Americans ought be listening to Russ Feingold in these defining days for the Republic, because what the Democratic senator from Wisconsin is saying goes to the heart of the question of whether a nation founded in revolt against monarchy will be ruled by laws or by the crude whims of an intemperate sovereign and his out-of-control administration.
Feingold has been fighting for weeks to get the Congress to address the issue of President Bush’s illegal approval of warrantless wiretapping of Americans. A small but growing group in Congress, including some prominent Republicans — most recently, U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the chair of the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, who this week called for a "complete review" of the National Security Agency domestic spying program — have begun echoing Feingold’s demand that the Constitutional crisis created by the president’s wrongdoing be taken seriously.
But too many major media outlets continue to treat the eavesdropping scandal as little more than a political game. They chart the progress of the critics and then measure the extent to which the administration’s spin has limited the damage to the president’s approval ratings.
Frustrated by the game playing, Feingold went to the floor of the Senate last Tuesday in an effort to break through the spin and speak the blunt truths of the moment.
"Last week the President of the United States gave his State of the Union address, where he spoke of America’s leadership in the world, and called on all of us to ‘lead this world toward freedom.’ Again and again, he invoked the principle of freedom, and how it can transform nations, and empower people around the world," Feingold told the chamber. "But, almost in the same breath, the President openly acknowledged that he has ordered the government to spy on Americans, on American soil, without the warrants required by law. The President issued a call to spread freedom throughout the world, and then he admitted that he has deprived Americans of one of their most basic freedoms under the Fourth Amendment — to be free from unjustified government intrusion."
The Wisconsinite who emerged as the Capitol’s most diligent defender of the Constitution when he cast the sole vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act in 2001 delivered a blistering indictment not just of the president but of those who are treating the debate over the administration’s assault on basic liberties as just another fight between political partisans.
"The President was blunt. He said that he had authorized the NSA’s domestic spying program, and he made a number of misleading arguments to defend himself. His words got rousing applause from Republicans, and I think even some Democrats," Feingold continued. "The President was blunt, so I will be blunt: This program is breaking the law, and this President is breaking the law. Not only that, he is misleading the American people in his efforts to justify this program."
Noting that many Republican members of the House and Senate cheered the president’s defense of his illegal acts, Feingold asked, "How is that worthy of applause? Since when do we celebrate our commander in chief for violating our most basic freedoms, and misleading the American people in the process? When did we start to stand up and cheer for breaking the law? In that moment at the State of the Union, I felt ashamed."
It is time, Feingold explained, for his colleagues to recognize its shame and begin to act honorably.
"Congress," the senator said, "has lost its way if we don’t hold this President accountable for his actions."
Feingold is right. But it is not only Congress that must act. The American people need to get into this fight.
The defense of the Constitution against executive lawbreaking is not merely the work of elected legislators.
It must be the work of patriots. Feingold is leading the defense of basic liberties, but we all have a place in this struggle to preserve both the Bill of Rights and an American experiment that is now gravely threatened. Only an outcry from the people will assure that Congress — and America — does not lose its way.