The Imperial Presidency

The role of President of the United States is the ultimate in the fantasy of political power.  Legislators who are frustrated and disgusted by the process of producing laws, and further frustrated by an Imperial Executive who disdains to carry out the laws and directives of the legislative branch, look at the unrestrained power of the Chief Executive and wish to gain it for themselves.  Of course, they will do different things with the power.

Others, the Arlen Specters and Ted Kennedys and Russ Feingolds and, dare I say it, Orrin Hatches, in the Senate have settled down to do what is within the power of the Senate to do. I hesitate to name members of the House of Representatives, other than Nancy Pelosi, because the frequency of scandal discourages me from endorsing particular members, lest they later be tainted by some misdeed or other.  Nominations will be taken from the floor, on this.
<>The power of the Presidency is a different thing, somewhat unwritten, somewhat written, and perhaps unwriteable. In particular, since we (probably) will not use the power to impeach,  this power can be self-defined. Because of the ambiguity in the role definition, which leads Presidents to define and redefine the Presidency, we are potentially and actually in the uncomfortable position of being citizens of a country governed by a Presidential fantasy.

<>For a further discussion of the definition of the Presidency, please see this article by Garrett Epps, in Salon.

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Torture in the First Person

The following is a long excerpt from a guest contributor’s column on T r u t h o u t, a web site I would describe as an alternative news bureau.

The guest author is Phillip Butler, a former Navy pilot during the Viet Nam war. Here is the excerpt:

I spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, from 1965 to 1973. During that time, I and more than 90 percent of my fellow POWs were repeatedly tortured for the extortion of information to be used for political propaganda and sometimes just for retribution. We were not recognized by Vietnam as POWs, but as criminals, because the Vietnamese had not signed the 1949 “Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.”

Later, in 1975, the United Nations created the “Convention Against Torture.” Both conventions were ratified by Congress and became laws of our land. Unfortunately, Vietnam – along with numerous other countries who are still partially stuck in the 15th century – had institutionalized torture to punish and extract information from prisoners.

We received great moral and psychological strength during our incarceration from telling each other, “Our country is civilized and would never knowingly treat people like this.”

We felt we had the moral high ground and took great pride in being American, above such barbarity. Besides, we all knew from experience that torture is useless, because under torture we told our tormentors whatever we thought they wanted to hear. Whenever possible we slipped in ridiculous statements like one I used in a torture-extracted “confession,” that “only officers are allowed to use the swimming pool on the USS Midway.” Another friend wrote in a “confession” that “my commanding officer, Dick Tracy, ordered me to bomb schools and hospitals.” These are just two examples of the kind of culturally embedded nonsense people can expect to extract through torture.

I recommend reading the whole piece, which is about double the length quoted here.

Are we interested enough in reversing U.S. policy on torture to impeach George W. Bush? We would actually need to impeach Bush, Cheney, and Alberto Gonzales, the current Attorney General. In terms of salvaging the energy to govern the country in the next two years, it seems to me (reluctantly) that we will be better off riding out these rump years and prosecuting these men after they leave office.

Of course I am assuming a vigorous and successful election campaign by the Democrats, and an resulting executive branch that reverses existing policy. Is that a tenable assumption?

Chance to have input

The web site democrats.com has a straw poll on the issues of most concern to those who have registered with their site. The site is not the official site of the Democratic Party, but is one affiliate of a loose conglomerate that includes / began with the afterdowningstreet.org site.

I am impressed that the top vote-getter of the many choices is restoring the powers involved in using a writ of habeas corpus in the United States Courts. The next most frequently endorsed is establishing a higher minimum wage. Also in the top four is ending the war in Iraq.

Otherwise, I have to say, this straw poll, with its legitimate choices, is a device of the “impeach George Bush and Dick Cheney” element, not those in newly elected congressional Democrats who are dedicating their efforts to governing the country.

This list does provide an assemblage of priorities that would be helpful to use in a letter to your congressperson, and to the new leadership of Congress. I am not assuming that you are a committed Democrat; some very important issues cross party lines and are of concern to conservatives as well as liberals.

I am also not completely disavowing the effort to impeach Bush and Cheney; I look at this long list as a potential agenda that can be delayed or even swamped by an impeachment circus. Both justice and governance are necessary and desirable. Governance looks to be the more politically possible.