No Comment — January 17, 2009, 6:27 pm

An Epitaph for the Bush Years

Today, Bush and his family moved out of the White House to Camp David, where they plan to vacation before Inaugural Day. As we await the formal transfer of power, the process of judgment on the presidency of George W. Bush has accelerated. The Bush years now need an epitaph.

What is the message to be carved over this massive cesspool of a failed presidency? I turn to Augustine, the early church father whose writings represent the first effort by a Christian theologian to come to grips with the duties of civil governance. “If it does not do justice,” he writes in the City of God, “what is the government but a great criminal enterprise?” That fits the Bush Administration perfectly, for it shows its key failing and it serves as admonishment to the government that follows him.

In the chapters in which this sentence appears, Augustine reminds us of the importance of process and the risks inherent in the temptation of power. It is easy, he says, for those with an inclination to politics to stumble down a false path. The process of accretion of power becomes means and ends both; the vision of a more noble society which serves humanity fades in favor of the “realities” of the quotidian struggle for still more power. Augustine approaches the problems as part practical political philosopher and part divine. He reaches instructively for the example of a criminal band. How ultimately can a gang of thugs be distinguished from a government? He asks. The question is ironic, but it is also earnest. There is a distinction, and it lies in the concept of justice. Essential to the legitimacy of a government is a commitment to justice in the treatment of the state’s citizens or subjects and in the treatment of other states. Absent this, the state is no more than a criminal enterprise.

Nothing so marked the Bush years as a corrupted sense of justice. On the domestic side, under the influence of Karl Rove, Bush introduced the regime of the perpetual campaign. His conduct of government was about the steady accretion and perpetuation of power. To this end, the institutions of government were severely undermined and turned to a partisan political purpose. No agency of our government was more sadly disfigured than the Justice Department, which became little more than a machine for the advancement of partisan projects. We see this in the gutting of the Civil Rights Division and the crude manipulation of the Voting Rights Section. And in an unguarded moment in an interview with Larry King last week, Bush admitted that he turned the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) into a rubber stamp that validated and legalized his most cockeyed and even criminal ideas. Like Nixon, the Bush team believe that “if the president does it, it is not a crime.” But they go further, debasing the Justice Department by having it issue formal opinions saying that black is white. With an OLC opinion in their pocket, the “loyal Bushies” felt free to torture, wiretap without warrants and commit other still uncatalogued crimes all in the name of presidential power. Deep in the bowels of Bush Justice the plans were laid for an imperial presidency, bursting the bounds imposed by the law and the Constitution—which in theory the Justice Department lawyers were sworn to uphold. This provides one of the more spectacular demonstrations of Augustine’s notion in modern American history, namely, when justice and the fidelity to law that manifests it is cast aside, political actors begin to behave increasingly like a band of thugs. That the Justice Department should emerge as the beating heart of a criminal enterprise is shocking, but that fact becomes more and more apparent with each successive disclosure.

Still more horrible are the political prosecutions brought abusing the good name of the United States. Today in the final hundred hours of the age of Bush, America has political prisoners—men like Paul Minor, Wes Teel, and John Whitfield, and for a while, Don Siegelman, locked away and silenced because they constituted a political threat to the Bush team, or simply because they held political offices that Karl Rove coveted. Rove steered these cases. Political prosecutions occurred in Alabama and Mississippi, in Michigan, and Pennsylvania; politically perverted investigations occurred in New York and elsewhere. And U.S. attorneys who failed to understand that the criminal justice process was now no more than a partisan weapon in the hands of Karl Rove quickly were dismissed.

That the administration of justice be true to that name was essential to Augustine. And he was prepared to acknowledge that the idea of justice was known to the pagans and their more noble leaders. In his mind this idea of justice, more than the skill of Roman legions, had been essential to the construction of the Roman Empire. When the Tyrolean master Michael Pacher chose to portray Augustine for Church Fathers Altar, one of the great gems of the art of the Northern Renaissance, he portrays Augustine as the liberator, bursting into a jail to free a man wrongfully imprisoned. In so doing, he captures the true essence of Augustinian teaching, with its stress on the need for those who hold civil authority to act justly and admonition to the community of the faithful to keep an eye upon the process.

Similarly on the world stage, the leader’s duty to other states is marked by the concept of justice. Augustine marks the stark dividing line in church thinking, away from the pacifism of the earlier church fathers, towards a recognition of the inevitability of war and the need for rules which will make milder the horrors and wrong that come with war. But he starts with a recognition that war is a “dark shadow” that falls over humankind, and the expectation that it can be freely wielded to do good is the very height of human folly. Augustine is the author of “just war” doctrine, which continues to animate the thinking of the world community today, informing our understanding as to when war is just and lawful and when it is wrong and criminal.

George W. Bush’s behavior also fails the simple tests of “just war.” His invasion of Iraq was a war of choice pursued on the basis of claims which were fundamentally false and which we now know he could not have reasonably believed at the time. It was an unjust war. His behavior towards other states consistently showed a lack of humility, a reckless indifference to human life and an unreasonable expectation that all problems could be solved through the curative powers of war-making. In this respect also, Bush can be said to have breached his duty to act justly.

Bush’s presidency was not perfectly awful. His commitment to ending AIDS and easing the plight of Africans was noble and he deserves credit for it. His original orations and response to the disaster of 9/11 showed a spark of genuine leadership and inspiration, though this soon dissipated when he turned this opportunity, too, into a partisan political game. His actions in Afghanistan were warranted initially, even as his management of the campaign there was marked by half-hearted incompetence (the same pose characteristic of his post-invasion dealings with Iraq).

Is it time now to “move on” and forget the Bush years? We must move on, but in so doing, our first steps start with remembrance. We must correct the mistakes and injustices of the past, and we must chart the damage which has been done. This week House Judiciary Chair John Conyers released a 486-page report entitled “Reining in the Imperial Presidency.” Conyers hits just the right note:

I understand that many feel we should just move on. They worry that addressing these actions by the Bush administration will divert precious energy from the serious challenges facing our nation. I understand the power of that impulse. Indeed, I want to move on as well — there are so many things that I would rather work on than further review of Bush’s presidency. But in my view it would not be responsible to start our journey forward without first knowing exactly where we are.

The Obama presidency will be launched this week with vital and largely symbolic acts of justice: torture will be banned, the process of extradition to torture ended, the kangaroo courts in Guantánamo will be ordered to stand down. These steps show a commitment to undo the injustices of the past years, and they will mark a renewed commitment to America’s traditional values. That will include aggressive prosecutions of terrorists as well as creating humane conditions for their incarceration, for swift and certain punishment of offenders is just as essential an aspect of justice as the humane treatment of those in our power. But many aspects of the abuses of the Bush era remain unaddressed. Political prisoners remain in jail. The reputation of career prosecutors is hopelessly tarnished by the past abuses. These misdeeds must be overturned. We must repair our reputation for justice.

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