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Stateside with Rosalea: 2004 Presidential Election


Stateside with Rosalea: 2004 Presidential Election

Of toads, taxes, terrorism and teeth

By Rosalea Barker

The single worst thing about the US presidential elections is the presidency itself. To understand what that institution has aspired to over the past 100 years, you only have to look at this weekend's photo ops of the Bushes in St Petersburg - the poster city for imperial power and fiefdoms if ever there was one.

What a contrast to the previous weekend's photo op at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day. Looking for all the world like two toads the princess didn't kiss, Bush and Rumsfeld flanked a handsome chappie in a uniform who towered head and shoulders above them. (To call them "frogs" would be to risk offending Bush's host at the G8 summit, so "toads" it is.)

Then, in a bizarre little piece of choreography, a Marine walked backwards holding an easel with the wreath on it, while President Bush - having only to lift a finger - walked forward, touching the wreath lightly. The wreath wasn't *that* big. You'd think a Texas rancher could have carried it.

Then Bush walked backwards and there was a bit of military sidestepping as Toad, Toad and Prince turned and walked up the steps of the monument. Someone in the audience hadn't even got the final consonant of the word "God" out of his mouth before Bush's arm shot up to wave acknowledgment. The rest of the sentence was "bless you, Mr President" and the man's voice was so loud you'd think he was miked up.

Now, I've never watched a Memorial Day telecast before, and this was just the prelude to the speech half an hour later, which I didn't watch. So for all I know it was entirely normal, but to me it looked like the President and the Secretary of Defense were being publicly humiliated in a variety of subtle ways that exceeded the inherent humility the holders of both those offices should quite rightly display at the tomb of some poor sod who has died carrying out orders for them.

Which brings me back to St Petersburg, where it was the army's support for rioters protesting the scarcity of food in 1917 that forced Nicholas II to abdicate. The scarcity of truth about the whys, whats and wherefores of Operation Iraqi Fiefdom may yet cause the abdication of George II if the military is steadfast enough to take a stand against being used as shamelessly as it was to bolster Bush's chances of re-election and further the imperial ambitions of an elite few. Hell, the Bush administration's new tax cuts deny - DENY, for heaven's sakes - many of the lower ranks the much-touted $1000 per child cash-in-hand rebate.

But I digress. 1917 was a pivotal year in US history, if only because the drive of *both* parties to create a US empire is blatantly obvious from then on. It is also the time of (D) Woodrow Wilson's presidency, and he is credited with changing that institution from the one the framers of the Constitution envisioned - limited in its exercise of popular leadership - to the one we see today which seemingly hypnotises the media with its use of PR.

It's easy to forget, when you come from a country with a Westminster-style parliamentary system, that no-one in the executive branch of the US government is easily accountable to the people. There is no equivalent of "questions of the day" to ministers. No one elected the secretaries who comprise the president's cabinet. Federal government, which derives from the president and the cabinet, was never intended to have as much power as it does. It was not until 1913 that the constitutional amendment proposed in 1909 was ratified to create a federal income tax.

What a brilliant piece of work that was! Federal taxes are probably the single biggest weapon in the arsenal of presidents and would-be presidents. As an instrument of popular appeal, you only have to give them back and you've bought yourself some votes. As a means of keeping state and local jurisdictions in line, you only have to withhold them by abolishinbg federal assistance programmes and watch gleefully as hapless citizens get hammered with new sales taxes and the loss of services they once enjoyed, thus weakening the popularity of state governments.

And as soon as people have cottoned on to that game, you bring a new player onto the field, in the form of a federal department to fight terrorism, and force state and local jurisdictions to pay for its directives. For example, a few days before Memorial weekend, the terror status was raised to orange alert. You couldn't swing a cat on BART that weekend without hitting a nightstick, and at the two-day Carnaval celebration in the Mission District of San Francisco there were almost as many cops as revelers. Statewide, the California Highway Patrol had 80 percent of its officers on the roads.

To some extent, the increased police and CHP presence was a result of normal concerns - gang violence at previous Carnavals and a clamp-down on drink driving - but there's no doubt it was augmented, at overtime rates of pay, because of the orange alert. (As an aside, the alert status went back down to yellow when Bush left on his overseas trip, interpret that as you may!)

There are signs of sanity. The Governor of North Carolina apparently said the equivalent of "To hell with the orange alert, we're already doing as much as we can" and refused to raise it from yellow. The CHP, acting on a call saying there was a bomb on the Bay Bridge, didn't close it down - they just spent several hours searching for the bomb, which slowed traffic but caused the least inconvenience in the circumstances. You have to trust that they know the difference between a call from a disgruntled drunk driver and a terrorist.

So, besides using the war on terrorism to re-elect the incumbent president, the administration is using it to wage a war on the states. It's like all 50 governors are seated in the Willis Street Dental School having their teeth painfully scaled, and no matter how much they floss, they'll never be able to get out of those dentist chairs because plaque (like terrorism) is invisible and Nurse Ridgett knows best.

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