Jewish World Review Nov. 8, 2005 / 6 Mar-Cheshvan, 5766

Paul Greenberg

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The paranoid style in American politics | Let us begin with two quotations. They come from two different United States senators, one past, one present, but whose style is much the same:

"How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principles shall be forever deserving of the malediction of all honest men." — Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, June 14, 1951.

"The Libby indictment provides a window into what this is really all about, how this administration manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions." — Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, Nov. 1, 2005, on invoking Senate Rule XXI to go into secret session.

Of course, Sen. Reid wanted to go into secret session. There's something about declaring anything secret that stirs public interest in a way that letting just anybody in never does. It's human nature. We want to know anything somebody doesn't want us to know.

Want to have people clamoring for admittance to a session of the U.S. Senate? Put up a sign saying, "No Admittance."

For decades now, the party out of power, whichever one it is at the time, has dreamt of pulling off another Watergate that would topple another president, and for decades the outs have been disappointed.

And it's just happened again. After another huge buildup (Conspiracy! Lies! Special Prosecutor!), all the president-hunters get is one I. Lewis Libby, poor sap. You can understand their disappointment. Even desperation. The least they could do is demand a secret session in hopes of keeping suspicion alive.

This wasn't the way it was supposed to go according to the classic Woodward-Bernstein script. What a downer. Instead of a Lawrence Walsh or Kenneth Starr, the opposition draws a professional prosecutor who goes only as far as the evidence will allow him, and makes it clear that his findings have nothing to do with sentiment for or against the war in Iraq, or partisan politics, or anything else but whether crimes were committed.

Aw shucks. No wonder Harry Reid and his fellow Democrats were fuming. Hell hath no fury like suspicions frustrated. Try as they might, they just don't seem able to re-create the '70s. Who says Richard Nixon isn't missed? Some folks still look for him, and conspiracies, everywhere.

In American politics, it's never enough to have a debate over a war and the reasons for and against it; there's got to be a conspiracy theory to divide us, too.

Whether it's FDR provoking the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Lyndon Johnson fabricating a war in Vietnam or George W. Bush and his shady band of neocons deciding to take out Saddam Hussein for no good reason, there's never been a shortage of paranoid explanations for every crisis the country has ever found itself in.

And this latest conspiracy may be the broadest and farthest-reaching of all, since the need to take action against Saddam Hussein was trumpeted not only by this administration but also by the last one. And the danger Saddam Hussein's old regime represented was pointed out not only by George W. Bush and Colin Powell, but in remarkably similar statements made over time by Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Edwards, John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Jay Rockefeller, Joe Biden, Carl Levin, Hillary Clinton good Democrats and sinister conspiracists all. How's that for a conspiracy so immense as to dwarf any other? Joe McCarthy would've loved it.

To quote a typical example of the kind of oratory this vast conspiracy used to take us to war: "In the four years since the inspectors left (Iraq), intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members." — Hillary Rodham Clinton, Oct. 10, 2002.

That her assessment was based on the intelligence available at the time, and remains sound even now, just shows you how tricky these conspirators are.

At least one historian described this recurring resort to conspiracy theories in American politics decades ago, when people still knew what The John Birch Society was, and it was the Democratic Party that was supposed to be the locus of the plot against America. To quote his diagnosis:

"I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. ... We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well." — Richard Hofstadter in "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," Harper's, November, 1964.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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