On Presidents’ Day this month we are reminded how lucky we were to have had George Washington as our first president. Every step he took set a precedent for future presidents to follow. Fortunately, he didn’t misstep very often. But it’s this issue of setting precedents that concerns me about George W. Bush. He appears to have repeated abuses of power by previous presidents and added many of his own – he set precedents – and he was never held accountable. What are we going to do when we get another Nixonian president who justifies illegal or wrongheaded actions by citing the precedents set by Mr. Bush?
Even before he became president, General Washington established America’s reputation for fair treatment of wartime prisoners. The general saved our faltering revolution against Great Britain by defeating the Hessians at the Battle of Trenton. The Hessians were German mercenaries hired by the British. Mercenaries were/are universally despised because they kill for pay rather than patriotism. The captured Hessians were terrified of what would happen to them in the hands of Washington’s army, but they were surprised to be treated humanely.
Mr. Bush has damaged our reputation by his endorsement of torture, such as water boarding; his rejection of the rules of the Geneva Convention; his use of dark sites, the secret CIA prisons in Eastern Europe; and his use of extreme rendition, the removal of prisoners from the USA to countries known for their use of torture. President Barack Obama has issued executive orders to prevent this recurring on his watch, but that may not be sufficient in the long run. Our allies expect that justice be done for any war crimes committed.
This country was also fortunate to have been led by Abraham Lincoln during its first great cataclysm, the Civil War – officially known as the War of the Rebellion. I still recall what the honors’ algebra teacher (and wife of the principal) said to her and my students. It occurred at the first school where I ever taught, and it was in eastern Arkansas on the Mississippi River. She told them, “Don’t let that man [yours truly] tell you that Abraham Lincoln was a great president; this country has only had one president – Jefferson Davis.” Unlike that Confederate teacher, Lincoln never recognized the South’s right to secede.
It is ironic that Mr. Bush would have used Lincoln as a precedent for one of his most egregious acts. Mr. Lincoln suspended the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, which is the civil right to obtain a writ ordering a prisoner to be brought before a judge as protection against illegal imprisonment. The Constitution prevents that suspension except “when cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” Since the South was in a state of rebellion against the Union, Lincoln was legally justified in his action. Mr. Bush relied on the concept of “invasion” when he suspended the right of habeas corpus to anyone he perceived to be an enemy combatant. The horrible attack on the Twin Towers was not an invasion by a foreign power, although most of the villains were from Saudi Arabia. It was orchestrated as a criminal conspiracy by Osama bin Laden, who operated out of his haven in Afghanistan.
Mr. Bush’s detention of prisoners without charges or trials at our base in Guantanamo, Cuba, has been an international embarrassment for America and Americans. It has served as a recruiting tool for al Qaida. Mr. Obama’s executive order to close the prison facility there within a year is a step in the right direction.
Mr. Bush really seemed to be trying to outdo Richard Nixon. One of Nixon’s greatest abuses of power was his intent to use the federal agencies of our government “to screw [his] political enemies.” That was the plan of the infamous “Enemies List,” as explained by John Dean, Nixon’s White House counsel. Also, the burglary of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate complex was approved by then-Attorney General of the United States John Mitchell. Mitchell was also the chairman of Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President (CREEP).
Mr. Bush, too, has been accused of politicizing the Justice Department to further the agenda of the Republican Party, particularly through his loyal lackey Att. Gen. Alberto Gonzales. Not only was party affiliation dominant in hiring practices at Justice, but eight federal attorneys apparently were fired because they would not help Republican politicians by prosecuting – or persecuting – their Democratic election opponents. Hopefully, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder will be able to restore the department to its proper purpose.
Also, Nixon authorized the wiretapping and bugging of civil rights activists and anti-Vietnam War protesters without the mandatory, constitutional warrants from the courts. After Nixon resigned from office in disgrace, Congress passed the FISA law. A special court of judges was created to authorize emergency surveillance warrants. Mr. Bush chose to ignore this basic and simple routine. These judges virtually never turned down a request, so why did Mr. Bush violate the law?
Mr. Bush also seemed to want to outdo Ronald Reagan. President Reagan was obsessed with proving that “government was the problem and not the solution.” He appointed people to run executive agencies who didn’t believe in those agencies and who had previously worked for those they were supposed to be regulating. Many of them also turned out to be a bunch of crooks, resulting in 17 of the Reagan administration’s record 31 criminal convictions.
Sadly, Mr. Bush seemed to have learned only one lesson from Reagan’s multiple mistakes. He appointed the same types, reportedly with the same instructions to undermine their agencies ability to function, to re-write rules and regulations. However, they were to do this any way possible, short of breaking the law. Apparently, it was presumed they would be repaid handsomely after they left the government. We don’t know for sure because for six years the Republican majority in Congress shirked its oversight responsibilities. The Treasury Department, FEMA, the Interior Department, and the EPA are examples of the wreckage done to our government agencies. Mr. Obama has a lot of rebuilding to do.
Mr. Bush’s “ghost” and legacy will haunt us for years to come. It’s important that Pres. Obama not make the same mistake as Gerald Ford. When Ford became president after Nixon resigned, he didn’t want to devote the rest of his presidency dealing with Nixon’s criminal activities. Hence, he chose to pardon Nixon for any crimes he may have committed. Thirty people in Nixon’s administration were convicted of criminal acts, but Nixon himself escaped legal judgment. The obvious lack of justice in this decision was not lost on the general public, and it helped cost Ford his own direct election in 1976. Mr. Obama should “let right be done.”
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published February 28, 2009,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.