There’s trouble ahead, trouble behind

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

To recapitulate: State Rep. Larry Liston gets caught sending a foolishly inflammatory e-mail, and then his Democratic counterpart Mike Merrifield gets tripped up by one as well.
And before them there was Rep. Jim Welker, who made a habit of forwarding right-wing, faintly racist screeds to fellow legislators, lobbyists and members of the public.
And let’s not forget U.S. Rep. Mark Foley, who made a habit of hitting on teenage pages via salacious e-mails.
In each case, the legislators were disgraced, humiliated and rendered politically impotent. It’s easy to go all shoulda/coulda on them — as in, they should have been more discreet, they could have been more careful.
Maybe so, but we treat e-mail differently from other means of communication. We use it as a form of written speech — informal, impermanent, convenient and immediate. We use it to inform, to schedule, to collaborate, to gossip, to complain and to have fun.
It’s the electronic water cooler/conference room/break room. We feel safe and comfortable e-mailing our friends, allies and colleagues. We flirt, we forward silly/sexy stuff, we make/break dates, we hook up, we break up.
And even though we know that every e-mail we send, every e-mail we receive and every attachment we open never goes away, we don’t really believe it.
But e-mails never die.
They never go away.
They may pop up tomorrow, next week, next year or decades from now.
As the song goes: “Trouble with you is the trouble with me, Got two good eyes but we still don’t see …”
What would you do, for example, if you were an elected official? E-mail’s an incredibly flexible, useful tool for communicating with the public, with your peers, with the press, with just about anyone. But if by using it you’re creating a permanent record that, under CORA, (the Colorado Open Records Act), can be accessed by your bitterest enemies, what then?
I know what I’d do. I’d simply stop using e-mail, however inconvenient it might be. I’d act as if I were an organized crime kingpin, determined not to leave a trace. I’d rely on phone conversations … but wait a minute!
Cell phone records, land line records — it doesn’t matter. Your enemies can find them — just as they can find your tax returns, your credit file, your divorce settlement, your legal history and your bank records. They’re right there with your e-mails — sitting on servers, waiting patiently to be opened by unfriendly eyes.
And let’s not forget all those Webcams, bankcams, securitycams and cameraphones that are, without our knowledge or consent, documenting our daily lives.
Ours is an age where every action is public, where there are no secrets, where anyone can find out anything about anybody.
During such a time, it’s no wonder that our political leaders are in such disarray.
Look at Liston, at Merrifield, at Foley, at Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, at President George W. Bush. They’re all guys who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, during a time when secrets remained secret.
You were discreet, you kept your mouth shut, you relied upon the discretion of your associates, and, if necessary, you burned incriminating documents
And once burned, they were gone forever.
The poor old geezers — they actually think they can have, like, secrets!
In our unbuttoned age it all falls apart. Like the shipworms that used to eat through wooden vessels, modern means of acquiring, storing and transmitting information tend to undermine and destroy traditional governing.
When the president asserts “executive privilege,” he’s absolutely right. He has a right to frank, unvarnished and confidential conversations with his aides — and they should be able to advise him without fear of inappropriate disclosure.
But assert it as he may, it won’t work. Just as teredos can, in time, eat through the most massive oak timbers, so too does the steady accretion of electronic communication records eventually create a separate reality.
The very existence of such archives is an invitation to disclosure.
And once your foes figure out how to trigger disclosure, they’ll do it.
Take the little dust-up over Merrifield’s e-mail. It was a nice little piece of political skullduggery, executed by one of party leader Dick Wadhams’ 20-something attack dogs.
Wadhams figured out that because legislators’ private e-mail messages often pass through their legislative e-mail accounts, a lot of them would be available for scrutiny under the Colorado Open Records Act. So he sent his pit bull on a fishing expedition — and caught a big Democratic sucker!
But both parties can play that game, and Democratic operatives have already started their own fishing expeditions.
So we can look forward to months of breathless revelations, as one geezer legislator after another is trapped, embarrassed and disempowered.
Eventually, we’ll get used to this new world. Not by electing legislators as pure of heart as Mother Teresa (there are no such politicians!), nor by devising better ways to hide our tracks.
Just spend some time cruising through YouTube, or Myspace or Facebook.
The (mostly) young people who inhabit these sites are perfectly willing to share their lives, warts and all, with the world. It’s a post-porn-star sensibility that attaches little importance to revelations of any kind — political, emotional, sexual.
In such a universe, Merrifield’s rant about the “voucherizers, charterizers and privatizers” would be proudly featured on his blog, not hidden in his private e-mail account.
Gonzales would gloat about getting rid of a bunch of U.S. attorneys, not piously deny everything.
And the president? He’d forge ahead, do whatever he pleased, and ignore his critics … hey, wait a minute!
Maybe the president is, despite reaching 60, our first truly postmodern politician.
Whatever, dude …
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.