Early Signs of the Unprecedented in the 1990s
Although it was during the presidency of George W. Bush that the intensity of the darkness became strikingly visible, there were signs even before that of what was brewing. Never before* has a political party ever so persistently sought, as the Republicans in Congress did when Bill Clinton was president, to find a way – any way – to drive a president from office.
If we look at the way the Whitewater investigation persisted for years and eventually morphed into Monicagate, and an attempt to remove the president from office over his sexual conduct, the largest scandal is not the one about the defects of a president than about the refusal of the opposition party — the Republicans– to accept having the power of the presidency wielded by someone from the other major party.
If we put that together with the Republicans’ treatment of Barack Obama a decade later, we are led to note that this Republican Party has not accepted the legitimacy of an opponent being president, as American political parties have always done before, since Jimmy Carter became president nearly 40 years ago.
Thus, already in the 1990s the Republicans had launched an assault, of a nature unprecedented* in American history, on the very foundations of our democratic system of government. A premise of our system is that all contestants for power will accept the outcome of proper elections, will accept that “you win some and you lose some,” accept that whoever the people choose should be allowed to fulfill the job the people gave them.
Without those principles, politics becomes not about the people’s choice, not about working toward a greater good, not about upholding the system our founders gave us, but rather about warfare and the ceaseless struggle for power regardless of the damage to the nation.
The Presidency of George W. Bush:
The presidency of Bush II was unprecedentedly lawless. I would wager that if a list were compiled of all the quite arguably impeachable offenses committed by American presidents, more than half of them would have occurred between 2001-09. In my interview of the extremely conservative jurist Bruce Fein, who served in the Reagan Justice Department, Mr. Fein said:
“Everything in life is a matter of degree, and while FDR, Nixon, McCarthyism, and Clinton were occasionally lawless, Bush is systematically so. Thus he is the greater danger. The rule of law can survive a beating once every five or ten years; it cannot survive beatings every five or ten minutes.”
In its last years, that Bush presidency showed itself to be essentially a “criminal enterprise.” If one had wanted to design a presidency to do as much damage as possible to the fundamental American value “the rule of law” – that bastion of wholeness — one would have had difficulty designing a more effective presidency for the purpose than GW Bush’s.
Consider but two quite telling examples of unprecedented conduct by this Republican Party.
The commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence after his conviction for a crime related to the outing of a CIA agent, and before he’d served a day in prison, is not completely unprecedented: Bush’s father also gave pardons to his cronies who’d been convicted of crimes related to the Iran-Contra scandal.
But the Libby pardon nonetheless stands out in certain important way. The pardon was a compounding of a whole series of misdeeds. It should be recalled that the outing of the CIA agent, Valerie Plame, Was done in the context of an attempt to discredit and punish a responsible American diplomat (Plame’s husband) for telling the American people an important truth that exposed an important lie told by the president (the infamous 16-word falsehood in the State of the Union message). And that lie, in turn, was part of the larger campaign by the administration’s to deceive and manipulate the American people and their Congress into supporting a war of choice undertaken for reasons other than those we were told.
To pardon Libby – the only administration official convicted of any crime in an administration that committed enough crimes and misdemeanors to fill a book (like United States v. George W. Bush et al., by former federal prosecutor Elizabeth de la Vega), after a trial in which the prosecutor was one of the most outstanding Republican U.S. Attorneys in the land – was as clear a statement of the administration’s placing itself above the law as one might devise.
But perhaps the Bushites’ most blatant and dangerous demonstration of contempt for the rule of law, and completely unprecedented in American history, is the matter of the torture memos. The scandal of these memos perhaps should be presented in an entry of its own. Suffice it here to sketch the terrible structure of this travesty.
The memos were a vital step to provide universal immunity for the executive’s commission of crimes. The memos gave the administration the opinion it sought to let the administration do what it wanted to do about torture, without fear of legal repercussions, despite actions in clear violation of federal law and international treaty obligations. Here’s the logic: those who issued the opinion could not be prosecuted because they’d only given an opinion, not committed a crime; and those who perpetrated the criminal actions were to be protected from prosecution because they relied on the opinions telling them their actions were permitted.
The bottom line is this: by the means used in the logic these torture memos, any president could go through this process and thereby be enabled do ANYTHING and escape any legal consequences.
The precedent of the unprecedented torture memos still stands, essentially a continuing threat to demolish altogether the basic American notions of “the rule of law,” that we are “a nation of laws, not of men.”
The list of the unprecedented under GW Bush’s presidency could certainly be expanded – the first presidency to sanction torture at the highest levels, the first presidency to make us hated and feared more than loved and respected by our traditional friends around the world, etc. – but these should suffice for the moment.
They should suffice, that is, to show the nature of the spirit that was expressing itself through the Bush presidency. Much happened during those years that was unprecedented, and virtually without exception these unprecedented presidential behaviors did damage to important aspects of what has been best – most whole – about America.
[to be continued in Part II, regarding the Republican Party’s conduct during the presidency of Barack Obama]
* NOTE: With respect to the “Never” statements, the asterisk means “to the best of my knowledge.” It is hard to preclude the possibility that one is ignorant of some prior instance.