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George Milhous Bush

Last week the Bush administration reached its Nixonian climax, as CIA director Michael Hayden confirmed that the government had nearly drowned some people on purpose using techniques that American military men have long known as torture. Attorney General Michael Mukasey said the Department of Justice could not investigate these alleged crimes. White House spokesman Tony Fratto explained why the President may authorize them again. Vice President Dick Cheney declared them a good thing. The administration is saying in effect, We do as we please, and care nothing for the laws; now, show us, Congress and loyal subject, er, citizens, what are you going to do about it? And Americans, frankly, face a strong temptation not to do anything: We will have a new president soon, and the race is exciting. But hard choice though it is, we need to recognize the constitutional crisis to which this administration has brought us, and as its officers now openly refuse to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, Congress must do all it can to expose, with the patience of the prosecutor the administration will not appoint, the wrongs done in our name. Otherwise we will forfeit what we painfully won from the Nixon era: our right to a government bound by law.

The Bush administration has been following a Nixonian script since its opening act. Like Richard Nixon, the President entered office declaring himself a new kind of Republican, a compassionate uniter of feuding factions, then immediately began to stigmatize dissent and wall himself off from the public. The Nixon administration had no intention of seeking national unity in the fractious atmosphere of 1969; soon after taking office, the President declared that antiwar protests were a symptom of decadence: “It is not too strong a statement to declare that this is the way civilizations begin to die.”  His Vice President Spiro Agnew promoted this project more openly: “I say it is time for a positive polarization. ... It is time to rip away the rhetoric and divide on authentic lines.” Before long, it had become Nixon’s deliberate strategy to drive wedges through the Democratic Party along the lines of race, class, and position on the war, with the goal of breaking the country into pieces on the assumption that the Republicans could have "far the larger half," as Patrick Buchanan wrote. Likewise, President Bush followed his “uniter, not a divider” and “president of all the people” pledges by shutting Democrats out and restricting public access to the White House even before September 11 gave him a much freer hand to invoke national security and assert that anyone not with us was against us.

The Nixon administration used the Vietnam War to claim increased executive power, including the authority to wiretap, without warrants and in defiance of the Constitution, anyone whom they believed was intending to "attack and subvert the government by unlawful means." The Bush administration has likewise used the War on Terror to claim that the President has an unlimited power to wage war, violate treaties and legislation, spy on, lock up, interrogate, and not "torture"--because Americans do not torture--but deprive of sleep, food, and air (short of death) anyone whom it sees fit, American citizen or not.

But above all, the Nixon administration seduced large swathes of the country into supporting its increasingly open villainy. Nixon’s men browbeat the press, produced fake letters to the editor, and choreographed responses to the president's speeches to ensure that--as Jonathan Schell noted--the public image of the administration corresponded not at all to the real policies it pursued. In concept, Nixon stood for peace and order; in reality, the war continued throughout his first four years in office, and his agents pursued power ever more lawlessly. Yet he swept to a landslide in 1972, despite the increasingly obvious evidence of his perfidy. Likewise, Bush took the 2004 election, despite the increasingly obvious evidence of his perfidy.

Or perhaps he won not despite but because of that increasingly obvious evidence. There is something attractive in forthright wickedness. Ordinary villains excuse themselves or seek plausible deniability. Shakespeare (of course) knew the two types. Consider the dull Henry who gives a lengthy wink-wink to his lackeys: “Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?” he asks, trying to get his friends to kill the king. As Exton says, “He spake it twice"--hint, hint--"And speaking it, he wistly look'd on me, As who should say, 'I would thou wert the man.'" Boring, Bolingbroke. Just come out and say it. Compare Richard of Gloucester, who declares openly, “I am determined to prove a villain.” Richard is more exciting to watch, as is his namesake Nixon. Remember, it was Richard of Yorba Linda who told his aides, “Goddamn it, get in and get those files. … Blow the safe and get it.”

On balance, the evidence suggests we like to cheer on the thugs who claim to represent us until we belatedly and painfully realize we’ve become complicit in something we truly despise. With Nixon, realization crept slowly on the public, until it broke in May of 1973, when Congress began nationally broadcasting hearings that, with a thoroughness verging at first on boredom, then shading into the hypnotic, systematically exposed the administration’s wrongdoing. We live now in a suspended moment similar to the winter months of early 1973: We know what we have half-consciously allowed, but we need to see it laid out authoritatively, with names, dates, and details, before we can shake off those who have led us into this shadow.

As my colleague Kathryn Olmsted points out, the parallels between Nixon and Bush are not merely incidental echoes: They result from a continuity of personnel who intend to concentrate national power in the hands of a Republican president. Congress was able to thwart this the first time. Now we run the risk of allowing our adherence to the electoral calendar delude us into thinking that we can simply let this administration pass. But we cannot. If the Bush administration slips from us uninvestigated, without acknowledgment of and atonement for its wrongs, the Nixonian nightmare will have become American reality.

Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author, most recently, of Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.

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