Ochenski: Theater of the absurd 

Distinguishing political theater from political reality

Somehow, it comes as no surprise that a new report from the Bush administration overturns not one, but two, former reports by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that found oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would be deleterious to polar bear habitat and thus, violate a five-nation treaty to protect the bears. Of course, those reports were done in 1995 and 1997, well before George W. Bush and Gale Norton, the industry bulldog who is now Secretary of the Interior, came to town. Nor is it a surprise that the National Park Service has suspended a cap on snowmobile use of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and is reconsidering a widely-supported plan to phase out the use of these machines in the parks. Given the influence of the energy industry in the Bush administration, we’ll likely see a lot more decisions that are favorable to drilling, mining, and burning more fossil fuels, especially petroleum. But in the meantime, at both the state and national levels, our leaders are trying to put a happy face on their natural resource rampage by distracting voters from a host of very real issues with their own made-for-TV theaters of the absurd.

As the Enron scandal continues to unfold, Americans have a rare opportunity to see how corporate money really does influence our political, financial, investment, and public policy arenas. If recent reports are correct, of the 254 members of Congress sitting on the multiple committees now looking into the Enron’s actions, only 12 have NOT taken campaign contributions from the former energy giant. That’s less than one in twenty—not great odds for the people versus big energy interests. On the bright side, as the scandal spreads like a contagion, Enron contributions are suddenly being purged from political campaign chests. Our own Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat, is donating his $3,200 in Enron contributions to a fund for the former Enron employees who got stiffed for their retirement savings by their own corporate officers. Montana’s Republican Senator, Conrad Burns, who took more than ten times what Baucus received, might have had an attack of conscience and returned the money, too. But we’ll never know, since, as Conrad himself admitted, he has already spent the dough.

Lest we party on prematurely over the return of our democracy to the people, we have the free marketeers to remind us that while Enron has toppled, the behemoth of massed energy conglomerates rolls on virtually unphased. In their praise for the market’s adaptability to quickly cannibalize those that fall, no mention is made of the new rivers of corporate cash flowing to the people who make the laws and appoint the regulatory overseers at the highest levels. Just as Enron submitted lists of suggested political appointees to the Bush administration, those who fill the Enron void will have their own lists ready to go—not just for the oil-drenched Bush administration, but for whoever follows as well.

Since eight out of 10 Enron campaign dollars went to Republican candidates, it is also no surprise that efforts are being made from the White House on down to characterize this as a business, not a political, scandal. In an effort to deflect public attention from disturbing political realities, we get two made-for-TV events this week. In a case of life imitating theater, NBC is presenting a real “West Wing” program scheduled to air just prior to the popular, but fictional, “West Wing” series. The show, bolstered by news anchor Tom Brokaw, is supposed to show a day in the life of President Bush, including meetings on homeland security, foreign affairs, energy policy, and even a rare appearance by Vice President Dick “Undisclosed Location” Cheney. Obviously this is fiction, since it seems impossible even for Congress to find out who Cheney meets with, let alone capture it on film. It’s also a safe bet there will be no meeting between Bush and his buddy Enron CEO “Kenny Boy” Lay in this production. Since Enron has been the single largest contributor to the Bush campaigns, it probably would have been more real to include old Kenny— but remember the program, like so much of the Bush administration, is artifice, not reality.

Should you tire of watching what’s not really going on at the White House, Montanans will get a chance to enjoy their own made-for-TV event when Governor Judy Martz holds forth in the House of Representatives. Since the Legislature isn’t in session this year, the Gov can’t give a real State of the State address. But since her approval rating is as low as Montana’s economic ranking, Martz has decided to use the backdrop of the House to lend credibility to what is, in reality, a politically-manufactured media event. It is hardly coincidence that the Montana Chamber of Commerce recently released its statewide poll and happens to be holding a rally in the Capitol rotunda prior to the Gov’s speech. While those sitting in the House chamber cheering the Governor on may look like legislators to unwary spectators, in reality, they are simply claques—canned applause for Judy’s own version of the theater of the absurd.

Back in the real world, however, the investigation into the Enron scandal continues—just as, in reality, Montanans continue to occupy the bottom of the economic barrel. As the veil of corporate power and influence is pulled aside, Americans will get to watch real lawmakers question real witnesses in front of real committees about the Gordian Knot of Enron’s financial manipulations and political influence-peddling. In the end, what we learn from the real investigations will hold far greater import for our future than the state and national political theater being generated to distract and make us feel good, all the while trying to get us to forget that, in reality, big corporate interests are still running the show.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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