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  • Presidential Power

    William Fisher

    By William Fisher.

    There must be something in the air when a person gets to be President.

    These leaders spend their entire lives rhapsodizing about checks and balances, due process, transparency and the rule of law. Yet five minutes after their inauguration you hear them beginning to distance themselves (that’s Washington-speak for deniability) from these foundational truths.

    Presidents always seem to come up with tiny reasons why the whole promise can’t be kept today, but surely will be kept soon. These days we hear a lot about compromise being the reason. No one side in a compromise can have 100% of what he/she wants, or has been promised. So we’re all exhorted to settle for a little less than we were expecting. Months later, we learn down the road (where the can is) that the whole production has been scrapped – our leaders worked really hard perfecting their initial press release, a small group of them held a news conference, it made cable news, and now it’s on to matters of greater moment.

    It is said that in Washington, the most dangerous place to be is between a politician and a camera. Well, not always. When our statesmen and women have fully distanced themselves from whatever promise they made, it’s time for another recess, not another camera.

    Why do they do what they do? Well, a lot of folks in Washington think it’s nothing more than a naked play for more and more Presidential power. Others think a stronger President will be more successful politically. Still other think a President’s motivation plays a big role: The more power he gets, the better he will be able to protect the people he’s sworn to protect.

    This is nothing new. It’s happened to almost all our Presidents, even to some we now think of as transformational. The Constitutional Rights Foundation tells us that when John Adams succeeded George Washington as president in 1797, the Federalist Party had controlled Congress and the rest of the national government from the beginning of the new nation. Adams and the other Federalists believed that their political party was the government. The Federalists believed that once the people had elected their political leaders, no one should publicly criticize them.

    Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which had stiff implications – and jail terms – for critics of John Adams, whom most of us now think of as one of our great presidents, regardless of political party.

    Lincoln didn’t escape the bubble either. In the first year of our Civil War, Lincoln suspended use of the writ of habeas corpus – one of our oldest and most revered legal principals. “By stripping the courts of habeas jurisdiction over detainees, the U.S. would be signaling to the rest of the world that it is not bound by the rule of law in its treatment of them,” says Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch.

    Our 28th President, Woodrow Wilson, also belongs in the panoply of American leaders who supported civil liberties being held hostage to the demands of security. The Sedition Act of 1918 extended the Espionage Act of 1917 to cover a broader range of offenses, notably speech and the expression of opinion that cast the government or the war effort in a negative light or interfered with the sale of government bonds. Litigation under this law sent the renowned Socialist political leader, Eugene V. Debs, to prison.

    Wilson was also a supporter of the so-called “Red Raids” by his Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer, and his new sidekick, J. Edgar Hoover. Hundreds of US citizens and others were suspected of being Bolsheviks and were deported.

    And so it went. Franklin Delano Roosevelt uprooted 110,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese citizens and settled them involuntarily in internment camps. In the Cold War following WWII, we had Richard Nixon and the House un-American Affairs Committee and Senator Joe McCarthy witch-hunting people’s lives and decimating careers.

    Later, Bill Clinton came up with “extraordinary rendition,” in which suspected terrorists are kidnapped and flown to countries that practice torture. George W. Bush secretly developed the so-called “enhanced interrogation” programs and their “Black Site” secret prisons, lied to the American people about “warrantless” eavesdropping on the private phone and email traffic of citizens charged with no crime, and then absolved the phone companies of responsibility for illegally helping the government.

    Now, Barack Obama, who promised the most transparent administration in US history, admits he is going to use unmanned aircraft to assassinate those who would harm the U.S., be they citizens or not, whether or not they are close to a recognized battlefield – all without charges, trial, due process, et cetera.

    And scariest of all, he is going to do it alone! No oversight! No court! No accountability.

    Simply put, the “legal memos” notwithstanding, this has to be the most outrageous rape of the Constitution in the history of our country.

    And still worse: According to the polls, the American people like the idea!


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