In the last couple of days, there have been a number of articles (see here or here) about how Republicans, having finally gotten something that resembles an Obama administration scandal, are already worried about overplaying their hand. The sober ones are concerned they might make more of things than the facts merit, lest their nuttiest colleagues grab the spotlight, and head down a dangerous road as they did in 1998.
Google's Sergey Brin, sportin' the specs. (Flickr/Thomas Hawk)
I stole the title of this post from an essay Mark Crispin Miller wrote 25 years ago about the effects of television, in which he argued that instead of a totalitarian government forcing us to submit through fear and oppression, we'd happily voluteer to be anesthetized by our TVs. Today though, the more proximate danger involves the rise of a kind of universal surveillance where we're being watched through much of our days, by governmental authorities, corporations looking to part us from our money, and each other. It's bad now, and it's only going to get worse.
Which brings us to Google Glass, the augmented reality glasses rig that is getting closer to becoming a consumer product. People are starting to become concerned about the privacy implications of Google Glass, namely that you could be talking to someone who, unbeknownst to you, is recording everything you say. Or maybe you aren't even talking to them; maybe they're just walking behind you in the street, or sitting next to you in a restaurant. Maybe they'll have their Glass use facial recognition software to identify you, and then post to Twitter that you're in this restaurant, and you're looking a little tipsy. Members of the Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus (yes, I didn't know there was such a thing either) in the House just sent a letter to Larry Page, Google's CEO, expressing their concerns.
In case you've forgotten, what took Benghazi from "a thing Republicans keep whining about" to "Scandal!!!" was when some emails bouncing around between the White House, the CIA, and the State Department were passed to Jonathan Karl of ABC last Friday. The strange thing about it was that the emails didn't contain anything particularly shocking—no crimes admitted, no malfeasance revealed. It showed 12 different versions of talking points as everybody edited them, but why this made it a "scandal" no one bothered to say. My best explanation is that just the fact of obtaining previously hidden information, regardless of its content, is so exciting to reporters that they just ran with it. They're forever trying to get a glimpse behind the curtain, and when they do, they almost inevitably shout "Aha!" no matter what.
But then the problem comes. The White House decided to release a whole batch of emails related to the subject, and when they were examined, it turns out that what was given to Karl had been altered. Altered by whom, you ask? Altered by Karl's source: Republican staffers on the House Oversight Committee, which had been given the emails by the White House (CBS's Major Garrett confirmed this yesterday).
Let me just explain quickly in case you haven't been following this, and then we'll discuss what it means.
As any parent knows, small children often believe that when you've been denied something you want, repeating your request over and over will eventually produce the result you're after. It works on occasion, if the stakes are low enough, the parents are weak of will, and the child is particularly exasperating. Fortunately, this behavior usually disappears around age eight or nine.
Being president is hard, and often downright unpleasant, particularly when there are scandals, legitimate or otherwise, swirling about and distracting your attention from what you'd like to be accomplishing. I'm sure it's particularly frustrating when the opposition party is so intransigent that negotiating with them is pointless. Right now Barack Obama's presidency is at something of a low point, but nevertheless, it was a bit surprising to see this, from a New York Timesstory this morning: "Yet Mr. Obama also expresses exasperation. In private, he has talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,' a reference to a little-remembered 1998 Warren Beatty movie about a senator who risked it all to say what he really thought. While Mr. Beatty's character had neither the power nor the platform of a president, the metaphor highlights Mr. Obama's desire to be liberated from what he sees as the hindrances on him."
This is not, it should be noted, a belief on the president's part that if he just gave it to 'em straight, he could transform American politics with the power of honest words. That view is alarmingly persistent among certain members of the punditry, and Obama is plainly contemptuous of it. He understand the constraints he's under, how the institutions of Washington conspire to make change difficult, and where the limits on presidential power lie. But if he really wanted to "go Bulworth," there isn't anything stopping him. What does he have to lose?