Wayne O'Leary

The Summer of Our Discontent

Is it me, or was the summer of 2006 one of the worst in recent memory? Negative vibes abounded. Everyone seemed in a surly mood. Sales clerks were edgy, coworkers short-tempered, and there was more than the usual aggressive behavior on the highways.

The obvious explanation lies in the weather. No doubt about it, Al Gore is on to something with his dire global-warming thesis. Maine endured enervating Florida conditions this season (a tropical shower most afternoons and enough humidity to provide a universal sauna). No need to look for beach weather; it found you wherever you were. This was all pleasant up to a point, but it wasn't the bracing "down east" climate we remember or really want.

The former vice president, reflecting a wide range of expert opinion, thinks we have perhaps a decade to straighten things out. This will require lifestyle changes combined with economic sacrifices, and the will to do it does not exist at the moment, either among Washington officeholders or the public from whom they take their cues. On the surface, Americans are in denial, but deep down, they know what needs to be done. That awareness has contributed to current tensions and provided one source of our summertime malaise.

Global warming is a long-range problem, however, and there were more immediate summer crises at hand to spoil everyone's vacation time. In the near Middle East, the Arabs and Israelis were at it again, butchering each other for the edification of the TV cameras; the gruesome spectacle definitely took the edge off the hot dogs and ice cream, especially those visuals of dead grandmothers and children. Civilians took the brunt of this US-endorsed conflict -- it was really a war against noncombatants -- and our pit bull allies, the Israelis, with their American-supplied air power and high-tech weaponry, proved past masters at this form of slaughter. Lebanese civilian deaths outpaced those of Israelis by roughly 20 to one.

It seems to have escaped general notice that the twin wars against Hezbollah and Hamas were wars George W. Bush and his neocon advisors would very much like to have fought, since all Muslim militants (nationalist insurgents and Islamic radicals alike) are merely terrorists to the administration. For obvious reasons (namely, the Iraq quagmire) that was impractical, so Israel became the Bush proxy in this preemptive regional conflict. As such, it was given its head to pursue long-cherished military objectives, regardless of "collateral damage."

A little collateral damage is something the administration can live with in Lebanon and Gaza, as it has for years in Iraq. Thus, as the bodies of the innocent piled up in places like Beirut, and Lebanon disintegrated in the absence of a "premature" cease fire, we had the unforgettable (and stomach-turning) image of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blithely performing a Brahms piano recital during an official visit to Asia. Her resemblance to Emperor Nero plucking his lyre while Rome burned was jarringly at odds with the grim summertime mood back home.

Perhaps Americans could visualize their gasoline supplies going up in flames during the Mid-East conflagration. Oil refineries were burning in Lebanon (along with pipelines in Iraq), while motorists across the US were shelling out three dollars-plus per gallon for gasoline. Meanwhile, multinational oil companies were gaming the market and recording record profits, enabling petroleum executives like ExxonMobil's Lee Raymond ($405 million in pension guarantees) to ride into the sunset with retirement packages bordering on the obscene. President Bush and the Republican majority quite obviously did not view this as a problem, merely as liberated capitalism doing its thing. But it emerged as one more contributing factor to the simmering summertime anger.

Here's another one: We're partway through the first year under Medicare Part D, the so-called prescription-drug benefit. In urging reluctant seniors to sign up, Leader, a drug supplier for independent pharmacies, characterizes the program thusly: "It works just like other types of insurance, with an annual deductible, monthly premiums and copayments." Great; it's the devil we know! But this devil has an extra prong on his pitchfork called the donut hole.

In case it's slipped anyone's mind, the donut hole means that drug coverage stops at $2,250 per annum and doesn't pick up again until drug purchases reach $5,100, a gap or "hole" of $2,850 that's smack in the middle of the average retiree's annual drug purchases. This is a plan seemingly designed by deranged accountants more concerned with cost cutting than health maintenance. But its creators may be about to get their comeuppance. Millions of seniors began to hit the donut hole in their annual prescription expenditures this summer, just in time for the November elections. If their seasonal unhappiness holds, it will be shock and awe at the polls for the GOP.

This thumbnail sketch of America's out-of-sorts mood would be remiss without mentioning the contribution of the "culture of corruption" in Republican Washington and its offspring, the ongoing political scandals. Jack Abramoff, Duke Cunningham, Ralph Reed and the rest of the shabby cast of characters have temporarily receded into the background, but they're not forgotten; their misdeeds live on in popular ignominy. Apologists will say, "They all do it," the all-purpose political excuse from time immemorial, the idea that no one's responsible because everyone's responsible. But that will be a hard sell in an era when the entire government establishment is controlled by one party. Had the other guys even wanted to do it, they've been in no position to try.

Finally, lest we forget, the sour public mood of Summer 2006 had as its backdrop the mother of all depressants, the ill-advised war of choice in Iraq. All else has paled next to the proverbial rogue elephant in the room. Three years and counting with no end in sight and no plan for extrication: It's a potential recipe for political extinction of that other elephant, the GOP.

The Republicans among us may feel this recitation is a form of piling on, but it's really just an enumeration of recent history's bill coming due. The GOP wanted absolute power; it schemed and strived for it, and got it. Now, it's faced with the reality that absolute power not only absolutely corrupts, it also confers absolute responsibility.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2006

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