Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Dignity of the Office

I wrote this in the very beginning of February, but for some reason I never posted it. Now that the 40th anniversary (40th? No way!) of RFK's assassination — immediately after winning the June 4 California primary made him the leading candidate for the Democratic Party's 1968 presidential nomination — has been observed, it seems timely once again to post this -- as the pundits are desperately trying to get the Vice-Presidential nominees tied up. (And, yes, I was again going to post this 2 weeks ago!)

29 January 2008

Over at Mere Comments, the blog for Touchstone magazine ("a Journal of Mere Christianity"), Prof. Anthony Esolen reflects upon a friend's comment that he intends to vote for Caligula's horse, Incitatus, in the upcoming primary, drawing upon a popular legend that the despotic Roman Emperor appointed his favorite horse to the Roman Senate. The legend may or may not be true, but given some of the things said by those running for President of the United States, particularly in this age of incessant campaigning, voting for someone with genuine horse-sense doesn't sound quite so bad.

Prof Esolen concludes:
Would Incitatus be "presidential"? Well, I do think so. He's not ambitious, in the old sense of the word, meaning that he doesn't make a nuisance of himself, running around trying to scramble up votes. William McKinley had that old Roman suspicion of the vice in mind when he refused to campaign for his re-election, appearing once in a while to give speeches from his porch, and that's all. He believed that electioneering was beneath the dignity of a sitting president. But in this regard we may be wiser than McKinley. If Bill Clinton did nothing else, he taught us that precious little is beneath the dignity of a sitting president.

Meanwhile, here it is the end of January and the political pundits have their knickers in a twist because the nominations for both parties are still unsettled. Heaven forfend that the conventions actually have something serious to do, like decide who the Party's nominee might be. I remember when California's June primary was something very important, though by the time I was old enough to vote, it had lost that importance.

But as one of the Youth for Reagan who rode several Continental Trailways busses from LA to Kansas City in August 1976 (I was 17, not quite old enough to vote), I actually attended a Convention where it was not certain who the Party's nominee would be. And it was more than "fun" for political junkies. It was a time for delegates and Party officials to get together, talk about differences (or perceived differences), and hash them out in a way that would enable them to work together to elect a President.

And it worked. Well, President Ford wasn't elected, but he very nearly pulled off a victory that no one was expecting, especially in the Summer of 1976.

C'mon, folks! Let the Party Conventions, and not the media punditry, do the work of nominating the Parties' tickets and setting campaign themes. Please!!!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Remember the Maine!!

Or: Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.*

The New York Times editorialized on Friday:
The Truth About the War

It took just a few months after the United States’ invasion of Iraq for the world to find out that Saddam Hussein had long abandoned his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. He was not training terrorists or colluding with Al Qaeda. The only real threat he posed was to his own countrymen.

It has taken five years to finally come to a reckoning over how much the Bush administration knowingly twisted and hyped intelligence to justify that invasion. On Thursday — after years of Republican stonewalling — a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee gave us as good a set of answers as we’re likely to get.

The report shows clearly that President Bush should have known that important claims he made about Iraq did not conform with intelligence reports. In other cases, he could have learned the truth if he had asked better questions or encouraged more honest answers.

The report confirms one serious intelligence failure: President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials were told that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons and did not learn that these reports were wrong until after the invasion. But Mr. Bush and his team made even that intelligence seem more solid, more recent and more dangerous than it was.

The report shows that there was no intelligence to support the two most frightening claims Mr. Bush and his vice president used to sell the war: that Iraq was actively developing nuclear weapons and had longstanding ties to terrorist groups. It seems clear that the president and his team knew that that was not true, or should have known it — if they had not ignored dissenting views and telegraphed what answers they were looking for.

Over all, the report makes it clear that top officials, especially Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, knew they were not giving a full and honest account of their justifications for going to war.
There's more, and you can read it all here. The Times concludes:
We cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Bush lied about Iraq. But when the president withholds vital information from the public — or leads them to believe things that he knows are not true — to justify the invasion of another country, that is bad enough.
At this point, let me observe it wasn't the editorial that caught my attention. It was the Letters to the Editor which were highlighted on my Google News page, headlined "The False Trail That Led to War" -- five letters in all published in the paper which you can read here. I went to the editorial only after reading the letters and noting that each of them had missed a key point. The same point completely missed in the Times' own editorial.

Let's take a closer look. In the first letter, Alan Kennedy-Shaffer of Mechanicsburg, Penn. writes in part,
Two years ago, I randomly sampled the administration’s speeches on Iraq and reached almost identical conclusions to the ones reached by the Senate Intelligence Committee and your editorial. It’s all there in my 2006 book, “Denial and Deception: A Study of the Bush Administration’s Rhetorical Case for Invading Iraq.”

The only difference is that I analyzed hundreds of speeches and public pronouncements, not just five major speeches, as in the Senate committee report. What surfaced was a clear pattern of denial and deception among top White House officials before, during and after the initial invasion of Iraq.

Especially disturbing to me was the fact that President Bush and his pals knew, or should have known, that Saddam Hussein had no nuclear weapons and no ties to Al Qaeda, and posed little threat to the United States.

The latest revelations are nothing new — they simply highlight what the administration has been denying all along.
In other words, "Dear New York Times, thanks for reporting the obvious."

Then there's Marcus Wiesner of Montclair, N.J.
What was cloudy became clear, what became clear has become crystal-clear: President Bush and his coterie misled the country into a war in Iraq that has cost the lives of more than 4,000 American servicemen and women, physically and mentally maimed thousands more, cost hundreds of billion dollars and damaged our moral standing in the world.

This action has placed a stain on our nation that only a new administration and a new direction can begin to erase.

If there were a low watermark for judging America’s past and present leadership, the Bush presidency would surely stand near the bottom.
Yeah, "It's all President Bush's fault."

Mark R. Godburn of North Canaan, Conn., just barely hints at something interesting, but then backs away from something that is very important:
The Senate committee report does show that Saddam Hussein was thought to at least have chemical and biological weapons programs. It is a fact that Democrats such as Senator John D. Rockefeller IV considered the Iraqi dictator to be a clear and present danger. It’s true that former President Bill Clinton thought that removing Saddam Hussein was the right move, as did Prime Minister Tony Blair.

All of these people could not have been part of a devious Bush plot to invade Iraq for oil or to spread democracy to the Middle East.

The decision to go to war at that time must be remembered in the light of the post-9/11 world, with the real fears of new terrorist attacks, anthrax in the postal system and so on.

There was bipartisan and worldwide belief that Saddam Hussein had to be dealt with. In that case, what was the Bush administration supposed to do? Voice every doubt and concern? List every argument that said Mr. Hussein was a threat with one that said maybe he wasn’t?

If every pro and con had been given, there would have never been public or press support for dealing with the dictator. The dangers of global warming are being overstated for the same reason.
That is, "America had 9/11 blinders on, and everybody was saying the same thing." Close, but no cigar.

Benjamin Solomon of Evanston, Ill. also makes an interesting observation, but is unable to draw a helpful conclusion:
The larger truth I draw from your forthright editorial about the Senate Intelligence Committee report is that a democracy can commit not just blunders but horrendous wrongful acts with disastrous consequences for another nation.

America regards itself as the greatest and most powerful democracy that ever existed and the advocate of democracy for other nations. Yet it is the clear thrust of the editorial that its chosen leaders abused the power of their offices to conquer and devastate another country that was not a threat to us.

How can we redeem ourselves? What do we owe the Iraqi people? What can we say to the families of our dead and wounded soldiers? Can we continue to promote the virtues of democracy to the rest of the world?

And we still have the daunting problem of extricating ourselves from the scene of the crime.
Finally, Jim Bridges of Washingtonville, N.Y. (whom the Times identifies as a Unitarian minister) actually just misses a bull's-eye, but is too fixated on another target to notice:
Thinking back to the time before the days of “shock and awe,” I recall the largest demonstrations in the world against the proposed Iraq war. I also recall numerous arguments within the antiwar movement against attacking Iraq. Those arguments, positions and reasoning received scant notice from the news media. It was as if they did not exist.

In sharp contrast, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and others received much news coverage and media exposure on their arguments for war. The Senate committee’s report basically leads one to conclude that the antiwar movement was correct in its prewar analyses. The unasked question is: When will America learn to listen to the peace movement?
No, Rev. Bridges, that is not the unasked question. Note again the title of this entry. I learned "Remember the Maine!" as a child learning American History in the public schools. That slogan, fanned by the Yellow Journalists of 1898, got us in the Spanish-American War. No one seemed particularly interested in finding out what really caused the USS Maine to explode in Havana Harbor. It was "obvious" that the Spanish were to blame.

As the election of 2002 was being contested, suddenly in autumn the top thing was to get at somebody to pay for 9/11. And not just for President Bush and his neo-conservative advisors. For after years of reporting how the Kurds in northern Iraq were for all practical purpose independent of the Ba'athist regime in Baghdad; after years of reporting how the US Air Force had been controlling Iraqi airspace ever since the Gulf War of 1991 and that via our daily fly-overs under the authority of the first President Bush, all 8 years of President Clinton; and the current President; after years of reporting that Saddam Hussein was a secularist who was viewed by Arab Muslims, especially jihadists, as an infidel worthy of death; suddenly by October 2002 all we heard and read from the mainstream press -- the TV Networks, the big newspapers, even National Public Radio -- was how Iraq was working hand-in-glove with those who though 9/11 hadn't gone far enough. And the New York Times was chiming in with all the rest.

The only voice against this non-stop, full-fledged, bi-partisan, media-charged press for invading Iraq seemed to be Sen. Wellstone -- who was killed shortly before the election when his airplane crashed. Yes, every once in a while, there would be buried somewhere in a story that, say Sen. Hagel (a Republican!) was raising questions. There were a few other voices, too, from both parties in both Houses of Congress. But that wasn't being reported. It was Remember the Maine! all over again. But it wasn't Yellow Journaliism leading the charge. It was all the American press corps -- including the Gray Lady -- fanning the flames for war, while ignoring all that they had been reporting for years.

Only after Congress gave President Bush "authority" to invade Iraq (question: Why has Congress not "declared war" since Dec. 1941?) -- which, indeed, he eagerly sought; only after the 2002 mid-term election was concluded; only after American troops were being committed to points half-way around the world... other words, only after it was too late to stop the invasion, did the press, led by the New York Times, begin to report on those who questioned the conventional wisdom. And even then, those reports focussed on where the President was (or might be) wrong -- never on the collective amnesia of the Fourth Estate.

An amnesia that deliberately continues to this very day. Everybody (says the Times, the letters to the editor, even the US Senate) is blame, it seems, for getting us into this botched war and occupation. Except, of course, the press that poured gasoline on the spark in the first place, and counts on us not remembering it -- for they certainly won't.

So much for "The Truth About the War."

*- With apologies to Mark Twain.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A "Living Constitution" Is Dead Constitution

Following is a review of Ron Paul's book, The Revolution: A Manifesto, by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review. It's kind of strange to suggest that the establishment in 2008 of constitutional government in these United States would be "revolutionary." If Dr. Paul's book is half as eloquent as this review, I agree: it is a must read.

The review is found in the Summer 2008 issue of
The Mises Review.

In his historic campaign for president, Ron Paul again and again held up the Constitution as a benchmark to judge the policies of the American government. For this, some libertarians criticized him. Was Paul not guilty of "constitution worship"? What has a document that began as an effort to replace the Articles of Confederation with a more effective and powerful central government to do with libertarianism? Indeed, some of his most severe critics claimed, Ron Paul did not qualify as a libertarian at all.

In The Revolution: A Manifesto, Ron Paul responds magnificently to this false and irresponsible charge. He is well aware of the limited value of the Constitution: it is a far from ideal arrangement. Nevertheless, it remains the fundamental law of the United States and, if interpreted correctly, provides an excellent means to check the depredations of a government that violates its provisions.
To be sure, the U.S. Constitution is not perfect. Few human contrivances are. But it is a pretty good one, I think, and it defines and limits the scope of government. When we get into the habit of disregarding it, ... we do so at our peril. (p. 67)
To say this at once raises a new question: how is the Constitution to be interpreted? Paul answers that it must be read in a way consistent with the underlying principle of the document, the promotion of freedom. In this connection, he cites effectively a speech by Daniel Webster that condemned conscription as unconstitutional. The Constitution does not mention the subject at all: how then could he be so sure that the government lacked this power? Webster said that since the Constitution aims to promote freedom, no infringement of freedom could possibly be constitutional unless the document explicitly mandated it.
A free government with arbitrary means to administer it is a contradiction; a free government without adequate provisions for personal security is an absurdity; a free government, with an uncontrolled power of military conscription, is a solecism, at once the most ridiculous and abominable that ever entered into the head of man. (p. 56, quoting Webster)
Webster's view, here adopted by Paul, closely resembles Lysander Spooner's method of constitutional analysis, by which he controversially attempted to show the unconstitutionality of slavery, long before the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Of course the most well known of Ron Paul's recent attempts to use the Constitution to check federal power involves the Iraq war. The Constitution vests in Congress, not the President, to right to declare war. The Iraq war is then illegal, since Congress has not issued such a declaration. Supporters of the war cannot appeal to "authorization of force" resolutions. Congress cannot constitutionally delegate its power to declare war to the president, leaving it for him to decide when force is to be used appropriately.[1]

Paul makes his criticism even stronger by connecting it to the just-war tradition. It is an uncontroversial part of that tradition that a war cannot be just unless it is initiated by one holding authority to do so. In our system of government, it is Congress that possesses this power. Absent a Congressional declaration of war, then, the Iraq war is unjust. (The point must not be misunderstood. It is not a requirement for any just war that it be authorized by legislative resolution: it is only that if a legal system vests the power to declare war in this way, it cannot be justly exercised otherwise. In the American system, war without a Congressional declaration is unjust as well as illegal.)

Ron Paul also uses the Constitution as an instrument for sound monetary policy. As everyone knows, he is an able and effective advocate of Austrian economics. "I myself identify with a school of economic thought known as the Austrian School of economics, whose key twentieth-century figures included Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Murray Rothbard, and Hans Sennholz" (p. 102). This careful student of Murray Rothbard realizes, much better than any other member of Congress, that sound finance demands the abolition of the Federal Reserve System and the restoration of the gold standard. He shows that the Constitution can be read in a way that promotes these goals. The government is granted the power to coin money, but in Paul's construal, this authorizes only gold or other metals as money. Fiat money is, he holds, specifically forbidden by the prohibition on emitting bills of credit.
The power to regulate the value of money does not mean the federal government can debase the currency; the Framers would never have given the federal government such a power. It is nothing more than a power to codify an already existing definition of the dollar ... in terms of gold; it also refers to the government's power to declare the ratio between gold and silver, or gold and any other metal, based on the market value of those metals. (pp. 138-39)
Against the line of analysis that Paul has followed, some might object that the Constitution must be read as a "living" document. Why should we care today what the Framers of the Constitution intended? Paul responds that the "living constitution" eliminates any limits on the power of the government.
That's why on this issue I agree with historian Kevin Gutzman, who says that those who would give us a "living" Constitution are actually giving us a dead Constitution, since such a thing is completely unable to protect us against the encroachments of government power. (p. 49)
Just the point of resort to the Constitution in the first place was to resist government; we cannot then embrace a scheme of interpretation that prevents us from realizing this purpose.

The Revolution: A Manifesto is by no means confined to Constitutional issues. Owing to the central importance of resistance to the Bush administration's bellicose foreign policy, I propose to concentrate on Paul's treatment of this subject.

As mentioned before, Paul defends the traditional American foreign policy of nonintervention. In a recent book, Dangerous Nation (Knopf, 2006), Robert Kagan, whom I discuss elsewhere in this issue, has advanced a surprising claim. He denies that the interventionist policy he and his fellow neoconservatives favor breaks with tradition. Not at all, he says: America has from its inception wished to carry to others its form of government, based on free principles. America has always favored democratic revolutions abroad. The quest to bring democracy to Iraq is no aberration of Bush and his advisors, but solidly in the American tradition.

Paul does not refer to Kagan, but he offers sufficient material to refute this preposterous view. He quotes both John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay as rejecting intervention to help revolutions in foreign countries. Adams said of America,
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than our own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standards of freedom. (p. 13)
Clay likewise said, "By the policy to which we have adhered since the days of Washington ... we have done more for the cause of liberty than arms could effect" (p. 14). Kagan's thesis flies in the face of the history he pretends to interpret.[2]

Paul also shows effectively that Bush's foreign policy breaks with American conservatism. In his televised debates with McCain, Giuliani, and others, Paul attracted much attention by appealing to Taft Republicanism. He continues that theme in The Revolution: A Manifesto and also notes that Felix Morley, Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Robert Nisbet — all eminent conservative intellectuals — condemned the rampant interventionism of post-Wilsonian foreign policy.
Nisbet reminded his audience that war was revolutionary, not conservative. He likewise warned that socialist proposals have often, under wartime conditions, become the law of the land. (p. 33)
Whatever the validity of nonintervention in the past, have not the terrorist attacks of 9/11 changed matters entirely? Now we must combat global jihad, which aims to bring down our way of life; and the old rules no longer apply.

Paul counters that the terrorist attacks have been a response to American intervention in the Middle East, not an amorphous assault against America as such. If we were to end our costly meddling in this region, there is every reason to expect that the terrorist danger would abate. In this connection, Paul quotes the renowned expert on al-Qaeda, Michael Scheuer:
About the only thing that can hold together the very loose coalition that Osama bin Laden has assembled is a common Muslim hatred for the impact of U.S. foreign policy... To the extent we change that policy in the interests of the United States, they become more and more focused on their local problems. (p. 18)
The Iraq war has not only caused death and destruction abroad. It has damaged our civil liberties at home. The "misnamed Patriot Act" (p. 114), as Paul aptly terms this nefarious piece of legislation, allows the administration to arrest and hold without trial anyone it wishes, not excepting American citizens. Were not such lettres de cachet a cause of the French Revolution? Even John Ashcroft, hardly a civil libertarian, had before his accession to the cabinet condemned measures like those he was later to enforce. "While a U.S. Senator during the Clinton years, Ashcroft warned about proposed invasions of privacy" (p. 117). Paul, not content with criticism, has proposed concrete legislation to end this outrage.

Ron Paul's outstanding book is must reading for everyone who values liberty.


[1] Some defenders of executive power claim that the president may initiate force that falls short of formal war. Louis Fisher, Presidential War Power (University Press of Kansas, 1995) and John Hart Ely, War and Responsibility (Princeton, 1995) have effectively refuted this position. See my reviews in, respectively, The Mises Review, Spring 1997 and Spring 1996.

[2] For further discussion, see my review of the book in The American Conservative, January 15, 2007.

Friday, June 06, 2008

A Republic, if you can keep it.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as the delegates departed Independence Hall, a woman stopped Benjamin Franklin and asked, "Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?"

“A Republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied. (

I thought of that a couple of weeks ago as I read the opening of Howard Mintz' article in the May 22 edition of San Jose Mercury News:

Lifelong Republican finds himself unlikely hero of gay rights activists

California Chief Justice Ronald George could have taken the easy road in the legal conflict over gay marriage.

But as a crowd gathered outside the state Supreme Court's headquarters last Thursday morning, anxiously awaiting a ruling on the fate of same-sex marriage, George had already decided that the time was ripe for his court to make the hard decision and rewrite California's civil rights landscape.

When the clock struck 10 a.m. and the Supreme Court released its decision, George knew his court had made history.

"I certainly couldn't help but think that," George said in an interview this week in his office, cluttered with stacks of papers on desks and the conference table where the seven justices meet every Wednesday.

The 68-year-old George penned the 121-page ruling striking down California's ban on same-sex marriage, opening a new chapter in this era's most wrenching civil rights battle. The 4-3 decision, which George calls the toughest of his career, was announced as the chief justice was in his office, hosting a television crew from New York filming a documentary on the death penalty.

Now the ruling will define his legacy as chief justice. Already one of the most powerful judicial figures in California's recent history, George shrugged off the possibility of a political backlash by finding the state's gay marriage ban unconstitutional.

He assigned the task of writing the majority opinion to himself as he typically does in contentious cases. He would take the heat. He dismisses the suggestion he thwarted the will of the voters.

"Basically, it comes down to the question of when is a judge shirking his or her responsibility by not acting," George said.

Just days after issuing the decision, George appeared to know it by heart. As he discussed the outcome, he jumped from his chair to retrieve a dog-eared law book, yellow Post-its jutting from the pages. He flipped to Perez v. Sharp, the equally historic California Supreme Court ruling outlawing a ban on interracial marriage in 1948.
Read it all here and weep.

The good news is that California voters can indeed (as we did with Rose Bird and her cohorts in 1986) remove Supreme Court justices who have proudly shirked their duty by creating law, rather than judging. Chief Justice George is up for re-affirmation in 2010.

But while removing him from office would be a just thing indeed, the question is whether the damage he has afflicted upon California and the nation can be repaired.