These may be democracy's darkest days

Published January 8, 2006

A few penultimate thoughts, but first, some personal history:

To a child in New York City some 60 years ago, it seemed that there could be no more thrilling job than driving a subway train. There doubtlessly are people who wish that I had pursued that ambition.

However, from the time I was old enough to think seriously about a career, there was no choice but journalism. It occurred to me later that law might have been another, but I was having too much fun.

The thrill has never faded. It will be difficult to step away. But there is a season for everything.

I am retiring. This is my next-to-last weekly column for the St. Petersburg Times. I will write occasionally, but not in response to each new day's outrage. My restless knee will have to look for other paths of public service.

It was the excitement of journalism that attracted me, but it was the public service that became the most satisfying part of it. This may be immodest, but I think I have done some good, particularly in protecting the judiciary from politics before Jeb Bush came to power.

My regret at retirement is that the state and nation have become so much worse off in many respects that the survival of democracy itself is in doubt.

The greatest progress has been in civil rights. Young people today can't imagine the ruthless segregation of the 1950s. We have eradicated all the legal traces of slavery.

But its economic and social consequences persist. Subsidies to unsupervised private schools will not rectify four centuries of disadvantage. It is a hypocritical subterfuge.

So is the shrewd class warfare that is making the rich richer at the expense of the poor, the middle class, and urgently needed investments in health, housing, infrastructure and education.

The most odious hypocrisy is that of politicians who rant about "values" as if the word stood only for jingoism, public piety and conventional sexuality.

The greatest specific sin has been the cynical misapplication of the Voting Rights Act to segregate blacks and Hispanics in electoral ghettoes so that Republicans can win more seats than they would get by fighting fairly.

This gerrymandering, coupled with the stupendous corruption of money in politics, has left the nation at the mercy of a political oligarchy that can afford to be contemptuous of the public's concerns over health care, education, tax reform, the environment, a living wage, a responsible budget, and even the imperial presidency.

The only imperative of this oligarchy is to nurture the extreme wings that control party nominations and the special interests whose campaign spending suppresses any stray opportunity for fair competition.

Fifty years ago, everyone understood that democracy was an empty word in Florida. The Legislature was so malapportioned that fewer than 15 percent of the voters could elect majorities of both houses.

The U.S. Supreme Court finally purged the Pork Chop Gang, but at the expense of a new curse: computerized gerrymandering. How the court rules on Tom DeLay's Texas chain saw massacre will speak volumes about whether democracy still has a future in the United States.

Meanwhile, the dictatorial presidency that supposedly died with Watergate is alive and, if anything, more malignant. Not even Richard Nixon asserted inherent power to detain people indefinitely in secret prisons or to put them to torture. Confronted with his own words as evidence that he broke the law, Nixon resigned. Confronted with its own words that it ignored the law, the Bush administration sets out to jail whoever revealed the truth and, more likely, the journalists to whom they spoke it.

And to think that Bill Clinton was impeached over a sex scandal. If any president has deserved impeachment, it is George Bush, and his vice president and defense secretary with him. For the manipulation of intelligence agencies. For deluding themselves, and in turn the nation and the world, into a tragic war with insufficient force to win it and no plan for a responsible conclusion. And for deliberately and persistently violating a law written to keep Big Brother in check.

The worst of our peril is the willful ignorance of a president who practically boasts that he reads and hears only what his staff selects for him.

It would be instructive to learn how much shadow president Dick Cheney had to do with selecting the staff. And above all, who really chose Cheney.

Martin Dyckman's e-mail address is madyckman@verizon.net