A Plutocracy, which we had under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, can be defined by paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln: It is a government of the people, by the rich, and for the rich. Plutocrats believe that government should keep its hands off economic matters, but they also believe that government should lend support to the wealthy and Big Business with few or no restrictions. Before Bush-Cheney, four other Republican presidents were responsible for introducing or restoring plutocratic rule: Grant, Harding, Nixon, and Reagan. Their administrations were notoriously characterized by cronyism, incompetence, greed, and corruption.
It was General Ulysses S. Grant who established the Republican Party as the champion of the wealthy. He was the first president during the “Gilded Age,” which is the era the current Republicans wish to return to. The term “gilded” means “deceptively pleasing.” Hence, the “Gilded Age” (1869-1900) was a time of national expansion in which there seemed to be prosperity for all, but actually it was only for a small minority like the Astors, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers. It did not include the working class, farmers, or consumers.
Gideon Welles, who served in Lincoln’s cabinet, observed that once Grant was in the White House, “The appointment of his friends to office was the extent of his ideas of administrative duties.” Most of Grant’s friends, many of whom had served him and the nation well during the Civil War, turned out to be a bunch of crooks. He wanted a third term to prove he could actually do a good job. But when he left office in 1877, Grant knew he was the least president in our first hundred years.
The exposure of endless financial scandals completely consumed Grant’s second term. Some of the most infamous were Credit Mobilier, a construction company boondoggle that involved both of Grant’s vice presidents (consider Cheney and Halliburton); the Whiskey Ring, a tax scandal which involved nationwide breweries, Grant’s supervisor of internal revenue, and Grant’s personal secretary; and the William Belknap Bribery Case which was named for his Secretary of War.
In the Election of 1920, Warren G. Harding rejected the “do-goodism” and reforms of the “Progressive Era” (1901-1920) and promised a “return to normalcy” – a return to the plutocracy of the Gilded Age. Like Reagan later, Harding got elected partly because, as one woman said, “He looked like a president.” Sadly, he never grasped the fact that he was President until he realized he would be remembered as worse than Grant.
Humorist Will Rogers joked that he asked Mr. Harding, “Would you like me to tell you the latest political jokes?” He said the President told him, “You don’t have to, Will – I’ve already appointed them.” Much too late, Harding reportedly realized, “When I became President, I thought my job was to appoint my friends to public office. But, you know, you can’t do that. You have to appoint the best men.” Also late in his brief presidency, he supposedly lamented, “It’s not my enemies that I’m worried about. It’s my friends that keep me pacing the floors at night.” Harding mysteriously died in 1923 before the public ever found out what he was so concerned about.
The cronies Harding put in office were in league with Big Business and used their positions solely to make money for themselves and their benefactors. Harding’s attorney general had a house on K Street where he sold influence (remember Jack Abramoff’s recent K Street lobbying schemes that were almost exclusively with Bush-Cheney’s Republican Congress). Harding’s director of the Veterans’ Bureau went to jail for receiving kickbacks for construction bids on hospitals and retirement homes. His Secretary of Interior was sentenced for receiving bribes from big oil corporations to sell federal oil reserves at Teapot Dome, WY, and Elk Hills, CA.
“I’m not a crook,” said Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate investigations. But that statement had nothing to do with Watergate. He was responding to questions about his income tax returns. There were indeed financial scandals during Nixon’s nightmarish presidency, but most of the 30 criminal convictions within his administration were Watergate-related. Nixon had appointed zealots who were willing to help him use the executive agencies to destroy his political opposition. Hence, his corruption mostly pertained to the abuse of presidential power and the subversion of our entire political and constitutional system. Unlike Grant and Harding, Richard Nixon personally participated in his administration’s illegalities, and his secret White House tape recordings proved it. Nixon was able to amass vast sums of money from secret donors that were used to assure his re-election in 1972 by any means available.
Ronald Reagan’s millionaire-laden Inaugural Day ceremonies in January 1981 made it clear immediately that the plutocracy was back in power. Like Bush-Cheney later, he appointed friends or loyalists to head executive agencies to “regulate” their former employers! Reagan’s advisor and second attorney general, Edwin Meese, once gave a speech that epitomized the administration’s thinking. He said that Ebenezer Scrooge had been given a bum rap. Scrooge had been a good employer to Bob Cratchit, and Cratchit was lucky to have had any job at all. But it was Michael Douglas who defined the Reagan Era in the movie “Wall Street” with an Oscar-winning performance proclaiming, “Greed is good.”
Typical of Reagan’s slipshod misrule was the Wedtech Case, which included what former Arkansas Senator David Pryor referred to as “an eight-year feeding frenzy at the Department of Defense.” It was the military-industrial complex gone berserk! Smuggled documents from the Pentagon, favors, gifts, and insider trading led to rigged defense contracts that cost taxpayers 160 million dollars a day! Journalist Haynes Johnson described it as “Plunder in the name of patriotism.”
Of the record 31 criminal convictions within Reagan’s administration, 14 were related to the scary Iran-Contra Affair – the most serious constitutional abuse of power prior to Bush-Cheney – in which, among other things, Reagan authorized the secret and illegal selling of weapons to Iran! What is usually forgotten is that the other 17 convictions were for old-fashioned greed by his political appointees in the executive agencies. By the end of his presidency, another record 121 in his administration had been indicted or investigated for official ethical or criminal violations. unlike Grant and Harding, Ronald Reagan never seemed personally troubled by what his appointees were doing!
The Bush-Cheney administration appeared to be Nixon’s and Reagan’s magnified, with outright thievery being replaced by plutocratic greed in its policies of tax cuts for the rich, non-regulation of the financial industry, war industries profiteering, and anti-conservation policies to advance oil, coal, and gas. Its corruption was in its belief of absolute executive power – and a constitutional abuse of that power that Nixon and Reagan only dreamed of. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their cronies no doubt hoped to stumble across the finish line in January 2009 before the lid blew off. Their main hope was the election of another Republican who would perpetuate their policies and keep the lid on all their activities.
Had the economic meltdown not occurred in September so close to the November 2008 election, Republican John McCain may very well have been elected and the trickle-down and laissez-faire economics of the plutocracy that brought us to near ruin would have continued. So far, the administration of President Barack Obama has been unwilling to pursue justice in relation to the numerous alleged constitutional crimes of the previous administration. Therefore, we must insist that Mr. Obama change economic course, reverse the Bush-Cheney plutocratic rule, and restore government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
(Updated March 7, 2010) by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published December 7, 2007,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.