I could see them coming up behind me about a quarter mile back. They were in a late model gray sedan, a Camry or a Chevy, something mid-size and generic. I was in the left lane on I-40 passing one semi, trying to get around a string of them playing tag in the rolling hills of the Cumberland Plateau. Now the sedan was right on my bumper, I mean about three feet back, just sitting there at 70-75 miles an hour, boxing me in. I tapped the brakes a couple of times, trying to get them to back off. Nothing doing. I turned on the windshield washers, hitting them with overspray. They just switched on their wipers and stayed right there. This went on for maybe three miles until finally the last truck eased into the right lane, and I got around them and moved over. The gray sedan blew by me doing at least 85. Alabama plates. A couple my age, the driver leaning forward with a death grip on the wheel. WTF? In a hurry to get to a funeral?
Earlier in the day I had passed a bad injury accident: two cars upside down in the median at the end of a long tangle of collapsed guardrail. One of them followed too close — maybe a truck pulled out unexpectedly, one guy slammed on the brakes and the other car rear-ended him, sending both cars spinning, throwing tires, flipping upside down. Two ambulances, lights flashing, sirens screaming. I was approaching my 4,000th mile on the road in the last four weeks and this serious accident was the first I had seen. They don’t happen often out there, but when they do, they’re bad. The roads are well constructed, the safety measures are in place, but the speeds are high and some of the drivers are loons. A wide median with a strong guardrail prevented the two cars from crossing into oncoming traffic and killing people.
I was rattled, so I pulled over at the next rest area in a leafy curve in the Caney Fork River in east-central Tennessee, a beautiful spot. On my way to the restroom I found a big iron plaque that had been erected since the last time I stopped there, honoring Senator Al Gore Sr., who had “authored legislation to create the largest public works project ever undertaken in the United States, the Interstate Highway System.” The bill was signed into law on June 29, 1956, by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The plaque went up last year, commemorating the 50th anniversary. Those guys helped build the highway I was driving on.
I grew up in the Army at a time when there weren’t any interstate highways. We moved every year, often more than once, the Army sending us from one post to another, sometimes five or six states away, once in awhile across the whole country. You drove on two-lane roads back then that followed the contours of the land and passed through every farm village, trading town and big city along the way. When you wanted to pass somebody, you waited until there was a broken white line and pulled around him into the lane for oncoming traffic and floored it, looking ahead to make sure you made it around in time. Speed limits between towns were essentially the same as they are now: 60, 65, 70 miles per hour.
They were dangerous roads. Sometimes the road had a paved shoulder, sometimes it was just dirt and gravel. Two lanes, lots of curves and hills and traffic entering the road from driveways, cross streets, farm roads, factory entrances, parking lots, often appearing suddenly as you went around a blind curve and found a tractor in your lane going five miles per hour.
My father told me an amazing story about driving across the country back then. We were headed east in New Mexico on old Route 66 out of Gallup. Dad had been driving all day and a good part of the night and figured he was getting close to Albuquerque, but he couldn’t really tell. There were no road signs with mileage. They had left Grants, the last town of any size, and Route 66 was just two lanes of blacktop running through sparsely populated Indian reservations in the high desert. My brother and I were asleep in the back seat. My mother was in the front, trying to help him see where they were going. It was pitch-black dark, no lights from towns or farms, just wilderness out there. Finally they crested a long rise and saw lights ahead spread across the horizon. “There it is!” dad exclaimed. “Albuquerque!” Suddenly his headlights picked up a huge herd of cattle crossing the road. They had heard the car coming and turned their heads. His headlights hit their eyes and reflected the light before he could see the cattle, making it look like a thousand points of light, just like a city. He slammed on the brakes just in time. They had to wait more than an hour for the herd to cross the road before they could proceed. Albuquerque was still 50 miles away.
The main east-west roads were numbered in the tens. Route 30, most of which follows the Lincoln Highway, the first road that went from one coast to another, begins in Atlantic City and 3,064 miles later ends in Oregon. The north-south roads ended in “1”: Route 11 runs 1,645 miles from Watertown, New York, near the Canadian border, all the way to New Orleans. The road Bob Dylan made famous as “Highway 61” follows the Mississippi from Wyoming, Minnesota, to New Orleans, Louisiana.
At one time or another, my old man drove us down every one of them, and they all had just two lanes. So the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, as it was known, was truly a big deal. Beginning in 1956, the United States would tax its citizens and build highways connecting the country from coast to coast, from Canada to the Gulf — big, wide, four-lane roads that cut through the hills and bridged wide river valleys and made wide sweeping curves where before there had been steep hills and sharp, sometimes blind corners.
Right now . . . right this minute . . . I’m sitting in a room in a nice townhouse on Capitol Hill about six blocks from where it happened. Neil Gorsuch, the new Supreme Court justice, lives at the end of the block. This morning I said hi to Republican TV commentator John Feehery walking past in his workout clothes.
Washington these days is packed with Republican factotums like Feehery and Gorsuch, and every last one of them have their fingers crossed, hoping and praying the party will survive the certifiable maniac they put in the White House. I don’t know Feehery or Gorsuch, and even if I lived on this block all year round, I doubt I would have more contact with them than I did this morning.
They’re probably nice enough guys — Feehery gave me a big grin and a wave — but I can guarantee you that to a man, they are unwilling to admit the responsibility they have for turning their party and wide swaths of this country into a miasma of ignorance and hate.
Capitol Hill was a crime-ridden ghetto the year I graduated from high school across the Potomac at Mount Vernon. Today, these leafy streets lined with brick sidewalks belong to lobbyists, congressional staffers, lawyers, and various government professionals. If you walk down Fourth Street a few blocks and turn left on Pennsylvania Avenue and walk about three more blocks, you’ll come upon the Capitol. And if you turn right and walk two more blocks, you’ll pass the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court and come upon the Russell Senate Office Building. It was right there they made it possible for me to drive from the end of Long Island to Nashville, Tennessee, in a single day. In that grand example of Beaux Arts architecture opened in 1909, Senator Al Gore Sr. wrote the interstate highway act.
That was before they stopped making sense on Capitol Hill. Back in the day, they passed big public infrastructure bills. They passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, a law intended to insure American’s right to vote. It was greatly watered down by southern Democrats opposed to anything with “civil rights” attached to it, but the law included a provision making it illegal to intimidate or interfere with people voting in federal elections. It also established the Civil Rights Commission and the office of the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. In 1958, they passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, creating NASA, putting us on the way to the moon, where we would arrive just 11 years later. They passed the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, creating the FAA, regulating the airlines and the use of airspace by military and civilian aircraft, making it possible for you to go visit grandma on an airplane, even if grandma lives in France. In 1959, they admitted Hawaii into the union. In 1961, they created the Peace Corps. In 1962, they passed the Communications Satellite Act, regulating the communications industry so that all companies would have nondiscriminatory access to satellite systems, making possible that thing in your hand that connects you to the WHOLE DAMN WORLD.
In short, they rolled up their sleeves and got busy and actually did stuff back then. And they continued to do stuff right up until 1994, when Newt Gingrich decided that Democrats had had enough fun over the last half-century and put together a wide-ranging Republican campaign operation that grabbed 54 seats in the House of Representatives and eight in the Senate. They ran on something called the Contract with America, which promised to deliver on a bunch of right-wing dreams like cutting welfare, getting tough on crime and putting limits on product liability so if you got injured by something that was badly made or poorly designed, you’d have trouble suing for damages.
Most of the big Contract for America dreams died under a Clinton veto pen, but Gingrich managed to set the stage for the play we are seeing enacted today. He did this by purposefully and aggressively removing sense from politics in furtherance of an agenda of doing nothing substantive other than serving the interests of the people who were paying him and his cronies in the Republican party. Republican pollster Frank Luntz was right there to help him with a focus-group-tested memo entitled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” which Gingrich distributed widely to Republican candidates in 1994.
“As you know, one of the key points in the GOPAC [Global Organization of Parliamentarians Against Corruption] tapes is that ‘language matters.’ In the video ‘We Are a Majority,’ Language is listed as a key mechanism of control used by a majority party, along with Agenda, Rules, Attitude and Learning,” the memo stated. “We believe that you could have a significant impact on your campaign and the way you communicate if we help a little. That is why we have created this list of words and phrases. This list is prepared so that you might have a directory of words to use in writing literature and mail, in preparing speeches, and in producing electronic media. The words and phrases are powerful. Read them. Memorize as many as possible. And remember that, like any tool, these words will not help if they are not used. . . . ”
You will recognize many if not all of Luntz’s words because they’re still in use today. Republicans were encouraged to describe their Democratic opponents as suffering from “decay,” as “failing,” “destructive,” “sick,” “pathetic,” “liars,” “liberals,” “shallow,” “traitors.” Democrats were to be portrayed as “radical,” as “threatening,” “wasteful,” “corrupt,” “incompetent,” “permissive,” “self-serving,” “greedy,” “insecure,” “anti-flag, anti-family, anti-child, anti-jobs,” “selfish,” “intolerant,” “cheaters,” “shameful,” “disgraceful,” “bizarre,” “cynical,” “abusers of power,” “pro-criminal rights,” “beholden to bosses,” “in favor of bureaucracy,” and on and on and on.
Republicans, on the other hand, were to be praised as believing in “opportunity,” “legacy,” “change,” “truth,” “morals,” “courage,” “prosperity,” “children,” “family,” “liberty,” “commitment,” “principles,” “duty.” They would act “tough,” with “vision,” “success,” “confidence,” and “dreams.” And they would provide “freedom,” “pride,” “reform,” “workfare,” “strength,” “fairness,” “hard work,” “incentive,” “common sense,” and “passion.”
Recognize any of that garbage? They actually came up with “a key mechanism of control” that changed politics in this country from a debate over issues and policies to blather filled with empty words and phrases that stopped making sense and were intended to make nothing but power and money. “Make America great again!” is a direct descendant of Gingrich’s plan and Luntz’s methods. Words were stripped of meaning, reduced to sounds alone, audible bites of nonsense that were intended to sound good and nothing more. But underlying it all was a conscious drive to stop making sense and start creating ignorance, intolerance and hate.
Those words are being wielded in the hallways of the big buildings only a few blocks from me right now, and in service of what? Of nothing, actually. They’re not passing any laws of consequence these days. They’re not raising money to maintain all those interstate highways that have been built since 1956. They’re not building anything, or creating jobs, or even defending the country in any kind of measurable, meaningful way. Five thousand more troops in Afghanistan? After what? Three thousand fewer troops, following 20,000 more troops, following 8,000 troops, following 1,500 troops? They may as well be turning over tarot cards at the Pentagon, this kind of shit has so little meaning. It doesn’t make sense. Invading Iraq didn’t make sense. Bombing Libya didn’t make sense. The whole goddamned thing stopped making sense a long time ago.
What they’re doing a few blocks from where I sit is undoing some of the laws and regulations that have kept you safe over the last 50 years. The FAA and controlling airplanes in the sky? Privatize it. Turn it over to some company that will cut stuff if the bottom line isn’t fat enough. That should work just fine up there at 35,000 feet. Auto mileage standards and emissions controls that cleaned up the air in the LA so you can see the Hollywood sign and made your kids less likely to suffer from asthma? Can ’em. Product safety? Turn buying stuff into an every-man-for-himself profit-driven free for all. Oh, yeah. That health care bill that tries its best to cover everyone, lifts caps on insurance coverage so you won’t be driven into bankruptcy, and requires covering pre-existing conditions? Repeal it.
In the same Senate chamber Al Gore Senior served in, they’re pushing a bill that strips insurance from tens of millions, makes it possible for insurance companies to inflate their coffers by offering insurance “plans” that cover almost nothing and extract enormous deductibles from sick people before they get a nickel of coverage, all the while giving tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires.
Does this make any sense at all? No, and that’s the point. It has always made sense to solve problems, not create them, but they don’t want to make sense. They want their pay-masters to make money. It makes sense to help people who can’t help themselves, but they don’t want to make sense. They actually want to hurt people. It makes sense to help people who are poor to achieve a better life by getting better paying jobs and earning more money. But they don’t want to make sense. They want really wealthy people to become even more wealthy by paying poor people subsistence wages and pocketing larger and larger profits so they can buy Gulfstreams and build 30-room McMansions in Amagansett they visit two weekends a year. It makes sense to provide a good education to every child in America, because with education comes a chance at better jobs, making more money, living a better life. But they don’t want to make sense. They want to educate their own children at enormously expensive private schools and colleges while keeping a significant class of people in this country ignorant and working at menial jobs for wages that won’t pay the rent and feed a family, much less pay for the lousy health insurance they have in store for them.
They decided to stop making sense over two decades ago. They set forth using “a key mechanism of control” to turn citizens into people who will listen to nonsense and think it means something. Today they occupy offices in those big buildings only blocks away from where I sit and they aggressively pursue policies that made no sense for anything other than keeping themselves in power and making tons and tons of money for the people who pay them to cut their taxes and do as little as possible for the public good.
Last year, they pooled their resources and elected as president of the United States a man who makes no sense at all. It doesn’t make sense to tell lies, one after the other, all day every day, to compound one lie with another, to have to tell another lie and another lie to correct the lies that failed, and then tell even more lies to cover up all the other lies they just told. That doesn’t make any sense at all, but here we are. We have a man as our president who doesn’t make sense and is actually proud of it.
We have people in the White House who stand up every single day and spout nonsense and then go back to their little offices and come up with new shit that doesn’t make sense and get up and spout it again. On Fox this week, Kellyanne Conway held up little printed signs that didn’t make sense. Everyone on the show laughed along with Kellyanne. They weren’t making any sense, and they knew they weren’t making sense, and they knew their viewers didn’t care even a little bit because their viewers had been conditioned with nonsense for over 20 years. The viewers were probably laughing too.
Does being “tough” make any sense at all in the average American’s life? No. But it sure as hell sounds good. Does “prosperity” make sense to people who are not earning enough to feed their children and pay for clothes and rent a place to live? “Prosperity” as in “Americans for Prosperity,” the Koch brothers Tea Party sham “grassroots” organization, remember? No, “prosperity” makes no sense at all when your aim is to keep people poor and stupid. But does it sound good? Sure does. Does it fool them? You bet. Does “opportunity” make sense to people who are being denied higher education because it costs too much? Does “fairness” make sense to kids who stand in line for free lunches at school because their parents can’t afford to feed them? No, but those words work really, really well to get do-nothing assholes elected to congress.
So the next time you’re watching TV and you see one of these fools standing before a bank of microphones somewhere in a corridor of one of the very nice big buildings on Capitol Hill, and you hear them spouting shit like “freedom” and “liberty” and calling others “corrupt,” and “traitors,” and “liberals,” just remember this. One day somebody carried a stack of papers down one of those corridors and got in a car and drove up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and President Dwight David Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office and put his signature on one of the pages, and they taxed Americans and used those taxes to build the Interstate Highway System. They should put up a plaque in the Russell Senate Office Building like the one at the rest area on I-40 in Tennessee, to remind themselves that there was once a day when what they said and what they did actually made sense. It would be a real historical marker because man, those days are history.