Welcome to the Jungle

I want to go through the whole thing again. And it’s 7 minutes past 11 here in the East. I know at the top of the hour a number of people probably joined us expecting Crossfire. Not tonight. We‘ll continue our coverage of Robert Blake.

--NewsNight With Aaron Brown, April 18

On the morning after the arrest of Robert Blake -- I’m sure we‘ll all remember exactly where we were when that happened -- I was listening to The Jim Rome Show’s annual SmackOff. An elite group of Rome‘s best callers had been invited into the Jungle (as the show is known, after the Guns N’ Roses song) to see who could talk the best smack, which is essentially a white sports fan‘s rhythm-free version of rap. For more than two hours, the contestants boasted, brown-nosed their host, pontificated on the current state of the program (the Rome Show is as self-referential as Pale Fire), and generally dissed each other for being jackasses, rednecks, masturbators, practitioners of family inbreeding or devotees of barnyard sex.

Although neo-trog in its humor (really, guys, gay people aren’t all that scary), the SmackOff‘s head-on sarcasm felt bracing after the slipperiness of the previous night’s coverage of the Blake-Bakley murder case. I‘m not referring to our local newscasters, whose bottom-feeder souls know a juicy story when they see one and milked the arrest for every last drop of portent and sleaze. I mean CNN’s professionally wry, sensible and humane Aaron Brown, who approached the Blake case with all the hand-wringing fretfulness of a repressed preacher explaining adultery to an eager nymphomaniac. He wondered if the story would be so big if Blake weren‘t a celebrity. He noted that crimes like this happen all the time in other cities. And he situated the Blake story in the big picture:

“As we sit here tonight, there’s a ton and a half going on in the world, and all of it is, in the larger scheme of things, really important. This is interesting and this is breaking and this is news, but at some point there are these other things that need to be dealt with too, and that‘s one of the things that, I hope, we’ll see, will make it different from our end, from the media‘s end, in how we approach this thing.”

And then, having said all this, Brown proceeded to do exactly what you knew he’d do all along. He peeled off his cleric‘s collar and hopped into the sack with the Blake story -- bouncing up and down for hours. He trotted out O.J.’s Bronco, ran old Baretta clips, interviewed lawyers and celebrity journalists and lawyers who‘ve turned into celebrity journalists. In the process, Brown revealed himself as a classic example of today’s mealy-mouthed liberal who deplores the world‘s failings in wry, sensible, humane tones but somehow never gets around to doing anything about them. Watching Brown keep his distance from a story he was busily cramming down America’s throat, I was suddenly struck by the integrity of Geraldo Rivera. He at least is betraying nothing he ever believed in.

As American cardinals meet with their aging, sick, retrograde pope in Rome -- they hope he‘ll toss Boston’s arrogant Cardinal Bernard Law onto the sacrificial barbie -- Catholics back home remain aghast at the church‘s response to a degree of priestly sexual abuse that makes the Marquis de Sade suddenly seem like a realist. The issue isn’t simply the billion dollars in hush money paid over the years, nor the habit of transferring pedophiles from a violated parish to a virgin one. No, for many Catholics, the church hit spiritual rock bottom when it began fobbing off the blame on other people.

Last Sunday on Meet the Press, Washington, D.C.‘s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, every pore oozing suavity, tried to justify the church’s failure to act against abusers by suggesting that it had gotten bad advice from therapists. It was precisely this sort of buck passing that launched This Week‘s Cokie Roberts into a livid rant about how Catholicism is a religion of personal responsibility -- your sins are your own, not somebody else’s -- and how nothing violates the faith more than the church refusing to come clean about its own lapses. How true. You don‘t see a lot of contrition in New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan, whose thin-lipped quasi apology for his cover-ups makes Bill Clinton look like the blubbering Jim Bakker, or in L.A.‘s Cardinal Roger Mahony, whose liberal-minded eagerness to talk of future church reform smacks of an even greater eagerness to avoid confronting his past.

Despite the show-biz razzmatazz of the summons to the Vatican, America’s church hierarchy hasn‘t begun to grapple with the underlying psychosexual questions these abuse cases raise, everything from the costs of celibacy (which is not demanded by Scripture) to the paradox that a church that condemns homosexuality has a large number of gay priests (an entirely separate issue from pedophilia, it’s worth emphasizing). Such concerns are far removed from the bluff, hedging, often clueless words of cardinals who have grown more used to conferring forgiveness than asking for it.

On Meet the Press, Tim Russert (who attends the same D.C. “pundits‘ church” as Roberts) brought up the statistic that nearly all of the 20,000 priests who’ve left the clergy went on to get married. Cardinal McCarrick greeted the news with a chuckle. “You hate to say that‘s a good sign,” he said, “but in this context it shows that our guys are normal.” The cardinal seemed not to grasp that such beefy good humor -- and a SmackOff-worthy notion of what’s “normal” -- is one reason why the church has been so inept in dealing with the sexual escapades of its priests.

Charming as heck, Cardinal McCarrick serves as a valuable reminder that priests who rise high in the church are as much politicians or businessmen as they are men of faith. As he smoothed his way through his conversation with Russert, I kept thinking of Father Urban, the likable hero of J.F. Powers‘ (no relation) great comic novel Morte d’Urban, who starts losing his soul when he woos the thuggish rich whose money will permit his religious order to prosper. More than any other writer, Powers lets us see the priesthood as human work -- a daily job with routines, annoyances, small pleasures and minor corruptions that can easily become major ones, often with the very best intentions. After all, if you think that the church embodies the sacred word of Our Savior -- and does countless good works on this Earth -- wouldn‘t you want to protect it against those who would hurt it, even if their way of hurting it is to cry with pain at being abused by a priest?

The Coup: A User’s Manual

Like all good Americans, I was shocked and disappointed by the Bush administration‘s handling of events in Venezuela. I mean, has this great nation fallen so low that we’ve forgotten how to topple an inconvenient government?

According to Bush spokespersons -- who have no reason to lie -- what happened in Venezuela was perfectly straightforward. U.S. Embassy officials in Caracas had frequent discussions with the coup plotters but told them not to overthrow President Hugo Chavez (that would be wrong). When the plotters overthrew him anyway, the U.S. government insisted that Chavez had “resigned” and said it was good news that the military had replaced him with a team of fanatically conservative businessmen. Then, when Chavez was unexpectedly returned to power, the U.S. declared that this freely elected president had better shape up and be democratic -- just like us.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong! Do it that way and they‘ll hate you all the way to Tierra del Fuego.

I don’t mean to be a noodge, but here‘s how you stage a coup:

You pay provocateurs to provoke unrest in the streets. You secretly encourage the plotters (who’ve trained at U.S. bases in Georgia) to overthrow their president, assuring them of America‘s full support. Once the coup occurs, you publicly keep your distance and try to look shocked -- especially when the deposed president is somehow tragically killed (“Welcome to the jungle, Hugo”). Then, after the smoke has cleared, you reluctantly admit that the coup was “necessary” -- the old leader was a threat to democracy -- and start sending military aid to the new government to help “restore order.” Really, nothing could be easier.

Oh well, maybe next time.


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