The Obscenity of Respectable Politics

After several years of absence from the national spotlight, former Vice President Dick Cheney has unfortunately returned in recent weeks in an attempt to defend the Bush administration and to condemn the Senate’s torture report.

That report is, Cheney noted, “full of crap.” It is unsurprising that he would react that way. If there’s anything to depend upon in this world besides death and taxes, it’s Dick Cheney knowing that he was right.

Something actually surprising which came out of the ex-VP’s pro-torture campaign is this December 12 Dana Milbank column. It isn’t literally everything that is wrong with politics, but it almost is. Milbank appears to truly object to Cheney’s PG language. He also thinks CIA-performed sexual assault is hilarious, writing “The [crap] line might have been funny, if Cheney were the funny sort, because the report talks about treatment of detainees that involved ‘rectal feeding.’”

And that line might be funny if Milbank were funny. I don’t know the man’s writing very well, but his concern over politicians using swear words is bizarre. It’s downright profane, however, that he began his old maidish lament by making a nasty joke about torture and by focusing on Cheney’s word choice, instead of his vile actions and excuses.

To be fair, Milbank isn’t just talking about swear words. He’s also upset about the fact that harsh language “contributes to a coarsening of politics and a tendency to substitute name-calling for argument.”

There it is. Politics is a respectable, dignified profession. Or it could be, if we weren’t yelling at each other all of the time. This attitude is what gives us the burgeoning police state and busy empire you see before you.

Because as bad as morality-free, knee-jerk partisans can be, the faux-reasonable folks like Milbank are in many ways worse. (Not to mention, political discourse before cable news involved some epic insults, and the occasional Senate floor caning, so it’s a historically stunted complaint anyway.)

We often hear people sensibly suggest that we must respect the office – especially the presidency – if not the particular person currently occupying it. But as much as a president can be better or worse, their abilities make their personality almost irrelevant. A George W. Bush may do worse things than a Jimmy Carter. However, a civil liberties champion like Barack Obama can turn into a president with a kill list. And a small government-touting, Freeman-reading Ronald Reagan can be commander in chief of the militarized war on drugs. You can’t be corrupted without your consent, but the power in that office sure as hell helps ease the transition away from principles.

Politics is arguably a necessary evil. (Very, very arguable.) But it deals in life and death, and freedom or imprisonment. Advocates of a more polite, more moderate, or a "third way" of politics have the utmost respect for the system and none for the misery it makes. They undermine the deadly-serious nature of what’s at stake when they complain about rudeness or partisan bickering.

Democrats and Republicans – with minuscule exception – are moderate. They have a dependable, sturdy status quo of belief in a powerful state, a massive spying apparatus, and an endless empire which must exist for national security purposes. Though the two parties play at divisiveness and dislike, they’re as serious as two flirting fourth graders punching each other in the arm. More politeness is not the answer to any problem with Washington, DC. The problem is Washington, DC.

Milbank – at least in this column – is such a hideous microcosm of all that’s wrong with political journalism. He focuses on personality, on minutia, and glosses over what really matters. (And he sounds 150 years old while he does so.)

He may not be all bad all of the time. He seems to be against CIA redaction of the torture report. That’s nice. Perhaps skewering him for his pundit-dad torture joke is also small-minded. (He is, however, a repeat offender. Note his light treatment of Chelsea Manning’s ill-treatment.) Being unfunny isn’t a crime or even a moral failing, but there is something morally nauseating about this column all the same.

Don’t trust people who are dying to reform politics in this glossy of a manner. Anyone who thinks politics should be pleasant, polite, and respectable believes by definition that war, torture, and imprisonment should have a sunny face. If we said "please" and "thank you," and worked together, the two parties could get so much done!

They get plenty done. And Dick Cheney is still on the morning cable news shows. George W. Bush is a friendly, painting rancher-grandpa. Nobody under Bill Clinton was punished for Waco or for his various bombing campaigns. Obama has been brutal towards whistleblowers. And yet, rarely does a politician get punished for anything except a sex scandal. We just let them be, and when we’re having a feisty day we debate NSA spying, or ask Cheney a tough question on air.

It’s not that we should put Cheney or his ilk on the rack. We should probably be better than that, and better than they are. But any kind of disincentive for these people to play God the way that they do would be super. We don’t have it. Secret service protection, and law school professorships, and “sir” await war criminals and tyrants once they leave office…if they leave office.

And now we wait for moderates like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton to throw their oars in for 2016. And when they do, expect a knock-down, drag-out battle. Except more think pieces about partisan divides. Expect more complaints about the brutal nature of politics, and more questions about why can’t we get along. (Can anyone guess which one of them would be more of a hawk? Probably Clinton, since Bush has to be his own man…but not too much of one.)

We do get along. At least we do when the US is attacked, and must respond with hysterical, Fourth-Amendment butchering legislation, and with multiple wars. We do when we tolerate drone warfare that kills Pakistani children, nameless might-be terrorists, and the occasional American citizen. Profane or not, government officials are working beautifully at their intended purpose every day – which is to do as much as they can get away with.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.