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The most intriguing news with regard to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the apparent effort by the Bush-Cheney administration to punish former Ambassador Joe Wilson for revealing how the White House deceived the American people about the threat posed by Iraq is not the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
Make no mistake, it is exceptionally significant that Cheney's closest aide and political confidante over the past two decades, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, has been charged with two counts of making false statements to federal agents, two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice for misleading and deceiving the grand jury about how he learned that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, was a Central Intelligence Agency operative.
Of course, it matters that Fitzgerald's office says Libby lied "about how and when in 2003 he learned and subsequently disclosed to reporters then-classified information concerning the employment of Valerie (Plame) by the Central Intelligence Agency." Of course it matters that, in response to these indictments, one of the most powerful players in Washington -- the right-hand man of the vice president, a pioneering champion of the neo-conservative worldview and a principal architect of the war with Iraq -- has resigned from his positions with the administration.
But what matters most are the questions that the Libby indictment has raised with regard to Cheney's actions?
Let's be clear: If the Libby indictment and resignation is all that comes of Fitzgerald's two-year-long investigation into a case that touches on fundamental questions of government accountability, abuse of power and the dubious "case" that was made for going to war in Iraq, then this whole matter will be no more that a footnote to the sorry history of the Bush-Cheney era.
But Libby indictment is not necessarily all that will come of this investigation.
As Fitzgerald said during his press conference Friday, "It's not over."
Fitzgerald was extremely cautious about what he meant by that statement. But he did confirm that he will be keeping the "(grand)jury open to consider other matters."
But, while Fitzgerald made the predictable announcement that that the "substantial work" of the investigation was done, the fact that the grand jury remains empaneled makes it reasonable to suggest, or at the very least to hope, that we have reached the Churchillian moment when it can be said: "This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
There will be those who are excited by the prospect that an extended investigation might actually "get" White House political czar Karl Rove, who has long been a subject of the inquiry but was spared indictment Friday. That's very possible, as Fitzgerald has reportedly informed Rove's lawyers that he is still under investigation.
But this will never be the inquiry that it can and should be if it merely tags Libby and Rove for wrongdoing.
The fundamental responsibility of the special prosecutor, and the one that he now has an opportunity to pursue, is to determine whether the Bush-Cheney administration set out to punish Wilson for exposing the fact that the president and the vice president had deliberately and dramatically inflated claims regarding Iraqi programs to develop weapons of mass destruction. Even David Gergen, the former adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton who is as cautious as the come in these matters, says that the indictments that have now been obtained in the case "raise questions about whether criminal acts were perpetrated to help get the country into war."
The Congress and the media, which should have served as watchdogs on the administration before and after the start of the war, failed in their duty. And, while it is now commonly accepted that the president and the vice president stretched the truth to the breaking point in their feverish campaign to win support for action against Iraq, the specific details of the administration's abuse of intelligence materials have yet to be adequately established. It is in the establishment of those details, and the facts surrounding them, that it becomes possible to understand why so many powerful people were so determined to destroy Wilson's reputation and that of his wife. It is, as well, where questions about the precise roles of the president and the vice president in this whole sordid affair can, and must, be clarified.
Some details with regard to the vice president's role have been revealed. The indictment indicates that Cheney was one of the first federal official who spoke with Libby about the identity of Joe Wilson's wife. "On or about June 12, 2003, Libby was advised by the Vice President of the United States that Wilson's wife worked at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Counterproliferation Division," it explains. "Libby understood that the Vice President had learned this information from the CIA."
The document goes on to point out that several of Libby's most controversial calls to reporters appear to have taken place following conversations with Cheney. "On or about July 12, 2003," the indictment says, "Libby flew with the Vice President and others to and from Norfolk, Virginia, on Air Force Two. On his return trip, Libby discussed with other officials aboard the plane what Libby should say in response to certain pending media inquiries, including questions from Time reporter Matthew Cooper."
The indictment does not detail what was discussed in those conversations, and it does not get into who said exactly what. But it does note that Libby called both Cooper and Judith Miller of the New York Times, and that the Wilson's wife was discussed during both those conversations.
Fitzgerald is careful to say, "We make no allegation that the vice president committed any criminal act." But, as he explained, that is the "standard" response to questions regarding individuals who have not been indicted.
A review of the documents surrounding the Libby indictment leaves little doubt that there are still many questions to be answered, and that at least some of those questions should relate to the actions of the highest-ranking officials in the administration.
This is why 40 members of the U.S. House have urged Fitzgerald to expand the inquiry to examine whether Bush, Cheney and members of the White House's Iraq War Group conspired to deceive Congress into authorizing the war – thus committing the federal crime of lying to Congress. Of course, there will be those who argue that such an investigation would be too broad an extension of the special prosecutor's brief. But that's just the latest line from those who have always wanted to close down this inquiry.
The simple fact is that, if Patrick Fitzgerald wants to get to the truth about who was behind the attempt to discredit Wilson and Plame, he has to examine the reason why the White House cared so very much about what was said regarding the use and misuse of intelligence. That is the examination that Fitzgerald can and should now begin.
John Nichols' biography of Vice President Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President (The New Press, 2004) is currently available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. An expanded paperback version of the book, which Publisher's Weekly describes as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says "reveals the inner Cheney," will be available this fall under the title, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press).
Faced with a choice of Biblical proportions, America's born-again president decided to sacrifice Harriet Miers for Karl Rove's sins.
On the day when much of official Washington was buzzing about the prospect that his political Svengali could be indicted for something akin to treason, along with the chief aide of his vice president and various and sundry other administration insiders, President Bush "reluctantly accepted" the decision of his embattled nominee for the Supreme Court to withdraw her name from consideration.
There was nothing "reluctant" about it.
Miers, whose nomination was already in trouble with Senate conservatives and this week faced the prospect of a low rating from the American Bar Association that might well have destroyed her chances with moderates, was going to have to go. When the Republican chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter -- says a Republican president's nominee for the highest court in the land "needs a crash course in constitutional law," the question becomes not "if" but "when" the withdrawal will be "reluctantly accepted."Adding just a little more insult to the injury of Harriet Miers, the White House decided to use her withdrawal as part of an elaborate public-relations strategy designed to distract official Washington -- which, of course, includes the White House press corps -- from the question that has transfixed it for days: When will special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald indict Rove or "Scooter" Libby or someone else or everyone else?The Miers withdrawal announcement, timed to dominate the news cycles on what would otherwise have been a day of all-indictment-talk-all-the-time, gains the president a brief respite from the around-the-clock speculation about how far the investigation of criminal wrongdoing -- the "outing" of a covert operative for the CIA and attempts to cover up for that wrongdoing -- would reach into the offices of the president and vice president.
The flip-side of the administration's calculus is this: When and if indictments finally come, everyone in Washington will quickly forget about Miers.
None of this means that the administration is in a good position -- there will still be legitimate talk about the crisis of confidence with regard to this president, and Bush's poll numbers will drop -- but it is clear that this White House is still playing the sort of political games for which it is now well known. And that should concern Americans who worry about the character of the Supreme Court.
With Miers out, and with the president and vice president linked to a serious scandal, the administration has an opportunity to come up with a replacement nominee who will draw attention away from discussions of unindicted co-conspirators and the misuse of intelligence to argue the country into a war of whim.
The choice to achieve that goal will undoubtedly be a clearly conservative jurist, almost certainly a woman, whose nomination can rally the Republican base while bringing liberals to the barricades. A rip-roaring fight over the most critical Supreme Court nomination in years is, in the thinking of administration aides, just what Bush needs to turn attention away from his other troubles -- and to suggest that those troubles have more to do with partisanship than presidential missteps and misdeeds.
The withdrawal of the Miers nomination on this critical day tells us that the administration is thinking hard about how to spin its way out of its troubles. It also tells us that, for all the talk about how loyal Bush is to his friends and his country, the reality is that, when this president is in trouble, no one and no institution is safe -- not Harriet Miers, and certainly not the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1776, the Continental Congress awarded the first Congressional Gold Medal of Honor to General George Washington, a bold and determined man who had the courage to lead his country into battle for its freedom but who lacked the wisdom to recognize that the promise of the American Revolution would never be fully realized for so long as African Americans were second-class citizens.
In 1999, two hundred and twenty three years after Washington was recognized by the Continental Congress, its successor, the 106th Congress, voted overwhelmingly to award the same Congressional Gold Medal of Honor that had once been given to the man know as The Father of His Country to the woman who will forever be known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement.
With her December 5, 1955, refusal to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus to a white passenger, Rosa Parks triggered a boycott by African Americans of the municipal bus system that lasted more than a year and inspired the movement that forced the end of the officially-sanctioned segregation that had created an apartheid system in the American south.For that, and for her resolute commitment to carry on the struggle for social and economic justice throughout a long life of fighting discrimination based on race, class, sex and sexuality, Parks received many awards, all of them richly deserved.
But Parks, who died Monday at age 92, never needed those honors as much as America needed to bestow them.
And no recognition of Parks was more necessary than the awarding of that Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 1999.
The American Revolution was not an event but rather a promise of freedom. That promise may have been made by a Virginia plantation owner and his white male compatriots. But it was realized by an African American seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, who refused to believe that that promise did not apply to her.
President William Jefferson Clinton, who was named for the greatest of Washington's comrades in that struggle for freedom, and who presented the medal to Parks on June 15, 1999, gave voice to that reality when he explained to the crowd that gathered in the Capitol Rotunda to celebrate the honor that, "In so many ways Rosa Parks brought America home to our founders' dream."
It was not merely appropriate that Rosa Parks receive the same recognition as George Washington had been accorded. It was essential, for without Parks and those who joined her in forging the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Washington's promise of freedom would have remained forever constricted by the overt chains of slavery and the covert chains of segregation.
George Bush, who once criticized Ronald Reagan's approach to terrorism, is now making a desperate grab for the former president's coattails.
In August, Bush said that, because of Reagan's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Lebanon after the 1983 bombing of a Maine barracks in Beirut killed 241 Americans, "[Terrorists] concluded that free societies lack the courage and character to defend themselves against a determined enemy."
But two months later, with his poll ratings dropping to levels Reagan never saw, and with public support for the Iraq occupation collapsing, Bush traveled to a the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, where he declared with a straight face that, "we are answering history's call with confidence and a comprehensive strategy."
Comparing himself with Reagan, Bush said of the former president: "He recognized that freedom was opposed by dangerous enemies. And he understood that America has always prevailed by standing firmly on principals - and never backing down in the face of evil."
Returning again and again to his "stay-the-course" theme, Bush announced that, "The key to victory lay in our resolve to stay in the fight till the fight was won."
He did not, of course, announce a strategy for pulling anything akin to victory out of a quagmire that former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, a Republican stalwart, compares with the Vietnam imbroglio in an article penned for the forthcoming edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. Connecting Bush with another former president, Laird suggests that the current commander-in-chief is repeating the mistakes of Richard Nixon by keeping U.S. troops in a fight where there appears to be no obvious benchmark for defining victory and no plan for bringing U.S. troops home. Some kind of exit strategy is needed, contends Laird, because, "Our presence is what feeds the insurgency (in Iraq), and our gradual withdrawal would feed the confidence and the ability of average Iraqis to stand up to the insurgency."Bush and his supporters has repeatedly dismissed calls for an exit strategy, suggesting that any announced plan for withdrawing U.S. troops would make Iraq more chaotic and make America more vulnerable.
But Ronald Reagan, the man Bush was trying so hard to associate himself with during his visit to California Thursday, took a different view. And even some Republicans are beginning to make that point. In a remarkable October 7 speech delivered on the House floor, Representative Ron Paul, a maverick Republican from Texas who has long been critical of Bush's misguided approach to fighting terrorism, invoked Reagan's legacy as part of a call for withdrawal.
Supporters of the war in Iraq, as well as some non-supporters, warn of the dangers if we leave. But isn't it quite possible that these dangers are simply a consequence of having gone into Iraq in the first place, rather than a consequence of leaving? Isn't it possible that staying only makes the situation worse? If chaos results after our departure, it's because we occupied Iraq, not because we left.
The original reasons for our pre-emptive strike are long forgotten, having been based on false assumptions. The justification given now is that we must persist in this war or else dishonor those who already have died or been wounded. We're also told civil strife likely will engulf all of Iraq.
But what is the logic of perpetuating a flawed policy where more Americans die just because others have suffered? More Americans deaths cannot possibly help those who already have been injured or killed.
Civil strife, if not civil war, already exists in Iraq-- and despite the infighting, all factions oppose our occupation. The insistence on using our militarily to occupy and run Iraq provides convincing evidence to our detractors inside and outside Iraq that we have no intention of leaving. Building permanent military bases and a huge embassy confirms these fears. We deny the importance of oil and Israel's influence on our policy, yet we fail to convince the Arab/Muslim world that our intentions are purely humanitarian.
In truth, our determined presence in Iraq actually increases the odds of regional chaos, inciting Iran and Syria while aiding Osama bin Laden in his recruiting efforts. Leaving Iraq would do the opposite-- though not without some dangers that rightfully should be blamed on our unwise invasion rather than our exit.Many experts believe bin Laden welcomed our invasion and occupation of two Muslim countries. It bolsters his claim that the U.S. intended to occupy and control the Middle East all along. This has galvanized radical Muslim fundamentalists against us. Osama bin Laden's campaign surely would suffer if we left.
We should remember that losing a war to China over control of North Korea ultimately did not enhance communism in China, as she now has accepted many capitalist principles. In fact, China today outproduces us in many ways-- as reflected by our negative trade balance with her.
We lost a war in Vietnam, and the domino theory that communism would spread throughout southeast Asia was proven wrong. Today, Vietnam accepts American investment dollars and technology. We maintain a trade relationship with Vietnam that the war never achieved.
We contained the USSR and her thousands of nuclear warheads without military confrontation, leading to the collapse and disintegration of a powerful Soviet empire. Today we trade with Russia and her neighbors, as the market economy spreads throughout the world without the use of arms.
We should heed the words of Ronald Reagan about his experience with a needless and mistaken military occupation of Lebanon. Sending troops into Lebanon seemed like a good idea in 1983, but in 1990 President Reagan said this in his memoirs: "…we did not appreciate fully enough the depth of the hatred and complexity of the problems that made the Middle East such a jungle… In the weeks immediately after the bombing, I believed the last thing we should do was turn tail and leave… yet, the irrationality of Middle Eastern politics forced us to rethink our policy there."
During the occupation of Lebanon by American, French, and Israeli troops between 1982 and 1986, there were 41 suicide terrorist attacks in that country. One horrific attack killed 241 U.S. Marines. Yet once these foreign troops were removed, the suicide attacks literally stopped. Today we should once again rethink our policy in this region.
It's amazing what ending military intervention in the affairs of others can achieve. Setting an example of how a free market economy works does wonders.
We should have confidence in how well freedom works, rather than relying on blind faith in the use of military force to spread our message. Setting an example and using persuasion is always superior to military force in showing how others might live. Force and war are tools of authoritarians; they are never tools of champions of liberty and justice. Force and war inevitably lead to dangerous unintended consequences.
While George Bush and his neoconservative allies connive to use Ronald Reagan's legacy as the latest justification for maintaining the deadly, dangerous and unnecessary occupation of a distant land, it has fallen to a more historically-savvy and genuinely-conservative Republican, Ron Paul, to honor that legacy with the suggestion that it might indeed be time to bring the troops home.
John Nichols's book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) examines Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative traditions of challenging U.S. wars of entanglement, expansion and empire. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com
Well, of course, the investigation of who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's name -- violating the federal law that bars the "outing" of intelligence operatives -- has come around to Vice President Dick Cheney's office. While it may be news to the Washington Post -- which headlined a breathless report on Tuesday: "Cheney's Office Is A Focus in Leak Case" -- the fact is that Cheney and his aides have been likely suspects from day one.
No prominent member of the administration had more to lose as a result of the 2003 revelation by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, that the White House's pre-war claims regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been inflated than did Cheney -- who, to a far greater extent than George Bush, had a hand in shaping the arguments for going to war, plugged them in media appearances and defended them after all evidence suggested his pronouncements had been wrong. It is important to recall that, while Bush may have deliberately fuzzed the facts in his 2003 State of the Union address, it was Cheney who leapt off the cliff of speculation with the pre-war declaration that, "We know Saddam Hussein's been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
No key player in the administration was more at odds with the Central Intelligence Agency than Cheney. Indeed, Cheney's badgering of the agency to come up with "evidence" of Iraqi WMDs and al-Qaeda connections was so aggressive -- he regularly stormed into the CIA headquarters to demand a briefing and then, when the information did not fit his biases, demanded that someone else brief him -- that members of the House Intelligence Committee complained in a reprimanding letter, "These visits are unprecedented. Normally, vice presidents, including yourself, receive regular briefings from (the) CIA in your office and have a CIA officer on permanent detail. There is no reason to make personal visits to the CIA."
No top office within the administration was better positioned than Cheney's to gather the information that was used to attack Wilson and his wife and to peddle that information to the press. In fact, as Joe Wilson told me in an interview about the leaking of his wife's name that we did early in 2004, "With respect to who actually leaked the information, there are really only a few people -- far fewer than the president let on when he said there are a lot of senior administration officials -- who could have done it. At the end of the day, you have to have the means, the keys to the conversations at which somebody might drop my wife's name -- deliberately or not -- a national security clearance, and a reason to be talking about this. When you look at all that, there are really very few people who exist at that nexis between national security and foreign policy and politics. You can count them, literally, on two hands."
Wilson added that, without a doubt, "the vice president is one of those people."
And no one, repeat no one, in Washington is known to be more vindictive than Dick Cheney. So the notion that Cheney would not only have been aware of but in fact delighted in punishing Wilson by ruining the career of the ambassador's wife is entirely plausible. By all accounts, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating that prospect as his long examination of crimes that may have been committed in relation to the Plame leak draws to a close.
Does this mean that the vice president will be indicted by the federal grand jury that is currently examining the actions of White House political czar Karl Rove and, more importantly, Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby?
Don't bet on it.
Libby is blood-oath, fall-on-the-sword loyal to Cheney. A Reagan-era State Department hand and Congressional staffer who came to know his future boss when Cheney was serving in Congress during the 1980s, Libby went with Cheney to George H. W. Bush's Defense Department -- serving Secretary of Defense Cheney as Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Strategy and Resources and Deputy Under Secretary for Policy. Libby was then a founder of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century, which promoted the vision of American Empire that Cheney and his staff had cooked up in their controversial draft Defense Policy Guidance statement during their final days at the Pentagon. And when Cheney returned to the corridors of power, as vice president, Libby was at his side.
But the Cheney-Libby partnership is not merely a power and policy connection. Their relationship is more father-son than boss-surrogate. Libby vacations with Cheney at the vice president's $2.9 million villa in Wyoming, and Libby's access is such that he is welcome to invite friends and compatriots along to enjoy the skiing near Jackson Hole.
The likelihood that Libby would give up a relationship that has buttered his bread for the better part of a quarter century is even more remote than the likelihood that Rove would turn on Bush.
Yet, no one who knows about how Cheney and Libby operate will doubt that the two men had no secrets from one another during the period when the attacks on the CIA, in general, and Wilson and Plame, in particular, were taking place.
The vice president is a famously hands-on player. He personally requested information about claims that the Iraqis were attempting to obtain uranium from African countries -- the issue that Wilson examined in 2002, when he was dispatched to Africa and found that the claims were not credible. And while Cheney now says that he knew nothing of the report that Wilson produced before the war, the former ambassador has never believed him.
"If you are senior enough to ask the question, you are senior enough to get a very specific response," said Wilson. "In addition to the circular report that was sent around as a consequence of my trip, I have every confidence that one way or another the vice president was briefed as well." Yet, it was the vice president who continued to claim, long after Bush had dropped the line, that Saddam Hussein was a nuclear threat. And Cheney always went much further than Bush or others in the administration when making that claim. Indeed, it was Cheney who specifically stated prior to the Congressional votes on authorizing the use of force in Iraq that, Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons." Cheney claimed in the same speech that, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
It is certainly reasonable to argue that Cheney had more reason to strike out at Wilson than anyone else in the administration when the former ambassador revealed the truth in a New York Times opinion piece that appeared in the summer of 2003. And, while Cheney may not have done the deed directly, it is comic to suggest that the vice president -- who was in constant contact with both Libby and Rove around the time of the leak -- could have been unaware of any serious effort to discredit Wilson by "outing" his wife as a CIA agent.
John Nichols' biography of Vice President Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President (The New Press, 2004) is currently available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. An expanded paperback version of the book, which Publisher's Weekly describes as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says "reveals the inner Cheney," will be available this fall under the title, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press).
George Bush has given up.
We should have seen this coming. During the first debate of the fall 2004 campaign, a weary and frustrated Bush repeatedly referred to how the presidency had proven to be a difficult job for him. Again and again, the commander-in-chief responded to questions about the missteps, mistakes and misdeeds of his first term by pleading that, "It's hard work."
The guy was clearly overwhelmed a year ago. So it can't really come as much of surprise that he has thrown in the towel.
The evidence of his surrender is all around. The man who spent years denying global warming is now borrowing talking points from Jimmy Carter to call for energy conservation. He can't even convince himself -- let alone anyone else -- that the "mission-accomplished" occupation of Iraq is functional, let alone a success story. He has essentially abandoned his primary domestic-policy initiative for 2005, admitting during a Rose Garden press conference that there is a "diminished appetite" for his scheme to privatize Social Security. And when it came to what is arguably the most important appointment of his presidency -- the selection of a replacement for the critical "swing" justice on the U.S. Supreme Court – he didn't even try.
In defending his selection of his attorney, Harriet Miers, to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Bush claimed that, "I picked the best person I could find."
He obviously did not look very hard. Maybe that's because the guy who used to tell him who to nominate for judicial openings, Karl Rove, is busy trying to avoid a indictment by a federal grand jury. Maybe it is because Vice President Dick Cheney's office is in crisis, as the veep's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby, is targeted by the same investigation into who in the White House revealed the identity of an intelligence operative in order to punish the husband of that operative, Ambassador Joe Wilson, for revealing that the administration had warped intelligence in order to make the "case" for invading Iraq.
Whatever the explanation, the Miers nomination is a signal of surrender.
Miers is a dramatically less inspired selection for an open seat on the nation's highest court even than the last great "crony" appointment: former President Lyndon Johnson's naming of his sometime attorney and longtime pal Abe Fortas to replace Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1965. Like Miers, Fortas had no record of judicial service. And, like Miers, Fortas's primary qualification was unquestionably his friendship with the man making the appointments.
But at least Fortas had argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, putting together the team of lawyers that won the unanimous Gideon v. Wainwright ruling that secured the constitutional right of criminal defendants to legal counsel. Fortas had also taught at Yale Law School, served as Undersecretary of the Interior during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency and earned acclaim in the legal community for his courageous defense of the victims of former Senator Joe McCarthy's ideological witch hunts of the 1950s.
Miers can point to no such record of accomplishment. Where Fortas had earned a place in legal history books before he was ever considered for a place on the Supreme Court, Miers hadn't even garnered footnote status before Bush tapped her for the lifetime sinecure.
Yet, while the Fortas nomination was easily confirmed in 1965 by a Senate that was friendly to Johnson, his story still serves as a reminder of the perils of cronyism. Three years later, when Johnson tried to name Fortas as the replacement for Chief Justice Earl Warren, the nomination faced a Senate filibuster that ultimately derailed it. A year later, when it was revealed that he had accepted a $20,000 fee from a foundation controlled by a financier who was under investigation for violating Federal securities laws, Fortas was forced to resign from the court.
Harriet Mier's closet may not have as many skeletons in it as did Abe Fortas's.
But the story of the last crony appointment to the high court remains a cautionary one for Bush. Lyndon Johnson nominated Fortas for the job of Chief Justice in June of 1968, after he had announced that he would not seek a second full term. Like Bush, Johnson had given up. He lacked the political capital to hold his own party's senators in line. The Fortas nomination was blocked when Democrats abandoned the nominee of a Democratic president.
With the rising tide of conservative criticism of the Miers nomination, Bush's primary problem at the moment is with Republicans -- not with the Democrats who, as usual, are having a hard time figuring out how to respond to crass cronyism. Columnists George Will and Ann Coulter, former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan and other prominent conservatives have condemned the nomination, as has Manual Miranda, who heads the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of 150 grassroots conservative and libertarian groups across the country. And Bush's feeble defenses of his nominee have done little to silence the outcry. If the Miers nomination fails -- either because it is withdrawn or because it fails to gain traction in the Senate -- the reason for that failure will be the same as it was for the Fortas flop: a failing president's inability to keep his own partisan allies in line. If enough right-wing senators – led by Kansan Sam Brownback and Oklahoman Tom Coburn – abandon Miers, and by extension Bush, this nomination could yet be crushed in a right-left vice grip. There's no guarantee that will happen. The current Senate has a penchant for confirming stealth nominees such as Miers. But if Miers is rejected as the result of a right-wing revolt, it will not merely be a defeat for Bush. It will be the inevitable consequence of his decision – conscious or otherwise – to just give up.
Sally Baron is not alone in the afterlife.
The Wisconsin woman whose August, 2003, obituary created a nation sensation with Americans who had come to resent George W. Bush's disreputable presidency -- it included the line "Memorials in her honor can be made to any organization working for the removal of President Bush," inspiring t-shirts, badges and, as of this week, more than 980,000 unique references on the Internet -- will be pleased to make the acquaintance of one Theodore Roosevelt Heller.
Heller, who died last week in his native Chicago was recalled in yesterday's editions of the Chicago Tribune with an obituary that read:
Theodore Roosevelt Heller, 88, loving father of Charles (Joann) Heller; dear brother of the late Sonya (the late Jack) Steinberg. Ted was discharged from the U.S. Army during WWII due to service related injuries, and then forced his way back into the Illinois National Guard insisting no one tells him when to serve his country. Graveside services Tuesday 11 a.m. at Waldheim Jewish Cemetery (Ziditshover section), 1700 S. Harlem Ave., Chicago. In lieu of flowers, please send acerbic letters to Republicans.
Heller lived to see two more years of lies, corruption and cronyism. He also lived to see Bush's approval rating fall to the lowest level of his presidency -- just 37 percent, according to the latest CBS News poll.
So, while Baron referred to Bush as a liar and a "whistleass," it is possible that the ascerbic letters sent in the late Chicagoan's honor might direct even fiestier langauge toward Bush's Republican supporters.
The President has lost the support of Democrats (84 percent of whom disapprove of his presidency) and independents (64 percent of whom disapprove ), but he still runs strong among true believers in the Grand Old Party. Seventy-nine percent of self-described Republicans interviewed for the CBS poll expressed approval of Bush, while just 13 percent disapproved.
But perhaps even blind partisanship has its limits.
According to the new AP-Ipsos poll, Bush's support is softening among Republicans.
In the weeks after the 2004 election, an AP-Ipsos survey found that almost two-thirds of Republicans expressed strong approved of the president's work. In the new AP-Ipsos survey, only half expressed "strong" approval." And, according to AP, "Those most likely to have lost confidence about the nation's direction over the past year include white evangelicals, down 30 percentage points, Republican women, 28 points, Southerners, 26 points, and suburban men, 20 points."
So how best to honor Theodore Roosevelt Heller -- a man who was, after all, named for a great Republican?
Perhaps with a friendly reminder to Republicans that it is not merely appropriate, but necessary, to criticize a president who has lost his way. That may be best done with a quote from the TR, himself. To wit:
"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants," Roosevelt explained in 1918. "He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."
Of course, if it really is most important to tell the truth about the president, it might be necessary add the following:"P.S. Bush is still a whistleass."
It is fair to say that a good many Americans perceive George W. Bush to be a doltish incompetent who does not know the first thing about fighting terrorism.
But, whatever the president's actual level of competence may be, it is now clear that he has even less respect for the intelligence of the American people than his critics have for his cognitive capabilities.
As the president struggles this week to make a case for the staying the course that leads deeper into the quagmire that is Iraq, he is, remarkably, selling a warmed over version of the misguided take on terrorism that he peddled before this disasterous mission was launched.
Apparently working under the assumption that no one has been paying attention over the past two and a half years, Bush delivered a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy Thursday in which he dismissed calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. "Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now," the president argued, before concluding that, "It's a dangerous illusion refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe or less safe with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources?"That's a scary scenario. Unfortunately, it is one that the president created. And it is one that the president still fails to fully comprehend.
To hear the president tell it, the U.S. went to Iraq to combat bin Laden's al Qaida network.
The problem, of course, is that going to Iraq to confront al Qaida in 2003 was like going to the Vatican to confront Protestants.
Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party cadres were a lot of things, but they were never comrades, colleagues or hosts to the adherents of what Bush referred to in his speech as "Islamic radicalism," "militant jihadism" or "Islamo-fascism."
If any individuals on the planet feared and hated al Qaida, it was Hussein and his allies. The Iraqi Baathists were thugs, to be sure, but they were secularist thugs. Indeed, many of the most brutal acts of oppression carried out by the Iraqi regime targeted Islamic militants and governments aligned with the fundamentalists. The eight-year war between Iraq and Iran pitted the soldiers of Hussein's secular nationalism against the armies of the Ayatollah Khomeini's radical vision of Islam. That is why, while the United States remained officially neutral in the war that lasted from 1980 to 1988, it became an aggressive behind-the-scenes backer of Hussein. As part of that support, the U.S. State Department in 1982 removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism. That step helped to ease the way for loans and other forms of aid -- such as the U.S. Agriculture Department's guaranteed loans to Iraq for purchases of American commodities. It also signaled to other countries and international agencies that the U.S. wanted them to provide aid to Hussein -- and if the signal was missed, the Reagan White House and State Department would make their sentiments clear, as happened when the administration lobbied the Export-Import Bank to improve Iraq's credit rating and provide it with needed financial assistance. If any lingering doubts about U.S. attitude remained, they were eased by the December 20, 1983, visit of Donald Rumsfeld, who was touring the Middle East as President Reagan's special envoy, for visits with Hussein and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
As it happened, the U.S. was reading Hussein right. In a region where the common catchphrase is "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Hussein was not merely someone who was fighting a neighboring country. He was fighting the spread of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that the U.S. so feared because he was a committed secularist. Hussein promoted the education of women and put them in positions of power. Under Hussein, Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims enjoyed a greater measure of religious freedom than they have in most Middle Eastern countries in recent decades. Hussein included non-Muslims among his closest advisors, most notably Aziz, a Christian adherent of the Chaldean Catholic faith that remains rooted in Iraq.There was a paranoid passion to Hussein's secularism. He and his vast secret police network remained ever on the watch for evidence of Islamic militancy, and when it was found the response was swift and brutal. It was an awareness of the fact that Hussein was a bulwark against militant Islam that led key aides to President George H.W. Bush to argue against displacing him after the liberation of Kuwait by a U.S.-led force in 1991.
Nothing about Hussein's Baathist ideology changed during the 1990s. So it came to no surprise to anyone who knew the region that the 9/11 Commission, after aggressively investigating the matter, found no operational relationships existed between al Qaida and Iraq before the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein.
Now, after having removed the bulwark against militant Islam, Bush describes an Iraq that is rapidly filling up with followers of al Qaida, and warns that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would allow the militants to "use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against nonradical Muslim governments."
What Bush did not say in his speech Thursday was that his own actions had created the dire circumstance he described.
If George Washington's mantra was that he could not tell a lie, George Bush's is that he cannot admit a mistake.
But the president's refusal to face reality has isolated him from those who are serious about fighting the spread of terrorism.
General Peter Cosgrove, the former head of Australia's Defense Forces, rejects the notion that staying the course is the smart response. In fact, the well-regarded former commander of the military of a key U.S. ally, says that withdrawal makes sense because it will "take one of the focal points of terrorist motivation away, and that is foreign troops."
It is Cosgrove who suggested the late 2006 withdrawal date that has been taken up by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, the first member of the Senate to urge the development of an exit-strategy timeline.
For those who do not trusts the assessment of an Australian, consider that Porter Goss, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who says, "The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists. Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists."
The president who argued that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to fight terrorism has instead opened up a new country to al Qaida's machinations.
The president who argued that the U.S. must continue to occupy Iraq in order to prevent the spread of terrorism has instead created a quagmire in which even the head of his own CIA says that the U.S. presence is being exploited by terrorists to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists.
Now, George Bush argues for staying the course.
Perhaps Osama bin Laden would agree with that strategy.
But the American people are wising up.
The latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll tells us that only 32 percent of those approve of Bush's handling of the war. A remarkable 59 percent now say that the invasion a mistake. And an even more remarkable 63 percent say they want to see some or all U.S. troops withdrawn.
John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has frequently reported from the Middle East over the past two decades. For more of his analysis of the administration's misguided approach, check out his book The Rise and Rise of Dick Cheney, out in paperback November 2 from The New Press.
More than three decades have passed since a President nominated someone without judicial experience to serve on the US Supreme Court.
The last such nominations--those of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell Jr.--were announced on the same day, October 20, 1971, by then President Richard Nixon. Nixon had run into problems getting sitting federal judges placed on the high court. His nomination of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr., chief judge of the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Abe Fortas, was rejected by the Senate in 1969. A year later, the Senate turned down Nixon's nomination of G. Harrold Carswell, a judge on the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the same vacancy.
In the fall of 1971, with vacancies created by the resignations of Justices John Marshall Harlan II and Hugo Black, Nixon opted for Rehnquist, an Arizona lawyer with close ties to conservative icon Barry Goldwater, and Powell, a former president of the American Bar Association. And, while the Rehnquist nomination created a bit of a stir, both men were confirmed before the year was out--giving Nixon a pair of "wins" in his long wrestling match with an overwhelmingly Democratic and ideologically muscular Senate.
On the surface, it would not seem that George W. Bush would have any reason to imitate Nixon's approach. Bush's first pick for the high court, John Roberts, a member of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when he was selected, was easily confirmed to replace Rehnquist as Chief Justice--winning the support of every Republican and half the Democrats in the Senate. And the Senate that Bush is working with has a solid Republican majority and a soft Democratic opposition that is far more pliable than the one Nixon confronted.
Indeed, if Bush faced a challenge as he selected a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it came from the Republican right. Supportive but unexcited by Roberts, social conservatives made it clear that they wanted to see an abortion-opposing, gay rights-rejecting judicial activist as the next nominee from the President who repeatedly told Republican rallies that his favorite members of the court were right-wing Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a conservative firebrand who entertains notions of seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2008, recently went so far as to suggest that he would vote against a Supreme Court nominee who lacked a "solid and known" record of opposition to reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and the wall of separation between church and state.
Brownback did not get his "solid and known" nominee. Bush just wasn't up for the fight.
Suffering from dismal approval ratings and unsettled by the burgeoning legal scandals involving the Republican leaders of the Congress, Bush went for the judicial-selection equivalent of a bunt. With his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers, the President has selected a non-judge so obscure--and so free of the burdens imposed by a judicial "paper trail"--that the Associated Press headlined a profile of her: "Bush's Court Pick Tends to Avoid Limelight."
In an interview earlier this year, Miers told the Dallas Morning News that it was her job to "stay out of the headlines."
She has done so with considerable success during a public career that, aside from brief tenure as president of the Texas State Bar Association, has pretty much been defined by her friendship with George W. Bush--who counted on her to help him sort out lingering controversies arising from his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War, and who then rewarded her with appointments to various positions during his gubernatorial and presidential terms. Now comes the ultimate appointment: nomination to a lifetime job on the nation's most powerful court.
That's quite a token of their friendship. But Miers has given Bush something, as well: a "stealth nominee" who ought to be able to sail through the toothless confirmation process with little trouble. Yes, of course, there will be grumbling from liberal interest groups--and even some conservative ones. But the precedent set by Roberts and other recent nominees--refusing to answer direct questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and stonewalling requests for paperwork produced while serving in appointive positions--should serve her well.
The only hope that Americans will get a sense of where Miers is coming from before she puts on the judicial robes–-and it is a faint one indeed--is that members of the Senate will consult the Constitution and historical precedents before this confirmation process is done. They might look back to a page from the Nixon days.
The former President once complained that, by rejecting some of his nominees and subjecting the rest to tough scrutiny, the Senate was usurping his authority. Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, a Western Democrat whose love of the Senate was exceeded only by his distrust of the executive branch, responded by explaining that the "advise and consent" clause in the Constitution meant that the Senate shared the president's powers when it came to filling court vacancies.
Nixon's slogan in his re-election campaign of 1972 was "Nixon--Now More Than Ever."
Faced with a stealth nominee for one of the most important positions in the land, and the rapid degeneration of Congressional checks and balances on the executive, we could use some Mike Mansfields in the Senate--now more than ever.
In Washington, where it is exceeding difficult to get the political players or the press corps to pay attention to more than one story at once, no0 one would suggest that it was "smart politics" to deliver a major address on the day that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay being forced to step aside after being indicted on criminal conspiracy charges.
But sometimes the work of Washington involves more than political games.
Sometimes it involves life and death questions of national policy. And it is particularly frustrating in such moments to see vital statements about the nation's future get lost in the rush to discuss the scandal du jour. To be sure, the well-deserved indictment of DeLay merited the attention it received. But the indictment of President Bush's "stay-the-course" approach with regard to the Iraq War, which was delivered on the same day by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, should have gotten a lot more attention than it did.
At a time when too many members of Congress, in both parties, are afraid to address the crisis Bush's missteps, misdeeds, arrogance and intransigence have created, Feingold broke the silence in the Senate.
"I cannot support an Iraq policy that makes our enemies stronger and our own country weaker, and that is why I will not support staying the course the President has set," Feingold told the Senate on the same day official Washington was focusing all its attention on the trials of Tom DeLay
Feingold's declaration came as part of scathing assessment of the Bush administration's determination to continue pursuing failed strategies not just in the Middle East but internationally.
"If Iraq were truly the solution to our national security challenges, this gamble with the future of the military and with our own economy might make sense," explained the senator, who last month called for a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country. "If Iraq, rather than such strategically more significant countries as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were really at the heart of the global fight against violent Islamist terrorism, this might make some sense. If it were true that fighting insurgents in Baghdad meant that we would not have to fight them elsewhere, all of the costs of this policy might make some sense. But these things are not true. Iraq is not the silver bullet in the fight against global terrorist networks. As I have argued in some detail, it is quite possible that the Administration's policies in Iraq are actually strengthening the terrorists by helping them to recruit new fighters from around the world, giving those jihadists on-the-ground training in terrorism, and building new, transnational networks among our enemies. Meanwhile the costs of staying this course indefinitely, the consequences of weakening America's military and America's economy, loom more ominously before us with each passing week. There is no leadership in simply hoping for the best. We must insist on an Iraq policy that works."
Feingold detailed concerns about the damage done to the U.S. military by pursuit of the misguided mission in Iraq. "The Administration's policies in Iraq are breaking the United States Army," explained the Wisconsin Democrat, who reviewed concerns about the stress placed on soldiers and their families and about shortfalls in recruitment for the armed services.
"Make no mistake, our military readiness is already suffering," Feingold explained. "According to a recent RAND study, the Army has been stretched so thin that active-duty soldiers are now spending one of every two years abroad, leaving little of the Army left in any appropriate condition to respond to crises that may emerge elsewhere in the world. In an era in which we confront a globally networked enemy, and at a time when nuclear weapons proliferation is an urgent threat, continuing on our present course is irresponsible at best."
While the military is taking a hit, Feingold noted, so too is the economy. Noting that all of the cost of the war -- "every penny" -- "has been added to the already massive debt that will be paid by future generations of Americans," Feingold asked, "How much longer can the elected representatives of the American people in this Congress allow the President to rack up over a billion dollars a week in new debts? This war is draining, by one estimate, $5.6 billion every month from our economy, funds that might be used to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina recover, or to help address the skyrocketing health care costs facing businesses and families, or to help pay down the enormous debt this government has already piled up."
Feingold remarks were more than a critique of the administration. They were a call to action for the Congress.
"Bush Administration's policies in Iraq are making America weaker," he told the Senate. "And none of us should stand by and allow this to continue."
Truer words have rarely been spoken in the Capitol -- especially in recent years. Feingold's call deserves the attention, and the encouragement, not just of responsible members of the Congress but of the great mass of Americans who know that something has gone very wrong in Iraq -- and Washington.