Timothy Egan: Backward, Into The Future





[Timothy Egan is a contributor to the New York Times.]

After gaining control of much of the world’s copper supply, the 19th-century robber baron William A. Clark set out to buy a seat in the United States Senate. Openly, he went about bribing Montana legislators, $10,000 a vote, the cash paid in monogrammed envelopes.

Mark Twain called Clark “as rotten a human being as can be found anywhere under the flag,” but the senator did not show any shame. “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” he said.

It was corruption such as this that led to the 17th Amendment, which allows direct election of senators by the people, not state legislators. And it was stone-hearted, Gilded Age titans like Clark who prompted this populist movement in the West.

Curious, then, that one of the truly regressive ideas of the radical conservatives now seizing control of the Republican Party in the West and elsewhere is a bid to repeal the 17th Amendment. The Republican nominees for the Senate and House from two mountain states backed this Paleolithic idea before winning the party nod.

Somehow, taking away the citizens’ right to elect their own senators is supposed to diminish the influence of big money and bring control to the local level. And how did that work in Clark’s day? The rotten senator from Montana spent much of his single term living at his mansion in Manhattan, having no need to breathe the same air as constituents back in Butte....

As a nation, we have always stood for something larger than our political mood swings. After World War II, the United States prosecuted Japanese military interrogators for the war crime of waterboarding — consistent with American policy dating to Teddy Roosevelt’s day.

But the Greatest Generation’s war crime is the baby boomer’s bragging point. The television drama was a veritable torture-porn-fest of war crimes, committed by our hero. And last week,
George W. Bush proudly acknowledged that his administration had waterboarded a top terrorist suspect. He said, with a shrug, that he would do it again.

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