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Political Animal

Memories, Old and New

By Brian Morton | Posted 1/14/2009

Farewell to old national scandals, hello to new local ones.

Right as we get ready to bid a not-so-fond goodbye to George Bush, Dick Cheney, and a national culture of hubris and arrogance, we get to unveil, here in Baltimore, a new local scandal filled with hubris and arrogance. Who says we can't go back to the days of bipartisanship?

Eight years. Eight long, breathtaking, eye-rolling, hair-pulling, blood-pressure spiking, scream-inducing years. For once, we can look back and actually use the sentence construction "No one could have foreseen" in its proper context.

In 2000, no one could have foreseen that the milquetoast lightweight governor of Texas, who had managed to fail his way upward through his collegiate career and the oil business, would turn out to be one of the most internationally reviled Americans in history. No one could have foreseen that old Washington hand Dick Cheney, former presidential chief of staff and defense secretary, would turn out to be the evil emperor to Bush's dimwit Darth Vader and turn the entire federal bureaucracy into a giant money-funneling tool for his cronies in industries ranging from logging to energy. No one could have foreseen that the duo would turn the country's foreign-policy apparatus over to a bunch of braying neoconservatives.

They gave science, the area of human knowledge that made this country the post-World War II envy of the world, over to the fundamentalist Christians, who then upended policy like an angry 5-year-old kicking over a chessboard. They suppressed reports, muzzled scientists in fields from agronomy to public health, and bottled up information by constantly requiring "reviews" or simply terminating publications.

If a regulation somewhere stopped someone from making a buck, this administration was hell-bent on killing it, no matter who or what it harmed.

Now George Bush and friends are trying to slink into the sunset, all the while trying to make everyone believe that his administration began on Sept. 12, 2001, because that's the date after which they want people to remember "he kept the country safe." War, torture, hurricanes, and financial crashes apparently come and go, Osama bin Laden lives to kill again, but we are supposed to think that the absence of something should be considered a triumph for George Bush's presidency.

Goodbye, George. Don't fare well, don't look back, and don't let the shoe hit you in the head on the way out the door. You won't be missed.

Hello Sheila Dixon!

Hello picayune local scandals, how we've missed you--the long days of battling lawyers on talk shows, the petty greed, the tales of expensive shoes and gift cards and wealthy boyfriends and cash transfers. It's like the Jacqueline McLean story all over again, writ small. Now Baltimore can join the list of cities with recent mayoral scandals, since we can't let Detroit get all the love.

In Washington, they have a saying in politics: "Don't do anything you wouldn't want to see on the front page of The Post." Let's make our requisite statement about the presumption of innocence, but really?

What aboveboard politician hands an employee $4,000 in hundred-dollar bills and then says, "Here, write a check to cover my charge-card bill?" It's sort of like Louisiana congressman William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson trying to explain $90,000 in his freezer: It may be legal, but despite the temperature of the receptacle, it just doesn't smell right.

The trappings of power do strange things to people, and being the mayor of a city the size of Baltimore usually brings more power than money. Nobody becomes mayor to get rich. The problem with that is, pretty soon all the trappings start making you think you ought to be living like the bigshots who constantly come before you. Pretty soon the junkets start rolling in, the meals get more lush, the "conferences" take you to more spectacular locales, and you start thinking it's your due.

And then you start thinking you deserve more. You deserve the raise you voted yourself, even when the economy starts to turn south. You deserve the plane tickets, the Coach bags, the PlayStations. It becomes a matter of entitlement. Then it spreads to your family, because they, too, are within the sphere of influence. They start to see the good times roll.

When political entitlement is challenged, the first response is hubris, and that's what we've been seeing from Sheila Dixon for a long time, from the long ago banging of her shoe on the table to the no-bid Utech contracts for her sister. It may have just been a matter of time before it blossomed.

So here we are, out with the old and in with the new. 2009 promises to be a year where we hunker down in our little city on the bay and watch the television trucks line up out outside a city courthouse, just like in the good old days, before the crashing buildings and the hurricanes and the wars and the crashes. Goodbye George, hello Sheila. Happy days are here again.

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Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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