The Bush Torture Memos

Clarence Darrow
Clarance Darrow, the famous defense lawyer, got it right back in 1920 talking about that era’s parade of hysteria-driven abuses known as the First Red Scare: “People are getting more cruel all the time, more insistent that they shall have their way,” he told friends back then. “The fact is that I am getting afraid of everyone who has conviction.”

Eighty years later, in 2001, President George W. Bush showed plenty of conviction when he declared his Global War on Terror after the attacks on our country of September 11 that year. Every American, as a basic civic duty, should spend the few minutes it takes to read the “Torture Memos” released yesterday by the Department of Justice, written in 2002 and 2005 to justify dispensing with two centuries of American decency — just to see when happens when hysteria is allowed to control the minds of normally rational people.

These memos — well-wrtten, highly-researched, and technically cogent — specify in sobering detail just how cruel our government was prepared to be in waging this War, with no weighing of any consequences outside these narrowest legal grounds. They explain how ten forms of aggressive interrogation did not amount to torture and thus were protected by law: “(1) attention grasp, (2) walling, (3) facial hold, (4) facial slap (insult slap), (5) cramped confinement, (6) wall standing, (7) stress positions, (8) sleep deprivations, (9) insects placed in a confinement box, and (10) the waterboard.”
Imagine if any other country ever dared to use these techniques against American citizens, and then justified them on the basis of the attached legal mumbo-jumbo.
Here are the links:

The August 1, 2002 memo, initially justifying the ten technogues, written by Jay Bybee, who sits today as a Federal Appeals Court Judge. (On whether Judge Bybee should be impeached, click here to see Yale Law Professor Bruce Ackerman’s take on the issue from last January);

The May 10, 2005 memo providing a more detailed legal justification (much more graphic);

The May 10, 2005 memo, justifying use of the techniques in combination; and

The May 30, 2005 memo, justifying how the techniques do not violate United Nations Conventions.

Rating George W. Bush

Before leaving C-SPAN’s poll of presidents, I need to get two more items off my chest. One is about Abraham Lincoln, the winner at #1. Can we please take off the rose-colored glasses and treat him like a real person? I will get to this in my next post.

The other is about George W. Bush. Let’s talk about him right now.

When I first saw the final C-SPAN list two days ago, I quickly noticed the difference between me and the group over GWB, and I wrote this:

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

Let’s be clear. I enjoy revisionist history. In my book BOSS TWEED, I was happy to restore the reputation of America’s most corrupt pol ever, showing that Tweed, while stealing the City blind, was also a big-hearrted man who helped immigrants, built New York, and was victimized by unscrupulous “reformers.” But that didn’t mean be wasn’t corrupt.

It is no Liberal fad to say that George W. Bush was one of the worst presidents ever. Facts are stubborn things. Bush might be a sincere nice man who loves his family, but that doesn’t change the bottom line. How could the C-SPAN group rank him at #36? This son of priviledge is once again being let off the hook with a Gentleman’s C?

True, a rank of 36 is no compliment. It places Bush in the bottom 10, and nobody argues that the bottom two, Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan, don’t thoroughly deserve those spots.

The difference between 3rd worst (my rank) and 7th worst (the C-SPAN group’s rank) may seem small, but at stake is the historical truth. The higher grade elevates Bush above four other Presidents who certainly had failures and fell far short of being role models, but who simply did too little in office to earn the bottom spots. Specifically:

  • Warren G. Harding (1921-1923), died in office from food poisoning, presided over the Teapot Dome scandal though not personally implicated. During his term, he stabilized the economy, pardoned Eugene V. Debs from prison, and started no wars.
  • William Henry Harrison (1841), died in office after 32 days. At 71 years old he gave a two-hour inaugural speech in a freezing snowstorm without a coat, possibly causing the cold that killed him — not too smart. But he wasn’t in office long enough to do harm;
  • Millard Fillmore (1850-1853), replaced President Zachary Taylor and filled the last 2 1/2 years of his term. He backed the Compromise of 1850 that delayed the Civil War by allowing enactment of the notorious Fugitive Slave Act;
  • Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), certainly no gem with a bad personality. He signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowing slavery to spread west. But he, too, was smaller than events arouond him.

George W. Bush was not a small President. He mattered. He was not mediocre. He was bad. The most important national challenge of our lifetimes, the attack of September 11, 2001, came on his watch. He made decisions that had consequences. The result was a string of disasters that is depressingly well known: two unfinished wars, a debt explosion, a financial collapse, a list of demoralized, ineffective Federal agencies, a sleazy re-election, inflamed wedge politics, the use of torture, the loss of global standing, and so on goes the list.

The C-SPAN group gave Bush bottom marks for Economic Management and International Relations, but it saved him from the cellar with C-level grades for three catch-all categories: “Crisis Leadership,” “Vision/ Agenda Setting,” and “Pursued Equal Justice for All.” I don’t buy it.
Ranking President Bush is speculative because the trail is still fresh. He just left office a few weeks ago, his wars are unfinished, his policies are still unfolding. Giving him a mediocre score may allow historians to keep their options open, to hedge their bets in case something in his legacy goes unexpectedly right. I think the record is clear enough to start him off at the near-bottom. If things go his way in the future, so be it.
Thanks for listening. –KenA

C-SPAN’s Presidential Poll

Woodrow Wilson, 1916.

Yesterday, C-SPAN finally issued the full results of its 2009 Presidential Survey by some 150 historians. Here’s the link to the full C-SPAN group results. As you know, I had the honor to participate and, for comparison. Here’s the link to my own entry.

Not surprisingly, as soon as I saw the final C-SPAN list, I eagerly put their’s and mine side by side, just to see how I stacked up. What I saw was a profile of my own prejudice staring back at me. Here’s a sample:

Let’s start with the top ten. We agreed on the top four (Washington, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts), though in slightly different order. But after that, we parted ways.

For instance, the C-SPAN group ranked both Woodrow Wilson and JFK in the top ten, at #9 and #6 respectively. I couldn’t disagree more. I rated Wilson far lower, at #16, his dismal records on civil rights, wartime dissent, and the post-war Red Scare, as well as his failure to win acceptance of the Versailles treaty, all counting as significant demerits. Similarly, I rated JFK far lower at #17. Yes, he inspired the country, but his sparse legislative record hardly earned him a spot in the top tier. Yes, for glamour, celebrity, and style, JFK wins hands down. But is that really how we rate Presidents? Perhaps had he lived….

As for the bottom ten, I broke from the group on two notables. First, I included Richard Nixon at #36. The C-SPAN group rated him much higher, at #27. I admit to prejudice on this one: Living through the Vietnam War at draftable age could not help but affect my attitude toward Nixon. But even putting that aside, Congress had good reasons for impeaching Nixon in 1974. His temperament — seen in his enemies list, wiretaps on his own staff, and conspiracies galore — was perhaps the worst of any President, and it overshadowed any positive accomplishment.

Finally, there is George W. Bush. The C-SPAN group places him in the bottom ten at #36. I rated him even lower, as third worst at #41. This rating obviously is the most speculative of the bunch. We still don’t know the outcome of the wars Bush started and the economic cataclysms begun under his watch. But, to my mind, the potential long-term damage Bush has done to this country far out-paces the likes of a Warren Harding, Millard Fillmore, or Frankling Pierce. Unlike these other disappointments, George W. Bush was both bad AND consequential.

So that’s my first take on the final, official C-SPAN list, and I look forward to debating these points on many more Presidents Days to come. Hope you have a happy one –KenA

Why James Garfield over LBJ and the Adamses?

James A. Garfield accepting surrender of US Grant at the 1880 Republican convention after 36 ballots.  

Since I posted my Presidential rankings for the C-SPAN 2009 Historians Survey a few days ago, I’ve received pointed questions from friends about some of my choices. (See January 18 post below.)

For instance, how could I put Gerald Ford so high on the list, in the top ten, for God’s sake? And what was I thinking in ranking James Garfield, who served only four months before being shot in the back, above LBJ and both the Adamses? And, in putting George W. Bush at the near-bottom (#41 out of 43), wasn’t I just following a liberal fad that will disappear in a few years, much as Harry Truman has gained popularity over time.

Over the next few days, I will tackle each of these. Yes, Gerald Ford deserves his high spot. Yes, James Garfield outranks LBJ, John Adams, and John Quincy. And no, George W. Bush’s bottom status is no passing liberal fancy. Bush is no Harry Truman. He will be considered as much a bottom-feeder a century from now as today.

I’ll start with James Garfield, only because this was the first challenge to come up. Stick with me.

The basics are simple: James Garfield, a Civil War veteran and career Congressman, was elected President in 1880, inaugurated in March 1881, shot by Charles Guiteau four months later, and died about two months after that. He was mourned by hundreds of thousands, respected for confronting political bosses, and credited with the modern Civil Service system adopted after his death.

During his term, he prevailed over Sen. Roscoe Conkling, dictator of the NY Republican machine, in a high-profile brawl over abusive patronage. His Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, started the country on a strong foreign policy that culminated in TR’s “big stick” approach twenty years later.  Here (above) is my favorite cartoon of Garfield, by PUCK artist Joseph Keppler, showing Garfield accepting the surrender of Ulysses Grant at the 1880 Republican Convention after Grant’s 3rd term movement collapsed on the 36th ballot:

It was my friend David Stewart, author of the terrific book THE SUMMER OF 1787: The Men who Invented the US Constitution, who blew the whistle on me. “Whoa, big fella!,” he wrote, knowing of my own book about the Garfield assassintion, (DARK HORSE). ” James Garfield ahead of Lyndon Johnson and both Adamses? We’re dishing out some home-cooking here. Remind us again, what did Garfield do as president?”

Good question. So let’s deal with it squarely.

Ranking presidents means making choices. James Garfield’s presidency had only a small impact because it was so short. Even giving him maximum credit, he stand mid-pack, slightly above center, which is where I ranked him, at #18.

Now let’s look at the competition.

Lyndon Baines Johnson? We can start and end the conversation with one word: Vietnam. I don’t recall James Garfield ever going out and getting the country stuck in a full-scale land war half-way around the world, commiting half-a-million troops to the effort, most unwilling draftees, all based on bad intelligence and bad advice, then misleading the country as tens of thousands died, then allowing the war to spin out of control and destroy his domestic agenda, causing the country then to react by electing an even worse leader in Richard M. Nixon.

This is LBJ’s legacy. Yes, he had a sterling record on Civil Rights and passed a boatload of Great Society legislation. But his own Democratic Party was ready to kick him overboard when he declined to run for re-election in 1968. Without his Civil Rights record, Vietnam easily would have sunk LBJ to the bottom half of the list. As is, I gave him much credit for his domestic agenda, with an overall rank of #19.  I think he owes me a “thank you.”

Then there are the Adamses. Let’s start with John Adams, the second president, serving from 1797 to 1801, the first to be voted out of office. Yes, he came across wonderfully in that terrific HBO miniseries where he was play by the fine actor Paul Giamatti, based on the biography by David McCullough. And yes, John Adams was a sterling patriot and fine man during most of his life.

But his presidency was a sorry mess. Its emblem was the Alien and Seditions Acts. I do not recall James Garfield ever pushing Congress to pass a law allowing him to throw dozens of newspaper editors in jail for the simple act of publicly opposing his foreign policy, as well as locking up large numbers of immigrants on trumped up claims of disloyalty — as did John Adams. The abuse was flagrant.

Adams showed his bad temperament again after losing re-election in 1800 by refusing to act civilly toward Thomas Jefferson, the person who beat him, at Jefferson’s 1801 Inauguration. I rated Adams the best I could given a bad record. He ranked #31 on my list, just above Rutherford Hayes and William Howard Taft. Once again, I am ready to accept a “thank you” note from the Adams family.

Finally, there is John Quincy, whom I rate well above his father at #25, though still mediocre. Another fine man; another disappointing president. From the moment he entered office, his political opponents branded his Administration the product of a “corrupt bargain,” and for four years the albatross stuck, fair or not.

That’s the explanation. I am very comfortable with where I placed James Garfield, notwithstanding LBJ and the Adamses. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about Gerald Ford.

Thanks for listening. –KenA

Rating the Presidents

I recently had the chance to particitate in C-SPAN’s new poll of historians to rate the Presidents, the “2009 Historians Survey of Presidential Leadership.” The overall group’s results will be released around Presidents Day 2009.

Here’s the list I submitted, with my cumulative raw score for each. (Ratings were based on ten elements: economic management, crisis leadership, vision, international relations, so on.) It’s certainly full of my own prejudice and bias, with many arguable points. George W. Bush appears only as 41st out of 43. I ranked two as worse: Andrew Johnson and James Buchanan. I gave the top spot to George Washington, narrowly edging out Abe Lincoln (downgraded for treatment of wartime dissent and choosing a lousy successor) and FDR (some of whose New Deal programs didn’t work very well).

Free free to disagree or haggle with any of it. All the best. –KenA

1. George Washington 90
2. Abraham Lincoln 88
3. F.D. Roosevelt 87
4. T. Roosevelt 76
5. Thomas Jefferson 70

6. Andrew Jackson 66
7. Dwight Eisenhower 63
8. James Monroe 62
9. Harry Truman 62
10. Gerald Ford 61

11. Ronald Reagan 61
12. George H.W. Bush 60
13. Bill Clinton 60
14. James Polk 60
15. Wm. McKinley 59

16. Woordow Wilson 59
17. J.F. Kennedy 58
18. James Garfield 57
19. Lyndon B. Johnson 56
20. Calvin Coolidge 56

21. James Madison 55
22/23. Grover Cleveland 53
24. Chester A. Arthur 53
25. John Quincy Adams 53

26. Benjamin Harrison 53
27. Ulysses Grant 52
28. Jimmy Carter 50
29. Zachary Taylor 51
30. Wm. Henry Harrison 51

31. John Adams 50
32. Rutherford Hayes 49
33. John Tyler 48
34. Wm.Howard Taft 48
35. Herbert Hoover 46

36. Martin Van Buren 45
37. Richard M. Nixon 44
38. Millard Fillmore 43
39. Warren G. Harding 42
40. Franklin Pierce 42

41. George W. Bush 40
42. James Buchanan 40
43. Andrew Johnson 36

My secret views about the Presidential campaign

So it came as quite a shock to me when I learned recently that there is a small group of people in this world who actually read this Blog.   Some even print off copies of my postings and pass them around. Please understand, I welcome you. But it did strike me as alarming. If people are reading what I write, then I actually need to be coherent and smart, and have something useful to say, like: Be good. Don’t do evil. Eat fiber.  Call your mother. So on.

So I’ve divided that, as a special treat for those intrepid few eyeballs that actually venture into this rarified cranny of the Web, today I will begin to reveal my secret, private thoughts about the current 2008 Presidential election campaign. Up till now, I’ve kept them secret. But inquiring minds want to know. And the demand has reached a crescendo, impossible to ignore.

So here goes:

First, I reject the view that George W. Bush is the single worst president in American history. It’s not that he hasn’t tried.  The problem for Bush is the competition. James Buchanan (1857-1861) and Andrew Johnson (1865-1869) were both so abysmal, so incompetent, so malicious, that even a president as bad as Bush falls short. With Buchanan, his mis-management of the 1860 secession crisis set the stage for oceans of blood to be in Civil War.  With Andrew Johnson, his naked racism undermined any chance for positive post-War reconstruction and improving the lot of freed African-American slaves for the next hundred years. It’s taken until Barack Obama (but more on that later…).

So I nominate George W. Bush as no better than third worst.  He has fewer redeeming virtures than Richard M. Nixon, a mean streak never shared by Warren G. Harding, and more destructive in his hard-headedness than Herbert Hoover.

Now, as for the active, serious candidates still standing for 2008: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, and Barack O’Bama (I prefer the Irish spelling). I like them all in different ways, and think the country would be better of with any of them in the top job. Perhaps best would be something like this: Obama as president, Hillary as WH chief of staff, and McCain as Secretary of War. (I think he’d enjoy using the traditional name).

I can’t imagine any of these three settling for Vice President.  Each probably would agree with John Nance Garner’s description of the job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” None, I think, would side with Chester Alan Arthur (VP to James A. Garfield who became president when Garfield was assassinated in 1881), who described the VP job truthfully as “a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”

In my ideal outcome, there might even be roles for the also-rans: say, Mike Huckabee as ambassador to the Vatican, John Edwards as Solicitor General, Dennis Kucinich as commander of Area 51, and Ralph Nader as Miss Congeniality.

So with that, I’m ready to sit down with a glass of wine and watch the Oscars. I had my coffee this morning. Thanks for reading this, you few, you strong, you intrepid souls. I hope your eyeballs prosper.

Till then, all the best. –KenA

Who on Earth let this happen?

In case anyone missed it, this past weekend, our United States Congress — led by Democrats, no less — caved in to pressure from the Bush White House and passed a bill essentially allowing Alberto Gonzalez, the most discredited Attorney General in our lifetimes, almost unilaterally to suspend the Bill of Right’s Fourth Amendment and allow warrantless surveillance of Americans by the NSA up to six months at a time, so long as a “significant purpose” of the intrusion involves obtaining foreign intelligence and the AG, Gonzalez, makes a finding that “reasonable procedures [are] in place” to determine that the intrusion involves “persons reasonably believed to be located outside the United States.”

Make no mistake. This bill — already signed into law by President Bush as I write this on Sunday night — allows Bush to continue the worst abuses of the NSA secret surveillance program, continue to ignore oversight by any tribunal of law, and do it now under cover of a mealy-mouthed statute. Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a link to the text of the bill, S. 1927, titled the Protect America Act of 2007: Don’t take my word for it!! Read it yourselves!!

How did this happen? After all the talk and promises about protecting civil liberties? In the Senate, only 28 Democrats voted No on the proposal. That means all the rest caved in and went along for the ride — apparently intimidated by threats from the Bushites of being called unpatriotic or terrorist lovers so some such. And worst of all was the fact that the Democratic leadership agreed to bring up the bill at all — knowing they would lose the vote — in the final hours before leaving Washington on a month long August recess, rather than refusing and forcing the Bush White House to negotiate seriously for a responsible compromise that protects the country without sacrificing civil libeties — even if it meant that Senators and Congressmen might lose a few days at the beach, on a foreign trip, or back home. They had allowed the Bushites to out maneuver them, force them into a corner.

I hate to throw stones, but someone fell down on the job here.

For more details, here a link to the New York Times article on the story, posted by the Dandelion Salad blog.
And here’s another link to an excellent speech on the subject by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tx), posted by the Fold/Spindle/Mutilate 2.0 blog:
And here’s still another from the LeftWord blog (that mentions my book Young J. Edgar:

Please let me know if you think I’m overreacting or being unfair. I don’t think so.
Grumble grumble grumble. I need more cofffee.