In spite of the need for his impeachment or resignation, the reign of King George W continued until January 20, 2009. The more we learned during the investigations into Watergate and Iran-Contra, the more we realized that the constitutional violations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan had been worse than we imagined. Once again, Bush-Cheney’s abuses of power shook the American people’s confidence in our system of government. The Democratic Majority probably feared that formal impeachment hearings would shatter what little faith remains.
Nixon, Reagan, and Bush-Cheney came into office with personal agendas of expanding the President’s power beyond the Constitution’s limits – of creating an “imperial presidency.” The neo-conservatives have tried to disguise this ambition by using the term “unitary chief executive.” Bush-Cheney shared with those two other presidents a complete contempt for Congress and the media and a belief that a Republican president should be able to do as he pleases. The standard explanation for their attitude was given by Nixon several years after he resigned: “If the President approves something, that means it’s not illegal.” King Louis XIV of France, an earlier believer in the similar “Divine Right of Kings,” said it better: “I am the state.”
In the Senate Watergate hearings John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel, revealed things most citizens didn’t want to know about their president. We learned of abhorrent practices that surprised even us “Nixon Watchers.” Nixon was told the Watergate burglars wanted “hush money” to buy their silence. He had to cover-up the White House’s involvement in the break-in to prevent all its other illegal covert operations from becoming public. Nixon said that if it took a million dollars, he knew where he could get the money. The only evidence we had for a while was Dean’s word. Then we learned of Nixon’s secret Oval Office recording system.
The 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” was the tip-off that Nixon was trying to hide his own guilt. He ordered the firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was demanding specific tape recordings. (Cox knew which tapes he needed because of John Dean’s testimony.) Att. Gen. Elliot Richardson and Deputy Att. Gen. William Ruckelshaus refused to fire Cox and resigned in protest. Solicitor General Robert Bork agreed to be the one to fire Cox. (In 1987 Pres. Reagan rewarded Bork by nominating him to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Democratic Senate wisely rejected him.)
Did W. Bush also buy the silence of “Scooter” Libby? Cheney’s former chief of staff was convicted of 4 of 5 charges of obstruction of justice and perjury in the Valerie Plame CIA case. To defend himself, Libby had wanted Cheney to testify under oath! Cheney wasn’t about to do that. Libby then put up little or no defense and was easily convicted with no chance of winning on appeal. He was sentenced to a total of 75 months in jail to be served concurrently at only 30 months – the longest of the 4 sentences – plus a fine of $250,000. Libby never showed remorse for any of his crimes. Nevertheless, President Bush said that 30 months was excessive and quickly commuted all 4 jail sentences to zero!
The White House also sneaked a provision into the renewed PATRIOT Act that allowed the President to appoint federal prosecutors without their being confirmed by the Senate. Eight federal prosecutors, who were not considered “loyal Bushies,” were unexpectedly fired. These eight apparently wouldn’t use their offices to promote the elections of Republicans. They refused to file charges against Democrats when there was insufficient evidence for conviction. Att. Gen. Alberto Gonzales’s alleged politicizing of the Justice Department left that institution in shambles and resulted in numerous resignations.
Monica Goodling (the Justice Dept.’s former liaison to the White House) has already testified before Congress about her involvement in the firings and how Republican politics influenced her actions. Sara Taylor (Bush’s former political director) has also testified, but Mr. Bush incredibly ordered her to claim “executive privilege” and not answer questions. He will only allow Harriet Miers (his former counsel), and Karl Rove (“Bush’s Brain”) testify if it is done behind closed doors with no transcripts and under no oath.
The resulting defections in the Justice Department and the White House remind me of “Youth,” the inspired novelette by Joseph Conrad. Conrad wrote of a hard-luck sailing ship that continuously had structural failures. It had to routinely return to port for repairs only shortly after setting sail. The vessel was finally declared ship-shape, and everyone had complete confidence it was ready for its extended voyage. At that point, however, “Rat after rat appeared on our rail, took a last look over his shoulder, and leaped…”
Sadly, the lesson Nixon said he learned from Watergate was that he should have destroyed the tapes! The Reagan-Bush Administration learned the lesson well. Sec. of State Schultz had warned them that the Iran-Contra activities were clearly impeachable and could never be made public. As soon as the media and Congress began to learn what had been going on, Lt. Col. Oliver North and National Security Advisor Adm. John Poindexter spent days and nights shredding the evidence. This gave the President and Vice President “plausible deniability.” Reagan said he hadn’t understood the details of what he had approved; Vice President George H. W. Bush claimed to have been “out of the loop.” Even so, there were 14 convictions for Iran-Contra crimes, but the first President Bush promptly issued 7 pardons when he took office in 1989!
During the Iran-Contra hearings, the Congress was stunned to find that it was worse than Watergate! They discovered a “unitary chief executive” who had consciously violated laws, international agreements, and the Constitution. Reagan had authorized (1) selling arms to Iran, which was identified as a terrorist nation; (2) negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages; (3) creating a private corporation, the Enterprise, to fund rebel terrorists in Nicaragua; and (4) using the CIA to blockade a Nicaraguan port, which was an act of war! However, Sen. Daniel Inouye, Democratic chairman of the Iran-Contra hearings, pointed out that Reagan had less than two years to serve. If the “villains” around him could be removed, Reagan could be permitted to finish his term without his committing further damage.
A similar method should have been used to get us through 18 more months of the renegade co-presidency of Bush-Cheney. Appropriately, Sen. Russ Feingold (Dem. WI) suggested an official censure of both Bush and Cheney. Combined with the Democrat’s restoration of the oversight committees, a censure would given notice to future presidents that they cannot abuse their office and get completely away with it. Unfortunately this was not done.
Americans must be confident that further attempts to establish a Nixonian “unitary chief executive” will not be permitted. Our system of checks and balances must be restored.
by David Offutt
This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was published August 3, 2007, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.