A Reverse Thousand Days
By Robert Parry
May 2, 2006
days, as a measure for a President’s accomplishments, were enshrined by
the length of John F. Kennedy’s time in office cut short by
assassination. But now it could be an organizing principle for undoing
George W. Bush’s troubling legacy – what might be called “a reverse
With Bush’s second term having about as many days
left as Kennedy’s presidency lasted in total, the challenge to the
American people is how to use that time to restore U.S. traditions in a
variety of key areas. These include: limits on Executive power;
protection of constitutional freedoms; pragmatic policies based on
science, not ideology or religion; avoidance of “entangling” foreign
conflicts when military objectives are unclear.
In five-plus years in office, Bush has pushed
radical approaches in each of these areas – asserting “plenary,” or
unlimited, powers as Commander in Chief; abrogating legal and
constitutional rights of citizens; disdaining the “reality-based
community”; and ordering “preemptive” strikes in an indefinite conflict
against vague notions, “terror” and “evil.”
No question, it has taken the American people
collectively a long time to catch on to Bush’s game. In November 2004,
Bush received a huge number of votes across large swaths of the country
(even if his total may have been boosted by some ballot tampering here
In 2005, however, as the Iraq War dragged on, as
hundreds of more U.S. soldiers returned home in coffins and as new
evidence about Bush’s pre-war deceptions surfaced, the tide of public
opinion turned decisively.
Bush’s contempt for pragmatic government also was
exposed by the inept reaction to Hurricane Katrina; his clumsy campaign
to partially privatize Social Security; soaring gasoline prices amid
inaction on conservation, alternative fuels and global warming; and the
exploding federal debt with hundreds of billions of dollars owed to
China and other U.S. rivals.
The result has been a collapse in Bush’s approval
ratings across the country, with Bush now holding a net-positive rating
in only four states, according to
SurveyUSA.com’s state-by-state numbers for April.
An overwhelming majority of Americans – 71 percent
in a new CBS News poll – also say the nation is “on the wrong track.”
The public anger has spilled over from the White House to taint both
sides of the aisle in Congress as well as the reputation of the U.S.
news media, which failed to ask the tough questions during the run-up to
the Iraq War.
But the American people now must look to themselves
if they are to use the next 1,000 days to get the country back “on the
First and foremost, if the Republic is to be
protected, the President’s claims to unlimited power must be challenged.
When Bush asserts “plenary” powers as Commander in Chief, the word
“plenary” is defined as “complete in all respects, unlimited or full.”
It follows that if the President’s powers are
unlimited, not only are the powers of Congress and the Courts gutted,
but so too are the rights of the people. That’s the significance of
Bush’s decision to negate the constitutional right of habeas corpus
in denying a fair trial to “enemy combatants,” even U.S. citizens, or to
ignore the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a court warrant before
conducting searches against Americans.
In effect, Bush is saying that the “unalienable
rights,” as promised by the Founders in the Declaration of Independence
and guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, are no
longer “unalienable.” They exist to the degree Bush says they exist.
Bush’s theories also have shattered the Founders’
delicate “checks and balances,” the constitutional design of using the
three branches of government – Executive, Legislature and Judiciary – to
check each other and thus keep any one from gaining too much power and
threatening the people’s liberties.
But Bush – citing his unlimited powers as Commander
in Chief – holds himself above both the Constitution and the law. Even
when Bush compromises on statutory language – as he did in December 2005
in the passage of a law barring inhumane treatment of prisoners – he
tacks on “signing statements” which reserve his right to ignore the
An investigation by the Boston Globe found that
Bush has claimed the right to set aside more than 750 statutes, often by
putting these “signing statements” quietly into the Federal Register, a
publication of official government regulations that is not widely read
by Americans. [Boston Globe, April 30, 2006]
Besides snubbing new laws, Bush has claimed the
power to bypass old ones, such as the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, which set up a special secret court to approve
Executive Branch requests for warrants to conduct electronic
eavesdropping inside the United States.
Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks,
Bush secretly agreed to let the National Security Agency intercept some
communications by Americans without a warrant. Publicly, however, Bush
insisted that he was abiding by the legal requirement to obtain warrants
in all cases.
In 2004, Bush
told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., that
“by the way, any time you hear the United States government talking
about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order.”
Only after the New York Times revealed the
warrantless wiretap program in December 2005 did Bush admit that he had
approved the program. So, Bush had used both secrecy and deception to
confuse the public about his presidential authority.
Since Bush thinks his powers are boundless – and
since he sees the “war on terror” as a conflict without boundaries – his
unlimited powers reach around the world and into every community in the
United States. To this “war president,” the battlefield is everywhere.
Since the “war on terror” is also indefinite,
Bush’s powers are not simply a response to a short-term emergency. They
represent long-term or even permanent changes in the American system of
Thus, to be honest, U.S. schools should recall old
civics books with those quaint lessons about fundamental liberties.
Revised editions could be ordered explaining to the schoolchildren how
their parents traded the “unalienable rights” bestowed by the Founders
on American “posterity” in exchange for a promise of a little more
safety while driving to the shopping mall.
The children could learn how this generation of
Americans also swapped the exalted status as citizens invested with the
sovereignty of the Republic for the subordinate position as subjects
with their rights dependent on George W. Bush or some successor.
Recognition of this new role as quiescent subjects,
rather than assertive citizens, has begun to surface in the popular
culture, as it did in an episode of ABC-TV’s comedy-drama “Boston Legal”
on March 14, 2006.
The storyline centered on one of the law firm’s
female secretaries who gets arrested for tax evasion, having sent in her
tax return without payment and with a note attached telling the U.S.
government to “stick it.”
The secretary, Melissa Hughes, explains that she
took the action out of respect for her late grandfather who had fought
in World War II and who believed in the traditional principles of
American freedom and justice. She said she was “embarrassed” by the
current violations of those principles.
When an ambitious U.S. Attorney seeks to make an
example of Melissa by portraying her as “un-American,” defense attorney
Alan Shore, played by James Spader, offers a defense of Melissa’s
“When the weapons of
mass destruction thing turned out to be not true, I expected the
American people to rise up,” Shore tells the jury. “Ha! They didn’t.
“Then, when the Abu
Ghraib torture thing surfaced and it was revealed that our government
participated in rendition, a practice where we kidnap people and turn
them over to regimes who specialize in torture, I was sure then the
American people would be heard from. We stood mute.
“Then came the news that we jailed thousands of so-called terrorist
suspects, locked them up without the right to a trial or even the right
to confront their accusers. Certainly, we would never stand for that. We
“And now, it’s been
discovered the Executive Branch has been conducting massive, illegal,
domestic surveillance on its own citizens. You and me. And I at least
consoled myself that finally, finally the American people will have had
enough. Evidently, we haven’t.
“In fact, if the people of this country have spoken, the message is
‘we’re okay with it all.’ Torture, warrantless search and seizure,
illegal wiretappings, prison without a fair trial – or any trial, war on
“We, as a citizenry,
are apparently not offended. There are no demonstrations on college
campuses. In fact, there’s no clear indication that young people seem to
“Well, Melissa Hughes
noticed. Now, you might think, instead of withholding her taxes, she
could have protested the old-fashioned way. Made a placard and
demonstrated at a Presidential or Vice-Presidential appearance, but
we’ve lost the right to that as well.
“The Secret Service can
now declare free-speech zones to contain, control and, in effect,
criminalize protest. Stop for a second and try to fathom that. At a
presidential rally, parade or appearance, if you have on a supportive
T-shirt, you can be there. If you are wearing or carrying something in
protest, you can be removed.
“This, in the United
States of America. This in the United States of America. Is Melissa
Hughes the only one embarrassed?”
As the Bush presidency
ticks down through its last 1,000 days, it is still unclear whether
real-life Americans will act like Melissa Hughes and come to the
conclusion that they must – individually and together – recover their
precious “unalienable rights.” But there are signs they are moving in
A second recommendation
is that if Americans are to hold Bush accountable and restore their
traditional freedoms, they must overcome fear with courage
and reject the proffered trade-off of rights
for security. More than any other motivating force, the Bush
administration has relied on fear of terrorism to convince Americans to
sacrifice their rights.
Some right-wing pundits even argue that
surrendering liberties is the patriotic thing to do, because it’s needed
to prevent another 9/11 attack. In other words, how can you be so
selfish to insist on your rights when the lives of fellow Americans are
While there’s an emotional appeal to this argument,
it ignores the fact that earlier generations of Americans have done the
exact opposite. They chose, again and again, to sacrifice safety – and
often their lives – for liberty, not the other way around.
The United States was
not a nation built by cowards, but by people who risked everything –
crossing oceans, taming wildernesses, challenging the British army for a
chance to establish a political system that placed unprecedented power
in the hands of the people.
Even amid danger and uncertainty, the nation’s
course has pressed forward toward greater liberty – the elimination of
slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights – not toward sacrificing
“unalienable rights” to authoritarian leaders in exchange for dubious
promises of more safety.
So, the choice facing this generation of Americans
is whether they will deliver a message to Bush and other politicians who
exploit fear for power that Americans won’t be frightened by their own
government any more than they will be intimidated by al-Qaeda killers.
As horrible as the 9/11 attacks were, they will not be made an excuse
for turning back on American traditions of courage and liberty.
There is, indeed, a deep irony in Bush’s
prescription to Americans that to thwart enemies who supposedly “hate
our freedoms,” the American people must surrender many of those
Thirdly, if the American people truly want to halt
the drift toward authoritarian government, they must express themselves
in many ways – in the streets, in letters to newspapers and to
politicians, on the Internet and at the ballot box.
An obvious idea would be to elect a Democratic
Congress, which could then launch serious oversight investigations. But
there are Democrats, such as Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who
have sided with Bush’s claims to extraordinary presidential power in
waging the “war on terror,” just as there are Republicans, such as Sen.
Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who have risked their party’s wrath to object.
Other voices of dissent against Bush’s power grab
have come from traditional conservative sources, such as political thinkers
Pat Buchanan and Paul Craig Roberts, and retired military leaders, such
as Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni. But it’s obvious, too, that the Democratic
rank-and-file has been the backbone of resistance to Bush over the past
Also, if the Republicans retain control of Congress
in November, Bush would have a strong chance to appoint at least one
more Supreme Court justice who could put the high court’s seal of
approval on the redefinition of American liberty within an imperial
With Bush’s appointments of Chief Justice John
Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito – joining Justices Antonin Scalia and
Clarence Thomas – Bush now has four solid votes in favor of his views on
presidential powers. Only one more is needed for a majority.
Assuming Democrats could win back the Congress,
another question would be whether impeachment of Bush and Vice President
Dick Cheney would be in order. Many establishment Democrats fear that
talk of the I-word will turn off centrist voters and generate partisan
But many anti-Bush Americans believe that Bush’s
violations of the U.S. Constitution – as well as domestic and
international law – are so grave that they warrant impeachment, a
constitutional remedy that the Founders inserted in the Constitution.
Bush’s ouster also would signal to the world that
the American people reject leaders who not only violate U.S. laws but
who thumb their noses at international principles, such as the Nuremberg
ban on aggressive wars and the Geneva Conventions against mistreatment
of prisoners of war and detainees.
Whether impeachment becomes a practical option or
not, the American people who believe that George W. Bush has harmed the
defining principles of the Republic now have less than 1,000 days to
reverse that dangerous legacy.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra
stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from
Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at
secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine,
the Press & 'Project Truth.'
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