Acid Reign

From the Bush administration's assault on the Constitution to San Francisco's election fiascoes, core American values are being corroded

If I saw a Grinch lolling about the office this holiday season, I'd have him shot for being upbeat. The state of the union is as bad as it's been since the afternoon of January 20, 1969. No, things are worse now, I suspect, than what rained down upon the citizenry during the reign of Nixon; Americans just don't know it yet, at least not completely, because the current war obscures the current danger.

As undeclared wars go, Vietnam was ignorant, murderous, and arrogant, but most of all it was obvious in its service of dubious geopolitical theory: Justifications for the war centered on the precious credibility that would wane, the vital dominoes that might fall if we did not bomb and defoliate and body-count our way into sacrificing 54,000 boys next door to the god Hubris. Governmental misconduct in service of such a war -- the blacklisting, wiretapping, IRS-auditing, and general dirty-tricking of perceived enemies -- could be understood, fully and immediately, by most reasonable people, and eventually even by the most ovine members of the silent majority. It took no leaps of faith to believe that a government capable of prosecuting a wholly corrupt, illegal, unwinnable war, simply to save face, would also resort to extra-constitutional methods to retain power.

Now, though, there is an insufficiently acknowledged conflict of legitimacy between foreign and domestic policy. The killing of thousands at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon was no phony Gulf of Tonkin patrol-boat attack. Using military force to incinerate the al Qaeda/Taliban joint venture is something more than 90 percent of Americans (and I) have supported, and probably will continue to support, and for good reason: Self-defense is recognized, species-wide, as rational, and even admirable, behavior.

Under cover of this "good war," however, unsavory segments of the Bush fils administration are pushing a program of constitutional abrogation more sweeping than anything Dick Nixon and his plumbers would ever have attempted. Incognito detention (giving hundreds the opportunity to read The Gulag Archipelago in unabridged form). Military trials, held in secret (bringing on an American craze for the classic Argentine board game, Desaparecidos). The prospect of legalized domestic spying on political groups (sparking a national competition to devise a name eerier than "COINTELPRO"). And God knows what else the ambition-deranged mind of Attorney General John Ashcroft can conjure.

I don't often recommend the perusal of other publications, but the editorial page of Sunday's New York Times -- "Justice Deformed: War and the Constitution" -- is, at once, great journalism, an orderly reminder of first principles, and a frightening alarm that needs broadcasting to a candid world.

The facts, I would submit, are horrifying: Core American values are under real assault by power-dazed men who have the ability to look serene and avuncular while wearing expensive suits and executing a gradual but lasting transformation of our form of government. I know the form they prefer (let's call it pseudoelective ultraconformist oligarchy; imagine Generalissimo Franco, with a smirk) for I have lived in Texas and seen it in action. Believe me, you will not enjoy it, at Christmas or in any other season, and the time to express your displeasure is now, before the proposed changes become an un-American status quo.


The above exhortation leads into a legitimacy problem we have here in San Francisco. Lefties here are all very fond of making jokes about Florida, Jeb Bush, Katherine Harris, and so on, as regards a supposedly stolen presidency. I acknowledge the comedic lure of Ms. Harris' makeup, but also point out that the results of every San Francisco election since I arrived here five years ago have been delayed for days, or apparently corrupted, or both. In three of these elections, I remember right off the top of my head, high-profile races were decided by razor-thin margins -- all, remarkably, in the direction of the position favored by the local political establishment.

A report by the Secretary of State on the city's November 2000 election brings the words "banana republic" to mind, and I'm not talking about the clothes. In checking a random sample of 21 election precincts, the Secretary of State could not match the number of ballots listed in the city's official Statement of Vote with the number of ballots cast by voters -- in a single one of the 21 precincts! What has been insufficiently emphasized is the direction of the larger voting discrepancies. For example, the city just happened to count 158 more votes in a Nob Hill precinct (a precinct that might be expected to vote establishmentarian) than there were ballots for the Secretary of State to find. In a Western Addition precinct that might be expected to buck the reigning city machine, the city tallied 198 fewer votes than there were actual ballot cards.

Raving conspiracy theories are the exclusive province of San Francisco's other major weekly, and I am not about to intrude on the monopoly. But the Secretary of State's study was conducted with scientific rigor; a random sample found a significant difference (8.8 percent) between ballots cast and ballots counted. Given such a finding, and the regular wait for days for San Francisco election results to be finalized (as if we lived in Indonesia, where ballots must be transferred from outlying islands by outrigger), even the most reasonable person cannot help but suspect that elections of extreme interest to the city's larger businesses are being routinely fixed. Let me repeat that, more simply, for the slower of our public servants: Almost every thinking person in San Francisco believes important city elections are being rigged.

We have an overall accountability problem in San Francisco that won't be cured quickly. Our district attorney is a buffoon who does not appear to understand that a public prosecutor is supposed to investigate and prosecute obvious public corruption. Even before Sept. 11, our local U.S. attorney and FBI showed remarkable ineptitude in public integrity matters. Now, we should expect nothing from the feds, and until now, could expect nothing from a city attorney who, despite her several good points, had the infuriating propensity to duck, mumble, and do nothing important when asked to address the array of municipal corruption on daily display in San Francisco.

But there's an election Tuesday for a new city attorney, and a candidate, Dennis Herrera, who I think might actually begin to reintroduce some aspects of public accountability to City Hall. He won't be able to fix a massively broken system on his own, but I believe him to be a decent man. He has promised to form a public integrity unit in the City Attorney's Office, and -- who knows? -- if 5,000 more citizens vote for him than for his opponent, he might even be found, five or six days after the polls close, to have won a cliff-hanger of an election.

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