The Mueller joke
I would like to say some things about the apparently imminent conclusion of Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation, but first let me tell you a joke.
One day Johnny asked his teacher, Mrs. Williamson, to be excused from class. When he got to the bathroom, he found scrawled above the urinal the words "Purple Panther." He did his business, washed his hands, walked back to the classroom, and sat down. Then he raised his hand. "Yes, Johnny?" "Mrs. Williamson, what does ‘Purple Panther' mean?" The teacher's face became suddenly hot with anger. "Young man, report to Principal Arnold's office immediately!" Johnny, very much confused, did as he was bid. "Yes, what is it?" Principal Arnold asked. "I just got sent here by Mrs. Williamson," Johnny said quietly. "But, Johnny, you are such a well-behaved boy. What could you possibly have done?" "All I did was ask her what ‘Purple Panther' means." The principal's expression changed almost instantaneously. "You are suspended, effective immediately." Poor Johnny walked to the lobby and used the payphone — they had them in those days — to call his mother. "Mom, I need you to pick me up from school. I got suspended." "Johnny!" his mother nearly shouted, "I simply cannot believe this. What in the world happened? You have never been in trouble before." Johnny hesitated. "Can we talk about it later, please? I just need you to pick me up." "Of course, darling," she said. Johnny walked out of the building. Twenty minutes later he saw his mother's van approaching. Out of nowhere, a bus crashed into the sidewalk, striking him.
He died instantly.
This is not the longest version of this joke. In some versions, our hero is kicked out of his house, sent on an airplane, tossed overboard by the crew, marooned on a desert island, exiled from nowhere by Robinson Crusoe, saved by pirates, made to walk the plank, rescued by the Coast Guard, dispatched to a secret military prison, launched into space, found by extraterrestrials, and obliterated with a laser blast. In others, the anagogic phrase is "Pink Panther." But this attempt at anti-humor explains better than anything else my feelings about the special counsel investigation.
Has there ever been a better shaggy-dog story than the one about the crooked lobbyist for the Ukrainian government who failed to fill out some forms and cheated on his taxes and then years later advised a TV star who went down an escalator before running for president against someone who refused to campaign in the states she needed to win both before and after her emails got hacked and some D-list political operatives sent some messages asking about the emails after they were in the news and then the guy won the election and an incoming member of his administration engaged in diplomacy? We haven't quite arrived at the punchline yet, but let me go ahead and spoil it for you: Ohio goes Republican again in 2020.
From the very beginning, the special counsel investigation has been a string of anecdotes, compound adjectives ("Russia-linked"), and vanquished dreams in search of a conspiracy. The only crimes of which Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Cohen, and the rest have been accused are ones that were alleged to have been committed either well before or long after the 2016 election; in many cases, indeed, they were said to have occurred during the course of the investigation itself — process crimes. None of the charges in question were about colluding with Russia. The only one that has even directly involved the presidential election was a violation of federal campaign finance law.
The findings of the special counsel, if they are ever in fact released to the public in full, are likely to be insignificant. The investigation itself, however, has been one of the most consequential events in recent American history. It has forced the Democratic Party to change its position on Russia from "The '80s called" to clamors for a new Cold War. It has led hard-news television reporters to make comments about anodyne diplomatic proceedings that would have done the John Birch Society proud during the height of McCarthyism. It has led otherwise sensible adults to attempt to make arguments about the supposedly sacrosanct nature of the American election system that they will, I hope, find embarrassing in just a few years. It has prevented the duly elected president of the United States from doing his job, poorly or otherwise.
And all for what? The single most damning thing that has come out of the investigation is that Donald Trump was for a time interested in erecting a building in Moscow. When asked about the timing later, someone was economical with the actualité. If you think that Trump went to all the trouble of winning his party's nomination and being elected president under the least likely circumstances in American history in the hope of maybe having another luxury hotel built somewhere, I have a movie you should watch. And if you think that even the mere possibility of a candidate having financial ties to rich people in other countries — including Russia — renders him or her unfit for office, I hope you wrote in your grandpa on election day.
If reports are to be believed, we are only a week or so away from the end of this nonsense. I just wish the comedians in the Justice Department had gone with a one-liner instead.