Anthony Weiner wanted to get off, while Evan Bayh wants to get rich. Weiner serviced himself in public, while Bayh’s abusing his public service. Guess which one will be a pariah in Washington and which will still attend all the right parties?
Ex-Senator Bayh, who was lionized in the media as the selfless embodiment of bipartisan idealism, just took a job lobbying against the health, safety, and well-being of the American public. His efforts are likely to hurt a lot of people. Weiner hurt himself, his wife, and the quality of television news for a week or so.
Weiner apparently used social media to gratify his needs with people he never touched. Evan Bayh will use his social relationships and the media against those whose needs apparently never touched him.
Which is the bigger scandal? Spoiler alert: We may have to consult philosopher Hannah Arendt to sort this out.
Conscience For Sale
The Bayh story won’t get the kind of headlines that Weiner’s did. It won’t get the kind of headlines that Bayh’s retirement did, either – headlines like “Bayh Falls Out of ‘Love’ With Congress, Will Not Seek Re-Election.” When Bayh announced his retirement at the last minute – timing that seemed designed to ensure Democrats would lose his seat – only a few partisan cranks considered the possibility that Bayh was leaving to sell himself to the highest bidder. In reporting on Bayh’s latest move, Jason Linkins gave us a useful roundup of the damage he did before leaving the Senate. Now we know that there’s more wreckage to come.
When he retired Bayh said, “I simply believe I can best contribute to society in another way: creating jobs by helping grow a business, helping guide an institution of higher learning, or helping run a worthy charitable endeavor.”
He was lying. We know that because he refused to rule out a lobbying job even as he pontificated about education, charity, or private enterprise. Now the nation knows that his “other way” involved being paid a huge salary to undermine and destroy the agencies targeted in a Chamber of Commerce memo: “the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.”
Saint Evan’s new job will be to do all he can to prevent the government from protecting the public against, respectively (following the order of agencies listed above): death and disease caused by pollution; unnecessary accidents and deaths in the workplace; unemployment, recession, theft, and fraud caused by corporate crime; and being directly and personally ripped off by banks.
But the nation can rest assured that he will not post sexy pictures of himself on Twitter.
The Banality of Evan
Would it outrage the nation’s bipartisan crowd if we mention, even in passing, Hannah Arendt’s phrase the “banality of evil”? We’re not suggesting that self-serving “centrists” like Bayh are evil, however distasteful their actions, so the civil discourse police can stand down. In fact, we think people like Evan Bayh just ordinary folks trying to cash out the best way they can on their political careers.
Their potential for harm lies in that very ordinariness, in fact, and in the absence of anything sinister in their personalities. That makes them useful, since their job is to promote radical change that undermines our country’s basic assumptions about civil society. Their goal, incubated in highly-funded corporatist foundations and think tanks, is to dismantle the social contract that’s kept our country strong 75 years. The Evan Bayhs of this world can make that radical goal seem humdrum and ordinary to America’s influence leaders.
And that’s the most effective way to make radical change happen: by making it seem ordinary.
Economist Edward S. Herman said that Arendt’s idea is based on the premise that “doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on ‘normalization.’ And while Arendt and Herman were speaking of far more uncivilized activities, their observation holds for right-leaning austerity advocates like Bayh as well. And when politician/lobbyists like Bayh promote policies that would lead to hardship, injury, and death, their relationship with decision-makers and journalists brings to mind Herman’s descriptions of weapons lab employees who “derive support from interactions with others in the mutual effort (while) complicity is obscured by the routineness of the work, interdependence, and distance from the results.”
And if I sound sanctimonious or self-righteous, please understand: I’ve walked the same road. I’ve made compromises with my conscience too. How do you get there? A little at a time, like the canary in the coal mine who doesn’t know his oxygen’s running out until he stops singing and drops dead. So I’m not condemning anyone morally, although I understand that a lot of other people will. I’m condemning the insider culture that condemns Anthony Weiner but embraces Evan Bayh. Not that I’m defending Weiner, by any means. But Bayh’s prostituting his public service for personal gain. Wouldn’t we be better off if he indulged himself more privately?
This is not your father’s bipartisanship
The word “bipartisanship” doesn’t what it did when Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill worked out a deal to save Social Security (back when it really was in danger). They had different beliefs, but worked out their differences amicably to save a vital program.
People admired what Reagan and O’Neill achieved with Social Security because they knew what each man stood for. They also knew that each of them stood for something. What does Evan Bayh stand for? How is he different from Pete Domenici, Alan Simpson, Erskine Bowles, Kent Conrad, Richard Lugar, or all the other interchangeable gray-suited cogs cutting backroom deals with each other in the name of “bipartisanship”?
People like that have no core beliefs. Their contempt for “ideology” is really frustration with anyone whose inconvenient values impede their ability to cut deals that promote their own self-advancement.
The new bipartisanship isn’t about finding common ground between left and right. It’s about powerful people coming together in mutual self-interest, at the expense of the public’s well-being and against its will. It’s about destroying a social covenant that has been in place in one form or another for 75 years. It’s about undermining the basic premise behind Social Security by promoting falsehoods that were discredited a half-century ago by a truly bipartisan commission under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
It’s about convincing people to cut Medicare, a program that has reduced elderly mortality by 13 percent and cut down on hospital days by a similar percentage. It’s about distracting people from the devastating effects of tax cuts, runaway health profits, and unnecessary military costs, by convincing them its “irresponsible” not to destroy the financial security of the middle class.
The Temptations of Anthony vs. Evan’s Banality
What Weiner did makes my skin crawl. But the real scandal is that we allow people to cash in on their public service and hurt the public interest without publicly shaming them for their selfishness and greed. As long as that’s the case, politicians will be doing favors for big industry knowing their greasing the skids for their own post-political wealth.
Anthony Weiner’s troublemaking days look like they’re at an end, but Bayh’s just getting warmed up. Weiner will be shunned, while Bayh is welcomed in the offices of solons who see in him their own future wealth and comfort. Weiner strikes a lot of people right now as creepy, obsessive, and weird. But Bayh just seems ordinary. That’s the problem: He is ordinary. You see guys like him all over Washington, DC. In that town he’s as ordinary as it gets.
You might even call him “banal.”