Censuring the President

One of the things I try to do in these little essays is stay focused. I usually have one point to make, and try to make it without getting distracted. There are two reasons for this:

1) My discipline problem: I can easily spin off into multiple discursions given the slightest provocation. Trying not to gives me a complete workout.

2) Your discipline problem: Readers of "perspective" pieces often have doors in their brains that look like those steel barriers that slam down in the event of a nuclear attack. They work something like this:

Essay: You have to admire Bush for kicking his alcohol addiction.

Reader: But Bush is a monster who got us into a war with Iraq.

Note that the response has no relationship whatsoever to the premise. Here's another example:

Person 1: The easy availability of guns increases the rate of armed violence.

Person 2: I have the right to defend my own home.

Again…one has nothing to do with the other. (You may think they do; but they don't.) It's just doors slamming down.

I say this because I have a single point to make on the topic of whether President Bush ought to be censured. It has nothing at all to do with whether you like this president or not, or agree with his policies or not.

So if your mind is already made up and the steel doors are hurtling earthward, stop right here and make better use of your time elsewhere.

In 1938, Britain let Hitler's annexation of the Sudetenland go unchallenged in a policy known as "appeasement." That policy shares the blame for unleashing an unprecedented horror upon the world, and since that time, "appeasement" has become a dirty word, like "compromise."

It's now a universal given that appeasement is bad. The world feels it is a lesson well learned, and a policy not to be repeated.

Except…I'm not so certain that the lesson we took away is the most important one to be learned.

The big lesson is not about the danger of backing off in the face of aggression.

The lesson has to do with the nature of power.

We tend to look at history as a series of great, largely inevitable events that, like tsunamis, sweep the world along with them and reshape us in the process.

I tend to look at great events in history as having been precipitated by a handful of megalomaniacs with a dependency problem, otherwise known as an addiction.

Addiction is a terrible thing. Gambling, heroin, alcohol, cocaine …the more you indulge, the worse the hunger gets. It blocks everything else out, and becomes its own reason for existence. Mothers will sell their own kids for just one more hit of crack.

But what's the worst addiction of all, the one that can't be kicked, the one that's so bad that the addict won't even acknowledge it?


There's no force like it in all of human experience. Not hunger, not sex…nothing. It's behind everything significant that's ever happened in business, in politics, even religion.

Nobody with power ever gives it up unless they're dying.

And no matter how much they have, it's never enough.

Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Julius Caesar…these were men who changed the course of human history as a direct result of their addiction to power.

You can talk about the tide of events, altruism, civic mindedness, public spiritedness…

Forget them all. They're smokescreens.

Power is why people who lead causes never give up even after they've won. Power is why the Roman Catholic Church won't give up child-raping priests. Power is why Islamic imams are so insistent on imposing sharia (Islamic law). Power explains Al Sharpton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pope Ratzenberger, Nelson Mandela, presidents, priests, NOW, Cabinet secretaries, the families of 9/11 victims, Saddam Hussein, Exxon-Mobil, all of Washington, Donald Trump, Aaron Spelling, Bill Gates, the president of your homeowners association, DMV clerks, policemen, surgeons, cult religions and Studio 54.

Bear all of that in mind while I talk about the ACLU.

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the most misunderstood institutions in America. This is largely because, while they're good at a lot of things, they're terrible at explaining themselves.

It's also because, like PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), they shoot themselves in the foot a lot, thereby undermining a basically admirable objective. They do this because of their failure to realize that their effectiveness depends largely on how they're perceived by the general public. When they ignore that and sacrifice clarity for self-righteous bluster, they hurt their own cause.

(Not to confuse things here, but one of the reasons they do this is because, like most other ardent causists, they have their own power issues. You can spot those when people are more interested in demonstrating that they're smart or committed or righteous than in actually getting things done.)

The ACLU's cause is a good one: the protection of those rights that distinguish American democracy from every other form of government in history.

These are the rights for which millions of Americans fought in wars and courts and streets.

Often, those people who did most of the fighting don't like to see those rights exercised. This is where the ACLU often gets itself into trouble. But, I digress.

The point is this: The ACLU believes that, if erosion of those rights is allowed to proceed unchecked, they will proceed unchecked.

They know that people can get used to anything. If civil rights are compromised (and I mean "compromised" in a bad way), and if that compromise goes unchallenged, people will get used to it and not think it important, and then there will be further compromises. And so on.

So what the ACLU does is jump with both feet onto anything that looks like someone is trying to chip away at the rights that form the core of what America is all about.

Sometimes they look a little silly when they do that. But I, for one, am glad that they do, because they're about the only organization willing to get involved in matters that don't personally affect their own members.

Now let's talk about the American Revolution of 1776. (Stick with me. This will all add up soon.)

The Founding Fathers were fighting for and against a lot of things, but mostly they were fighting against tyranny. Not some amorphous, nation-big kind of sweep-of-history, nobody-saw-it-coming tyranny, but against one guy: King George III. If King George III had been a different kind of guy, there might not be an America today. For one thing, King George III was nuts, literally, although there is controversy about exactly when and how severely.

But, nuts or not, King George III had absolute power. What he said, went, and there was little anybody could do about it, except go to war against him, which we did.

And, having won, the Founding Fathers had one overriding thought when crafting the new nation: No more tyrants.

Just about everything they did in creating the Constitution revolved around that one principle, that no single person gets to call the shots anymore.

They built in checks and balances, due process, frequent elections, limitations on power…

…and, just in case they forgot something, a whole raft of individual rights, too. Like the right to peaceably assemble, to petition the government for grievances, to bear arms, and to stand on top of milk crates and tell anybody, including the president, to go stick it in his ear, without fear of retribution.

Alrighty then. So how does all of this stuff come together on the topic of whether to censure President Bush?

Like this: We have a library of laws codifying those rights. We have people whose business it is to enforce those laws. And we have people who make it their business to see to it that everybody is doing their job and not fiddling with the system by letting stuff fall through the cracks.

Laws are what protect us from tyrants. Laws are what tyrants try to circumvent on their way to becoming tyrants. If a budding tyrant breaks a law and gets away with it, he will break another one. And other people will break the same ones he did, because once the precedent is established, it's very hard to reverse.

Which brings us to President Bush. Try to read the following paragraph without letting the doors slam shut:

Many people believe that the president marched us into one of the most ill-conceived wars in our history when he invaded Iraq. They believe that this war is a disaster of monumental proportions that increased the power of our enemies while bringing about a dangerous erosion of our stature around the world. Worse still, they believe the president used false information to mislead Congress into approving the war.

However — and this is a big however — even if you believe all of that, it is not justification for censuring the president.

His judgment may have been catastrophically flawed, but it was just that: judgment. He made a call, however wrong you might think it was.

What he didn't do was break any laws.

(Obviously, I'm assuming that the president actually believed everything he told us when he was making his case for going to war. While that to me is actually more frightening than if he'd lied, at least he didn't lie.)

Having said that, though, there is another issue on the table, and that is the president's handling of domestic wiretaps.

The law on using a domestic tap is quite specific: It has to be approved by the FISA court which was set up for just that purpose.

The rules here are unambiguous. There is no wiggle room.

President Bush has been authorizing domestic surveillance without seeking approval from the FISA court. He says the Constitution gives him the right to do that.

He's wrong. It doesn't. By his interpretation, the Constitution gives him the same rights as King George III had, so long as there is a declared war under way. He could even nuke Milwaukee.

The reason we know that he's wrong is because there is a law that says he is, a special court formed in compliance with that law, and no lawsuits challenging the authority of either.

I further believe — and have heard no serious claims otherwise — that if there were to be a formal legal challenge to FISA, it would be summarily dismissed by a lower court and laughed out of the Supreme Court before it ever got past a clerk's desk.

Which is why no formal legal challenge has been mounted by the administration.

But even if I'm wrong, one thing brooks no debate: This president has broken the law, as the law presently stands. Even if you believe that it's a bad law, it doesn't matter.

And it's not a "spitting on the subway" kind of law, either. It's an important one. It goes to the very heart of everything I've been talking about thus far.

It's one of those laws intended to make sure that what the Founders feared most doesn't come to pass: One guy calling the shots.

That's why Senator Feingold's censure resolution is more legitimate than party-line Republicans and timid Democrats would have us believe. The reason is that, contrary to what Republican attack ads are saying, it is strictly limited to the president's use of unauthorized wiretaps in contravention of law. Contrary to what Republican attack ads have been saying, the resolution doesn't even mention the Iraq war.

(Don't take my word for it: read it yourself, here.)

As it happens, Senator Feingold has stated repeatedly that he fully supports domestic surveillance

To be quite honest, I care a good deal less about seeing the president censured than I do about simply making him stop ordering domestic surveillance without court approval, and making sure the world knows he was made to stop.

I'd like everyone to know that, in America, you can't break the law and get away with it. Even if you're the president. Especially if you're the president.

Now, somewhere, someone reading this is thinking, "But we have to stop terrorists. They're right here on our soil. How can you suggest that law enforcement authorities be prevented from wiretapping suspected terrorists?"

To which I say: Are you kidding me here, or what? I never said any such thing.

I'm wholeheartedly in favor of bugging suspected terrorists, no matter where they are.

The law says you can, too. Go ahead and bug the bastards. Sorry…suspected bastards.

But the law also says that you can't just go around bugging anybody you feel like. You know…like Nixon did? You need a good reason, and you need to get court approval.

Maybe you think that going through the FISA court represents an impediment to effective surveillance?

Give me a break. In 2004, there were 1,758 requests for secret surveillance to the FISA court. Every single one was approved.

Yes, but what about the delay factor? What if you need to set a tap right now and there's no time to go through an application process, however pro forma it might be?

This is the beauty part: You can apply to the court after you've already placed the tap.

In other words, if you can submit applications to the court when it's convenient and they're never denied, there is no disadvantage whatsoever to wiretapping lawfully vs. unlawfully.

Nobody who wants to see this law enforced can possibly be accused of interfering with the War on Terror, because there is no interference.

So now you have to ask yourself: Why did this president decide to risk breaking the law in the first place? Where was the benefit? And why does he continue to insist that he has the right to bug people in America without going through the FISA court?

Damned if I know. I could guess, but I'd be guessing. Logically, I see only two possibilities: One is that he doesn't want the court to know whom he's bugging. The other is that, if they did know, they wouldn't authorize it. Since the court's job is to support surveillance against terrorists, both of those possibilities are very frightening.

It doesn't matter, though. The president broke the law. What makes it even worse is that, on at least three occasions, he assured the American public that he was seeking FISA authorization for all wiretaps. He also said that he was not allowed to wiretap without such authorization. By subsequently declaring that he was in fact wiretapping without a court order, he admitted that he's knowingly breaking the law

He continues to break it, declaring now that he can because the Constitution says he can.

I say he can't. Congress should say he can't. Republicans, whose bread and butter party platform is based on respect for law and keeping the government out of people's lives, should also say he can't. Chicken-poop Democrats afraid of taking a stand should say he can't.

Nobody can. This is America, and we don't allow that sort of thing here.

It's called appeasement.


A response from Anthony Tancredi:

Interesting concept. However my view is that censure in and of itself does little other than bring to attention an objectionable action. It’s not even a slap on the hand. Any kid in trouble with his parents would gladly take censure over true discipline. Would not a censure effort be viewed only as a political move instead of a substantial one? As for the question “Is a more substantial move warranted?” I submit my response in shortest form:

I firmly believe we’re fighting a new and completely uncontrollable war on terror, which requires creative and at times covert action to be effective. If the President wants to wiretap for such a reason, and wants to claim that seeking approval would reveal secret plans and therefore destroy the potential results, then he should be willing to stand before Congress and make such statements (or else apply for approval after the action is completed and the value extracted from the operation). While I’m a strong supporter of harsh actions against terrorists and a believer that rules should be “bent” when it means capturing these dangerous individuals, I simply cannot subscribe to a notion that any American is simply above the law. If we need new laws to combat terror, then make them. If the current laws are a hindrance, then explain the rationale behind a decision that violated existing law, and ask for changes. Simply claiming the right to exceed existing legal boundary by virtue of a position of ultimate authority is hogwash and sets a dangerous precedent. That being said, censure is a political tool that will not accomplish much other than a 10 second face reddening of the President. If there is a real problem, identify it and go after it. We either need to amend our laws to allow for stronger anti-terror actions, or enforce existing laws by not allowing anyone to circumvent the system. Laws apply to everyone, period. A wimpy half-hearted censure vote supported by a contingent of Jello spines is almost an acknowledgement that breaking certain laws is actually acceptable in cases such at this. Of course, others will chime in claiming we’re heading toward totalitarianism and soon will be controlled or even blackmailed by such invasive spying, which deviates from the very case that brought the issue to light in the first place. Like a kid caught breaking a “law” at home, get a real/plausible explanation that Congress accepts or enforce existing laws. Preferably both.


My reply:

Here's what I think the problem is with punishing a president: There simply aren't many options. You can either censure him or impeach him, and that's about it, because he's immune from criminal prosecution.

So, to be practical, you go for censure, because trying to impeach him isn't going to work. It's a ten dollar punishment for a two buck crime. Even if you think it's a ten buck crime, it isn't going to happen anyway,

Censure may not carry any "hard" consequences, but I think it's more than a slap on the wrist. It's a major condemnation. It's only happened one other time, and even though it was 170 years ago and was later expunged, we still remember it. For anyone egotistical enough to run for the presidency in the first place, that kind of stain never fades. For the rest of history his name would never be mentioned without "only the second president ever to be censured and the only one with it still on his record" after it.

I take it back; there's one hard consequence, and it's for the whole Republican party. Imagine any campaigning congressperson who would ever want a censured president's endorsement.


His comeback:

There is probably one other benefit to a formal censure motion, and that is the awareness that it brings to the general public. In general I believe the public falls into one of two categories: don’t know or don’t care. With a censure discussion, it is difficult to escape the reality that laws are being stretched beyond the breaking point, and the public will start paying more attention. While the current rationale is terror related, the longer-term consequences could be unnerving and invasive. It is hard to trust someone who has already broken the law, then turns around and says not to worry. It actually enhances the worry as people wonder what law will be the next to fall. At least with censure discussions flying around, there is hope the limits of this law-ignoring exercise could be restrained, and people will be watching the President more closely. Either that or someone else is about to get shot in the face.

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