History usually provides a roadmap for the present. Unfortunately, leaders fail to consult the map.That’s certainly been the case as the 9/11 Commission has prepared to hear behind-closed-doors testimony from Vice President Dick Cheney and President George Bush at the same time.
Members of the commission and, for the most part, members of congress, have accepted the secret-testimony arrangement. But why?
Presidents have testified before investigatory committees before. And they have done so on comparable issues. Former US Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman reminds us that in 1974, amid the national firestorm that followed President Gerald Ford’s pardon of former President Richard Nixon, Ford voluntarily appeared before a House subcommittee that was reviewing the pardon.
“The President came before the subcommittee, made an opening statement and was questioned by the House members. Although each of us had only five minutes, I was able to ask the President directly whether there had been a deal with Nixon about the pardon. The public could determine by Ford’s demeanor and his words whether to believe his emphatic denial of any deal,” recalls Holtzman, who as a young member of the House was a key player in the Judiciary Committee’s investigation of the Watergate scandal.
“The fact that important questions could be posed directly to the President and the fact that the President was willing to face down his severest critics in public were healthy things for our country. And, not even the staunchest Republicans complained that the presidency was being demeaned.”
By recalling the history, Holtzman reminds us that President Bush could, and should, simply appear before the 9/11 Commission. There is no Constitutional crisis here. There is no dangerous precedent that could be established. And there is no question of proportionality–certainly, the intensity of the demands for an explanation of the Nixon pardon can appropriately compared with those for an explanation of how the current administration responded to terrorist threats before and after the September 11, 2001 attacks. “As with the Nixon pardon, the events of 9/11 have caused huge national concern,” explains Holtzman. “The victims’ families–as well as millions of others–have asked why it happened and what if anything could have been done to avert the tragedy. These are simple, reasonable questions.”
The best response to those simple, reasonable questions, Holtzman argues, would be for Bush to volunteer to testify in public and under oath to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States.
“Bush would be wise to take a page out of Ford’s book. Americans could then decide themselves whether to agree or disagree with Bush’s pre-9/11 conduct. They want to trust their President. They want to know that he acted with the best of motives, that he used good judgment and that he is a leader–in other words, that as chief executive, he knows when and how to mobilize the government to take action,” Holtzman asserted, in an opinion piece she wrote this week for the New York Daily News.
“If Bush refuses to answer reasonable questions in public, the indelible impression is left that he has something to hide. That impression is reinforced by the White House’s insistence that Vice President Cheney sit with Bush at the hearing. The President cannot afford to convey the image that he is afraid to appear on his own. And neither the 9/11 Commission nor the public should permit a behind-closed-door session for anything except national security information. The same principle should have applied to the testimony of former President Bill Clinton. “
Holtzman’s wise comments beg one question: Why didn’t anyone think to put this former member of Congress and native New Yorker on the 9/11 commission? There are a number of commissioners who share her experience–including, of course, Richard Ben-Veniste, who headed US Justice Department’s Watergate Task Force from1973 to 1975. But it would seem that the commission could use someone who recognizes, as Holtzman does, that: “There is no better crucible than a public hearing to help ensure that the truth will come out.”