Recently, I visited New York’s Guggenheim Museum for a show of conceptual art by Danh Vo, whose family fled Vietnam as the American war there ended in 1975. He was four years old when he became a refugee and, through a series of flukes, found himself in Denmark, which has been his home ever since. Much of his work is focused on that grim war and the colonial history leading up to it. Among the eerie exhibits at the Guggenheim are two chairs (stripped down and exhibited in bits and pieces) that originally came from the White House cabinet room. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President John F. Kennedy used them while discussing key Vietnam decisions. Jackie Kennedy gave them to McNamara after her husband’s death (and Vo bought them at a Sotheby’s auction). There are also a series of notes that Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and then secretary of state, a man deeply involved in the horrors of that same war, sent to the New York Post’s Broadway gossip columnist Leonard Lyons. In those letters, successively framed on a wall, Dr. K responds to offers of free ballet and Broadway show tickets that Lyons seems to have regularly dangled in front of him. They capture the smallest scale form of corruption imaginable but are no less eerie for that. In perhaps the creepiest one, Kissinger writes Lyons jokingly in May 1970, “Dear Leonard, You must be a fiend. I would choose your ballet over contemplation of Cambodia any day — if only I were given the choice. Keep tempting me; one day perhaps I will succumb.” Keep in mind that this was just months after he had transmitted a presidential order to the U.S. military to intensify the devastating secret bombing of that land with these words: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” Ballet indeed.
Those ticket offers, of course, were something less than a Teapot Dome scandal, but they certainly should be considered a reminder that Washington has been and remains a swamp in every sense of the word. In his 2016 campaign, Donald Trump swore that he would drain that very swamp, shut down K Street lobbying activities, and bring that city’s myriad revolving doors to a halt. Instead, a year and a quarter into his presidency, he and his administration are already involved in a staggering set of activities guaranteed to swamp the drain in Washington. We don’t know about ballet or theater tickets for Trump administration figures yet. (That will perhaps await some conceptual artist of the mid-twenty-first century.) We do, however, already know about a veritable deluge of everyday corruption at the highest levels, ranging from condo rentals to plane flights to dining room furniture — and that’s just the churn at the edges of that drain. There are already at least 10 investigations of, for instance, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt’s profligate spending habits. And at the center of that vortex of corruption lies the president and his family, the man whose taxes remain an American mystery and who couldn’t even get them in on time this year. He’s brought his family operation directly into the Oval Office, along with his daughter and son-in-law, and they’ve all but raised his Golden Letters over the building. So I’m sure you won’t be surprised that his new hotel, just down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, has become a must-stop spot for every lobbyist, foreign diplomat, or anyone else who cares to influence the Oval Office.
The question, of course, is: Who exactly will find the ultimate piece of tape on the latch of the Trump Organization’s basement door? TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, suspects that it’s likely to be a classic “bean counter” and, with that in mind, she’s written a paean of prospective praise to the one or ones who will someday take down the president. Think of it as an ode not on a Grecian urn, but on a gimlet-eyed accountant.