Rand Paul. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst.)
I haven’t been tuning in, myself, but I’m told that in recent days Fox News has been going all-in praising Senator Rand Paul’s droning drone filibuster holding up John Brennan’s confirmation as CIA chief, with several Fox contributors fiercely attacking Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham for taking on the young libertarian lion—or, if you prefer, for taking Barack Obama’s side. That raises interesting questions. As I observed in my Nation dispatch from last year’s Republican convention (“The GOP Throws a Tampa Tantrum”; hats off to your clever Nation editors for that awesome headline!), “Rand Paul got some of the biggest applause of his speech for saying something this party isn’t supposed to support at all: ‘Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well spent.’” And that “John McCain and Condoleezza Rice sounded like schoolmarms lecturing indifferent students when they tried to make the case that what neoconservatives used to call the ‘freedom agenda’ was being betrayed by Barack Obama.” Does all this mean the ancient (and even, sometimes, honorable) tradition of Republican “isolationism” (the word being basically an epithet in American political discourse, its advocates prefer “non-interventionism”) is making a comeback? Or, alternately, did it never really go away at the conservative grassroots, save for those distracting moments when the commander-in-chief is a conservative Republican hero like in those heady first few years of W’s Iraq War? Or is all this just another opportunity for Obama-bashing, and as such a perfect example of the intellectual contentlessness and bottomless cynicism of that favorite Republican activity? (As I put it in the piece on the convention, “What they really love—shown by the way McCain and Condi were able to win back their audience by taking cheap shots at Obama—are enemies. And within their authoritarian mindset [as George Orwell taught us with his talk about Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania], enemies are fungible.”)
For clues, I cranked up the Patented Perlstein Wayback Machine that lives on my hard drive and discovered the following interesting parallel from 1945, when what would become the Central Intelligence Agency began as a gleam in the American security establishment’s eye. William “Wild Bill” Donovan, head of the wartime spy agency the Office of Strategic Services, proposed to the president that his outfit be made permanent. The news was leaked to one of the most reactionary reporters, Walter Trohan, of one of the nation’s most reactionary major newspapers, the Chicago Tribune (Trohan was one of the infamously bureaucratically jealous J. Edgar Hoover’s favorite reporters, and the leak almost certainly came from Hoover).
How did conservative Republicans respond to the news? Well, there’s a cliché that in America, especially in wartime, “politics stops at the water’s edge.” Here’s one of the most splendid examples that the cliché is perfectly idiotic. The Trib immediately editorialized that FDR had in mind an American “Gestapo.” One Republican congressman said, “This is another indication that the New Deal will not halt in its quest for power. Like Simon Legree it wants to own us body and soul.” Another called it “another New Deal move right along the Hitler line. It would centralize power in Washington.”
These were the sort of (“isolationist”) Republicans who had been skeptical of going to war with the Nazis in the first place—so of course it’s fascinating to see them deploy the argument ad Hitlerium to leverage their hatred of FDR. There are historical complications, to be sure: the permanent spy agency that did end up being invented out of Donovan’s efforts—we call it the CIA—did indeed dangerously centralize power, abusing it badly, so there is a prophetic cast to these utterances. At the same time, the OSS and its CIA successor were notorious redoubts of just the sort of Eastern establishment nabobs long despised by conservative Republicans (you can see a fine depiction of that history in the 2006 Matt Damon film The Good Shepherd), lending an unmistakable air of political turf-maintenance to their complaints. The clincher? People like this were utterly silent about the actual American Gestapo in their midst, except when they were praising it to the skies: the one run by J. Edgar Hoover, whom conservatives universally and consistently adored.
Flash forward thirty years for more evidence of conservative Republicans’, shall we say, shaky record of good faith when it comes to criticizing security-establishment abuses when one of their own is in the Oval Office. I refer to the Church and Pike committees' investigations of 1975, which revealed the CIA’s flagrant abuse of its charter, including the assassinations of foreign leaders, and its utter failure in forecasting world-changing events, which was supposed to be its raison d’être. Here’s Ronald Reagan on his radio show: “My own reaction after months of testimony and discussion during the investigation of the CIA is ‘much ado about—if not nothing at least very little.’” He didn’t call the CIA a “Gestapo.” The opposite: he reserved his scorn for its investigators, accusing them of “witch-hunting.”
Now we have another CIA program dangerously abusing public trust. And suddenly conservatives are up in arms. There’s plenty more to say, true, about what Rand Paul might mean for the dormant conservative tradition of distrust for the security establishment; about the Obama administration’s own awful implication in institutionalizing that establishment’s mushrooming abuses; and, too, concerning the unfortunate indifference of too many Democrats and liberals to those abuses when the guy running show is one of “ours.” But in the meantime, while we think about that stuff, let’s not neglect the obvious: conservatives have always been at war with Eurasia’s spy apparatus. Or Eastasia’s. Or Oceania’s. When it happens to be run by Democrats, I mean.
Rick Perlstein last weighed in on the Bob Woodward debacle, noting that the journalist's series of books about the Iraq War went from approving to critical in tone—perfectly in line with the changing tastes of the majority of book-buyers.