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NOW on the News
3.9.07

NOW on the News with Maria Hinojosa

Transcript: Todd Gitlin on the Libby Verdict
3.9.07

» More about this interview

HINOJOSA: This week we're speaking with Todd Gitlin a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and a well-known public intellectual. His most recent book is "The Intellectuals and the Flag." Welcome to "Now on the News."

GITLIN: My pleasure.

HINOJOSA: I want to start by asking you. We're talking about, essentially, the Libby trial—the Libby verdict. Where were are in this moment in history. And I wanted to start by quoting a former chief prosecutor of public corruption and fraud in the US Attorney's office, Richard Randall Eliason (PH).

He said, "If witnesses believe they can lie to the FBI, lie in the grand jury and that there'll be no consequences, then it becomes impossible to investigate any criminal activity from terrorism to shop-lifting." Was this in essence, a trial where we've seen a top Vice-Presidential staff member basically lying through his teeth and the jury convicts him but the rest of us are saying, "So, where do we go from here?"

GITLIN: This wouldn't be the first time that a high administration official was in the business of lying to investigatory agencies. This is in fact perhaps an occupational requirement. Certainly not so long ago, the Iran Contra matter was a matter of public officials—executive office officials thinking that the furtherance of their duties entailed a commitment to lie to investigative agencies. And in fact, one of them, Elliot Abrahams (PH) convicted is now back—is a central figure in the Bush administration.

It's a matter of, I think, the utmost necessity for a democratic society to find a way to f—to—to make administration officials culpable, to find them responsible for their words. We don't do this directly in our society.
The press doesn't do it directly, in general. Our Congress has been asleep or on vacation. It is essential in the public business that public officials tell the truth and be able to be relied upon for telling the truth.

HINOJOSA: But at the same time, we have a conviction here. He's been found guilty. So, is there something there that we can stand on?

GITLIN: I take this trial to be a symbolic or a—or a microcosmic summary of a much larger crisis in the—in our society. The—the way I would put it is that for six years, t—the US government has been ruled by an apparatus of power that has taken it to be it's métier and it's obligation to mislead the American people about central matters of state.

And that in the pursuit of that project—it's been invo—and when I say "it" I mean the executive branch starting from the President and the Vice-President on down. They've been involved in a process of—bating and switching, dissembling about executive decisions, dissembling about intelligence, dissembling about—decisions of war and peace, dissembling about—scientific findings. They are a hierarchical apparatus which requires of important officials that they carry out the work of lying. And finally we have a moment where an authority, in this case, a court and a jury of peers have drawn line and said, "No, this isn't permissible."

HINOJOSA: But where's the outrage? It's not as if you're seeing people taking to the streets and saying, "Now we have proof. The administration has in fact been lying." You know about civic engagement. Where is the civic engagement and where should it be in terms of this?

GITLIN: I don't think the—public is surprised that the administration has been found lying. A—all the polls I know of—show that—even at a time when the public was actually still willing to ride along with the war in Iraq, they knew the administration was lying—a majority has believed the administration has been lying for a very long time. I imagine that people are both unsurprised and pleased, but at same time, recognize—and I think properly recognize, that this only scratches the surface of what is a normal practice for this administration to go to work to smear and ruin it's enemies. I think that is taken on as—now that—I—I think it's generally understood this is what this administration does.

HINOJOSA: But people will say, "But, wait a second so we understand," as you say it, "that this administration lies. But, of course, we believe and we are in fact a democracy. So, if we know that politicians are lying, then what?"

GITLIN: I think people have taken on this six year reality. It's been numbing. The reality has been that nothing—nothing—mass demonstrations, news articles, exposés, lobbying, even elections of contrary party officials at various times, none of this has actually retarded the furtherance of the agenda of this administration.

I'd say six years of this accustoms people to a status quo—in which they conclude that there's nothing to be done, but, you know, pray for the acceleration of the calendar so we get to November '08 fast.

HINOJOSA: You, of course, long time activist, member of students for a democratic society, helped organize the first national demonstrations about Vietnam. You—come from an activist background. So, for you to say, "The American public is numb and just waiting for time to pass." How does that sit with you as somebody who was such an activist.

GITLIN: I was overstating it a moment ago. I think the opposition sort of pulled itself together after the—not only September 11th, but the catastrophic mid-term elections of '02. And we started to see it in 2004—an odd, an interesting sort of mobilization. It wasn't easily recognized as a mobilization because it took place under the cover of conventional politics. In 2004 it took the form first of the Dean campaign and when the Dean campaign imploded, then it took the form of a commitment on the part of, I would say, people of the actervis—activist temper—a conviction that they needed to go into mainstream politics.

And they did that. And they fought a fight. They went into swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. They lost. And that was crushing. They recovered. It take a while to recover from that blow.

And then we saw a yet—more energetic, I would say, mobilization in 2006. The—the movement of opposition became a party organization—became a party mobilization. And in 2006 it actually succeeded. That is to say, it did—they could—all that could be done in an off-year election, namely it defeated the party in power. And in the process made possible all kinds of things that have just barely begun to happen: resolutions opposing Bush's policy, investigations by various committees, the press I think—got a little bump up in it's—in rambunctiousness—seeing that the Republican Party might not be in power for ever. And now—I think, I—I anticipate we've the candidates turn out to be in '08, that this kind of spirit of—of movement as party or movement as a component of party—we'll see a lot more of this sort of thing.

HINOJOSA: The Democrats now have control of the House and Senate. They could in fact subpoena Vice-President Cheney. This would kind of follow in what you're saying is the opposition is—is within the party. Do you think the Democrats will do that, and if so why or why not?

GITLIN: I don't know whether they'll do it. I—I think they're entitled to do it. And I think they're mandated to do it. Cheney, I think is generally understood to be a—if not the force in the administration, a serial liar. And it's about time he actually he actually had to face some music over it. I can't begin to trot out all the questions to which the American people deserve an answer from Dick Cheney. You know, including but not limited to the question of, "Why did you set out to ruin Joseph Wilson?"

HINOJOSA: Many people probably thought the same thing. We have a guilty verdict in terms of Luis Libby, but this is really all about Cheney. And it becomes something of a blip in their life. So, what do we do with a blip in what, you know, in regular people's lives, and kind of match that with what you're saying. This is a historical moment.

GITLIN: I don't know whether it's really come to the collective realization that what Luis Libby was lying about was what Dick Cheney was doing. I don't know that the pundits—the current crop of pundits are the sort of people who would notice that sort of thing. They seem much more excited about Hillary Clinton's accent, and the Barak Obama's stock choices. I mean, if we had a grown up political culture, there would be prominent figures who would have in the last—48 or 72 hours have come forward making this point and pounding the table and saying, "Well, is this where it ends?" I mean asking exactly the question you did: is this where it end?

Well, you know, the trail leads right up to the door of Dick Cheney. What Libby, I believe, accomplished with his lies was to prevent the indictment of Dick Cheney. Well, and mission accomplished. Is that where it ends? Doesn't America have a claim now on it's Vice-President?
Well, I—I—I'm not expecting a great uprising here, because again I think there's been this sort of collective flattening of mood. A sort of retreat from a sense of the possible.

HINOJOSA: Do you think Todd Gitlin, that sometimes even you find yourself—being part of this flattening that you talk about? Where—and if you see yourself at some moment feeling that way, what do you do with that sentiment?

GITLIN: No, I don't actually, honestly. I—I—(LAUGHTER) I've been in a state of emergency for six years, since November 8th, or whatever the date was, 2000. Whether it was organizing or trying to organize a protest against the—the decision not to count the vote in Florida, which drew a grand total of maybe 300 people to—to the Federal Building in New York on the Monday after election day. No, I am not—a shrugger—but I am a frustrated—campaigner. I am a—I am a viewer with alarm.

HINOJOSA: The role of the media. Some critics have said that the New York Times, in—in particular the coverage of the—the Libby trial and verdict, was very, in essence, apolitical. And, for example, the Washington Post did a much broader analysis, putting this into some sort of historical context and the importance of—of this trial and verdict. What's the role of the media here?

GITLIN: I think the major media have, in a word, been afraid. M—my own pet theory is that they bend over backward to demonstrate that they're not really the liberal media. And why they do that is a combination of their reliance upon executive agencies for favors.

I'm here speaking of the broadcasters in particular. And their reluctance to feel like naysayers, outsiders—rebels. I think that, you know, the glory days of—the best of Vietnam coverage—it wasn't all the best but some of it was the best—and the Woodward-Bernstein exposé.

Tho—those were not the typical products, the typical achievements of the American press. Those were exceptional. And I think that—much of the time since then, since the '70s—the mainstream press has been in the process of bending over backward to prove that it really doesn't want to trash America, that it really is on the team. I don't know how else to explain their timidity. Why did it take until—I mean and we could go on and on (LAUGHTER)—w—why did it take until the drowning of New Orleans to discover that the head of FEMA was a guy whose previous job had been running a horse association?

He passed through Congressional muster. There were hearing. They lasted, you know, 12 minutes. Why did it take so long to discover that systematically decisions were in—being made? I think this something is still most Americans aren't aware of.

Decisions were systematically being made in executive agencies, the Department of the Interior, The Food and Drug Administration, etc. etc. etc. that were beholden to corporate interests. Why did it take so long to discover that intelligence was being systematically warped. I—I cannot explain this without recourse to some sort of notion that the press is paralyzed. Th—they won't acknowledge it, but I think that it may be too painful to feel. They are paralyzed by some sort of bedrock understand that they are damaged when they defend themselves and defend the rights of public discourse—that it—somehow it's not their business.

I don't even think you could defend this by saying, "Well, news is now owned by entertainment corporations." because I think it would be fabulously entertaining to—to ask serious questions of the political gang that been running this country. I think there are really extraordinary questions that could be asked of many public officials.

The press has been, by and large, bending over backward, sort of, to pretend that this is a normal political administration, and what's going on is normal politic. This is not normal politics. This is gangster politics.

HINOJOSA: You mention "gangster politics" well, there are some who are saying that President Bush cannot pardon Scutter (PH) Libby because that will damage the Republicans in the upcoming President Lan—Presidential elections. There are others who say, "Bush, Cheney and Scutter Libby, all sat down in a room and said, 'Don't worry, you'll be found guilty. It's okay, we'll pardon you.'" So from your perspective, where does the Republican Party stand now? Where does the Bush administration stand now? And how do they play this moving forward?

GITLIN: The—the Bush-led Republican Party has been a bulldozer party. It's believed that it can ride over all obstacles. Now, Bush's—has produced a world that is surrounded by catastrophes on every side. He must feel—he's not a reflective man everyone tells us—but he must be aware that no only has he led the country over a precipice but he's actually in the process of leading his party over a precipice in so far as he remains loyal to his circle, he is going to damage the Republican Party, just as Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon damaged his own prospects for reelection. I would anticipate that there will be a pardon, because I think Bush is loyal. I think he is loyal to his circle. And the circle of those he trusts, the circle of people that since college he's referred to as the "good people" I think trumps his ability to reason about the political consequences of actions. I don't believe he thinks he owes anything to the Republican Party. I think he thinks that the Republican Party is his creature. And it has certainly been until it lost.

Now they have the problem that the Par—I mean, they lost the mid-term elections, and now the Republican Party is saddled with a loser. And that's—you know, that—so they're grousing. And they're deserting. You know, some of them are deserting in various fashions, deserting. There is not a prominent Republican candidate for President who hasn't in some fashion or other—in some—in some major way either—whether it's over so-called social issues or over the war in Iraq—who is not deserted in some fashion or other. So, I think, you know, if I were Bush, I would say, "Well, I'm going for broke. I've been going for broke. That's my—I'm—I'm in the double or nothing game. We bulldozers." You know, "We come to an obstacle, we floor the pedal."

HINOJOSA: Thanks so much spending some time with us on "Now on the News." Professor Todd Gitlin.

GITLIN: Thanks for asking me.

HINOJOSA: For more on Todd Gitlin, you can visit our website at pbs.org/now Todd Gitlin's next book is called "The Bulldozer and the Big Tent." It will be published in October 2007. And we'll talk to you again next week. I'm Maria Hinojosa for "Now on the News."

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