LAST WEEK'S State of the Union address was, I have to admit, pretty good. Beyond the ritual mirror-cracking invocations of "defeating evil," George W. came forth with a number of reasonable- sounding declarations that just about anyone could agree with. And his calls for fair wages and environmental protection and his assertion that "corporate America must be held to the highest standards of conduct" sounded positively democratic.
Then I remembered that Democrats say these things without really meaning them, too, and that Satan is invariably in the details. And that Dubya originally ran as a "compassionate conservative" but, once in office, turned out to be anything but.
One of the minor benefits of Sept. 11 and its aftermath is that we have perhaps —perhaps—reached the point where analysis of Bush's words can focus on their meaning, not simply on his diction. So perhaps now someone will notice the indisputable fact that he has launched the most deeply anti-democratic presidency in modern American history.
In case you needed any reminders, Vice President Dick Cheney—a man who wields enormous power but has spent the year being impossible to find, unless you're an Enron exec—drove the point home yet again two days earlier: He announced that he wouldn't cooperate with congressional investigations into Enron's links to the Kenneth Lay-crafted Bush energy policy last spring. This was the perfect meshing of form and substance: spurning an investigation that, at its root, calls into question Enron's subversion of representative democracy by saying that this administration wants to weaken the checks and balances of, um, representative democracy. "Guilty and proud, your honor."
Cheney says he welcomes this confrontation as a way to strengthen the executive branch and counteract "the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 to 35 years." For those of you who don't do math quickly, he wants us to go back to the kind of power the White House had in 1967-1972. And glory be: Those are almost precisely the years of Richard Nixon's presidency.
Many Republicans, particularly those who (like Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld) were involved in the administration at the time, do pine for the days of Nixon. And he did some admirable things as president—launching the EPA, establishing relationships with China, and other prescient policies. But rarely does anyone laud Nixon's regime because of how it handled the democratic process. Matter of fact, its commitment to checks and balances was one of the darker hours in American history.
But not, apparently, to Dick Cheney. Or George Bush. Or Donald Rumsfeld. Or John Ashcroft. And it has shown. From the very way in which they were brought into office—by fiat of a stacked Supreme Court, against the wishes of the voters in Florida and across the country—through just about every policy pursued since then, Bush and his minions have demonstrated a deep and alarming contempt for this country's Constitution and its freedoms. Sept. 11 and the subsequent "War on Terrorism" have accelerated that process, from indefinite detentions to the secreting of presidential papers past and present to expanded police powers to stripped due process. But it's been there all the past year: the subversion of laws and regulations through the appointments of industry stooges to "regulate" (i.e., shovel pork to their industries), the stripping of enforcement budgets for investigating environmental abuses and white collar crime, the hostility to campaign finance and election reform, the championing of many of the same intrusive anti-civil liberties measures subsequently enacted after Sept. 11.
The downfall of the Nixon administration was epitomized by its "Enemies List"; now, we have an attorney general who wants the power to investigate people because of their political or religious beliefs and a president who doesn't believe anyone has a right to know what he's doing or who he's doing it for. A president, in other words, who, even while mouthing populist rhetoric, acts like the entire American public is his enemy. A man with something to hide. A man born to privilege who has no use for people who are not likewise privileged. A man who technically should not even be president. A man who, as it turns out, shouldn't have the job because its primary requirement is loyalty to the United States Constitution, and he has none.
Next time you watch George Bush, think of John Ashcroft reading your mail. Think of Dick Cheney complaining that America would work a lot better if he didn't need to answer to Congress. Think of Richard Nixon stalking the halls and muttering racial epithets. Think of all of history's dictators telling adoring crowds that it takes a strong, unfettered leader to make the country right.
And then hope that the talking heads afterward talk about something other than the president's malapropisms.