If someone described for you a national incident involving unprecedented loss of life, poor government planning, the failure to hold any government official accountable for mistakes, and Congress responding to the crisis by throwing money at the problem, chances are you’d conclude they were speaking about the causes and aftermath of 9/11. Actually, they could just as well be describing the siege and invasion of the Branch Davidian Compound at Waco, Texas, in 1993, during President Bill Clinton’s first term.
Now, if that same person were to ask you which recent president’s term in office was characterized by support for the so-called assault weapon ban, a huge increase in deficit spending, bigger budgets for virtually every domestic program—including Americorps and the National Endowment for the Arts—and signing into law a massive increase in federal government regulation of political speech, whose administration would you suspect they were describing? That of Democrat Bill Clinton? Nope. They’d be talking about the first term of Republican President George W. Bush.The fact is, the records of these two presidents, Democrat Bill Clinton and Republican George W. Bush, are much more alike than either man would likely feel comfortable admitting. With Bill Clinton, a record of Big Government and lack of accountability, which is precisely what we witnessed from 1993 to 2001, was pretty much what most of us expected; we got what we deserved when we elected him president. With George W. Bush, however, what we have gotten is not what we bargained for—that is if we hoped for a president committed, as Bush said he was during the 2000 campaign, to smaller and more accountable government. Has America been betrayed by President George W. Bush? In his most recent book, The Bush Betrayal, James Bovard poses and then answers this question with a resounding “yes.”
Coming out as it does in the immediate aftermath of the extensive, if still incomplete, post-mortem of the 9/11 disaster, and while American troops and civilians are still dying in the dust of Iraq, there may be a tendency to minimize Bovard’s book by considering it as simply an analysis of the Bush administration’s sleight-of-hand in getting us involved with a war in Iraq. To be sure, the author does take the current administration to task for the basis on which the war in Iraq was predicated and on which it continues to be prosecuted; Bovard labels this Bush’s “greatest abuse of power” (a characterization with which I disagree—not that it isn’t an abuse of power, but it isn’t the worst one).The importance of Bovard’s book, which, incidentally, follows and builds upon his outstanding 2003 volume, Terrorism and Tyrrany, goes far beyond an analysis of the Iraqi War or even the response by this administration to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The importance of The Bush Betrayal lies in the author’s impeccably researched exposition of what may very well be the central theme underlying modern politics in America: despite promises, regardless of rhetoric, and irrespective of party label, once a politician is in power, what We the People get—and which we’ve got in the current administration—is, in Bovard’s words, “Washington business as usual.”
Bovard lays out a convincing case. With the thoroughly researched and footnoted style that has become his forte, and with the heavy doses of relevant anecdotes and dry humor that have become his trademarks, the author has compiled a virtual almanac of American political abuse. And while it’s not a pretty picture he paints, we ignore Jim Bovard’s work at the risk of being repeatedly seduced—“betrayed”—by the siren songs of presidential candidates of both parties.
Each administration, it seems, must have a central theme around which its policies and actions revolve, and which provides a constant excuse for or explanation of why it does what it does. Who can forget the constant invocations by the Clintons that whatever the former president or his administration did, it was “for the children”? For the current administration of George W. Bush, any program, policy, or power grab—domestic or foreign—is justified because it furthers the War on Terror. Both the current and the immediately past administrations have fallen back on this ploy whenever criticized or attacked for their actions. After all, rather than bother to defend their actions as consistent with a core philosophy, it is much easier simply to label critics as “extreme” by claiming that if they are opposed to something the president or his employees are doing or have done, then by definition those critics must be against children or don’t support fighting terrorism. Shibboleths make such handy shields.
It truly is amazing, when you stop to think about it—as Bovard in his latest book forces us to do—that virtually everything the Bush administration has done to expand government power or expenditures is justified as being essential to winning “the war against terrorism.” Propping up farmers through outdated and expensive subsidies? Helps fight terrorism. Subsidies to sugar producers in order to keep prices of American sugar uncompetitively high? Necessary to fight terrorism. Tobacco subsidies? Ditto. How about a plan to have the government pay the way for lower-income home buyers who haven’t been able to save the money or qualify for loans to make their own down payments? A ridiculous and economically disastrous program, to be sure, but it’s worth the price to the Bush administration because—you guessed it—it creates stronger communities, which in turn are essential to improving America’s ability to fight terrorism. Hallelujah, and pass the collection plate!
Foreign aid to corrupt regimes and bloated international bureaucracies is extolled because it helps fight terrorism abroad. Don’t mind the fact that some of the terrorists who succeeded on 9/11 came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two countries that have received more U.S. aid and business investments than all but a handful of other countries.
It is not only Americans as taxpayers who are being forced to accept a broad range of increases in federal spending as the price the Bush administration extracts for pursuing its policies. Americans as targets of federal law-enforcement power are being made to pay a heavy price as well. The powers of the federal government—and, indirectly, state and local government, which often emulate their federal big brother—to snoop, surveil, search, and secretly arrest people with no more “reasonable suspicion” than a vague notion of “preventing terrorism,” have reached not just unprecedented, but frightening levels. And James Bovard shines the light on them all. From Attorney General John Ashcroft’s notion of “ordered liberty,” to Solicitor General Ted Olson’s argument to the Supreme Court that virtually anything President Bush wants to do is justified on the basis of his self-defined and overarching “constitutional authority to protect the nation,” Bovard opens his readers’ eyes to the still ongoing expansion of federal power during this administration’s watch.
But to me, the most devastating act of the Bush administration—which constituted such a fundamental betrayal of the First Amendment’s guarantee of our freedom to speak, petition, and assemble that it takes your breath away—was the president’s signing of the so-called Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2003. James Bovard pulls no punches in laying out just how devastating to freedom this law—upheld in all its major parts by the Supreme Court, despite eloquent dissents by Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia—truly is. Not only is the law deeply and fundamentally contrary to our constitutional liberties, but the president and Republican congressional leaders knew it was unconstitutional when they allowed it to be brought to the floor, voted on, and signed by a Republican president. Yet they did it anyway. In so doing, they betrayed us and the Constitution, and they did it in the full light of day.
To rub salt in the constitutional wounds the campaign law created, the Bush administration has cynically employed it in recent months in an effort to silence criticism of its policies.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of how detached this administration is from the constitutional underpinnings that used to hold presidents at arm’s length from near-absolute power is a quote unearthed by Bovard and included in the closing chapter of The Bush Betrayal. In April of this year, at a news conference, Bush described himself as “the ultimate decision-maker for this country.” As Bovard correctly notes, of course, Bush is at most the decision-maker for the executive branch of the government; the people are the ultimate decision-makers for America. Our Founding Fathers knew that. Generations of Americans understood that. Previous presidents recognized that. Sadly, that constitutionally based and historically sound perspective, which is the cornerstone of what America should stand for, appears not to be a component of the current administration’s thinking. And that is a betrayal.
Former Congressman Bob Barr (R-Ga., 1995-2003) is the author of The Meaning of Is: The Squandered Impeachment and Wasted Legacy of William Jefferson Clinton.