The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a proposal to censure President Bush for his literally unwarranted domestic spying flopped on opening day, like the really bad play that it was.
The Republican members of course were having none of it, and the hearing was snubbed by the committee's Democratic heavy hitters — Ted Kennedy, Dianne Feinstein, Dick Durbin, Charles Schumer, Joe Biden. (Schumer's absence was especially telling. One of the most dangerous spots on Earth is the space between Schumer and the nearest TV camera.)
So the resolution will go nowhere, its sure fate from the moment Wisconsin's Russ Feingold kited it and the reason so many of his colleagues found other chores for the day. Even so, censure is called for, if not formally, then broadly and emphatically.
Warrants are required. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act plainly requires warrants. The judges overseeing it are not stinting with them, and the law makes room for red-hot cases that need immediate action. Warrants can be secured after the fact.
Bush instead insists the law doesn't apply to him because as commander-in-chief he has wartime power to ignore any law he finds bothersome. An inconvenient statute against torturing prisoners? Poof, it is blown away, like a dandelion gone to seed.
Bush's two attorneys general, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, have shilled for this astonishing assertion.
Remember that George Washington nixed "His Excellency" as a presidential honorific in favor of the plain "Mr. President." Not this guy.
Although he came to office championing, he said, humility, Bush and those dancing court to him have come up with the scary concept of the "unitary executive" or "unitary presidency." That means, in effect, that he can do whatever he jolly well pleases.
From just moments after Sept. 11, Bush has said this "war" will take long years and we probably won't even know exactly when it has ended. That sounds right.
Maybe one day, then, someone will say to somebody else, "You know, we haven't had any terrorism for years. Maybe that war is over." And if one of the persons in the conversation is president, the war will be over.
So Bush has claimed for himself and his successors a right to rule by fiat. The title for that sort of ruler is more nearly "caesar" than "president."
People don't care. Perhaps the most amazing part of this business is the apparent fact that the American people don't give a rat's tail. Anyone who might have had a twinge of concern at first was yelled down pre-emptively by right-wing and/or Republican spielers — not only, but not least, either, on talk radio. And a general attitude seems to have settled in that all politics is piffle, so what difference could any of it make?
This is civic debauchery. Citizenship is reduced to spectator sport, to be enjoyed or disdained according to the partisan predisposition of the onlookers and the fights in the audience are part of the show. The Internet has become a theater of attitudinal exhibitionism and social voyeurism.
So Bush gets away with claiming powers to imprison suspects indefinitely just on his say-so, to brush off Congress and its laws and to override generations-old treaties — all under the empowering colors of his unitary presidency.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the circus. Enjoy yourselves.
Teepen is a columnist for Cox Newspapers.
© 2006 Knight Ridder