So what do Google, Joe Biden and Colin Powell have in common? Each found themselves at the juncture of history and conscience; each had an opportunity to make a stand and change things for the better. Each of them failed. Each of them had a counterpart who was somehow less despicable, though far more vile. There’s no disappointment when you expect the worst of a villain and you get it. Each new lie and betrayal provokes little more than a fatalistic shrug. It’s when you expect a crucial gesture of decency that your heart breaks. Why waste a moment’s regret or sadness on Yahoo, who agreed to help the Chinese government track down and punish dissidents; or Clarence Thomas, or the Bush Administration? But the people who could have stood up to them and didn’t continue to infuriate me.
Google is compromising with the Chinese, running censored web-searches, with a note attached, explaining that some results have been deleted by the government. Do they really believe that the Chinese are unaware of Government censorship? Do they really believe their little footnote makes any difference to anyone? No, what they believe, with overwhelming corroborative evidence, is that there is an incalculably immense amount of money to be made in China, if they’re willing to collaborate with one of the most repressive and vicious regimes on the face of the earth. They could have made stand, but grand gestures are expensive, rationales are plentiful, and nothing really matters but the bottom line. Yahoo’s all-out collaboration seems almost clean by comparison. I think of that line from Casablanca, when Rick says to Ugarte, “I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.”
As for Joe Biden, he’ll never live down the way he caved to the sleazy accusations of racism during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Thomas said the questions were the equivalent of a lynching. That wasn’t the moment to duck your head and apologize (and refuse to call the three women who could back up Anita Hill’s charges with stories of their own). No, sorry. That was the moment to stand and say, “How dare you accuse this body of such a crime? More to the point, how dare you conflate honest discourse with a heinous race murder? Do you really not understand the difference? Your reckless words have shown us the crudity, sophistry and corruption of your thinking. Your relentless manipulations, your desperate mendacity, your self-serving, self-righteous slanders prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have no place on the highest court in the land. You have no place on a night court in Newark. Shame on you. And thank you – for showing us all who you really are before it was too late.”
That’s what he should have said, but he didn’t. And if he chooses to run for President in ’08, all the people who might have votes for him will remember. He had a chance to stand up, and he backed down. That’s not a accident of circumstance, that’s a character trait. That’s who you are. All the tailored suits and tough talk in the world can’t change it.
Which brings us to Colin Powell, the worst and saddest of them all. He knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He knew that Saddam wasn’t trying to buy uranium from Niger. He knew there were no chemical warfare laboratories or atomic warheads in the ruined kingdom of Saddam Hussein. He had said as much in public, on television, before 9/11. Our policies were working, he said. Iraq was disarmed and helpless. He knew that Bush had cooked the intelligence on the Middle East, he knew the neocons had been slavering to take out Saddam since Desert Storm. And yet he went to the U.N. and lied. He could have stood up at the U.N. or just at a press conference, and told the truth and stopped the whole insane delusional Iraq war before it started. He could have saved thousands of American lives and tens of thousands of Iraqi lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that could have been spent on improving life for the majority of Americans who don’t happen to have a controlling interest in the Bush White House. But he didn’t. Cheney and Wolfowitz and Pearle had the courage to be evil; there’s nothing tragic or even surprising about that. But Colin Powell couldn’t muster the courage to be good. That’s the real calamity. And every mother with a son killed or maimed in action must feel a special fierce loathing for him. He wasn’t evil. He was just weak. But that one weak man was our only bastion against the years of bloodshed national disgrace that were rushing towards us, so his weakness excuses nothing. It just makes everything worse.
He says he’s ashamed of himself. Well, that’s nice, but it’s not good enough. It’s not even close. He retired in disgrace? He deserved to. Bush says his critics are traitors. But Powell, in his debased capitulation to bad men who frightened him, was the real traitor, and we’ll be living with the results of that treason for a long time to come.
Google, Biden, Powell: the best our side has to offer.
No wonder the other side is winning.