Perhaps it was the image of Jeb Bush expounding on the future of the Republican Party or Condoleezza Rice channeling her inner Richard Nixon with the imperial logic that “by definition, if it was authorized by the President, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”
But what is increasingly clear is that the modern Republican Party – with its unwillingness to face up to its responsibility for many of today’s calamities and the crimes of its leaders – has become a clear and present danger to the founding principles of the United States, and to the nation’s security.
The issue is not “rebranding” – as the mainstream news media endlessly says – but accountability. The concern should be more about the Republican past than its future or, put differently, whether the GOP deserves a future considering what it has done in the recent past.
Yes, I know that former Secretary of State Rice later clarified her remarks to assure us that she wasn’t echoing Nixon’s famous claim that “when the President does it, that means it is not illegal.” But the truth is that Nixon’s assertion of above-the-law presidential powers was at the core of George W. Bush’s unbridled view of executive authority for eight years.
Rice wasn’t just parroting Nixon, but the views of her deeply admired leader, Bush. According to the Bush administration’s recently released secret legal memos, Bush was a power onto himself with the authority to ignore all laws and all meaningful constitutional rights of citizens.
For instance, in an Oct. 23, 2001, memo, Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo declared that Bush could order spying on and military attacks against U.S. domestic targets at his own discretion as Commander in Chief.
Yoo added, almost in passing, that the President also could abrogate the rights of free speech and a free press.
"The current campaign against terrorism may require even broader exercises of federal power domestically," Yoo said.
Another Yoo memo, dated June 27, 2002, essentially voided the Sixth Amendment’s right of a trial by jury, the ancient protections of habeas corpus, and a federal law guaranteeing Americans public trials. In the memo, Yoo asserted that Bush had the power to declare American citizens “enemy combatants” and detain them indefinitely.
So, while it may be true that Bush’s lawyers put themselves through legal contortions in July and August of 2002 to explain why the near-drowning of waterboarding and other brutal tactics weren’t torture, the theories were already in place for Bush to do whatever he wanted, regardless of traditional readings of federal law and the U.S. Constitution.
One must view Rice’s comments last week at Stanford University about Bush’s power “by definition” to declare certain actions not “torture” in the context of Bush’s regal view of his “plenary” – or total – powers as Commander in Chief.
Bush even believed that he could change reality simply through assertion. My favorite example was in July 2003 when Bush began justifying his invasion of Iraq by saying “we gave [Saddam Hussein] a chance to allow the [United Nations] inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in. And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power.”
Bush would repeat this lie over and over for the next five years, but the reality was that Hussein had let the U.N. inspectors into Iraq in fall 2002 to search wherever they wished for WMD and that Bush forced the inspectors out in March 2003 to make way for the invasion. Despite these well-known facts, the Washington press corps never challenged Bush on his lie.
In other words, Rice’s “by definition” remark wasn’t made in a vacuum. Her Nixon-like phrasing reflected the Bush concept of the imperial presidency, which had evolved into Republican orthodoxy since the days of Nixon.
Bush could define “torture” anyway he wanted, much as he could change the history of the U.N. inspectors not being allowed into Iraq.
And just because the Republicans and the right-wing news media have spent the last 100-plus days bewailing Democrat Barack Obama’s "dictatorial" tendencies (because he has intervened to steer the economy away from the cliff) doesn’t mean the GOP has suddenly become committed to the Constitution and the rule of law. Hypocrisy is not the same as principle.
If the Republicans truly have had a conversion on the issue of presidential power, they might want to start by condemning Bush’s eight years of trampling on the Founders’ vision of a constitutional Republic with inalienable rights for all – and checks and balances for government leaders. Instead, the GOP has resisted any meaningful inquiry into Bush’s abuses of power.
This Republican trait of refusing to acknowledge how the party has violated the nation’s core principles, from limited executive power to honest elections, remains one of the most alarming aspects of GOP behavior in recent decades.
There has been a win-at-all-cost and never-say-sorry approach that can be traced back at least to 1968 when candidate Nixon sabotaged President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War peace talks to secure a narrow victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Significance of Nixon’s Treason.”]
When Nixon’s re-election campaign chose dirty tricks again in 1972 with the bugging of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate building and got caught, Nixon eventually was forced to resign, in August 1974, and the Republican Party was punished at the polls that fall. But the lesson learned was not “don’t do it,” but rather “make sure you don’t get caught next time.”
Essentially, the Republican Party absorbed Nixon’s scorched-earth political style, along with his strategic insights about using “wedge” issues, such as the “Southern strategy” which exploited the white backlash against Democratic-supported civil rights laws.
As the GOP emerged from the Watergate debacle, top Republicans also grasped the need to build a media infrastructure that would not only push right-wing ideas but push the nation’s hot buttons: demonizing gays, feminists, liberals and anyone else who got in the way.
George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign – conceived by Lee Atwater – became the ugly template for how to demean and destroy an opponent, a tactical approach that was later directed against a sitting President after Democrat Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992.
The Republicans hounded Clinton for nearly his entire eight years in office, including having the House impeach him in 1998 for lying about a sexual relationship (although he survived a Senate trial in 1999). [For details, see Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
The GOP’s pugnacious style continued through Campaign 2000 when Vice President Al Gore was routinely denounced as a liar (an accusation aided and abetted by false reporting from both right-wing and mainstream news outlets).
Later, as Gore’s narrow national election victory was being overturned by George W. Bush’s campaign team in Florida in November-December 2000, national Republicans even dispatched teams of rioters to disrupt recounts and intimidate vote-counters.
Though Bush had lost the national popular vote and apparently would have lost in Florida if all legally cast votes were counted, Republican partisans on the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the vote tally and effectively handed Bush the White House. After the recount battle ended, Bush joked, “If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier – so long as I’m the dictator.” [For details on Election 2000, see our book, Neck Deep.]
Then, over the next eight years, Bush and his administration rode roughshod over the country, enacting a radical right-wing agenda, which included massive tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and – after the 9/11 attacks – sought to consolidate Republican power in what was supposed to become a one-party state with Democrats kept around only for show.
Bush’s chief political adviser Karl Rove talked boastfully about creating a permanent Republican majority, which was advanced by a politicized Justice Department that pressed for high-profile indictments of Democratic groups and officials prior to elections. Rove’s operations also targeted Bush’s critics, everyone from former Ambassador Joseph Wilson to the Dixie Chicks.
Only as the Bush administration’s disasters mounted – open-ended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the bungled emergency response when Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, not to mention systemic problems with health care, the environment, gaping budget deficits and a shrinking middle class – did Republican triumphalism begin to fade.
However, even after the Republicans lost elections in 2006 and 2008 – and the U.S. economy teetered on the brink of another Great Depression in the final months of Bush's presidency – the GOP demonstrated no meaningful remorse. Instead, Republicans continued to rely on their old tactics of angry rhetoric and attack politics.
As Barack Obama tried address the multiple crisis that Bush had left behind, pundits in the right-wing news media talked ominously about the possible need for violent insurrection to resist Obama’s “socialism” or what Fox News’ Glenn Beck called “progressive fascism.”
Congressional Republicans voted almost unanimously against every major piece of legislation that Obama proposed to address short- and long-term national problems. It was, as some observed, like watching the arsonist who set the fire throwing rocks at the firefighters who tried to put out the blaze.
Which brings us to the central role of George W. Bush’s younger brother Jeb at a Saturday event in Arlington, Virginia, launching a new Republican policy group called the National Council for a New America.
As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush and his inner circle orchestrated the thwarting of the voters’ will in 2000 to ensure that his brother ended up in the White House. And the Bush family’s contempt for democracy and the rule of law goes back much further, indeed many decades.
One could start with Prescott Bush’s collaboration with the Nazis before World War II. His son, George H.W. Bush, tried to bottle up the Watergate scandal for Richard Nixon in 1973-74, shut down investigations of U.S. intelligence abuses as CIA director in 1976, collaborated in secret contacts with Iran (behind President Jimmy Carter’s back) in 1980, oversaw off-the-books covert operations regarding Iran and Iraq in the 1980s, authorized dirty-tricks campaigns in 1988 and 1992, and completed the Iran-Contra cover-up with six pardons before leaving office. [See Secrecy & Privilege.]
After the stolen election of 2000 and eight years of George W. Bush’s imperial presidency, the notion of the Republicans turning back to the Bush family for advice on charting a future course is further evidence that the GOP has little understanding of why so many Americans now view the Republican Party as a threat to the Republic.
If the Republicans really wanted to learn from the past, they would begin by joining with independent-minded Democrats and other citizens in seeking a thorough investigation not only of George W. Bush’s presidency but of the secret history of the recent political era.
A truth and reconciliation commission would make the most sense if it also encompassed the decades of the Cold War when the theories of unlimited presidential power took root and when excessive secrecy quietly became a lethal threat to the democracy.
Such an inquiry would, of course, embarrass Democrats, too, both for acts of commission and omission. But the Republicans – with their unrepentant arrogance and flagrant abuses of power – would have proportionately more to to apologize for and more to learn from.
So, it’s clear that such a truth commission will never happen.
However bleak their current political dilemma, the Republicans remain confident that their many allies in the right-wing news media – and the many careerists in the mainstream press – will protect them.
The only accountability may come if most Americans turn their back on the reckless Republicans, perhaps opening space for the emergence of a new political party, one that may represent classic conservative positions without the overlay of right-wing economic extremism, religious fundamentalism and monarchical attitudes about presidential power.
Perhaps such a replacement for the Republican Party might come to respect and defend the Republic.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on May 5, 2009.