Back in the good ol’ days of Richard Nixon’s White House, soggy old John Mitchell – Nixon’s henchman and erstwhile Attorney General – looked down his drunken nose and told us all that he had a phrase for all the political crimes of his hapless and psychotic president. He called the manipulation of agencies of the government to "get" enemies and protect themselves, bag-jobs, burglaries, and assorted other high crimes and misdemeanors the "White House Horrors". Of course, it was only horrible when they got caught and only horrible to Mitchell because he ended up in the slammer for a time, a fate that escaped Nixon only by the negotiated stroke of Jerry Ford’s pardon pen.
The sins of Watergate, though still serious, seem so quaint now. All Nixon did was use his power over public agencies and private plumbers to extract petty vengeance on his imagined enemies (although their existence drove him mad, none of them, I’m sure, gave him any thought whatsoever); order the ludicrous investigation and surveillance of political threats that existed only in his fevered imagination; and then cover it all up with lies, altered and "deep-sixed" documents and tapes and stonewalling. Surely, the Constitution was threatened, especially when no one could predict whether or not the unbalanced president would obey the unanimous Supreme Court order that he, at last, give up the tapes.
But the crisis passed, with little permanent damage to the institutions Nixon considered his personal playthings. It was all about him, you see – all about those who crossed him and those who were he thought were after him. When he went away, his stain did too, for the most part (although Pat Buchanan, unfortunately, can still find work). His were the more-or-less solitary crimes of an arrogant paranoid, who saw spies behind the sofas and thought the eyes in White House paintings followed him around the room, and then pushed Henry Kissenger to pray to them to save him from his own tragic excess.
The White House Horrors of Junior Bush that are now being fleshed out by brave former lackeys and crowbar-wielding congressional committees are of a different nature. For one thing, they are not driven by the empty-suited president. Bush signed up to act as a figurehead for the radical cabal headed by Dick Cheney and will not be sulking off in disgrace to scheme about his historical rehabilitation. If it is possible to care less when he finally vacates the mansion, he certainly will. His name will forever be attached to a historically bad presidency, the Stupidest War in American history, and a legacy of Constitution in tatters, and a shattered government that President Obama can only begin to repair. To this, you can expect to call him in Crawford two years down the line and hear the laughter of the uninterested.
Although the self-involved Nixon Horrors led to articles of impeachment and certain conviction (if only he would have stuck around and taken it like a man), the Bush Horrors are, ultimately, much more damaging to the nation in the long and short term. The Bushies have group arrogance without the singular paranoia of Nixon – a dangerous combination that does not have the built-in protection of potentially outraged bystanders. As a group, the neo-conservative regime came in with a radical plan for the accumulation of imperial power and the rewarding of their wealthy contributors. Disliked and distrusted from the beginning (especially after they seized power in a bloodless coup in Florida), they seized the ultimate opportunity after 9/11 to drive a wedge into America’s wounded heart. We are at war, they declared the afternoon of the attack, after flying the flummoxed Bush around the country while they got their talking points together. Which side are you on?
They used the carte blanche of tragedy to claim unprecedented power, cut taxes for their wealthy friends (and themselves) and otherwise drive their radical agenda. Previously uncontroversial requests for information such as Secret Service visitors logs and details of meeting held in the White House were covered up tight under a the false blanket of executive privilege (imagine, if you will, Clinton trying to pull the same thing). They used the federal rule-making process to loosen the yoke of regulation from the poor necks of America’s top polluters and money-changers, leaving it to the rest of us to sort out the increasing treacherous world of the Bush economy.
All of this would have been expected from tools of the rich such as the Bushies, although they went at it with a zeal and sense of entitlement unseen in modern times. But no one could have foreseen the lurch into torture and indefinite detention of those allegedly loitering on the undefined battlefields of the "war on terror". It is for them the Bushies reserved their ugliest behavior and damaged the U.S. the most in the important eyes of the rest of the world.
"If the detainee dies, you're doing it wrong." These words, spoken by some CIA torture "lawyer" at a Gitmo meeting in October 2002 and finally disclosed during a congressional hearing this week, should join the pantheon of outrageous political speech – up there with nostalgic Nixon-era classics like "I am not a crook" and "cancer on the presidency". There, in a nutshell, is everything wrong with everything in BushWorld, a bizarro place where the law, the facts and the truth must bend to meet their grand designs.
It is not surprising that military lawyers in all four branches of the service advised against the reckless, lawless and, most importantly, ineffective methods of interrogation-by-torture proposed by the overheated Bushies. As they have in every other aspect of their pathetic rule (foreign policy, the environment, stem cell research, etc.), the small cadre of too-smart-by-half imperialists overrode the concerns of those who they no doubt termed the bureaucrats who tried to warn them off of the wayward path of their own flagrant arrogance. Throughout, the Bushies claimed they were dealing with things No One Had Seen Before and that naive notions of international law, the Constitution and common sense were soooo 9/10.
When I was in law school, I took a seminar on Watergate taught by Frank Tuerkheimer, one of the special prosecutors in the office of Archibald Cox. I researched some middle school history texts to see how Watergate was being played. Even back then, in 1985, the history in the school books had already deteriorated into portraying Watergate as some kind of political battle that Nixon lost. Because Nixon was not impeached and was pardoned, the historical record will never be as clear as it should be about his blatant criminality.
Perhaps Dennis Kucinich’s articles of impeachment do not come too late after all. It wouldn’t hurt to proceed with the hearings and continue the process even after the reigns of power are pried from Dick Cheney’s cold, dead hands. A completed impeachment and conviction in the Senate, even if it doesn’t happen until next year, will at least set the record straight. That, and a special prosecutor with Ken Starr’s budget, a bad attitude and lots of steely handcuffs for the Perp Walk Of History. The Bush enablers deserve no less.