Bush power play

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

THE hour is come for the reckoning as President George W. Bush discovers everyday. While professing to export democracy, he has, since 9/11, systematically undermined it at home. The Supreme Court has been packed. Congress serves as his poodle. The Democrats simply played along, afraid to be cast as soft on national security, a phenomenon we witnessed during the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s rule. American media, print and electronic, disgraced itself. Very relevant to us is the manner in which Bush has been able to pervert the rule of law. Remember the Emergency?

In the U.S., the situation is worse than it was in the McCarthy era. When the Red Scare ended, Americans vowed "never again". They will sing this tune, assuredly, when the Bush era ends. There have, however, been some who spoke up even while the rampage was on the authors of these five books, for instance.

The doyen of American historians, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., writes felicitously and with a sweep that compels admiration. This volume derives lessons from the past to understand why the Presidency is what it is today. Unilateralism was practised by the U.S. for a long time. It was shed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and successors but was revived by George W. Bush in a gruesome form: "We arrogate to ourselves the exclusive right to urge preventive war." With a wealth of historical references, Schlesinger refutes the messianic assertions by Bush and his supporters in the academia.

Prof. Andrew Rudalevige's work is also a historical retrospect, an excellent sequel to Schlesinger's The Imperial Presidency. The founding fathers' concept of the presidency was altogether different from that on which Richard Nixon acted and on which Bush acts now. But the "foetus of monarchy" lay comfortably embedded in the system. Lincoln defied the Supreme Court. Over time presidents discovered their limitations also. Richard E. Neustadt's classic Presidential Power was about those limits. Nixon thought he could ignore them and came to grief. Rudalevige's book demonstrates how George W. Bush out-Nixoned Nixon. Presidential power was renewed after Watergate till it reached its present heights. It could do so only because Congress and the Democratic leadership played along. "Presidents and their allies have been quick to doubt the motives, honour, and patriotism of anyone doubting the wisdom of presidential leadership." For all the power he amassed, Bush has nothing to show except failure.

Presidential aggrandisement is the subject of the other three volumes, written by specialists on the Constitution. Theodore Draper remarked that ever since the Korean War, "Presidents have been violating the Constitution of the United States." Louis Fisher's survey begins in 1789 after a brief discussion of the constitutional framework and comes right down to the present times. There is a chapter each on covert operations and on the restoration of checks and balances. It is a study in history as well as law.

The other two works, by respected academics, analyse the steady erosion of legal checks on presidential power. The President wields many tools. Cooper focusses on Executive Orders, Presidential Proclamations and National Security Directions. An abuse little noticed in India is President Bush's statement while signing his assent to Bills passed by Congress which he later relies on to give his own spin on the law, of the land. We are warned - it can happen in parliamentary system too; Rozell's work is on the precise legal concept of executive privilege, which presidents invoke to evade accountability to Congress and, at one remove, to the nation.

A Congressman was provoked to tell off an Administration official: "This is not a monarchy, the legislative branch has oversight responsibility to make sure there is no corruption in the executive branch." That is no less true of legislatures in the parliamentary system.

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