Diatribes of Jay

This blog has essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to social problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

10 May 2007

The Demise of Honor

As the rule of law dissolves before our eyes, one of our greatest ironies is blind faith in our Constitution. Like a homeowner quoting words on paper to a crooked contractor, we think our prime document will protect us. We forget that words on paper are only as strong as the honor and integrity of the people sworn to uphold them.

A written constitution provides a false sense of security. England has an unwritten constitution, and its democracy has lasted nearly 800 years. Our Constitution seems stronger for being written down. But at the rate we are going our democracy may not see its 250th birthday, at least in any form we would recognize as such. The reason: people in high places, who should know better, seem to believe that winning the game--or merely staying in it--is more important than playing by the rules.

Nearly thirty-three years ago, the last president to abuse our constitutional system for personal and partisan advantage was driven from office. By today’s standards, Richard Nixon’s transgressions were puny. He did not start his war; he inherited it. He did not lie about the reasons for making war; he only lied about his “secret plan” for peace.

True, Nixon seemed to approve the criminal acts of the “Plumbers,” a group of political and intelligence operatives formed to wage clandestine war against the Democratic party. True, he kept an enemies list of people for the FBI and IRS to persecute for political reasons or personal revenge.

But even Nixon did not seek to turn the entire Department of Justice into a political operation. In those days, doing so would have mimicked the Soviet Union’s Communist Party too much for even hardened Republican partisans to countenance.

In the end, it was not our Constitution that deposed Nixon. It was the acts of courageous and honest people, including many Republicans, at all levels of government. Republican Senators like Howard Baker (R. Tenn.) led the charge to bring Nixon down. Honest, nameless government bureaucrats retarded Nixon’s efforts to persecute the “enemies” on his list.

The Supreme Court refused to let Nixon hide his sins behind a veil of executive privilege. It allowed publication of the Pentagon Papers--a leaked study of misfeasance in the Vietnam War. Eventually, it forced Nixon to give Congress his White House tapes, revealing evidence of his cover up.

When an incriminating eighteen-minute gap appeared in those tapes, Nixon sought to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, a universally admired jurist and symbol of impartial justice. Elliot Richardson, then Attorney General, reacted with honor. He resigned in protest rather than carry out the order to dismiss Cox. It fell to Robert Bork, then Richardson’s assistant, to salute and obey.

Years later, when President Reagan nominated Bork for the Supreme Court, Bork’s previous blind partisanship and loyalty to Nixon, plus his disloyalty to principles of impartial justice, came back to haunt him. His nomination crashed and burned in a partisan showdown that was the mother of all judicial confirmation battles.

But the victory over Bork was pyrrhic. Nowadays our government is full of Borks.

Throughout all the Bush Administration’s incompetence, misfeasance, malfeasance, and partisan subversion of democratic principles, not one senior official has resigned in protest. Not a single act of honor, courage, or personal integrity has diluted the unending and disastrous flow of partisan poison.

Many were forced on their swords in a vain attempt to preserve Bush’s political power. Among them were honorable men like Andrew Card, Paul O’Neill, and Colin Powell. More recently, there were less honorable ones, like Monica Goodling and Lyle Sampson, pushed overboard to hide self-evident efforts to turn the Department of Justice into a Department of Republican Politics. But none, including the honorable ones, emulated Elliot Richardson and resigned to make a point.

The man who supported or idly tolerated the latest debacle, Alberto Gonzales, wants to stay on to “do his job.” What job is that? Finishing converting our independent prosecutors into partisan lackeys? Making justice in America look more like “justice” in Russia and China? Has he no shame?

Now we have the final ignominy. George Tenet admits in his own hand trying to warn the Administration of the impending threat that became September 11 and the debacle that Iraq has become. Yet not only did he never resign in protest; insofar as he tells us, he never even put his views forcefully to the president when they might have done some good. As his reward for sheepish loyalty to a deeply flawed leader, he accepted the Medal of Freedom. He concludes that he served “honorably,” but where is the honor in that?

Unfortunately, Gonzales and Tenet are not alone. They are just two of a long series of lackeys and sycophants whose dearth of professionalism, honor and integrity allowed the Bush Administration to bring our country low.

The fault is not Bush’s alone. He is what he is. People might have misjudged him initially. But no one with an ounce of good judgment of human character could overestimate his intelligence, honor, integrity or faithfulness to democratic principles after several years. It is almost as if the president’s self-evident lack of good leadership increased his hold over his minions. Or maybe, God help us, awe for the presidential office subverted all sense of right and wrong.

So-called “conservatives” are right about one thing: we live in an age of moral decline. But the deadliest symptoms are not abortions, drugs or violence on TV. Decay always starts at the top.

The moral failings that are potentially most fatal are of people in high places to honor our nation’s most basic principles. Whether to keep their jobs, maintain their lifestyle, advance their political agenda, or show loyalty to a man who respects nothing else, too many people have dropped their honor and our rule of law in the dust. That is a recipe for gang rule, not democracy.

King George is a monarch in all but name, as destructive and capricious as any ancient Chinese or Roman emperor. He remains so because no one close to him has the honor, courage or self-respect to stand against his destructive impulses. If there is any justice left, those who had the chance but lacked the honor will pay dearly at the next election.

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