As he turns 88 this week, former President George H.W. Bush is being celebrated for a lifetime of service to his nation. In the HBO documentary 41, Bush the Elder speaks personally about his career as a World War II aviator, member of Congress, CIA director, ambassador to China, vice president and, of course, occupant of the Oval Office.
But President Bush's most lasting impact may not be his incomplete triumph in the first Gulf War or the broken promise ("read my lips: no new taxes") which came to embody his Republican Party's unwavering commitment to perpetual tax cuts and staggering debt. Instead, Poppy's legacy can be summed up in three words he introduced to enable Republicans and their conservative amen corner to brush off charges of their own corruption and law-breaking: "criminalization of politics." From Iran-Contra, Plamegate and Tom Delay to the U.S. attorneys purge and his son's regime of detainee torture, 41's criminalizing politics defense has been part of the GOP scandal playbook ever since.
It was 41 who introduced the criminalization of politics defense into the Republican strategic lexicon. In justifying his Christmas day 1992 Iran-Contra pardons
, President George H.W. Bush used the talking point that would come to define the discourse of his son's 21st century water carriers. Much like his son's defenders, Bush the Elder sought to recast rampant Republican lawlessness in the Reagan White House as mere political disagreement. As the New York Times
reported at the time:
Mr. Bush said today that the Walsh prosecution reflected "a profoundly troubling development in the political and legal climate of our country: the criminalization of policy differences."
He added: "These differences should have been addressed in the political arena without the Damocles sword of criminality hanging over the heads of some of the combatants. The proper target is the President, not his subordinates; the proper forum is the voting booth, not the courtroom."
The Iran-Contra scandal
, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency
. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein. In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Times
recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:
A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.
The rest, as they say, is history. After the revelations regarding his trip to Tehran and the Iran-Contra scheme, a disgraced McFarlane attempted suicide. After his initial denials, President Reagan was forced to address the nation on March 4, 1987
and acknowledge he indeed swapped arms for hostages (video here
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."
(For more background, read the Reagan diaries, starting with the part in which he admits in 1986, "I agreed to sell TOWs to Iran
Of course, the sad saga didn't end there. Then Lt. Colonel and now Fox News commentator Oliver North saw his Iran-Contra conviction overturned by an appellate court led by faithful Republican partisan and later Iraq WMD commissioner Laurence Silberman. And in December 1992, outgoing President George H.W. Bush offered his Christmas pardons to Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other Iran-Contra scandal figures. Among them were Elliot Abrams and John Poindexter, men who eight years later reprised their roles in the administration of George W. Bush. And as it turns out, it was Rep. Dick Cheney, later Bush 41's Secretary of Defense and Bush 43's Vice President, who authored the sneering 1987 Congressional Iran-Contra Committee minority report:
"The bottom line, however, is that the mistakes of the Iran-contra affair were just that - mistakes in judgment, and nothing more. There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for ''the rule of law,'' no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or coverup. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the committees' report tries to reach."
(Twenty-two years later
, the former Vice President Dick Cheney explained his scorched-earth defense for the architects and implementers of the George W. Bush's policy of waterboarding and other so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. "I went through the Iran-contra hearings and watched the way administration officials ran for cover and left the little guys out to dry," Cheney told his hagiographer Stephen Hayes in 20098, "And I was bound and determined that wasn't going to happen this time.")
The "criminalization of politics" arrow has been the first one pulled from the Republican scandal quiver ever since.
Take, for example, the imbroglio surrounding the politically motivated firings of U.S attorneys in 2006. On PBS Newhour
in May 2007, Republican California Congressman Dan Lundgren
was only too happy to offer the criminalization of politics ruse for Monica Goodling and Alberto Gonzales alike. Just moments after acknowledging Goodling's admission of violating civil rules and Hatch Act prohibitions ("she did admit that she made mistakes in that regard"), Lundgren returned the script:
"Let me just say this -- and I think it's an important point -- there is too much of a tendency in this environment to try and criminalize political disputes. That's been the effort here. They have found no basis for criminality, so the suggestion is now a vote of no confidence. Who knows what is next?"
But it was Rep. Mike Pence
(R-IN) who beat Lundgren to the punch, defending Goodling in the opening moments of her testimony. Pence, who famously compared
his March 2007 visit to a Baghdad market to shopping in his home state of Indiana, trotted out the tired GOP talking point for her:
"I'm listening very intently. I'm studying this case. And I want to explore this issue of illegal behavior with you. Because it seems to me so much of this -- and even something of what we've heard today in this otherwise cordial hearing -- is about the criminalization of politics. In a very real sense, it seems to be aabout the attempted criminalization of things that are vital to our constitutional system of government, namely the taking into consideration of politics in the appointment of political officials within the government."
Later that morning, of course, Monica Goodling admitted her own lawbreaking and suggested that Attorney General Gonzales may have obstructed justice
in trying to coach her. Acknowledging that "I believe I crossed the line, but I didn't mean to", Goodling clarified
for all why she sought immunity in the first place:
"I do acknowledge that I may have gone too far in asking political questions of applicants for career positions, and I may have taken inappropriate political considerations into account on some occasions, and I regret those mistakes."
(As it turned out, the DOJ's own inspector general later rejected
Goodling's criminalization of politics maneuver.)
GonzoGate, however, is far from the first 21st century use of the "criminalizing politics" defense by Team GOP and its echo chamber. Consider the case of Tom Delay. As early as April 2005, a furious Delay declared of the ethic charges swirling around him, "Democrats have made clear that their only agenda is the politics of personal destruction and the criminalization of politics." Amazingly, that comment came before Delay's own October 2005 indictment in Texas for money laundering in association with his Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC).
Unsurprisingly, the conservative echo chamber rushed to Delay's defense and magnified his talking point. Days after Delay's indictment by District Attorney Ronnie Earle, Robert Novak penned a column titled "Criminalizing Politics", concluding:
'Democrats are ecstatic. The criminalization of politics may work, even if the case against DeLay is as threadbare as it looks."
Tom Delay, who on the day of his booking said, "Let people see Christ through me," had a familiar message following his conviction in November 2010
"This is an abuse of power. It's a miscarriage of justice. I still maintain my innocence. The criminalization of politics undermines our very system."
No discussion of Robert Novak and the Republican redefinition of GOP crime as everyday political disagreements could be complete without a look the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame
. While neither Karl Rove nor others were ever charged with the technical and narrowly defined offense of revealing the identity of Valerie Plame to Robert Novak
and others, Cheney chief-of-staff Scooter Libby was convicted by jury on four counts of perjury and obstruction of justice. But for the familiar goose-steppers of the conservative ascendancy, Libby the felon too was a victim of the criminalization of politics.
The usual cavalcade of apologists for Republican law-breaking swarmed to Libby's defense. With his looming indictment in the fall of 2005, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison compared Libby to Martha Stewart, and offered a new variant of the Delay sound bite, the "perjury technicality." Hutchison said she hoped that:
"That if there is going to be an indictment that says something happened, that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars."
Hutchison, of course, had plenty of company in offering the criminalization of politics canard in the CIA leak case. On October 14, 2005, Bill Kristol
complained, "I am worried about what happens to the administration if Rove is indicted," adding, "I think it's the criminalization of politics that's really gotten totally out of hand." In succeeding days, Kristol's Fox News colleagues
Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, Stuart Varney and Chris Wallace joined the chorus singing from the RNC's criminalization of politics hymnal. On October 24th, Kristol took to the pages of the Weekly Standard to denounce a supposed Democratic strategy of "criminalizing conservatives
." When Libby was later convicted, the Wall Street Journal
editorial page called for a pardon. The WSJ cited grave dangers if the Libby verdict were to stand: "perhaps the worst precedent would be normalizing the criminalization of policy differences."
Sadly, two years later, President Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder were complicit in aiding and abetting the Republican criminalization of politics defense. This time, the misdeeds concerned the Bush administration's regime of detainee torture.
During his confirmation hearings in January 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder reassured Republican torture enthusiasts in the Senate when he declared "we don't want to criminalize policy differences that might exist" with the outgoing Bush White House. But with prosecution of the Bush torture team back on the table after the release of the OLC memos and reports from the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence committees, the Republican echo chamber is quickly circling the wagons in defense of the indefensible.
In a scathing April 2009 editorial titled, "Presidential Poison," the Wall Street Journal went on the attack using the GOP's tried and untrue criminalizing politics canard:
Mark down the date. Tuesday, April 21, 2009, is the moment that any chance of a new era of bipartisan respect in Washington ended. By inviting the prosecution of Bush officials for their antiterror legal advice, President Obama has injected a poison into our politics that he and the country will live to regret...
Above all, the exercise will only embitter Republicans, including the moderates and national-security hawks Mr. Obama may need in the next four years. As patriotic officials who acted in good faith are indicted, smeared, impeached from judgeships or stripped of their academic tenure, the partisan anger and backlash will grow...
Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, due in part to his personal charm and his seeming goodwill. By indulging his party's desire to criminalize policy advice, he has unleashed furies that will haunt his Presidency.
Of course, those furies were unleashed long before Barack Obama took the oath of office. But just in case Americans needed a reminder, former "blog of the year" Power Line
lashed out in a piece called "Criminalizing Conservatism." Rather than advising conservatives to try the novel approach to governing which excludes committing crimes, John Hinderaker warned that his persecuted right-wing partisans are rapidly becoming an endangered species:
"Many liberals don't just want to defeat conservatives at the polls, they want to send them to jail. Toward that end, they have sometimes tried to criminalize what are essentially policy differences...
President Obama and his party may achieve another objective by publicly making this kind of threat: deterring Republicans from serving in public life. For many Republicans considering whether to accept an appointment to government office, the prospect that they may be subjected to criminal prosecution if the next administration is Democratic could well tip the balance in favor of remaining in private life."
Columnist and Fox News regular Fred Barnes
has been making that same bogus case for years. Whether the scandal involved Plamegate, federal prosecutors or even public broadcasting, Barnes played the same "criminalizing politics
" card. And with the prospect of torture prosecutions, he's sounding like a broken record:
"Pat Leahy, the senator from Vermont, is one of the most partisan people in the history of politics, and certainly in Congress today. And what he wants is to criminalize policy differences...I think that's exactly the wrong thing to do."
Regrettably, Barnes was seconded by David Broder
, the supposed dean of the Washington press corps, who declared of the potential prosecution of the Bush torture team in April 2009:
"It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas"
Predictably, Senators Kit Bond
and John McCain
among others faithfully reproduced the GOP talking point about potential torture prosecution constituting a "banana republic," Following the script, Bond insisted, "We don't criminally prosecute people we disagree with when we change office."
Not that is, when a Republican administration is replaced by Democrats in the White House. After all, to seek justice in the wake of GOP wrongdoing, 41 told Americans on Christmas Day 1992, would represent "the criminalization of policy differences."
* Crossposted at Perrspectives *