of justice said that the White House had been consulted about the dismissals only "eventually". It then emerged that the entire plan had actually been hatched 22 months earlier by Miers, with Rove's knowledge, right from the very heart of the White House.

Bush himself happened to be visiting Latin America when the furore broke, and the White House panicked so much that his director of communications, Dan Bartlett, hastily convened a press conference in Mérino, Mexico. Back in Washington, Tony Snow, the hapless White House spokesman, was left flailing around helplessly.

Senior Republicans are now jumping ship left, right and centre - particularly those senators who face re-election next year and for whom Bush has become a huge liability. "Mistakes were made," is the nearest Gonzales has so far come to a mea culpa, a weaselly lawyeresque statement if ever there was one. Bush himself says that he is "not happy" with what has emerged. Hundreds of pages of more emails are expected to be released as I write, and I am told they make Gonzales's position even more untenable - if not a candidate for the clink himself.

The truth is that the murk and dirt of George W Bush's White House are, at last, beginning to be brought out into the daylight.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: Time to break free?

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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