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Thom Hartmann

You Can't Govern if You Don't Believe in Government


In a May 25, 2001 interview, Grover Norquist told National Public Radio's Mara Liasson, "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Norquist got his wish. Democracy - and at least several thousand people, most of them Democrats, black, and poor - drowned last week in the basin of New Orleans. Our nation failed in its response, because for most of the past 25 years conservatives who don't believe in governance have run our government.

As incompetent as George W. Bush has been in his response to the disaster in New Orleans, he wasn't the one who began the process that inevitably led to that disaster spiraling out of control.

That would be Ronald Reagan.

It was Reagan who began the deliberate and intentional destruction of the United States of America when he famously cracked (and then incessantly repeated): "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'"

Reagan, like George W. Bush after him, failed to understand that when people come together into community, and then into nationhood, that they organize themselves to protect themselves from predators, both human and corporate, both domestic and foreign. This form of organization is called government.

But the Reagan/Bush ideologues don't "believe" in government, in anything other than a military and police capacity. Government should punish, they agree, but it should never nurture, protect, or defend individuals. Nurturing and protecting, they suggest, is the more appropriate role of religious institutions, private charities, families, and - perhaps most important - corporations.

Let the corporations handle your old-age pension. Let the corporations decide how much protection we and our environment need from their toxics. Let the corporations decide what we're paid. Let the corporations decide what doctor we can see, when, and for what purpose.

This is the exact opposite of the vision for which the Founders of this nation fought and died. When Thomas Jefferson changed John Locke's "Life, liberty, and private property" to "Live, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," it was the first time in the history of the world that a newly founded nation had written the word "happiness" into its founding document. The phrase "promote the general welfare" - another revolutionary concept - first appeared in the preamble to our Constitution in 1787.

Talk show cons and TV talking head cons and political cons - both Republican and DLC Democratic - repeat the mantra of "smaller government," and Americans nod their heads in agreement, not realizing the hidden agenda at work.

Reagan was the first American president to actually preach that his own job was a bad thing. He once said, "Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first." One can only assume he was speaking of himself and his fellow Republicans, and certainly the current Congress's devotion to the interests of inherited wealth and large corporations displays how badly his philosophy has corrupted a role so noble it drew idealists like Jefferson, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts.

But cons can't imagine anybody wanting to devote their lives to the service of their nation. The highest calling in their minds is to make profit.

As Reagan said: "The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away."

This mind-set - that the only purpose for service in government is to set up the interests of business - may account for why not a single military-eligible member of the Bush or Cheney families has enlisted in their parents' "Noble Cause," whereas all four sons of Franklin Roosevelt joined and each was decorated - on merit - for bravery in the deadly conflict of World War II.

There are, after all, no reasons in the conservative worldview for government service other than self-enrichment. As Ronald Reagan said: "Politics is not a bad profession. If you succeed there are many rewards, if you disgrace yourself you can always write a book."

What they don't say is that the reason they want to remove government in its protective capacity is because they can then make an enormous amount of money, and have a lot of control over people's lives, when they privatize former governmental functions. They want a power vacuum, so corporations and the rich can step in. And with no limits on the inheritability of riches after the "death tax" is ended, wealth vast enough to take over the government can emerge.

Given this conservative world-view, it shouldn't surprise us that in 2001 George W. Bush appointed his 2000 presidential campaign manager (Joseph Albaugh) as head of FEMA, or that two years later Albaugh would have left FEMA to start a consulting firm to marry corporations with Iraq "reconstruction" federal dollars, and put in charge of FEMA his assistant (and old college roommate), an equally unqualified former failed executive with the International Arabian Horse Association.

It also shouldn't surprise us that although Dick Cheney has stayed on vacation in Wyoming through all of this, his company, Halliburton, has already obtained a multi-million-dollar contract to profit from Hurricane Katrina's cleanup.

It's not that these conservatives are incompetent or stupid. When their interests are at stake, they can be very efficient. Consider when Hurricane Charley hit Jeb Bush's state - a year earlier than Katrina - on the second weekend of August, 2004, just months before the elections. The White House website notes:

As of noon Monday [the day after the hurricane left], in response to Hurricane Frances, FEMA and other Federal response agencies have taken the following actions:

-- About one hundred trucks of water and 280 trucks of ice are present or will arrive in the Jacksonville staging area today. 900,000 Meals-Ready-to-Eat are on site in Jacksonville, ready to be distributed.

-- Over 7,000 cases of food (e.g., vegetables, fruits, cheese, ham, and turkey) are scheduled to arrive in Winter Haven today. Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT) are on the ground and setting up comfort stations. FEMA community relations personnel will coordinate with DMATs to assist victims. -- Urban Search and Rescue Teams are completing reconnaissance missions in coordination with state officials.

-- FEMA is coordinating with the Department of Energy and the state to ensure that necessary fuel supplies can be distributed throughout the state, with a special focus on hospitals and other emergency facilities that are running on generators.

-- The Army Corps of Engineers will soon begin its efforts to provide tarps to tens of thousands of owners of homes and buildings that have seen damage to their roofs.

-- The National Guard has called up 4,100 troops in Florida, as well as thousands in other nearby states to assist in the distribution of supplies and in preparation for any flooding.

-- The Departments of Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, and Defense together have organized 300 medical personnel to be on standby. Medical personnel will begin deployment to Florida tomorrow.

-- FEMA is coordinating public information messages with Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina so that evacuees from Florida can be informed when it is safe to return. -- In addition to federal personnel already in place to respond to Hurricane Charley, 1,000 additional community relations personnel are being deployed to Atlanta for training and further assignment in Florida.

All of this aid was vitally important to Bush family political fortunes in the upcoming election of 2004. Disaster relief checks were in the mail within a week. In just the first thirteen days after Hurricane Charley hit Florida, the White House web site notes that the Bush administration had succeeded in:

-- Registering approximately 136,000 assistance applicants

-- Approving over 13,500 applications for more than $59 million in housing assistance

-- Establishing 12 disaster recovery centers, which have assisted nearly 19,000 disaster victims

-- Deploying medical teams that have seen nearly 3,000 patients

-- Disbursing 1.2 million liters of water, 8.1 million pounds of ice, and 2 million meals and snacks

-- Delivering over 20,000 rolls of plastic sheeting and nearly 170 generators

-- Treating more than 2,900 individuals through FEMA Disaster Medical Assistance Teams, supporting damaged hospitals

That, of course, was for a Republican State, with a Republican governor, the crony brother of the President. Republicans needed to act like they cared about governing, because they wanted people to vote for them three months later.

But now, with no election looming and with death stalking a Democratic State with a Democratic Governor unrelated to the President, we once again see the Reagan philosophy held ascendant. Bush's call to action? "Send cash to the Red Cross." One of those "thousand points of light" non-governmental organizations his father told us about.

As Brian Gurney, a listener from California, noted: "You can't govern if you don't believe in government."

But you sure can make a buck, and take care of your brother, your campaign manager, and your vice president's company.

Thom Hartmann (thom at is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, host of a daily progressive talk radio show syndicated nationally by Air America Radio, and host of a morning progressive talk show on KPOJ in Portland, Oregon. His most recent books are The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Unequal Protection, We The People, The Edison Gene, and What Would Jefferson Do?

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