In the spring of 2008, just as the wheels were starting to come off of Wall Street, HBO presented a movie about how the Bush era began, with a star-studded film of the 2000 election Recount. This Monday, May 23rd at 9:00pm (ET/PT), we relive its unhappy ending, with an equally celebrity-packed adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s controversial bestseller, Too Big To Fail, directed by feature veteran Curtis Hanson. William Hurt, Paul Giamatti, and Billy Crudup head an A-list as the power threesome of then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner, then chief of the New York Fed.
While not as operatic or entertaining as Oliver Stone’s Wall Street follow-up, Money Never Sleeps, the film more than passes the All the President’s Men litmus test of making nail-biting, suspenseful entertainment out of real events where we already more-or-less know “who dun it” and how it all mostly turned out. Hurt plays Paulson with military soft-spoken precision, dictatorial in the office but racked with doubts when by himself or with his wife (Kathy Baker, top-drawer as usual). Crudup is appropriately weaselly as Geithner, and Giamatti and his hound-dog eyes do a good impersonation of the shy academic suddenly trying to keep himself (and the economy) afloat in the deep end.
Yet aside from a cheap Law & Order “ripped from the headlines” ploy for publicity, though, is there any other reason why HBO is making this movie now, when we’re still trying to crawl out from under the blowback? While the Great Recession, and the 2008 economic meltdown that precipitated it, as bad as it is, isn’t the moral equivalent of slavery, Vietnam, or the Holocaust, it is their equivalent in one particular way. As was said of that trio of terrors, the meltdown is like “a monster that sits down in the middle of our history and refuses to go away.” And like a monster sitting down in the living room of a Truman Capote or Eudora Welty novel, its tragic and comic dramatic value comes from watching everyone else’s determination to politely ignore it, to pretend that it just isn’t there. The 2008 meltdown has become a mythological pool that reflects more of the image of each person looking at it than it reveals anything about itself.
Behind Curtain Number One, today we have the Republican party of Paul Ryan and John Boehner, now pushing austerity measures and survival-of-the-fittest “free market” solutions. The same Paul Ryan and John Boehner who took to the floor of the Congress in fall 2008, openly crying and shuddering, literally begging for bailouts and make-ups and interventions, dispensing totally with what I remember one commenter on this forum calling ”free-market BS.” The same Ryan and Boehner who had supported Dick Cheney and Karl Rove’s activist “big government conservatism” totally, and raised barely a peep about deficit spending until after Obama took office. They may have reverted to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand today, but back then, their philosophy more resembled that of Randal Graves from the definitive slacker movie Clerks: “I’m a firm believer in the ruling class — because I rule!”
Behind Curtain Number Two, we have the Democrats. Was it Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush who deregulated financial instruments and media-monopoly laws, fully opened China and India, and started sacking US manufacturing in earnest? Nope. It was “new Democrat” Bill Clinton (who dismissed regulator Brooksley Born in 1999 as brutally as Cheney did Paul O’Neill, when she threatened to upset the Masters of the Universes’ apple carts.) After the meltdown, President Obama blanket-reappointed virtually all of the Clinton and Dubya secret-handshakers who were ruling the roost before and during the crash — Geithner, Bernanke, and Larry Summers. Democratic critics of Wall Street ”greed” and ”corruption” like Robert Reich and Russ Feingold were unceremoniously kicked to the curb. And to frost the cake, when it came time for healthcare, “pro-business Democrats” like Ben Nelson, Blanche Lincoln, Max Baucus, and Joe Lieberman stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Tea Party to defeat the liberal dream of a public option, switching it out for the much-hated individual mandate.
Yet today, less than two years later, the Democrats go banging on about how they “stand up for the little guy”, how they’re for “Main Street, not Wall Street”, how only they can protect us from the “greedy”, “racist”, “incompetent” Republicans. Right.
But it’s Curtain Number Three that has the Big Deal of the Day. As much disagreement as there might be between Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich, between Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, at least they all agree that the 2008 crash was a one-time meltdown, a tragic accident built of mistaken, not deliberate screwups. Ask someone like Michael Moore, Barbara Ehrenreich, Noam Chomsky, Dennis Kucinich, or Bernie Sanders what it was all about, though, and they’ll tell you a different story. To them, the meltdown was a deliberately planned and executed ”theft” of home-equity wealth from middle-class and minority homeowners to the ruling class, to bring the “shock doctrine” to America and put people in their place.
In this reality, the sweated-through suit jackets and teary eyes of Tim Geithner and Ben Bernanke were all an act, a put-on as campy and cheesy as “I did not have sex with Miss Lewinsky” and “Bring it on!” They were actually lovin’ every minute of the meltdown, gleefully shoveling taxpayer money into Uncle Scrooge’s hoarding vault. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) writes the narrative. “It was all very carefully planned… to happen exactly when it did, and to involve the players that it did,” she schoolteacher-smirks in Capitalism: A Love Story. “It was like an intelligence operation.” When Michael Moore croons if the 2008 meltdown was an “economic coup d’etat”, as deliberate and on-purpose as anything Fidel Castro or Augusto Pinochet came up with, Congresswoman Kaptur replies, “Yes. That’s what it was!”
Perhaps the reason that so many commentators and elected leaders agree with Kaptur and Moore is how, after the bailouts and bonuses, instead of doing the “perp walk” to federal prison, many of the banking executives who survived the 2008 collapse are now enjoying record profits. One gets the feeling that after the adventures of OJ, Robert Blake, Klaus von Bulow, Kenny-boy Lay, and country-club sentences for Michael Milken and Bernie Madoff, they knew that whether it was “on purpose” or an accident was beside the point. One might say they were “too big to JAIL” — and they knew it. (Can you imagine what a Gordon Gekko or JR Ewing would be thinking to themselves at the sight of some Representative Pothole trying to compare intellects with them?) Tellingly, in this movie nobody plays Bush or Cheney (although Nancy Pelosi and a few other Congresspeople get the doppelganger treatment). It’s as if at this level, even the Presidency is almost irrelevant – and all of the financial players have unmitigated contempt for the House and Senate — or more specifically, what they think are the unsophisticated rubes who populate them.
They say that the three things nobody is supposed to see from the inside are autopsies, processed meat, and politics. What will keep September of 2008 living in infamy well after we’ve recovered from our current catastrophe is that it was when all the politics and platitudes died (temporarily), in the harsh sunshine of reality. It was when we got a look at what happens to the doggies and kitties in the animal labs, instead of the miracle drugs and cosmetics at the pharmacy. It was when we opened the wrong door at the hospital’s OB/GYN ward and saw an abortion, instead of the bunting babies in the nursery. Forget “too big to fail.” The real problem is that it was too big to ignore.
Maybe Gore Vidal was right about our being “The United States of Amnesia.” We want to forget, to put it out of our minds, and our politicians are more than happy to try and help us to. But we can’t – and we shouldn’t. So here’s to HBO for giving us all, of every party and persuasion, a plangent and much-needed (if liberty-taking) reminder of who, what, when, where, and why. Of the day when politics-as-usual finally ended — and realpolitik ruled the world.