Copyrighted material


by Alexander Cockburn

Why Obama Might Keep Gates at the Pentagon

There have been bleaker Thanksgivings, to be sure, than the one Americans celebrated Thursday. The storied first feast in 1621 in the Puritan colony on the Massachusetts shoreline actually took place in the ruined Indian village of Pawtuxet. The Wampanoag Indians, who brought the little band of Puritans wild turkeys (a meat they themselves rather despised) along with some ears of corn and seasonal squashes, had scant reason to rejoice since their numbers had been reduced by some 95 percent by smallpox, introduced in 1614 by an earlier British expedition.

If he heard the thanks raised to heaven by the Puritan leader John Winthrop, the English-speaking Indian known as Squanto probably declined to translate it for his fellows. Winthrop saluted the epidemic as a miracle. As he wrote later to a friend in England, "But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space, the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox, which still continues among them. So as God hath thereby cleared our title to this place, those who remain in these parts, being in all not 50, have put themselves under our protection."

Afforded their toehold in the New World by the blessings of plague, the Puritans prospered and the hectic tread of land grabs and capital accumulation carried America on its great journey towards this 387th Thanksgiving, one marked by economic circumstances more frightening than most Americans have experienced in their entire lifetimes. An American would have to be over 75 to remember as a child the desperate circumstances of the late 1930s when, after five years of Roosevelt's New Deal, there were still 20 million unemployed. The economic darkness only lifted with the arrival of World War II. Someone born in 1961, the year John Kennedy was inaugurated, would have been a 7 year old amid the joyous Thanksgiving when the postwar boom crested. There were some gloomy economic Novembers in the late '70s, early '90s and the expiring balloon of the dot-com boom eight years ago, but nothing like today's grim landscape.

Down the road from where I write this line, in the northwest corner of South Carolina, a friend of mine owns a small trailer park. By the late summer, as local factories started closing, long-term tenants said goodbye and went on the road in search of work. The vacant trailers were soon filled by families walking away from mountains of mortgage debt and foreclosed homes. They live on budgets so tight that my friend says that they can just barely make the $500 monthly rent, but $550 would put them under. He pointed to one where an older man had just arrived from Michigan, 650 miles north up Interstate 75, heart of the U.S. auto industry and already in economic ruins long before the major auto companies went begging for bailout in Washington, D.C., in the last couple of weeks.

States in the industrial heartlands, like Michigan and Ohio, have been reeling for years as the factory owners redeployed to China, but others, like New York and California and Washington and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest, now face budgetary implosion and cuts in services of up to 25 percent.

As in any hospital ward, gloom alternates with determined good cheer. Flying across the country last week, I could hear snatches of optimism in airport lounges from the TV sets blaring CNN news bulletins. The market "may have hit bottom." The bounce-back after the Citibank bailout was "the quickest two-day climb" up the graphs since the recovery from the crash of '87. Walking down Las Vegas Blvd., I watched five huge cranes just south of the Bellagio and Caesar's Palace busy servicing an enormous new hotel/casino complex about halfway to completion. Families now finding Europe beyond their means were floating in their gondolas down a cheaper version of the Grand Canal, beneath the dome of the Venetian and a sky forever blue.

"Inexplicable enrichment" often features in criminal charges leveled against Americans running afoul of the law, and watching the fistfuls of $100 poker chips being tossed down by gamblers, not just in Las Vegas, I thought once again that America's underground, off-the-books economy must be far larger than official estimates. But from the richer crowd, one hears daily stories of portfolios worth half or less of their value three and four month ago, of people losing high salary jobs, often only months shy of long-scheduled retirement on full benefits.

Against this larger Thanksgiving backdrop of high national anxiety, the tone adopted by the impending Obama administration is, unsurprisingly, one of measured gravity and regular advisories that although help in the form of a half-trillion stimulus program is on the way, recovery will be a long, very slow business. Even this somberly soothing news thread is somewhat undercut by the rather familiar features of those being picked by President-elect Obama to mastermind the salvage operation. Here's prospective Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, currently head of New York's Federal Reserve Bank and therefore one of the architects of the present reeling rescue program. And here too as Obama's White House adviser is Lawrence Summers, who ran the Treasury for part of Clinton-time and fought savagely against those warning that the subprime boom was about to blow and take the economy with it.

Many a new face in Obama's cabinet brings not change but a continuity not always pleasant to contemplate. Here comes Hillary Clinton, who voted for the 2003 attack on Iraq and who now seems certain to be the new Secretary of State. Here stays Bush's defense secretary Robert Gates, who has made no significant mark on the vast pork barrel beside the Potomac. The conversion of this mucky schemer of yesteryear into revered emblem of sound governance is one of the many marvels of our age. Here too is Eric Holder, picked as the next attorney general in an administration Obama has sworn will display the highest ethical tone. But was not Holder, in the final weeks of the Clinton administration, a key player in the Department of Justice in the pardon of financier Marc Rich, an act that many regarded as the definitive display of Clintonian corruption?

Not for the first time in the last few months, it's Gov. Sarah Palin who has furnished light relief. She pardoned a turkey while, in the background, a real turkey was being drained of its blood. It's a droll symbol of America's realities on this last 387th Thanksgiving Day.

© Creators Syndicate

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   November 28, 2008   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.