Libby was an Assistant to the President and top foreign policy advisor to Vice President Cheney who played an important role in the White House, so the indictment is certainly a scandal. But the appearance of scandal may or may not indicate that there has been a serious breach of the public trust. For instance, the House of Representatives bank scandal of the early 1990s was about Representatives getting what amounted to overdraft protection, rather than any illegal benefit obtained at taxpayer expense. Lots of smoke but little fire, despite the significant political fallout.
But if Libby did in fact leak the name purposefully, where does this stack up with other scandals in recent U.S. history?
Throughout U.S. history there have been plenty of scandals over corruption concerning financial misdeeds -- from President Grant’s vice president Schuyler Colfax accepting railroad stock, to Albert Fall’s secretly leasing U.S. oil reserves at Teapot Dome, to Spiro Agnew accepting retrospective kickbacks from his time as Governor of Maryland. But most money scandals fall into what can be considered “petty corruption,” even though the amounts of money involved may be large. Stealing or accepting money illegitimately by public officials is illegal and morally wrong, but it is also petty in the sense that the primary motive is personal greed.
As bad as financial crimes are, they are not as corrupting of the republic as broader political offences of abuse of power (the powers of office) which involve the inappropriate use of governmental power. Abuse of power undermines the very fabric of limited and constitutional government by using the power of the government not merely for personal gain, but for the more insidious ends of staying in office or undermining the political process. Unlike stealing money, abuse of power sets precedents that the other political party or future officials might use as a justification or excuse for their own abuse of power.
Abuse of power is why Watergate and Iran-Contra stand out in our history.
Watergate involved abuse of power when the political campaigns of the opposition party were sabotaged by people working for the President, when the political opposition was illegally wiretapped by the “plumbers,” and when a government agency (the CIA) was used to interfere with an ongoing investigation into crimes. While the cover-up provided the “smoking gun” that caused Nixon to resign, the original crimes were very serious.
Iran-Contra also involved an abuse of power when members of the president’s staff tried to accomplish their policy goals extra-constitutionally; that is, by giving financial aid to the Contras when it was explicitly against the law to do so. President Reagan escaped impeachment by cooperating with investigators in Congress and the executive branch who found no direct presidential involvement in the illegal diversion of funds from Iran to the Contras in Nicaragua.
President Clinton’s impeachment grew out of his affair with an intern, which was not a crime. But he lied under oath in a sexual harassment case hearing that was later thrown out of court for lack of merit. His lies were wrong, and the House impeachment team made a strong argument that the president’s lies undermined the rule of law. But Clinton’s lies, as bad as they were, were not an abuse of power per se as was the case with Watergate and Iran-Contra. One potential abuse of power in the Clinton administration was the 1993 inappropriate access to FBI background checks on Republicans from the previous administration. If it could have been shown that this was ordered by high officials in the administration and used for political purposes, it would have been a serious abuse of power.
Which brings us back to Lewis Libby. The target of his (alleged) attack was Joseph Wilson who had criticized the administration for seemingly having ignored the report on his trip to Niger during which he concluded that Niger had probably not sold uranium oxide (“yellowcake”) to Iraq. Wilson was charge’ d’affairs in Baghdad in 1990 and had been appointed ambassador to several countries in Africa by President George H.W. Bush. He was sent by the CIA to Niger to determine whether such a transaction had taken place. After a week in Niger, having consulted with the U.S. ambassador there and Niger officials, he reported back to the CIA that “it was highly doubtful that any such transaction had ever taken place.”
After the invasion of Iraq when no WMD seemed to be evident, Wilson wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times (on July 6, 2003) describing his trip and conclusions. He questioned the assertions by the administration about Saddam’s nuclear capacity because the findings from his trip seemed to undermine those claims. On July 14, columnist Robert Novak said in a column that Wilson’s wife, “Valerie Plame, is an Agency operative on weapons of mass destruction,” and that “two senior administration officials” told him that she had suggested sending Wilson to Niger. It is illegal knowingly to disclose the name of an undercover CIA agent (though at the time Plame was back at Langley and not in the field). Libby is suspected of being one of the “senior administration officials” who disclosed her name to Novak.
If Libby (or Karl Rove, who is still under investigation) did indeed leak Plame’s name and position to Novak, why is this a case of abuse of power rather than merely the usual political payback? White House officials and others often leak information intended to undermine the credibility of political adversaries. The difference here lies in the way in which it was done. The accuracy of Wilson’s report was not refuted, nor was his personal credibility attacked by the leaking of his wife’s name and position. If his trip to Niger was suggested by his wife, that had nothing to do with Wilson’s credibility or his findings. That Plame was currently an analyst rather than an agent does not mitigate the national security problem.
It would not have been a legal issue if White House operatives had argued that Wilson’s conclusions were wrong or even that he was incompetent to make the judgments that he did. But they didn’t; they (allegedly) blew his wife’s cover. Thus the message was: if you cross us or challenge the president, we will get you; and we will not hesitate to harm your wife’s career, and we will go so far as to undermine national security assets and (possibly) break the law in order to get back at you.
The Plame leak (if true) may not seem to be in the same class as Watergate or Iran-Contra, but blowing a clandestine agent’s cover is a serious matter that undercuts her usefulness to the defense of the United States. Her life as well as any contacts or networks she had developed throughout her career may have been put in jeopardy. Such revelations can have deadly consequences. Furthermore, she was working on nuclear proliferation, which has taken on new urgency since 9/11.
But since Libby was accused of lies and obstruction of justice rather than of the leak itself, is it fair to prosecute him for lying? The prosecutor argues that lying under oath, especially to a grand jury investigating a serious crime, is a serious crime in itself. Certainly the punishment for these felonies could add up to decades in jail for Libby. President Clinton, after all, was impeached for lying under oath.
Political judgments may end up to be just as important as the legal outcome of Libby’s trial – for President Bush, if not for Mr. Libby. The political judgment about the legitimacy of prosecuting Libby for lying or conspiracy turns on how strong the evidence is that he was involved in revealing Plame’s name for political purposes (for instance was he lying to protect others?). If the public is convinced that he did not knowingly leak her name and just made honest mistakes in his answers to the grand jury, prosecuting him for lying has less political legitimacy, regardless of the legal case. If on the other hand, the public believes that he did knowingly leak her name for political purposes, his actions may be judged harshly as an abuse of power, regardless of the outcome of the legal proceedings. One unknown factor is whether future charges will be levied against the President’s deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove.
It may well be that that the success of President Bush’s second term will hinge on whether the public decides if we are dealing with “smoke” or “fire.”
Note: This piece first ran in Newsday.
I am happy to welcome to our ranks historian Bill Brands (aka: H.W. Brands). Bill is the Dickson, Allen, Anderson Centennial Professor at the University of Texas in Austin, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1985.
He is the author of three biographies of American presidents: a short biography of Woodrow Wilson (part of the Schlesinger series), and full-scale biographies of Teddy Roosevelt, and Andrew Jackson. His range includes books on Texas, the Cold War, gold, Ben Franklin, and the failures of the Great Society. He is the author of the Wages of Globalism: Lyndon Johnson and the Limits of American Power and the editor of The Foreign Policies of Lyndon Johnson: Beyond Vietnam. He also edited the Selected Letters of Theodore Roosevelt.
He is currently busy giving interviews about his Jackson biography, which has won rave reviews.
On or about June 12, 2003, LIBBY was advised by the Vice President of the United States that Wilson’s wife worked at the Central Intelligence Agency in the Counterproliferation Division. LIBBY understood that the Vice President had learned this information from the CIA.
This conversation is critical. It strains credulity to think that at the time Libby would not have indicated to his boss that he already knew Mrs. Wilson's identity from reporters if that were the case (and the calls with reporters were only beginning; the first newspaper story about the case was in May, the second occurred the day of this conversation and the others a month later when Novak got involved and others followed). This would mean that Cheney knew at that moment the actual state of Libby's knowledge. The question then becomes, Did Cheney know that Libby was telling the FBI and the grand jury that he learned Mrs. Wilson's identity from reporters? If he did, then he countenanced his top aide's dissembling, which is a crime since Libby was dissembling to the FBI and the grand jury.
It is certainly conceivable that Libby did not tell Cheney what went on in the grand jury. But isn't it likely that Libby talked to Cheney about the statements he planned to make--or made--to the FBI? The two men are very close. They would have wanted their stories to mesh. But if they talked, what did Libby tell Cheney? Did Libby say he told the FBI the truth--that he'd learned the identity of Mrs. Wilson from government officials (including Cheney)? Or did Libby say he told the FBI he learned the information from reporters? If the former Libby told the truth to Cheney and lied to the FBI. If the latter, Libby lied to his boss and told the truth to the FBI. Given this choice, it's easier to believe that Libby lied to the FBI and told Cheney the truth. But what then did Cheney tell the FBI when he was interviewed?
This raises the additional question of Libby's reason for lying. What was he trying to hide? And was he trying to hide his boss's involvement?
One additional dimension to this matter is worth exploring. In October 2003, two years ago, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that he had asked Libby if he was involved in the leak of Mrs. Wilson's identity. Libby said no, according to McClellan. Is it conceivable that Cheney thought this was true? Cheney knew he'd told Libby her identity. Cheney knew that Libby talked with reporters. Isn't it likely that at that point Cheney went to Libby and asked him directly what the situation was? Again, we are back to the likely scenario that Libby told Cheney the truth.
How bad is it?
There are three types of scandals that strike presidents. They involve either or in some combination: 1. money, 2. power or 3. sex.
Ranking the scandals is difficult, but here are several questions to keep in mind: Did the scandal prevent the president from implementing his agenda? Did the scandal affect his poll numbers? Did the scandal result in the dismissal or resignation of high officials or of large numbers of officials? Did members of the president's own political party agree with the critics of the administration regarding the scope and impact of the scandal or was the scandal largely considered a partisan affair? Was the president's own integrity damaged? Was there a cover-up? Did the scandal damage the president's popularity with his own base? Was there an abuse of power? Did the scandal damage the institution of the presidency? How did the scandal affect the president's reputation and historical legacy?
The greatest scandal in U.S. history remains Watergate. It involved points #1 and #2 and led to all of the unfortunate results outlined in the list above: After the Watergate hearings Nixon was unable to advance his political agenda, his poll ratings collapsed, high officials from the government resigned or were fired (Attorney General Mitchell, Domestic Advisor Erlichman, Chief of Staff Haldeman, White House Counsel Dean, and of course, most seriously, the president himself), Republicans joined Democrats in denouncing the administration, the Republican base lost confidence in Nixon, Nixon's own reputation for integrity, such as it was, was destroyed, the president and aides attempted to cover-up their scandals by lying, Nixon abused his power on innumerable occasions (using the IRS to go after his political enemies, for one), the scandal damaged the institution of the presidency for years, eroding public confidence in public institutions, and the scandal blackened forever Nixon's legacy.
How about other scandals, say, in the last half century? Two other scandals stand out: Iran-contra and the Monica Lewinsky affair.
Iran-contra wholly involved questions related to only one of our three categories: the use of power. And it led to many of the unfavorable results associated with scandals. Reagan's poll numbers dropped precipitously (faster and harder than any other president's in history). Several high officials resigned including the head of the National Security Council and the White House Chief of Staff. The Tower Commission Report, which concluded that Reagan had approved the exchange of arms in return for hostages in violation of American policy, won the bi-partisan backing of members of Congress. Reagan's reputation for honesty was damaged. Several members of his administration (such as Oliver North) lied to Congress about the scandal in an attempt to keep matters secret. The president, knowingly or not, abused his power by seeking an end run around the Boland Amendment, which forbid aid to the contras. In addition, he effectively allowed the foreign policy of the United States to be privatized by financing government operations through the sale of arms to our enemies. And the scandal damaged the institution of the presidency by further undermining public faith in presidents, contributing to American cynicism.
In several important respects the scandal was inferior to Watergate. It did not damage Reagan's ability to get things done, though it paralyzed the administration for about a year. After the scandal broke he delivered his famous call to Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, he succeeded in winning approval for major tax reform, and he helped bring about a new relationship with the Soviet Union, and ultimately helped bring about the USSR's demise. Although historians take the scandal seriously it did not damage Reagan's reputation with the public over the long term. At the time of his death he was considered one of our greatest presidents by many.
The Monica Lewinsky Affair is another scandal that involved questions mainly related to only one of our three categories, this time, of course, being sex. Like Iran-contra it led to many but not all of the unfortunate results associated with scandals. The scandal clearly prevented Clinton from implementing his own agenda--and may have even affected his ability to conduct war (the Kosovo bombing campaign, which occurred during his impeachment battle, was considered suspect by many). The scandal resulted in the resignation of one White House employee (Linda Tripp) and the reassignment and subsequent resignation of a White House intern (Monica Lewinsky). The president was impeached for only the second time in our history. Democrats agreed that the president should not have had sexual relations with an intern and that he disgraced himself and the office by doing so. Clinton's reputation for integrity--again, such as it was--was severely impaired. Clinton himself tried to hide the fact of his adultery from both his wife and cabinet and the country. This constituted a cover-up. Clinton clearly used his power as president to try to intimidate the court system and stop prosecutors from investigating his sex life. (He claimed that he should not be subject to subpoena in the private lawsuit filed by Paula Jones.) The scandal lowered the image of the presidency and seriously affected all assessments--including his own--of his presidency.
At the same time the scandal did not damage his standing among Democrats--or the general public. His poll numbers went up after he was accused of lying about having sex in the Oval Office. Many people believed that he had been hounded by an overzealous partisan prosecutor.
Where does that leave the scandal involving the Bush administration? Because we are at the middle of the scandal cycle it is difficult to make an assessment at this time with confidence. But several generalizations can be made: The scandal is already throwing President Bush off his game, inhibiting his ability to set the national agenda. A high official has resigned; another may be forced to resign later. A cover-up was attempted. The scandal involves a charge of the abuse of power: a public official used his high office to silence a critic by leaking damaging information about his wife. Already the scandal had damaged the presidency by raising anew questions about the integrity of those entrusted with executive power.
Whether the scandal leads to other malodorous effects is as yet unknown. His poll numbers, already low, may sink lower. His base may or may not stand by him. His reputation may be damaged severely depending on what comes out at trial.
Stay tuned, as they say.
In today's WSJ she moans that the wheels seem to be coming off the American trolley. She even suggests that presidents might not be up to all the challenges we face. (Even if hero Ronald Reagan were in the White House, Ms. Noonan?)
In a backward look she acknowledges that JFK faced some harrowing weeks as president: "in one week [he] faced the Soviets, civil rights, the Berlin Wall, the southern Democratic mandarins of the U.S. Senate. He had to face Cuba, only 90 miles away, importing Russian missiles." But: "the difference now, 45 years later, is that there are a million little Cubas, a new Cuba every week. It's all so much more so. And all increasingly crucial. And it will be for the next president, too."
It is this president who is overwhelmed. Not the presidency.
The problem today is Bush as in the late 70s it was Carter.
Carter thankfully was restricted to one term. Bush unfortunately was given a second chance to screw up. He has succeeded so well that the people who put him in office just 11 months ago are having voter's remorse.
Peggy Noonan--face facts. Your president is incompetent for the job to which he was elected.
In a similar vein, when asked about the Fitzgerald investigation on Sunday's episode of Meet the Press, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R–TX), by way of defending the administration and criticizing Fitzgerald, replied: "I certainly hope that if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation were not a waste of time and dollars."
Journalists subsequently pointed out that this wasn’t her view when she spoke in February 1999 in favor of the impeachment of President Bill Clinton because he had betrayed his oath to tell the truth about his private sex acts.
But getting back to the CIA leak case. The real point to make in response to Professor Harleigh, Senator Hutchison, and others who say that those in power never learn that it’s the cover up and not the crime that brings them down is that Rove, Libby, and other administration officials are covering up because—like many other guilty people—if they told the truth they would be confessing to a crime. Hello! That’s why it’s a crime to lie about these matters. It’s not just a “technicality.” It’s just easier to get them on this charge—unless, of course, they had told the truth in the beginning. In any case, most powerful people most of the time get away with the cover up.
Did Bush misspeak? Or are his comments part of a calculated strategy to let Rove twist in the wind should an indictment come down?
He would not be the first president to try to save himself by selling out an advisor. All presidents do this. As Ike said to his press secretary, whom he was sending out to face the press tigers, BETTER YOU THAN ME.
It would seem out of character for this president to display disloyalty. But what else is the explanation? That Bush doesn't understand what he's saying? I don't believe it. This president is, if nothing else, shrewd about politics. This he gets.
Most presidents find it hard to distance themselves from this kind of trouble. Nixon, political as he was, couldn't do it. He hated to fire people. When Haldeman and Erlichman had to go he famously said he felt that he was losing both his arms. He left them in place longer than he should have. Nixon of course thought that he had no choice. He felt that though the prosecutor was going after his aides he was really going after him.
If I were Rove I'd be worried. Bush won't be there to back him up in the event of an indictment.
His long review of Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in this week’s New York Times Book Review really grabbed my interest and left me in a state of wonderment. He tells us how he went into the book resistant to its argument that Mao was a soulless tyrant and the greatest mass murderer of all time, quibbles with its details, finally admits the accuracy of its large argument, but still holds out: “my own sense is that Mao, however monstrous, also brought useful changes to China.” He concludes that Mao may have been “a catastrophic ruler in many, many respects” but after all he gave China land reform, which “like the land reform in Japan and Taiwan, helped lay the groundwork for prosperity today.” And “the emancipation of women and end of child marriages moved China from one of the worst places in the world to be a girl to one where women have more equality than in, say, Japan or Korea.” His “entire assault on the old economic and social structure made it easier for China to emerge as the world’s new economic dragon.”
What achievements! If they cost maybe 70 million lives—OK, cut that figure in half if you think the authors too expansive—it was still good that Mao took control of China. Such things could never have happened if Chiang Kai-shek had remained in control. Right? Oops, what was that bit above about land reform in Taiwan? Not to mention women’s rights and eventual democracy, and a more equitable economy than exists on the mainland.
I can’t help but think of Henry Wallace’s declaration in 1942 that Stalin’s USSR had outpaced the United States in five of the six basic forms of democracy. I can’t help but think that Kristof, like Wallace, is a man of generous impulses and mush-mindness
The first modern Republican president to feel their wrath was Eisenhower. He had actually agreed to run for president only because Taft refused to promise to adhere to an internationalist approach in foreign affairs. Fearful of a return to isolationism Ike agreed to risk his considerable prestige on a run for the White House. But damn those pesky rightwingers kept nipping at his heals. First they almost succeeded in depriving him of the nomination at the 1952 convention. Then they allied with Joe McCarthy, whom Ike loathed. Then they pushed for the Bricker Amendment to the Constitution, which would have tied the hands of presidents in foreign policy. By 1956 Ike had had enough. He got so fed up with the rightwinger attacks on him and his administration that he actually considered forming a third party. At the least he hoped to be able to rid himself of Nixon by putting him in the cabinet and out of the line of succession. (Nixon refused the offer and Ike felt he was stuck with him.)
The next president to feel the wrath of the right was Papa Bush. (Yes, Reagan felt the flames from time to time of rightwing wrath but was always able to douse them easily.) Papa Bush had fought with rightwingers for years in Texas politics. He was obviously uncomfortable with them and they knew it. His compromises with the right always came across as calculated and unconvincing. Gradually through the years he accumulated enough demerits that when he signed the famous big tax increase that doomed his re-election the right bolted--and blasted him.
Now Bush II is feeling the same heat his father and Ike felt.
Good luck, George! You'll need it to survive.
I don’t agree with political scientist John E. Mueller on everything, but I think he may have provided the answer to my question in his classic 1973 book War, Presidents, and Public Opinion. There are, he wrote, five basic independent “variables” or “predictors of presidential popularity”: (1) over time each president will alienate enough minorities to erode his popularity; (2) economic slumps will have the same effect; (3) as will a scandal or two; (4) presidents will also lose popularity during a war in which conditions are similar to the wars in Korea and Vietnam; but (5) the “rally-round-the-flag” variable “will give a president a short-term boost in popularity” (205, 219).
These predictors seem relevant to Bush’s unpopularity: he has probably alienated a critical mass of minorities (even some on the Right oppose his recent Supreme Court nominee), and he has also lost support because of the poor state of the economy (as perceived by the citizenry) and scandals in his administration and in his political party. If variable 4 refers to the War in Iraq, then Bush has lost popularity because this current war generally resembles Korea and/or Vietnam. That leaves variable 5 to give him a boost regarding national security.
Mueller argued that for this variable to work for a president, “a rally point must be associated with an event which (1) is international and (2) involves the United States and particularly the president directly; and it must be (3) specific, dramatic, and sharply focused” (209). My guess is that the 47 percent who give President Bush good marks on his handling of national security continue to associate threats to national security with the specific, dramatic, and sharply-focused international attacks of 9/11 on the United States, which they also associate with the possibility of additional international terror attacks. This perception has produced a positive rally-round-the-flag response for Bush.
If I am right, the question is why? I do not feel safer. He (and his administration) mishandled the lead-up to 9/11. He mishandled the Iraq War, which he has linked to the so-called War on Terror. He mishandled the response to Hurricane Katrina—a disaster that called for responses similar to those required for major terror attacks. The leaders of Homeland Security and FEMA seem inept, etc.
It may be that with regard to the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon, performance doesn’t have to match reality. Maybe it’s just a primal thing: in conditions of perceived danger, fear wins out, and humans, or at least many of them, temporarily rally around their perceived leader and against the “other.”
Because POTUS is a Weblog about presidents, I will try to address this question in relation to persons of power. Leadership, however, should not be confused with the mere possession of power. John W. Gardner, who was both a movement leader and a government official, gave an example of the corporate executive who, with the stroke of a pen, released funds for technology research that subordinates had found to be necessary in order for the corporation to remain competitive. But Gardner argued that the executive’s act in this case was not necessarily an act of leadership; it was an act of power – the power to respond to a widely recognized need. (Should the executive have failed to fund necessary research, however, that could have been considered a failure of leadership.) We might conclude that leadership does not equate with power, but power can facilitate leadership.
If leadership is not synonymous with the possession of power, what are its essential elements?
Writing about Franklin D. Roosevelt, historian and political scientist James M. Burns used Machiavellian criteria. FDR, Burns maintained, was a great leader because he combined the metaphorical lion’s noble courage with the fox’s (sometimes devious) cleverness. FDR, he explained, exhibited courage in surmounting physical disability and in taking on political challenges, and he practiced cleverness in dominating the bureaucracy, outwitting political opponents, and mobilizing political support to overcome the Great Depression and win World War II.
Historian Leonard D. White, a critic of President James Madison’s management of the War of 1812, defined leadership as “a reasoned conception of function and duty,” which partly derives from experience.
Also writing about leadership in war, the nineteenth-century military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz argued that leadership is more than experience, which, as he pointed out, army mules had in abundance. Relevant experience can be useful or even necessary, but leadership primarily consists in “character,” by which Clausewitz meant the mental strength, moral power, and force of will needed at decisive moments to dominate events and crises wisely and intelligently. These are the qualities that Civil War historian T. Harry Williams claimed Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant possessed.
Combining these observations, it might then be said that leadership requires strength of character, a degree of experience, a clear sense of function and duty, the intelligence to understand the problem at hand, cleverness in dealing with obstacles and challenges, and the ability to inspire people and mobilize resources. The latter also implies the will and ability to select capable subordinates of integrity. Furthermore, leadership includes strength of conviction in the face of the slings and arrows of others but also the wisdom to know the difference between conviction and stubbornness. It requires presence of mind when others are confused, selfish, or fearful. It consists in the courage to take political risks, especially the courage to risk losing one’s power or position in the service of a noble or just cause. (I’ll leave it to readers to decide what qualifies as a noble, just cause, which I do not mean in the sense of a crusade. But I do think that the nature of the cause matters, since there have been, as we all know, historical leaders who have led others in pursuit of false or bad causes.) In a democracy, leadership also demands empathy and compassion.
The problems to be overcome in some crises are so great, of course, that leadership alone may not be sufficient. Success comes when there are adequate resources, as well as courageous, clever, and intelligent followers with character, who cooperate in a common, good cause, and who, in a democracy, keep constant watch on their leaders.
This frees the Democrats to bork any future nominee--perhaps Miers's replacement if she either withdraws or fails in the Senate.
That will be a legacy of Bush's that Republicans will long rue.
The Supreme Court has a way of tripping up presidents. Look at the long list of troubled nominations.
LBJ and Fortas.
Nixon and Haynesworth and Carswell.
Reagan and Bork.
Bush I and Souter (who was mislabeled).
And now Bush II and Miers.
Bush II has made the mistake in the Miers case that his father made in selecting Dan Quayle as his running mate.
He apparently just decided to do it--and damn the critics.
Unlike his father Bush II seems to have consulted some people about the nomination before he announced his decision. We know he spoke with Rove who spoke with Dobson.
Bush I selected Quayle without consulting anyone. He wanted to make a big splash and show he was his own man.
He splashed alright. It cost him his re-election fight 4 years later.
Bush II has also made a big splash. It will cost his Republican majority in Congress a few votes and maybe help swing the Senate to Democrats in the next election.
Even as now, one of the most popular varieties of ad hominem debate when Fischer was writing was the argument ad idéologie (although he didn’t call it that), in which at least one of the debaters accuses the other of arguing from his or her ideological bias. Thus, Historical Debater A tells Historical Debater B, “I am objective, you are ideological; therefore, I am fair-minded, moderate, and correct, you are close-minded and partisan.”
Now, in some debates, it may be the case that A really is more neutral, logical, and reliant on evidence than B; in other cases, the reverse may be true. The point, however, is that a debate in which two parties have different conclusions or interpretations cannot advance toward historical truth if either A or B, or both, choose to accuse the other of partisanship. Argument ad idéologie can be effective for Fox News or academic relativists in appealing to their constituents, but it is not, methodologically speaking, an effective approach in getting at historical truth.
Drawing upon my reading of history and theory, my archival research, my interviews of historians, and my statistical surveys of historians’ theories and ideologies spanning at least three decades, I submit these observations:
1. There was an objective past; i.e., a past that truly existed and can be discovered.
2. Every human being, including every historian, possesses an “ideology” and is “partisan” to one degree or another.
3. Historical training and methodology, however, are supposed provide us with an awareness of this attribute of the human condition and a means of muting it; viz, a methodology with which the historian asks significant historical questions, researches relevant evidence, and applies valid historical logic to produce a reasonably truthful or accurate narrative, theory, conclusion, reconstruction, or interpretation of a part of the objective human past.
4. A truthful interpretation is not to be confused with “moderation” or “fairness,” if those two words simply mean presenting “both sides of the story” (of course, historians should be fair-minded or open-minded in considering evidence and in changing his or her mind). In reality—in truth—“both sides” are not usually equally truthful or accurate. Indeed, one side, or one interpretation, may be completely false according to historical logic, evidence, observation, and experience; e.g., Nazi Germany invaded Poland; Poland did not invade Germany, no matter how many times the Third Reich accused Poland of aggression.
5. Controversial conclusions or interpretations can be truthful or correct even if they are controversial—or revisionist, orthodox, partisan, and dissenting, and even if they imply criticism of a sitting president, Democratic or Republican.
I should add: Of course, all politicians make errors in speaking. Ted Sorenson recalled in his bio of JFK that Kennedy was so bone-tired one day on the 1960 campaign trail that he kept repeating himself. Finally he joked that they should put his remarks to music.
Now if only all politicians could joke about their own rhetorical mishaps with as much grace think what a better country this would be.
There is a deeper, less obvious, but very important historian’s dilemma the speech raises as well. Even before I read the speech, just judging from news reports, it was clear to me that this speech was ripe for promiscuous and partisan historical analogizing. Critics of Bush, the war on terror, the Iraqi war, etc. could hardly resist comparing this speech to one of half a dozen LBJ delivered in which he too positioned the Vietnam effort in a broader context of the Cold War and the fight for freedom. These speeches –at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere -- also make for great teaching documents. At the same time, Bush supporters could hardly resist comparing the speech to one of Ronald Reagan’s defiant attacks on the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. In fact, Bush himself mentioned one such speech, Reagan’s 1982 Westminster Speech, as a way of saying, I know the sophisticates of the world think I’m a buffoon, but they were wrong about Reagan, and they are wrong about me.
Now here’s the dilemma – and maybe I’ve been asleep but I have not heard or seen many of our colleagues struggling with this. Where does our responsibility as historians trump our passion as partisans? Should we resist pretending that the past is prologue and using either the Reagan or Johnson speeches to confirm our prejudices? When called on by reporters to offer instant commentary, given 30 to 60 seconds to sound learned and historical, should the pro-Bush historians (er, that might have to be in the singular), and the anti-Bushies simply use the past examples to grind their partisan axes – or do we have some professional responsibility to resist that temptation? As I said, I don’t even see forums where these kinds of questions are discussed – and my fear is that all of us (myself included) all too often use historical camouflage and simply do a better job than most people of gussying up our partisan positions with elaborate historical analogies.
As I write this, I know that some of my profs in graduate school would have answered this question as they answered some of our other “metahistorical” questions -- by talking about judgment and other qualitative measures. And that may be sufficient – the camouflage may be fancy but it often is transparent, and each one of us has to have a sense of boundaries, of integrities, of taste and of judgment. But these qualities rarely mix with modern mass media or modern partisanship, and I just wonder if all of us owe it to ourselves and the broader public to have a deeper, more nuanced, more SELF-CRITICAL conversation about this issue…
2) Sharon Olds, a poet, refused to attend the National Book Festival on September 24, hosted by Laura Bush, because of her opposition to the war in Iraq. In June 1965, poet Robert Lowell created even more headlines when he refused to attend the White House Festival of the Arts, hosted by Lady Bird Johnson, because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam.
3)Today's story of alleged espionage in the White House committed by an FBI analyst may not be the worst such case in recent history. During Nixon's first administration, a yeoman in the Navy stole thousands of documents from the National Security Council for the Joint Chiefs who wanted to learn something about the foreign policies of their ultra-secretive commander and his ultra-secretive national security advisor.
The last president to do so was LBJ, who put his old pal Abe Fortas on the Court.
But the modern record-holder in this regard was probably Harry Truman.
On Richard jensen's conservative list, CNET, Alonzo Hamby, fellow POTUS member, reviewed Truman's lamentable record, starting with the appointment of Chief Justice Vinson:
As for Chief Justice Vinson, he and Truman served in Congress together in the 1930s. Vinson was a widely respected legislator with, as I recall, a special expertise in tax policy. I'm sure he and Truman knew each other and no doubt from time to time sipped bourbon and branch water with their mutual acquaintance, Alben Barkley. Vinson was a Kentuckian, Truman a Missourian with Kentucky ancestry. As Upper South liberal Democrats, they had a lot in common. That said, Vinson was never in Truman's inner circle of close friends, and I'm sure they had little or no contact after Roosevelt made Vinson a federal judge in the late 1930s.
It was Roosevelt who brought Vinson back to Washington in 1943 to take over the Office of Economic Stabilization (replacing Jimmy Byrnes, who took over the newly formed Office of War Mobilization). The appointment was generally praised at the time. He later was named to head OWM after Byrnes quit in early 1945, then Truman appointed him to succeed Henry Morgenthau as Secretary of the Treasury and a year later made him Chief Justice. As I recall, each of these appointments won general approval at the time. And Vinson, of course, became quite close to Truman during his presidency. So in the end he was a friend (or crony), but not in the beginning. Roosevelt, not Truman, was responsible for bringing him back to Washington and making him an important figure.
None of this is to say that Vinson was a great Chief Justice, although we may perhaps take some pity on anyone charged with bringing coherence to a court that included Felix Frankfurter, Hugo Black, and Robert Jackson. But Vinson got there on what seemed at the time to be his merits.
As for Truman's other Supreme Court appointments, I am not going to accuse any of them of being distinguished. Minton and Burton, I think, were perfectly adequate, Clark was marginal. And, yes, all three were Truman cronies and got there for that reason.
Instead, it seems to me that the Democrats have simply mimicked the Republicans’ tactics, and then some. Is there anyone who was outraged by the way Republicans pursued Bill Clinton (yes, that was his name!) who is equally outraged by the way Democrats have now pursued Tom Delay? Or, yet again, do we see that all the high falutin’ principles, all the self-righteousness, all the political posturing, ultimately comes down to a late nineteenth-century, Tammany Hall, Mr. Dooley calculus of “is he (or she!) for me or agin’ me…?” (and yes, I know, such blind partisanship was not peculiar to that period, it’s just that’s the way we tend to teach it, focusing on that period as the one of uber-corruption in the American republic).
Will obliviousness be President George W. Bush’s defense in the Valerie Wilson-CIA Leak affair?
All of the evidence revealed to the public thus far points to Karl Rove (the president’s top political adviser) and “Scooter” Libby (Vice President Richard Cheney’s top aide) as the sources of the leak, which, in violation of the law, identified Mrs. Wilson as a CIA operative. Now, of course, we should presume innocence until the suspects are proven guilty. But if we hypothesize that Rove and Libby might be guilty, doesn’t that implicate the president? Might he be guilty, too? Or was he too dumb and out of the loop? (By the way, I have a house in St. Bernard parish I’d like to sell.)
And what’s the deal with the press’s continuing references to Valerie Wilson as Valerie Plame? Joe Wilson, her husband, has said that she goes by the name, Mrs. Valerie Wilson. Didn’t the Plame name game begin with Robert Novak, who wrote the original column identifying her as a CIA operative? Why? Was it a subtle effort to suggest that Valerie and Joe were so liberal and disrespectful of marriage that she uses her maiden name? It’s all very strange.