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A Reverse Thousand Days

By Robert Parry
May 2, 2006

One thousand 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 thousand days.”

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 and there).

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 right track.”

Some recommendations:

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 keep any one from gaining too much power and thus 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 laws.

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.

Boundless Powers

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 government.

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 actions.

“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 did.

“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 false pretenses.

“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 notice.

“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 that direction.

Overcoming Fear

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 at stake?

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 freedoms.

Standing Up

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 five years.

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 presidency.

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 bitterness.

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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