IN OUR HOUR OF NEED
Climate change seems to have infected not only our weather but our politics as well. You can't predict the next move Trump will take to put off his day of reckoning. He assails his fellow Republicans, he issues threats to throw our latest terrorist into Gitmo, he wants to own the debate on tax reform, or he doesn't. He blows hot, then he blows cold on just about everything around him. His tweets come like sudden warm fronts only to be followed by icy cold corrections, adjustments. Even the professional comedians confess that it is nearly impossible to be funny about Trump. You end up being serious, weepy, overly pious or icily satirical. You end up, as they say, "dying out there."
Meanwhile, an old fashioned autumn weather blows out of the offices of Robert Mueller III, who proceeds as if his father had been a watchmaker and his mother a seamstress of elaborate Victorian gowns. He's in no hurry. He has his clippings, his bulletin board with photos of the main actors in the Russian plot, arrows pointing to this jowly face and down to another, with the men (they're all men), looking down like the evil ancestors of the house of Usher. Mueller is used to working out the details. He's so good at it, that as the Congress rages and Trump and his cohorts scream accusations and denials before they are even needed, he stares through his loupe and ponders another bit of connection. His detectives are just as slow-moving and deliberate, and come back with a hair in a cellophane envelope, the corner of a journal page, a man weeping behind his trench coat collar. No one is eager to reveal the truth, which lies there in the depths of an underworld opening right in the heart of Washington.
Mueller is figuring out just how precious power really is, and how many men were willing to barter their souls for a piece of it. The money is never really that great; not even Paul Manafort's kitty of eighteen million dollars was really all that great, when you consider it bought him a closet full of suits, three dwellings he rented out to AirBnB, knickknacks for his wife. He must have felt pretty good about himself lavishing all that money on himself. It's how a gangster thinks -- it isn't the money, its the status, the style, the admiration he demands from his cronies.
This is what I am beginning to gather from this maelstrom of events, this cacophony of a badly written soap opera -- no one in the Trump galaxy seems to have the slightest idea what to create out of the money they lust for. It's a medium without any poetry, any transcendent vector connecting earth to heaven. It buys you material goods, gaudy ones, expensive gadgets and gifts, it's a continuation of the sordid dishonesty of real estate manipulation, or the even worse malfeasance of stealing from the public coffers. When you gather up the greenbacks, it all seems so tawdry, like those Congresssmen caught on camera stuffing their suit pockets with wads of dollar bills in the Abscam sting of the late 1970s. Not even a decade out from Watergate, you get these same paunchy, suburban men perched high up in the federal government cramming money into their pockets and waddling home.
What do any of these men spend their ill-gotten gains on? A Rolex, or a pair of Gucci loafers? A trip to Jamaica? Renovations of a ranch house with too many rooms? Big restaurant stove and granite-topped counters in the kitchen? These luxuries don't elevate the quality of a life so much as merely weigh it down like the lead ballast in a sailboat hull. It's not there to make life brighter or more precise, it's merely there because that's all money can buy -- things that the rest of us are thought to desire, even covet. There is no vision there, no spiritual grasp of what matters in this life. There is only the show window on Lexington Avenue where the elites go to acquire their symbols of belonging. So Manafort was a man in search of belonging, but as one underling who knew him remarked to a reporter, he had no moral compass in anything he did. He didn't know the why of his possessions. He couldn't read Hart Crane's long poem, The Bridge, since he had no moral antenna long enough to understand the bridge was just cement and metal unless you perceived in it the celestial stairway to God. Crane could think like an ancient Greek and feel the reality of Zeus, the sensuous perfection of Aphrodite, the glorious expansion of being in Athena. Instead, he bought hand-sewn Italian shoes that were little different from the Hush Puppies a poet puts on to embrace the sky.
Washington has so little poetry in its veins that when someone makes the effort to ornament his life, to enhance it, to make mere mortality grow the stubs of wings to permit some sort of visionary experience, you want to cry. You want to tell him he's doing the wrong thing but for the right (though muddled) reason. Since we have so little visionary reality in this country, Tiffany's will have to do. And Tiffany windows are a glimpse into a faux alchemy. The poor anorexic models who must gaze upon a bracelet of immense diamonds as if this were the one elixir to stir her passion, her willingness to submit to a lover, we have to smirk at the reality that the lover is once more Paul Manafort with carefully coiffed hair, an Armani suit, a pair of wine-dark Ferragamos as he prepares for conquest.
All these lonely men who work in Washington and who skim off the largesse of a great nation have no imagination, only greed and lechery to motivate them. This is what I think about when I roam around in the older parts of Rome, where the fountains and the statues, the cornices, the glorious roofs of sooty churches abound in a vast waterfall of Renaissance imagination. What we have in our own capital, for the most part, are the glacial monuments of a culture that has rarely expressed any love for the motley population that came to its shores to work and make a life.
Meanwhile global warming and all its menaces and threats gather round us and shake the foundations of nature, while our corrupt leaders tell us over and over not to worry. Trump's minions are locking the doors of their agencies to scientists and researchers, the ones who can provide the truth, the unglamorous and warty truth of what is really happening to us. Trump has demanded that the tax reform bill be rushed through the Congress that will provide even greater fortune to the fabulously rich, the new Ottomans emperors of our time. But no one is talking about using that same king's ransom of tax revenue for repairing infrastructure, for improving our water and air, for building new transit systems free of coal and oil. For the welfare and wellbeing of our people.
Mueller is a patient man and his concentration is as pure as a monk's at his prayers. If ever a nation cried out for wisdom, this is the moment when an honest citizen is called upon to be heroic and selfless. I didn't think I would know such a moment in my lifetime; I thought I had witnessed brave men and women in my youth, during World War II, the Vietnam War, the diligent rooting out of evil during the Watergate era. But in this dark hour, with an incompetent president ranting and waving his scepter about to his cringing staff, we need Mueller's sanity more than ever.