There's a famous, possibly apocryphal story about Lyndon Johnson visiting Vietnam during his presidency. On a carrier flight deck, he started striding toward a helicopter when a Navy officer said to him, "No, Mr. President, your helicopter is this way."
LBJ looked him in the eye and said, "Son, they're ALL my helicopters."
A similar story on a slightly smaller scale made the rounds of Washington during the early days of the current presidency. It was in April 2001, after China seized and then released a US Navy EP-3 surveillance aircraft. During a medical appointment the doctor asked George W. Bush what had been the most difficult part of his presidency so far. He replied, "When the Chinese took my airplane."
Fast forward more than six long years, post-9/11 years of disasters at home and abroad, incompetence, abuses of power, stonewalling, obstruction of justice, etc. I could make a longer list but it would paralyze you like the monologue of that guy in "Forrest Gump" who goes on about all the ways you can cook shrimp.
You'd think that with such a shambles in his wake and his popularity at an all-time low, George Bush would at least partially have relinquished his pride of ownership. Not so.
Here he is the other day, responding to the aborted attempt in the Senate to legislatively declare "no confidence" in Attorney General "Fredo" Gonzales:
"They can try to have their votes of no confidence," the president said, "but it's not going to determine -- make the determination -- who serves in my government."
MY government? Now that's entitlement. And you thought George Bush didn't have a vision for America. Unfortunately, it's one big MySpace page, from sea to shining sea. Or, rather, shining me.
Luckily, as this lame duck presidency wobbily waddles toward the sunset, cooler heads are prevailing in both the public and private sectors. Read, for example, last week's majority decision in the case of Al Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari national held in military custody. Written by US Circuit Court Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, it states that simply designating someone an "enemy combatant" does not allow the White House to imprison them indefinitely without charges.
"The President cannot eliminate constitutional protections with the stroke of a pen by proclaiming a civilian, even a criminal civilian, an enemy combatant subject to indefinite military detention," Justice Motz wrote. "... To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the President calls them 'enemy combatants,' would have disastrous consequences for the Constitution -- and the country.
"For a court to uphold a claim to such extraordinary power would do more than render lifeless the Suspension Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the rights to criminal process in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments; it would effectively undermine all of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. It is that power -- were a court to recognize it -- that could lead all our laws 'to go unexecuted, and the government itself to go to pieces.' We refuse to recognize a claim to power that would so alter the constitutional foundations of our Republic."
Wow. When it comes to compelling rhetoric Judge Motz could give the Founding Fathers' debating team a run for the loving cup. In fact, she leaned on their words to back up her case: "In the Declaration of Independence our forefathers lodged the complaint that the King of Great Britain had 'affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power' and objected that the King had 'depriv[ed] us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury.' A resolute conviction that civilian authority should govern the military animated the framing of the Constitution."
Motz is a Clinton appointee, so subject to the slings and arrows of the right. But similar concerns were addressed last month by a group calling itself the American Freedom Agenda, founded by three leaders of the anti-bleeding heart lobby: David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union; former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, one of the House managers of Clinton's impeachment; and the writer and conservative direct-mail guru Richard Viguerie.
They've asked each GOP presidential candidate to sign a ten-point pledge that reads, in part, "I hereby pledge that if elected President of the United States I will undertake the following to restore the Constitution's checks and balances: to honor fundamental protections against injustice, and to eschew usurpations of legislative or judicial power. These are keystones of national security and individual freedom."
Other points, as reported by Charlie Savage in the June 12 Boston Globe, "include renouncing the use of presidential signing statements to claim a right to disobey laws; ending threats to prosecute journalists who write about classified matters; and promising to use regular courts rather than military commissions to try terrorism suspects...
"The group also plans to lobby Congress to pass legislation imposing stronger checks and balances on the presidency. It is urging debate moderators to ask questions of the candidates about their views on the limits of presidential power, and it is planning to host events to raise voter awareness of the issue."
Theirs may be a quixotic quest. So far, the only candidate to take the pledge is libertarian Congressman Ron Paul. But what the Freedom Agenda proposes would take us a long way to restoring a government that represents "We, the People," and not, as the title of that old George Harrison Beatles song goes, "I Me Mine."
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes this weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
Copyright 2007 Messenger Post Newspapers