Tossed a softball question during Tuesday morning's press conference about whether he should be censured for ordering warrantless wiretapping of phone conversations "during a time of war," President Bush fell back on the lie that Americans must surrender liberties -- and the rule of law, itself -- in order to be made safe from terrorism.
The question, a virtually verbatim repeat of talking points circulated by the Republican National Committee, was about as generous a set-up as a president has ever gotten in a press conference.
"Thank you, sir," began Carl Cameron, who serves as Fox News' always-on-bended-knee chief correspondent in the court of King George. "On the subject of the terrorist surveillance program -- not to change the tone from all this emphasis on bipartisanship -- but there have been now three sponsors to a measure to censure you for the implementation of that program. The primary sponsor, Russ Feingold, has suggested that impeachment is not out of the question. And on Sunday, the number two Democrat in the Senate refused to rule that out pending an investigation. What, sir, do you think the impact of the discussion of impeachment and censure does to you and this office, and to the nation during a time of war, and in the context of the election?"
Bush was, needless to say, ready for the Cameron's inquiry. Grabbing hold of the "time-of-war" reference as the lifesaver it was intended to be, the president said, "I think during these difficult times -- and they are difficult when we're at war -- the American people expect there to be a honest and open debate without needless partisanship. And that's how I view it. I did notice that nobody from the Democrat Party has actually stood up and called for getting rid of the terrorist surveillance program. You know, if that's what they believe, if people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it. They ought to stand up and say the tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used. They ought to take their message to the people and say, vote for me, I promise we're not going to have a terrorist surveillance program. That's what they ought to be doing. That's part of what is an open and honest debate."
Of course, no prominent Democrat has ever suggested publicly or -- to the extent that reporting has revealed -- privately that it would be wise to do away with surveillance programs that are designed to thwart terrorism. What Democrats and Republicans have suggested is that the president ought to obey the law when ordering federal agencies to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens.
As Feingold, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin who raised the issue of censure last week, noted on Monday: "At his press conference today, the President once again failed to tell the American people why he decided to break the law by authorizing a program to spy on Americans on American soil without court orders. Instead of offering any defense of the program's legality, the President shamelessly played partisan politics by implying that Democrats don't want to wiretap terrorists. That is flat-out wrong, and the President knows it. Of course we should wiretap suspected terrorists, and under current law, we can. The question is why the President believes he needs to break the law to do so."
If Bush had acknowledged the legitimate bipartisan concerns about his spying program, and if he had pledged to obey the law in the future, it is doubtful that the issue of censure would ever have arisen. Bush knows this. Yet, despite his pronouncements Monday, he is doing everything he can to prevent an "open and honest debate" by murking things up with false charges and claims regarding his critics.
The prepped president used Cameron's question as a jumping off point for an even more surreal assault on the truth when he attempted to confuse Americans with regard to the recent Patriot Act debate.
"I did notice that, at one point in time, they didn't think the Patriot Act ought to be reauthorized -- 'they' being at least the Minority Leader in the Senate. He openly said, as I understand -- I don't want to misquote him -- something along the lines that, 'We killed the Patriot Act,'" said Bush. "And if that's what the party believes, they ought to go around the country saying we shouldn't give the people on the front line of protecting us the tools necessary to do so. That's a debate I think the country ought to have."
What the president conveniently failed to mention is that the Senate Minority Leader, Nevada's Harry Reid, voted with the vast majority of Senate Democrats this month to reauthorize the Patriot Act in the form favored by the administration.
While Reid and a number of Republican senators had earlier expressed support for efforts to temper some of the Patriot Act's most clearly unconstitutional components, they fell in line with the president when the votes were counted.
To their credit, a bipartisan coalition of House and Senate members refused to do back the Patriot Act in that final version, not because they want to take away the tools that fight terrorism but because they believe, as did Benjamin Franklin, that: "Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety."
What Bush, in a call for "open and honest debate" that was really a carefully choreographed attempt to create a false divide between supposedly tough-on-terror Republicans and supposedly soft-on-terror Democrats, is the fact that some of the most conservative Republicans in Congress -- including California Representative Dana Dohrabacher, the chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, and Alaska Representative Don Young, the 3rd ranking Republican in the House who serves as a key member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security -- sided with Feingold in opposing reauthorization of the Patriot Act in the form promoted by the Bush White House.
Arguing that "there are enough laws already enacted on our books today that we don't need to create further laws that infringe upon the constitutional rights of every Alaskan," Young said in announcing his opposition to the Patriot Act that, "I still feel this legislation was never fully thought out. We rushed to put together legislation that we thought would safeguard us from another terrorist attack. In the process we have created a bill that I feel takes away our constitutional freedom. Over four years have past and there have only been a few essential elements added to this bill. However, overall this is still a bad piece of legislation."
Those are the words of a prominent member of the president's own party. If George Bush was genuinely interested in "open and honest" debate," he would acknowledge that the issue is not whether Republicans or Democrats want to fight terrorism. The issue is whether it is necessary to disregard the Constitution in that fight. If Bush believes that his is the appropriate course then, to paraphrase the president himself, he ought to take that message to the people and say, "I promise that I won't be bothered by the Bill of Rights."
That, not his attempts to create a false discourse, would make George Bush a part of the "open and honest debate" he so disingenuously claims to desire.
John Nichols's is the author of The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History.
© 2006 The Nation