May 3, 2009

Exorcising Nixon's Ghost

Sooner or later America must confront the endless allegations of torture that keep surfacing. President Obama’s initial release of CIA interrogation memos is merely the beginning of a treacherous road fraught with pitfalls - and he knows it. But President Obama must peer deeper into the void.

This controversy goes far beyond torture.

Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon has a direct influence on today’s outrage. Nixon’s pardon set a horrible modern precedent for every future president. American history is full of alleged abuses of executive power and the debate over pardons has blazed since America’s founding. Nevertheless, Nixon was a prime example if not the supreme signal that future presidents are above the law.

His escape proved that presidents would legally protect each other. He proved that in the highly recycled federal government, former presidential officials could later cover each other like when George H.W. Bush pardoned those accused in Ronald Reagan's
Iran Contra scandal. It’s a fair guess that George Bush had Nixon in mind when expanding executive power and now, apparently for political reasons, Obama is covering George Bush.

How torture is defined is its own argument. Whether interrogators committed acts of torture is another as is whether federal or international law was broken. However, the final question is who authorized the use of torture, even in defense of the country, and what America will do with them if found guilty of
breaking the law. Is the law ignored, bent, broken, or affirmed?

President Obama has a problem. Unlike Nixon’s crimes, which were hidden until the later stages of investigation, it is widely assumed that authorization came from Bush or
Dick Cheney. This immediate pressure is the likely reason why Obama doesn’t seem eager to punish those responsible.

Nixon’s scandal, “is an American tragedy in which we all have played a part,” Ford told the nation in 1974. “It could go on and on and on, or someone must write the end to it. I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”

President Obama’s remarks were too similar when he said, “We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.”

Actually a great deal could be gained by investigating the past, with even more to lose if that past is ignored. This is not to say that Bush or Cheney are certainly guilty of authorizing torture, though the assumption that they did is indisputable. Someone at the highest level signed the order and whoever they are needs to be held accountable.

Add to this wiretapping, missing WMD's, and whatever else limply trails the Bush administration, and an investigation is required to preserve America's future. “For as in absolute governments the king is law,” wrote
Thomas Paine, “so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other.”

President Obama understandably doesn’t want to go down this road. With so many problems - the pile is becoming a heap - a Nixon-like circus would be a monstrous distraction and extremely painful. But timing is not an excuse. There is no good or bad time to uphold the law, only the right time, which is all the time.

America is facing a crisis beyond torture, a test to the core of the state. To stay at skin level, afraid of what lies beneath, guarantees future abuses of power. The job of presidents isn't to be friends with each other but to guard the law universally. Justice should be amplified, rather than reduced, when dealing with presidents instead of common people because only presidents have the power to control each other.

Ford’s pardon of Nixon, though he believed it to be the right choice, was immediately controversial and ultimately destructive to the future of America, culminating with the Bush administration. President Obama has a chance to set the right precedent, which he should know something about as a constitutional lawyer. America is at a pivotal moment and it needs its laws upheld to the highest office. Now is not the time for hugs and a blind eye.

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