Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Culture Project's "A Question of Impeachment," Article I

Isaac Butler of Parabasis asked me to be one of the bloggers covering the Culture Project’s A Question of Impeachment: The People’s Hearings, which began in earnest last night with the formal consideration of the first of five articles of impeachment imagined against President Bush and Vice President Cheney. This is altogether ironic for me, having spent this graduate-school semester neck-high in the whys and wherefores of documentary theatre, and having recently completed a paper outlining the history of critics’ attitudes toward documentary theatre that my professor, as well as certain other academics, have asked me to consider publishing.

As a general thought, it seemed to me that the Culture Project envisions A Question of Impeachment as a hybrid of documentary theatre and a political rally, the result being a kind of socio-political catharsis. I am sure not to win any friends or influence any enemies as I write this, but the “performance” struck me as eerily redolent of Orwell’s 1984—the scene in which the mentally-blinkered masses attend a movie expressly designed to arouse and subsequently dispel any individual thought or emotion so as to more efficiently align with the groupthink and commandments of Big Brother.

For the record, I’m a liberal. However, I’ve always had the sinking feeling that quality New York liberalism has a worrisome strain of a groupthink about it; what I witnessed was a collective intellectual orgasm not entirely dissimilar to the one Orwell imagined.

I don’t know the names of the man and woman who sat beside me, although I must confess I was amused as two different individuals claimed the woman’s seat as their own. What I do know is that when the woman turned to me as the lights dimmed and said, “Well, I guess everyone knows that they’re preaching to the converted,” she was largely on the mark.

It makes sense to tease apart the event into two elements—the performative and the political. Not that the twain never meet: the structure of A Question of Impeachment, which will be broken out in Sunday and Monday night events through December 16 (there are five articles of impeachment in all), implies a co-existence, if not co-dependency, between the two. One prime example: Elizabeth de la Vega, a former 20-year federal prosecutor and author of United States V. George W. Bush et al. who “performed” a mock deposition of last night’s three special guests.

First, however, came an arrangement of actors (Willie Garson, Nana Mensah, Chris McKinney, Scott Cohen, etc.) reading through a colossal aggregation of primary source material on the etymology, history, rationale and evolution of impeachment. This was documentary theatre at its very purest even as it offered no plot, arc, or discernable characters, unless you consider the honorable, Enlightenment-era perorations of the Founding Fathers to be strutting and fretting like anthropomorphic characters across a metaphorical stage.

All of this, I thought, represented a didactic—though not uninteresting—effort to accustom the audience to the idea of political investigation as a way to enrich, purify and restore the nation's sullied, demoralized soul. It proved that didacticism sometimes has benefits: I was unfamiliar with the 14th century roots of impeachment, and it occurred to me there would have been a bit of spectacular theatre had someone mentioned that habeus corpus, the writ so despised by the Bush administration, is also a creation of the 14th century (at the least).

This first, very long scene was a dramatic build-up to something, although I couldn't and still can't say what. It was stirring, to be sure, as the actors quoted thinkers and statesmen whose words shimmered across the centuries: James Madison's debate at the Federal Convention of 1787; Jefferson’s policy statement against the Alien and Sedition Acts; Edmund Burke’s “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” from 1770; a liberal quote from Elizabeth Holtzman’s essay, “The Impeachment of George W. Bush,” published in the January 2006 issue of The Nation.

There was yet another Madison quote: “War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes…,” and then there was this fine editorial from 1918 in the Kansas City Star, penned by Theodore Roosevelt:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”
(I remember when the Republicans, their faces in mournful mien, mean-spiritedly hauled out this quote during the impeachment of President Clinton. How delightful to see it re-employed for more, um, unimpeachable use.)

Overall, however, it seemed that the motive of actor-writer Darrell Larson, who compiled this mountain of monologues, wasn't clear. I do think he was employing a dollop of psychology: first demythologize the notion of impeachment, then launch upon the audience such an onslaught of verbal and physical evidence against Bush and Cheney so as to legally (and theatrically) justify the deposition that de la Vega would later undertake—that is, to legally (and theatrically) justify A Question of Impeachment as a performative exercise. As fascinating as all the quotes were, I soon began to experience labor pains. By what process does a theatre-maker decide that 15 quotes are enough to make the point, and not 30 or 50 or 70? It occurred to me that this is not unlike a prosecuting attorney who must decide whether 30 or 50 or 70 witnesses will be enough to prove his case, or a defense attorney who must guess whether 30 or 50 or 70 experts will exonerate a client.

The comment from the woman beside me ran over and over in my head: Was anyone in the audience not sure that by impeaching Bush and Cheney we could remedy our current political crisis?

As I was given my program, an usher also handed me a flyer—on paper so orange it seemed to radiate fire. On it, the face of George W. Bush was overlaid on a mushroom cloud. The proud handiwork of http://www.worldcantwait.org/, the most significant copy on the flyer is meant to instill Bush-style terror, which struck me as woefully sad and ironic, if perhaps necessary in this mindless era. In the context of A Question of Impeachment, it’s a message designed to relegate any qualms about impeaching Bush and Cheney to the psychological slush pile:

“The Bush regime ‘has drawn up plans for massive air-strikes against 1,200 targets in Iran, designed to annihilate the Iranians’ military capability in three days,” according to The Times of London, September 2, 2007. Bush himself is intensifying rhetoric accusing Iran of nuclear capability, and refusing himself to take the ‘nuclear option’ ‘off the table’ from the Pentagon’s Iran attack plans.”
Meanwhile, the recitation of primary sources chugged on. There was Robert Byrd’s quote from March 20, 2003 on Operation Iraqi Freedom, “I weep for my country,” which generated grim faces and a smattering of applause from more than a few solemn and nodding heads. There was a 1974 voiceover of Representative Barbara Jordan, who reminded everyone of a time when a firebrand, in a lather over President Nixon's high crimes and misdemeanors, could still be found among the rational men and women of the Lone Star State:

“Today, I am an inquisitor; I believe hyperbole would not be fictional and would not overstate the solemnness that I feel right now. My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total. I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution. If the impeachment provision in the Constitution of the United States will not reach the offenses charged here, then perhaps that eighteenth century Constitution should be abandoned to a twentieth century paper shredder.”
And then there was Whit Whitman: “To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist much, obey little, Once unquestioned obedience, once fully enslaved, Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.”

And then there was Studs Terkel, writing an op-ed in the October 26, 2007 edition of The New York Times: “Given the facts and an opportunity to act, the body politic generally does the right thing. By revealing the truth in a public forum, the American people will have the facts to play their historic role in putting our nation back on the path toward freedom.”

It was a rhetorical rally for the righteous and wronged.

It was also full of deliberate theatrical moments—clarifying bits of political vaudeville designed to dovetail with the steadily building thrum of hate for Bush and the neocons. There was Donald Rumsfeld’s “Go massive” quote, uttered in the aftermath of Sept. 11, offered by one actor with just enough of the SecDef’s too-precise diction to evince subtle jeers and peevish whispers from the rapt and agitating crowd. There was Colin Powell’s phrase “sinister nexus,” originally used to implicate the now-discredited alliance between Iraq and al-Qaeda, offered by another actor with the right musky vocal resonance for which the general is renowned. It was a drip, drip, drip from the condemnable, the damnable: Dick Cheney claiming from the side of his sclerotic mouth that our troops would be “greeted as liberators”; President Bush's fratboy twang.

Yes, I was rapidly becoming swept up in the gush, thrush, crush of emotion. I was hungry to see the neocons banished to the moon of a dark and forgettable planet, a sunless orb where methane from the windbag politics of this tortured new millennium could pollute some other atmosphere.

But if A Question of Impeachment had the potential of an Orwellian orgasm, I wonder whether everybody actually came. After we heard all that documentation, Lewis Lapham came to the stage, where he sat in a chair and read aloud what for all the world seemed an indictment. Now the show was a word monsoon—to such a degree that I actually can’t remember whether anyone actually read out loud the most important document of all: the first imagined article of impeachment. Here it is:

George W. Bush's and Richard Cheney's initiation and continuation of the Iraq war constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor. In undertaking that aggressive war, George W. Bush and Richard Cheney have subverted the Constitution, its guarantee of a republican form of government and the constitutional separation of powers by undermining the rightful authority of Congress to declare war, oversee foreign affairs and make appropriations. They did so by justifying the war with false and misleading statements and deceived the people of the United States as well as Congress. They committed fraud against the United States by lying to and intentionally misleading Congress about the reasons for the Iraq war. George W. Bush and Richard Cheney acted contrary to their trust as president and vice president and subverted the constitutional government to the prejudice of law and justice and manifest inquiry of the people of the United States. Wherefore George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, by such conduct, warrant impeachment, trial and removal from office.
Now de la Vega—who is very much a class act—got underway. It still seemed to me that this was neither a mock debate in the U.S. House of Representatives, which in the real world would have to sign off on any articles of impeachment for a trial to occur, nor a mock trial in the U.S. Senate, where the fate of Bush and Cheney would actually take place. Indeed, it seemed a given, a fact indisputable and foregone, that Bush and Cheney would be impeached and convicted if the House would only take up the cause, if the Senate majority would exercise its power and prerogatives. There was a feeling I had, a kind of unspoken understanding between those on the stage and those in their seats, that the event was a kangaroo court, a third-world, democracy-mocking injustice system that Americans were once trained in their civics classes to disdain.
All that documentation read out loud; all that history, ancient and modern, designed to firm up the moral underpinnings of this mock-impeachment adventure; all the unfettered fury of men and women eager to channel their unrest and their uncertainty—somehow it seemed silly to me that no one on stage was there to counterbalance de la Vega’s expert questioning. Not because I wouldn't want Bush or Cheney impeached, tried, and convicted, but because I want them to be —the American way, the checks-and-balances way, the fair way, the true way, the right way. That is, the Constitutional way. A Question of Impeachment is a question of verasimilitude.

Up came Larry Everest, distinguished writer, journalist and author of Oil, Power & Empire: Iraq and the U.S. Global Agenda, to take a perfectly timed swing at de la Vega’s softballs and, using his knowledge of petro-politics, quickly launch the ball for impeachment right out of the park. Everest’s explanation of the Project for a New American Century figured in perfectly here; I was also gunning for a mention of the Bilderberg Group, which I think is more insidiously evil.

Up came Ray McGovern, a former CIA analyst who once mixed it up with Donald Rumsfeld on television, asked by de la Vega to “tell us what you can without having to kill us.” With calm and meticulousness, McGovern dissected the worst lies of the Bush administration as it went about selling the American people on the Iraq war. McGovern—who once headed the team preparing the President’s Daily Brief (under Nixon, Ford and Reagan)—was the most compelling witness: His soft-spoken voice and word choice (despite a script outline set down before him) had none of the hyperbolic tone of the documentary-theatre portion of the night.

When de la Vega brought out an aluminum tube from under McGovern’s seat, the sheer size of the prop—how they went about showing how it couldn't be used for a centrifuge—catapulted the moment into patriotic farce: Harpo Marx would have grabbed the tube, stormed into the aisles, pretended to whack everyone over the head and made a run for it, a cacophony of honks behind him. Here, the atmosphere was somber. This wasn't Harpo Marx but rather Sammy "The Bull" Gravano ratting on John Gotti.

Up came Col. (Ret.) Ann Wright, who served 29 years in the U.S. Army and who resigned her diplomatic posting to Afghanistan after Bush began to divert funds—some $700 million, she said—to Iraq before the war. Her firsthand knowledge of U.S. diplomacy (she served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia) was stunning. Frankly, though, everyone was getting weary. It was two hours and ten minutes into the event and the audience was beginning to vote by shuffling its feet.

I didn’t stay for the panel discussion held following intermission, where I’m sure the rhetoric was highly charged, negative and positive.

I do understand that this was a political inquest, a legal fantasia for the purpose of re-activating already-active political fighters. But the Culture Project, in my view, has a responsibility to set a higher bar. Let them provide mythical Bush and mythical Cheney a mythical defense to let a mythical jury (the very real audience) arrive at mythical conclusions. Each side's arguments can be strong and must be unafraid; evidence must be unquestionably germane. Let the case not be a slam dunk. Let its results not be a fait accompli. Without true suspense, this is not theatre.

“Well, I guess everyone knows that they’re preaching to the converted” said that prescient woman to my left. How much more dramatic would things have been had that woman been mistaken?

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