PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
August 15, 2006

Confronting a Constitutional Crisis

by Jim Newsom

Last week marked the 32nd anniversary of Richard Nixon’s resignation as President of the United States.

At 9:00 pm on the night of August 8, 1974, Nixon sat at his desk and read a televised statement telling the country that he would resign effective at noon the following day. His announcement capped a tumultuous two years that had begun with the arrest of five men caught burglarizing the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel/office complex in the wee hours of June 17, 1972. In between, information about the Nixon administration’s links to those burglars, the coverup of those connections, and a long list of other nefarious activities conducted by the president and his closest aides trickled out in dribs and drabs, thanks to the tenacity of the press and the leadership of the U. S. Congress.

Senate hearings in the summer of 1973 kept the nation riveted to its television sets, and in July, 1974, the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives adopted three Articles of Impeachment—for obstruction of justice, misuse of power and violation of the presidential oath of office, and failure to comply with Congressional subpoenas. There was no doubt that the president would be convicted and removed from office when the Senate convened to consider the charges drawn up by the House. Nixon’s resignation ended a constitutional crisis in which the very foundation of American government was seriously threatened.

When that wrenching two-year period was over, Americans congratulated themselves and their government for withstanding the executive branch’s assault on our constitutionally structured separation of powers and its arrangement of checks and balances. The system worked.

Along the way, though, there had been great fears that the system might fail—Nixon had boldly asserted that the president was essentially above the law, and therefore couldn’t break the law; he used “national security” as an excuse and claimed “executive privilege” in withholding evidence from Congress and the Supreme Court.

It was a strange time, draining for the country, but in the end, through the pressure of the public, the press, the other branches of government, and ultimately, perhaps, Nixon’s own understanding of the Constitution itself, justice did prevail, and our peaceful democratic process—the rule of law rather than the rule of monarchs or armed militias—survived one of its greatest tests.

Thirty two years later, though, our government is being subjected to another difficult test. Another constitutional crisis threatens our long functioning system of checks and balances, and another president believes himself to be above the law. But this time, it’s much more insidious—the issuance of presidential signing statements meant to undermine the meaning of federal laws; the flagrant disregard of international law; the secret “rendition” of individuals to be tortured in faraway lands; the systematic destruction of the American middle class through Robin Hood-in-reverse tax policy; a relentless campaign against science through intimidation, selective editing and disinformation; illegal spying on the activities, phone calls and email of American citizens.

Unlike the far more intelligent Nixon, our current president probably doesn’t actually understand the constitution itself. Like Nixon, however, he is surrounded by aides and henchmen who are hell-bent on wielding maximum power, often in secret, while punishing and intimidating political opponents and the press.

So far, they have gotten away with it. Congress, under the complete control of the president’s political party, has abrogated its duty to keep the executive in check, acquiescing in outrageous assertions, outright lies, wretched misuses of power, and damaging policies and programs that undermine America’s domestic strength and international prestige.

The mainstream press has allowed itself to be cowed into not fulfilling its obligation to fully and accurately report and investigate the policies and activities of the government.

And the citizenry has failed in its duties as well. Instead of being outraged at such unacceptable behavior, many of us are disengaged from what the government is doing to us, for us, and in our name. We’re working too hard, too wrapped up in the difficulties of our own day-to-day lives, or too distracted by silly entertainment and polarizing discourse, to demand accountability from our elected officials.

Four weeks ago, on Tuesday, July 18th, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that President Bush had personally blocked an investigation by the Justice Department into the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program, the one under which the government has been listening to telephone calls and reading emails of American citizens without court approval, in direct contravention of federal law.

The Office of Professional Responsibility, the internal affairs office of the Justice Department, had launched an investigation to determine the extent of that department’s involvement in the illegal activities. But, according to the attorney general, the president himself brought the inquiry to a halt by refusing to grant the necessary security clearance for the investigators, hiding behind that age-old catchall, “national security.”

You haven’t heard much about it in the press. But it’s just the latest revelation in a long string of abuse of power by this administration. The Bushies have taken executive branch arrogance to a new level, ignoring laws and trampling the Constitution. In quashing his own Justice Department’s investigation, George W. Bush joins Richard Nixon as a president personally involved in the coverup of suspected illegal activity.

If our system still worked, this president would be held accountable for his actions and those of his administration. We the people would demand nothing less.

copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.