Tuesday, July 3, 2007

King George W Strikes Again

I respect the jury's verdict, but I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison.
- President George W. Bush, July 2, 2007

President George W. Bush knows what's best, and I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby is better than you. Those are the two messages to come from Bush's decision to commute Libby's prison sentence. And, really, it is the theme of his entire presidency.

Bush says he knows better than the majority of the American people. Stem cell research is bad. The war in Iraq is going well and no change in strategy is needed. The U.S. is prepared to face threats from Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran, even while engaged in Iraq. "Brownie" is doing a great job in New Orleans, and Alberto Gonzales has his full confidence as Attorney General. These are just some of the things Bush knows best about, because in every case he went against the beliefs of the majority of Americans.

Maybe even more disturbing is the second message sent by Bush's commutation decision, that Scooter Libby is better than the rest of us. The underlying assumption of Bush's quote set out above is that prison isn't for people like Libby (that is, wealthy, insider, mostly white Americans), but is reserved for people like "them" (that is, everyone else). The message is that the "two Americas" John Edwards likes to talk about is exactly the way Bush looks at the world. There are two sets of justice systems. And, for a guy like Libby, who is one of Bush's people, he is not really subject to the real-world, rough-and-tumble criminal justice system meant for "them."

The thing about Bush's messages is that, on both counts, he is wrong. And, as a result, Bush has taken a horrendously outrageous and dangerous action that undermines the basic principles of democracy on which this country was founded. This commutation of Libby's sentence will go down in history as every bit as disgraceful, and every bit as threatening and damaging to democracy, as Watergate was.

As for knowing better than us, Bush has demonstrated in the last six years that he does not. On the contrary, he has been wrong about just about everything he has said. Last time I checked, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Iraqi people didn't welcome us as saviors, Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, Al Qaeda wasn't in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, Iraq did not slip happily into a pluralistic democracy, and oil money did not pay for the war. Instead, we have been mired for nearly five years in the middle of a civil war (that Bush's father predicted would happen if Saddam Hussein was toppled in the first Gulf War), at a cost of thousands of Iraqi lives, millions of Iraqis fleeing their country, more than 3,500 American military deaths, and hundreds of billions of dollars thrown down the drain, not to mention the loss of American influence and respect in the world, and the country's inability to face down actual threats in Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea.

Plus, Bush doesn't know better than us, because while Libby was hardly at the center of the Valerie Plame/Joseph Wilson scandal, he was convicted for lying and obstructing justice in an investigation into the outing of an active, undercover CIA agent by the White House. If a Democratic administration had revealed the identity of a secret operative, the Republicans would be throwing around the "t" word (treason, not tax cut). But this administration, which views the executive branch of government as a field office for the Republican National Committee (just ask Plame and the eight fired U.S. Attorneys), casually revealed the name of an undercover agent as punishment for her husband having the nerve to disagree with White House policies (that, by the way, were proven by history to be wrong; Wilson's assessment of Hussein's weapons capabilities in the New York Times turned out to be correct).

As I wrote in a June 5 article in this space, Libby is taking the fall for White House actions to out Plame. That does not mean, however, that Libby should not be held accountable for his role. Rather, it means that the true architects of this scandal, which may or may not include Karl Rove, Vice President Dick Cheney and/or Bush, need to be held accountable as well. Thanks to King George W's actions yesterday, nobody is being held accountable.

Bush is also wrong that Scooter Libby is better than us. There is no doubt that there is a class divide in this country, and that the small percentage of wealthy Americans have advantages that the rest of the nation's citizens do not. And, there is also no doubt that those advantages extend to having the resources to manipulate the judicial system by hiring the best attorneys with access to the best back-up available. Just ask O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake, who can be found at this moment living somewhere that is not a penitentiary. But, Simpson and Blake acted within the system. They did not violate any laws (after the murders in question, of course). Rather, they used the resources available to them to wring every last advantage they could out of the criminal justice system. The system, though, stayed intact.

Bush, on the other hand, blew up the system (blowing things up is, after all, his go-to move). Scooter Libby had a trial. He had all the elite advantages Blake and Simpson had (thanks to the big money raised by conservatives on his behalf). And, despite his edge, he was convicted by a unanimous vote of a jury. He was then sentenced by a judge to a term that was within the federal sentencing guidelines. The system played out as it was constitutionally designed to do. Libby was able to use his vast resources to manipulate the system, but, ultimately, his fate lied in a jury of his peers (no slight intended to the jury members, I was speaking of "peers" to mean fellow citizens), who found him guilty. The system worked.

That is, until Bush supplanted it all with one stroke of his pen. He didn't even consult the Justice Department, as every other President in recent history has done before acting to reduce or overturn a sentence. He acted unilaterally and in the middle of his term (most pardons come at the end of Presidents' tenures in office). The power to pardon is one of the most lethal weapons in a chief executive's arsenal, and that power comes with tremendous responsibility. It has to be wielded with caution and respect. Bush treated it like a bad guy's six-shooter in a spaghetti western.

Bush said, "the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive." The judge didn't think so. The American people didn't think so. By acting anyway, Bush is making the statement that the criminal justice system does not apply to Libby. Bush says he acted because the sentence was excessive. Does that mean that he is going to look at the thousands of sentences imposed by federal courts each year to see if they are excessive, too? No. Why not? Because those defendants are not well-to-do, elite, educated members of Bush's inner circle. Again, two justice systems, one for Bush's people, and one for "them."

This undercutting of the American democratic system and American notions of justice and equality under the law is outrageous. The Republicans will paint this as some kind of partisan squabble, which is also outrageous. Anybody who believes in democratic principles and the notion of a criminal justice system based on evidence, not special treatment for the elite, should be outraged by this, regardless of one's party affiliation. I'm sure the Republicans will point to earlier Presidential actions, like President Clinton's end-of-term pardon of Marc Rich, to make Bush's actions seem less shocking. But, as odious as Rich might have been, he was not a member of Clinton's administration, nor did he play a part in something as serious as the outing of an undercover CIA agent. Clinton's as-the-door-hit-him-on-the-way-out pardon of Rich was distasteful; Bush's in-the-thick-of-it commutation threatens our notions of democracy. There is no comparison.

Is it too much to say Bush acts like he thinks he is a king instead of a president? Not at all. A king is an absolute monarch who is bound to nobody but derives his power from divine right. Bush has conducted his presidency as if he did not have to answer to anyone, and it has been reported that he believes that he is doing the work of the Lord by imposing his right-wing, religiously-derived policies on the country. That's about as close to a president believing he is a monarch as we've ever seen.

If the American people are happy living in an absolute monarchy, then they should do nothing. But, if U.S. citizens would like to live in a democratic country that believes in equal protection under the law, they have to act. Letters need to be written. Phone calls need to be made. And, most of all, votes have to be cast. Bush's action in commuting Scooter Libby's sentence for his role in outing an undercover CIA agent is outrageous. But, it will be even more outrageous if his actions result in no consequences for him and his party. The power of the vote is the only thing that can stop this kind of overreaching, and people better exercise it while it's still around. After all, monarch's don't need elections.