Chernobyl By The Potomac

by Wendell Barnhouse

Less than a minute into the first episode of the HBO mini-series “Chernobyl,” these chilling words were uttered by the actor Jared Harris, playing Valery Legasov:

“What is the cost of lying? … The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and content ourselves instead with stories.”

Legasov was a leading nuclear scientist who helped build the Soviet Union’s power-generating nuclear reactors. He also knew of the dangers and shoddy designs, the lack of oversight and inadequate preparation for emergencies.

When the Chernobyl disaster occurred in April of 1986, Soviet officials were more concerned about saving face than saving lives. The seriousness of the situation was glossed over with “nothing to see here, citizens, move along.” The State ignored the potential for a core melt down that would have become a Hiroshima/Nagasaki conflagration.

Legasov turned whistle-blower and recorded his version of the events. The cassette tapes were sent to the BBC and thus the Soviet Union’s initial mitigation of the disaster’s consequences were exposed. Miraculously and thankfully, the death toll was “only” in the thousands, not tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions.

HBO’s presentation is, of course, a mini-series “based on actual events.” There are actors, a script, drama and conversations that “represent” what was actually said but are not verbatim. Still, were this a book, it would be non-fiction.

In last Monday night’s premiere, as the Soviet officials lied (even to themselves), the genesis of Legasov’s opening words became obvious. And ominous. What happened over 30 years ago to our top foreign adversary is what is currently happening in the United States.

Your Humble Scribe admits that he spends way too much time with the laptop on his lap and the Twitter function open. That means that YHS observes the daily blathering that goes on regarding our Tweet King. The “president,” the dishonorable Donald J. Trump, can claim in less than 240 characters that his first two years have been the most successful in presidential history while also bitching that the Mueller investigation has “stollen” two years from his four-year term.

With over 10,000 false statements – OK, lies – since his inauguration, Trump has sullied and stained this nation’s highest office. That should be expected from a con man who has cheated, bullied and concealed his entire adult life.

We should all expect politicians to not tell the truth. That’s what being a politician means. What we should demand is that politicians not lie.

There is a massive difference.

There can be debate and difference of opinions on policy. There should be no debate or difference of opinions on facts.

The Mueller Report was clear regarding Russian interference with and influence on the 2016 presidential election. William Barr, the Attorney General (lawyer for America, supposedly), lied and disputed that finding. Lying to Congress – to the elected representatives of the citizens – is no big deal with no consequences.

In the summer of 2016, the FBI and other intelligence agencies became aware of Russian meddling. President Obama met with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and sought a bi-partisan announcement about the threat. McConnell refused. Without McConnell’s support, Obama decided it would appear politically motivated if he made the announcement alone.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, McConnell blamed Obama. “Maybe stronger leadership would have left the Kremlin less emboldened. Maybe tampering with our democracy wouldn’t have seemed so very tempting.”

While Robert Mueller followed “the rule of law” in declining to indict a sitting president (despite enough evidence to charge with obstruction), the Trump/GOP strategy is now to claim the entire investigation was a Deep State conspiracy. They claim that the FBI investigating Russian influence was actually “spying” on the Trump campaign.

“Well that’s not the term I would use,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said this week. “Lots of people have different colloquial phrases. I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity and part of investigative activity includes surveillance.”

Lying now includes word-parsing. “Surveillance” to uncover criminal behavior is now “spying.” And never mind that to surveil an alleged guilty party also means surveilling the alleged innocent party.

Mueller following the “rule of law” appears quaint and naïve. Now that he has been “totally absolved,” every day the Tweet King edges closer and closer to dictatorship.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin broke the law regarding Trump’s tax returns. Barr lied to Congress. Trump is blocking lawful subpoenas to prevent key witnesses from testifying to House committees.

Short of Mueller dropping a bomb when/if he testifies or the House starting impeachment proceedings, there will be no stopping the stonewalling, the tap dancing and the lying.

Eric Levitz summed things up in a New York Magazine article last month. Here is a key section of that story:

“If there is no bipartisan consensus against allowing Republican presidents to flout the law, then what good is bipartisan consensus? Why should Democrats be compelled to forever and always give the GOP input on making laws when the two parties do not even share a commitment to the rule of law? … Congressional Democrats’ fatalism about impeachment — and their reverence for institutional norms and the ideal of bipartisanship — are irreconcilable.”

Is it worse to lie to the American people? Or lie to themselves?

Chernobyl helped lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union. Mr. Gorbachev tore down that wall. The Red Threat went away. No more domino theories about communism, no more bomb shelters or hiding under desks.

Nature, though, abhors a vacuum. As do former super power countries. The Communist Party was replaced by the Mob. The Godfather (Vladimi Putin) has declared a cyber war that we’re basically ignoring because no blood has been spilled. Putin’s puppet is the Tweet King, who laughs at the rule of law, wipes his ass with the Constitution and thrills his rallies with tales of infanticide and the sun rising in the West.

In the first episode of Chernobyl, Harris as Legasov closes his whistle blowing tape with the cynicism born of decades of watching his superiors lie in the face of obvious truth.

“They’ll deny it of course. They always do.”

Editor’s Note: As always, I’m truly grateful to Wendell for volunteering his talents and time. Also, a good book regarding his “nature abhors a vacuum” line and Russia’s false glasnost is Once Upon A Time In Russia by Ben Mezrich. Finally, we also watched the Chernobyl episode recap and while we concur that it was a good idea to lead with Legasov’s death, the Mad Men fan in us was jarred by the sight of Jared Harris hanging himself yet again.

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