|May 2, 2006|
A Severe Insult to the Brain -- and the Body Politic
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
A few blocks from my Greenwich Village apartment is one of New York's legendary saloons, the White Horse Tavern. The decent cheeseburger they concoct and their participation in the Toys for Tots campaign at Christmastime cannot conceal the fact that since 1880, the White Horse has been the ruin of many a poor boy.
Perhaps its most notorious visitor was the grander-than-life Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. It was at the White Horse, on the night of November 4, 1953, that Thomas broke his own record and imbibed 18 whiskies straight. He collapsed outside and was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital, where he succumbed, not lyrically raging against the dying of the light, but comatose. The coroner's report listed the cause of death as a "severe insult to the brain."
'Tis a short, metaphoric pub-crawl from the White Horse to the White House; the mere flip of a consonant and vowel. There, a severe insult is being inflicted not only on America's brain but the entire body politic.
This isn't written lightly; as we allow ourselves to be distracted by such ephemera as Anna Nicole Smith's assets, Keith Richards' equilibrium or whether the national anthem can be sung in Spanish or double Dutch, our democracy is slowly undermined and usurped by a quiet, executive coup d'etat. And because Congress and even the courts seem unwilling to properly exercise the oversight function so essential to our system of checks and balances, the powers that be are getting away with it.
Articles over the weekend in the Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune make a valiant attempt to alert us to the peril. The current power of the pencil press is woefully diminished, but these papers' reporting is testament to what journalism's purpose as the fourth estate is supposed to be: functioning as an unofficial branch of government to keep it honest.
In the Globe article, headlined, "Bush Challenges Hundreds of Laws," Charlie Savage reports, "President Bush has quietly claimed the authority to disobey more than 750 laws enacted since he took office, asserting that he has the power to set aside any statute passed by Congress when it conflicts with his interpretation of the Constitution...
"Legal scholars say the scope and aggression of Bush's assertions that he can bypass laws represent a concerted effort to expand his power at the expense of Congress, upsetting the balance between the branches of government. The Constitution is clear in assigning to Congress the power to write the laws and to the president a duty 'to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.' Bush, however, has repeatedly declared that he does not need to 'execute' a law he believes is unconstitutional."
Now you know why this president has never vetoed a piece of legislation (although he has threatened to do so 135 times). In public, he signs every bill. "Then," according to the Globe, "after the media and the lawmakers have left the White House, Bush quietly files 'signing statements' -- official documents in which a president lays out his legal interpretation of a bill for the federal bureaucracy to follow when implementing the new law...? He has appended such statements to more than one of every 10 bills he has signed.
"'He agrees to a compromise with members of Congress, and all of them are there for a public bill-signing ceremony, but then he takes back those compromises -- and more often than not, without the Congress or the press or the public knowing what has happened,' said Christopher Kelley, a Miami University of Ohio political science professor who studies executive power."
Thus, Congress never gets the opportunity to override a veto and the executive does what it wants -- paying no heed to any laws it chooses -- whether they be military regulations or rules protecting whistleblowers, federally funded research, our civil rights and liberties.
Much of this is done in secret, like the National Security Agency domestic surveillance program or the detention of foreign combatants. Writing in Sunday's Chicago Tribune, Mark Silva noted that, using 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror as its rationale, "The administration has precluded the public -- and often members of Congress -- from knowing about some of the most significant decisions and acts of the White House...
"A tension has always existed between the presidency and the public, with concerns about security and confidentiality competing with the public's right to know about its government. But the balance seems to be tipping toward secrecy in a more pronounced way than at any time in the past three decades."
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, told Silva, "The government is undergoing a mutation in which we are gradually shifting into another kind of government in which executive authority is supreme and significantly unchecked." And in Monday's Tribune, former Florida Senator Bob Graham, who chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee, adds, "The theme of insularity and secrecy is pervasive. They are adopting a position that the American people cannot be trusted with information that is critical to their well-being."
Who's really behind all this? Silva's reporting hints at a familiar suspect: "As the Bush administration has dramatically accelerated the classification of information as 'top secret' or 'confidential,' one office is refusing to report on its annual activity in classifying documents: the office of Vice President Dick Cheney." Cheney, it seems, believes his office is exempt from such a requirement.
Much as the true roots of the Iraqi war can be traced to events and beliefs held long before 9/11, you can trace this obsession with secrecy and absolute power back to the post-Watergate days. Dick Cheney was President Gerald Ford's deputy chief of staff. He and the chief of staff -- Donald Rumsfeld -- with the assistance of a Justice Department lawyer named Antonin Scalia, persuaded Ford to veto amendments meant to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act. Congress overrode the veto; apparently, Cheney made note of that bit of unseemly defiance for future reference.
In George W. Bush, he appears to have found a willing -- and some would say, empty -- vessel, one whose incumbency seems to follow lockstep the advice not only of the vice president, but the late, liquid Dylan Thomas himself:
Never be lucid, never state,
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
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