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Out of the Gobbledygook


[FDL welcomes a guest post from Elizabeth de la Vega, a former federal prosecutor, author and regular writer for TomDispatch and The Nation.  We are happy to announce that she will be our guest for the FDL Book Salon on February 11, 2007 at 2 pm PT/5 pm ET to discuss her book The United States v. George W. Bush, et. al.  We are thrilled that Betsy could pen something for us this morning to whet your appetites for the book salon to come.  — CHS]

Guest post by Elizabeth de la Vega

Being asked to do a guest post on Firedoglake engenders feelings similar to those I dimly — very dimly– remember feeling after being asked out on a first date: elation, excitement…biting-cold fear. What if it turns out to be a disaster?   With some trepidation, then, I say thanks to Christy and Jane for inviting me to post. I’m so glad to see Jane is back, feisty as always, and that someone found space for her to write on her own blog! 

Strange that I’d be thinking about first dates, or dates of any nature whatsoever, since I’m married with five “children” ranging from 20 to 28. Not that surprising, though, because I’m on my way to Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, where I spent my college days and had the usual variety of great and nightmarish first dates.

I haven’t been back to Ann Arbor since 1974, but lately I’ve been having some vivid, entirely non-drug induced (unless you consider Diet Coke) flashbacks.  Like all Baby Boomers, my college memories are inextricably tangled with memories of Vietnam, massive protests (including sleeping at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial!), relentless troop escalation, revelations about illegal spying, retaliation against critics, presidentially-authorized burglaries, slush funds, and, finally,  riveting Watergate hearings leading to impeachment proceedings against Nixon. And it’s all set to a soundtrack by Country Joe and the Fish, Marvin Gaye, Janis Joplin, Bob Seger as well as, of course, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and B.B. King.

What strikes me about those days is just how much time had to elapse and how much information had to come out before the public became finally — and utterly — disgusted with President Richard Milhous Nixon. 

It was years and years.  The reason for this painfully-slow evolution in public consciousness has to do with two things, the first of which is gobbledygook. “Gobbledygook” is not my word; it’s the word used by H.R. Haldeman, the extremely Rove-like Chief of Staff to Nixon, who called himself, affectionately, Nixon’s “son-of-a-bitch.” 

When the N.Y. Times first published the Pentagon Papers – the Defense Department’s 7000-page history of the Vietnam War leaked by former defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg — Nixon thought the revelation was no big deal.  After all, he said, the papers made Johnson and Kennedy look bad, too.  But, as we later learned when the infamous Watergate tapes were finally disclosed, Haldeman had explained their significance quite clearly:

"To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing: you can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say, and you can't rely on their judgment. And the implicit infallibility of presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong."

Unfortunately, as Ellsberg has pointed out, this lesson is one that “each new generation of voters and each new generation of leaders have to learn for themselves.” 

Even worse, considering our present state, getting hit repeatedly with ever-more-depressing revelations about the patently illegal and immoral activities of the Bush Administration — lying about a war against people 8000 miles away who have neither attacked nor threatened to attack us; condoning and conducting torture; illegal spying; retaliating against critics — it’s a lesson that takes an excruciatingly-long time for the public to absorb.

Why is that?  Well, for starters, it takes people a long time to sort through the gobbledygook. They have harried and hurried lives filled with obligations and worries, and certainly not enough time to analyze everything that government officials do and say. 

But there’s another reason, one I’ve learned over many years as a prosecutor.  It’s not so much that people are gullible – although sometimes they are—and certainly not that they are stupid, but rather that people judge others, particularly those whom they admire, by the same standards they apply to themselves.  They think, well, certainly my neighbor would never mislead me about those limited partnerships he was selling.  I would never do such a thing.  I cannot even tell you how many times I had people who had lost their entire life’s savings sit in my office and tell me how they gave an obvious con artist one chance after another to make good on his word, because he was, say, a deacon in the church or a member of the Rotary Club.  

There is some good news, though — something else I learned as a prosecutor.  While it’s hard for those on the receiving end of a fraud to finally figure out and accept that someone they trusted has betrayed them, it’s not so hard for juries to figure out what happened. 

That is why the Libby trial, like the Watergate burglary trial and others in that time period, is so critical.

Because, as we’ve seen, thanks to excellent blogging by Christy, Marcy, Pachacutec and others, trials are focused, orderly proceedings that weed out confusing background noise pretty darned well.  Sure, the government’s opening statement was clear and the defense’s was serpentine and murky.  But, as the jury has already heard and will hear again:  “Opening statements are not evidence.”  In other words, opening statements may not be considered by the jury as evidence and much of what the defense said may well never be proved through evidence that the jury can consider! 

And already, witnesses such as Cathie Martin and Craig Schmall, who are obviously not eager to be in the courtroom, are quietly enabling us to sort through the gobbledygook, thereby laying the groundwork for the public to possibly finally realize, as Haldeman put it, “one very clear thing”: you can’t trust Scooter Libby and you can’t trust the  administration of which he was such an integral part.  There are many more witnesses, of course, and much more evidence, all of which may, finally, in the case of Bush and Cheney, teach us the same lesson  we were so long in learning about Nixon. 

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com