By Contributor on October 30, 2013

Ronald Reagan was the “Great Communicator.” He just wasn’t much of a receiver, transmitter or observer.

That’s why his unique contribution to a long-standing Presidential tradition of second-term scandals was the key question at the heart of Iran-Contra: What didn’t the President know, and when didn’t he know it?

Amazingly enough, this “firewall of ignorance” built around him by his national security team—a.k.a. the “Secret Team”—actually worked. He survived a scandal that made Watergate seem quaint by comparison.

Iran-Contra’s illegality, extra-constitutionality, and its long-term implications for domestic and foreign policy reverberated through Central America, South-Central Los Angeles, Panama, Iraq, Iran and well into the second Bush Presidency.

Yet, Reagan went on to have a federal building and an airport re-christened in his honor. The American people hold him in high esteem. And he is consistently referred to as a “great president” by the well-heeled residents inside the establishment bubble, and by the political media that blows it.

Famously, among those admirers is President Barack Obama. And why not?

The Reagan Presidency set the gold-standard for Teflon-coating the truth, for conducting secret wars and for acquiescence and service to the all-encompassing power of the national security state.

Ultimately, that type of Executive Branch genuflection cannot happen without layers of plausible deniability between the public face of the Presidency and the private realm of classified America.

The problem arises not only when the denials are so damn implausible, but when the denials hint as a far darker and more systematic problem within the Executive Branch and the shadowy world of the national security state.

In the case of Reagan, he faced the camera and said he didn’t really know what a host of high-level advisers and functionaries were doing as they scampered around the White House and around the Constitution like a gaggle of well-intentioned, if personally misguided, busy-bodies. He simply wanted to free American hostages. The details—the arms, money and drugs changing hands—were below his pay grade.

The question came down to believability. Some people believed the “genial oaf” persona. Some people believed the “detached manager” persona. And others later blamed the onset of Alzheimer’s. The remainder knew that either way, the tenuous rationale propping up the firewall around the President was bad news for the Republic.

Either the President knew full-well what was going on right under his nose and simply play-acted the role of an unfortunate goofball betrayed by his zealous underlings. Or the President was absent on the job, fully unaware of a secret clique of covert operatives running amok in the White House.

American democracy seemed damned if he did, or damned if he didn’t.

It had not been long since the Church Committee and Rockefeller Commission exposed many of the lengths and some of the depths to which the CIA went as it operated outside of the system of government—its checks, balances and laws—most Americans trusted.

Now it seems the NSA, like the CIA in years past, operates outside the electoral whims of American democracy.

That’s the upshot of President Obama’s denial that he knew about the NSA’s über alles brand of “anti-terrorism” surveillance at home and around the world. And the story about ten years of tapping German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone isn’t the half of it. This scandal is evolving into an intimidating look at America’s global ambitions and reach.

But, despite his place as commandant of the national security state, Obama’s firewallers contend he didn’t know. And, in the case of Merkel’s phone, when he “found out,” he stopped it. Apparently, it was bad a thing. Which brings us right back to his bromance with the Great Communicator and that key question: What didn’t the President know, and when didn’t he know it?

If Obama is lying, then he is lying. Considering the persistence of Benghazi and the emerging complications with the Affordable Care Act, this possibility presents a host of political problems for both his party in the next election and for Americans’ flagging trust in government. Even worse, when added to his secret kill list and ever-more problematic drone war, it looks like his acquiescence to the national security state is more thoroughgoing than some had feared.

And if he isn’t lying?

Well, then Americans have been tacitly told they live in different version of the “Two Americas.” There is an America of elected officials, federal laws and Constitutionally-guaranteed due process that can be seen, heard and challenged. And there is a shadow America beyond elections and the intermediaries they empower—even beyond those sent to occupy the Oval Office.

After a May 2010 dinner with the President, historian Douglas Brinkley noted Obama’s affinity for the Gipper and said, “Obama is approaching the job in a Reaganesque fashion.”

The sad truth may be that, in light of the power both ceded to and relentlessly taken by the national security state, Obama may not have much of a choice.

So, American democracy is damned if he did know, and even more damned if he didn’t.

------

JP Sottile is a freelance journalist, radio co-host, documentary filmmaker and former broadcast news producer in Washington, D.C. His weekly show, Inside the Headlines w/ The Newsvandal, co-hosted by James Moore, airs every Friday on KRUU-FM in Fairfield, Iowa and is available online.

Illustration: Flickr user Edalisse Hirst, creative commons licensed.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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