Senate Hearings on Bush, Now
By CARL BERNSTEIN/Vanity Fair, April 2006
In this VF.com exclusive, a Watergate veteran and Vanity Fair contributing editor calls for bipartisan hearings investigating the Bush presidency. Should Republicans on the Hill take the high road and save themselves come November?
Worse than Watergate? High crimes and misdemeanors justifying the impeachment of George W. Bush, as increasing numbers of Democrats in Washington hope, and, sotto voce, increasing numbers of Republicans—including some of the president’s top lieutenants—now fear? Leaders of both parties are acutely aware of the vehemence of anti-Bush sentiment in the country, expressed especially in the increasing number of Americans—nearing 50 percent in some polls—who say they would favor impeachment if the president were proved to have deliberately lied to justify going to war in Iraq .
John Dean, the Watergate conspirator who ultimately shattered the Watergate conspiracy, rendered his precipitous (or perhaps prescient) impeachment verdict on Bush two years ago in the affirmative, without so much as a question mark in choosing the title of his book Worse than Watergate. On March 31, some three decades after he testified at the seminal hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee, Dean reiterated his dark view of Bush’s presidency in a congressional hearing that shed more noise than light, and more partisan rancor than genuine inquiry. The ostensible subject: whether Bush should be censured for unconstitutional conduct in ordering electronic surveillance of Americans without a warrant.
Raising the worse-than-Watergate question and demanding unequivocally that Congress seek to answer it is, in fact, overdue and more than justified by ample evidence stacked up from Baghdad back to New Orleans and, of increasing relevance, inside a special prosecutor’s office in downtown Washington .
In terms of imminent, meaningful action by the Congress, however, the question of whether the president should be impeached (or, less severely, censured) remains premature. More important, it is essential that the Senate vote—hopefully before the November elections, and with overwhelming support from both parties—to undertake a full investigation of the conduct of the presidency of George W. Bush, along the lines of the Senate Watergate Committee’s investigation during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
How much evidence is there to justify such action?
Certainly enough to form a consensus around a national imperative: to learn what this president and his vice president knew and when they knew it; to determine what the Bush administration has done under the guise of national security; and to find out who did what, whether legal or illegal, unconstitutional or merely under the wire, in ignorance or incompetence or with good reason, while the administration barricaded itself behind the most Draconian secrecy and disingenuous information policies of the modern presidential era.
“We ought to get to the bottom of it so it can be evaluated, again, by the American people,” said Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania , the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on April 9. “The President of the United States owes a specific explanation to the American people … about exactly what he did.” Specter was speaking specifically about a special prosecutor’s assertion that Bush selectively declassified information (of dubious accuracy) and instructed the vice president to leak it to reporters to undermine criticism of the decision to go to war in Iraq . But the senator’s comments would be even more appropriately directed at far more pervasive and darker questions that must be answered if the American political system is to acquit itself in the Bush era, as it did in Nixon’s.
Perhaps there are facts or mitigating circumstances, given the extraordinary nature of conceiving and fighting a war on terror, that justify some of the more questionable policies and conduct of this presidency, even those that turned a natural disaster in New Orleans into a catastrophe of incompetence and neglect. But the truth is we have no trustworthy official record of what has occurred in almost any aspect of this administration, how decisions were reached, and even what the actual policies promulgated and approved by the president are. Nor will we, until the subpoena powers of the Congress are used (as in Watergate) to find out the facts—not just about the war in Iraq, almost every aspect of it, beginning with the road to war, but other essential elements of Bush’s presidency, particularly the routine disregard for truthfulness in the dissemination of information to the American people and Congress.
The first fundamental question that needs to be answered by and about the president, the vice president, and their political and national-security aides, from Donald Rumsfeld to Condoleezza Rice, to Karl Rove, to Michael Chertoff, to Colin Powell, to George Tenet, to Paul Wolfowitz, to Andrew Card (and a dozen others), is whether lying, disinformation, misinformation, and manipulation of information have been a basic matter of policy—used to overwhelm dissent; to hide troublesome truths and inconvenient data from the press, public, and Congress; and to defend the president and his actions when he and they have gone awry or utterly failed.
Most of what we have learned about the reality of this administration—and the disconcerting mind-set and decision-making process of President Bush himself—has come not from the White House or the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security or the Treasury Department, but from insider accounts by disaffected members of the administration after their departure, and from distinguished journalists, and, in the case of a skeletal but hugely significant body of information, from a special prosecutor. And also, of late, from an aide-de-camp to the British prime minister. Almost invariably, their accounts have revealed what the president and those serving him have deliberately concealed—torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, and its apparent authorization by presidential fiat; wholesale N.S.A. domestic wiretapping in contravention of specific prohibitive law; brutal interrogations of prisoners shipped secretly by the C.I.A. and U.S. military to Third World gulags; the nonexistence of W.M.D. in Iraq; the role of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney’s chief of staff in divulging the name of an undercover C.I.A. employee; the non-role of Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the events of 9/11; the death by friendly fire of Pat Tillman (whose mother, Mary Tillman, told journalist Robert Scheer, “The administration tried to attach themselves to his virtue and then they wiped their feet with him”); the lack of a coherent post-invasion strategy for Iraq, with all its consequent tragedy and loss and destabilizing global implications; the failure to coordinate economic policies for America’s long-term financial health (including the misguided tax cuts) with funding a war that will cost an estimated $300 billion and that will drive the national debt toward $10 trillion; the assurance of Wolfowitz (since rewarded by Bush with the presidency of the World Bank) that Iraq’s oil reserves would pay for the war within two to three years after the invasion; and Bush’s like-minded confidence, expressed to Blair, that serious internecine strife in Iraq would be unlikely after the invasion.
But most grievous and momentous is the willingness—even enthusiasm, confirmed by the so-called Downing Street Memo and the contemporaneous notes of the chief foreign-policy adviser to British prime minister Tony Blair—to invent almost any justification for going to war in Iraq (including sending up an American U-2 plane painted with U.N. markings to be deliberately shot down by Saddam Hussein’s air force, a plan hatched while the president, the vice president, and Blair insisted to the world that war would be initiated “only as a last resort”). Attending the meeting between Bush and Blair where such duplicity was discussed unabashedly (“intelligence and facts” would be jiggered as necessary and “fixed around the policy,” wrote the dutiful aide to the prime minister) were Ms. Rice, then national-security adviser to the president, and Andrew Card, the recently departed White House chief of staff.
As with Watergate, the investigation of George W. Bush and his presidency needs to start from a shared premise and set of principles that can be embraced by Democrats and Republicans, by liberals and centrists and conservatives, and by opponents of the war and its advocates: that the president of the United States and members of his administration must defend the requirements of the Constitution, obey the law, demonstrate common sense, and tell the truth. Obviously there will be disagreements, even fierce ones, along the way. Here again the Nixon example is useful: Republicans on the Senate Watergate Committee, including its vice chairman, Howard Baker of Tennessee (“What did the president know and when did he know it?”), began the investigation as defenders of Nixon. By its end, only one was willing to make any defense of Nixon’s actions.
The Senate Watergate Committee was created (by a 77 to 0 vote of the Senate) with the formal task of investigating illegal political-campaign activities. Its seven members were chosen by the leadership of each party, three from the minority, four from the majority. (The Democratic majority leader of the Senate, Mike Mansfield, insisted that none of the Democrats be high-profile senators with presidential aspirations.) One of the crucial tasks of any committee charged with investigating the Bush presidency will be to delineate the scope of inquiry. It must not be a fishing expedition—and not only because the pond is so loaded with fish. The lines ought to be drawn so that the hearings themselves do not become the occasion for the ultimate battle of the culture wars. This investigation should be seen as an opportunity to at last rise above the culture wars and, as in Watergate, learn whether the actions of the president and his deputies have been consistent with constitutional principles, the law, and the truth.
Karl Rove and other White House strategists are betting (with odds in their favor) that Republicans on Capitol Hill are extremely unlikely to take the high road before November and endorse any kind of serious investigation into Bush’s presidency—a gamble that may increase the risk of losing Republican majorities in either or both houses of Congress, and even further undermine the future of the Bush presidency. Already in the White House, there is talk of a nightmare scenario in which the Democrats successfully make the November congressional elections a referendum on impeachment—and the congressional Republicans’ lockstep support for Bush—and win back a majority in the House, and maybe the Senate too.
But voting now to create a Senate investigation—chaired by a Republican—could work to the advantage both of the truth and of Republican candidates eager to put distance between themselves and the White House.
The calculations of politicians about their electoral futures should pale in comparison to the urgency of examining perhaps the most disastrous five years of decision-making of any modern American presidency.
T here are huge differences between the Nixon presidency and this one, of course, but surprisingly few would appear to redound to this administration’s benefit, including even the fundamental question of the competence of the president.
First and foremost among the differences may be the role of the vice president. The excesses of Watergate—the crimes, the lies, the trampling of the Constitution, the disregard for the institutional integrity of the presidency, the dutiful and even enthusiastic lawbreaking of Nixon’s apparatchiks—stemmed from one aberrant president’s psyche and the paranoid assumptions that issued from it, and from the notion shared by some of his White House acolytes that, because U. S. troops were fighting a war—especially a failing one against a determined, guerrilla enemy in Vietnam—the commander in chief could assume extraordinary powers nowhere assigned in the Constitution and govern above the rule of law. “When the president does it that means that it is not illegal,” Nixon famously told David Frost.
Bush and Cheney have been hardly less succinct about the president’s duty and right to assume unprecedented authority nowhere specified in the Constitution. “Especially in the day and age we live in … the president of the United States needs to have his Constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national-security policy,” Cheney said less than four months ago.
Bush’s doctrine of “unimpairment”—at one with his tendency to trim the truth—may be (with the question of his competence) the nub of the national nightmare. “I have the authority, both from the Constitution and the Congress, to undertake this vital program,” Bush said after more than a few Republican and conservative eminences said he did not and joined the chorus of outrage about his N.S.A. domestic-surveillance program.
“Terrorism is not the only new danger of this era,” noted George F. Will, the conservative columnist. “Another is the administration’s argument that because the president is commander in chief, he is the ‘sole organ for the nation in foreign affairs’ … [which] is refuted by the Constitution’s plain language, which empowers Congress to ratify treaties, declare war, fund and regulate military forces, and make laws ‘necessary and proper’ for the execution of all presidential powers.”
A voluminous accumulation of documentary and journalistic evidence suggests that the policies and philosophy of this administration that may be unconstitutional or illegal stem not just from Bush but from Cheney as well—hence there’s even greater necessity for a careful, methodical investigation under Senate auspices before any consideration of impeachment in the House and its mischievous potential to create the mother of all partisan, ideological, take-no-prisoners battles, which would even further divide the Congress and the country.
Cheney’s recognition of the danger to him and his patron by a re-assertion of the Watergate precedent of proper congressional oversight is not hard to fathom. Illegal wiretapping—among other related crimes—was the basis of one of the articles of impeachment against Nixon passed by the House Judiciary Committee. The other two were defiance of subpoenas and obstruction of justice in the Watergate cover-up. “Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority … [that] the president needs to be effective, especially in the national-security area,” Cheney has observed. Nixon did not share his decision-making, much less philosophizing, with his vice president, and never relegated his own judgment to a number two. Former secretary of state Colin Powell’s ex-chief of staff, retired army colonel Larry Wilkerson, has attested, “What I saw was a cabal between the vice president of the United States, Richard Cheney, and the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, on critical issues that made decisions that the bureaucracy did not know were being made.”
Here it may be relevant that Powell has, in private, made statements interpreted by many important figures in Washington as seemingly questioning Cheney’s emotional stability, and that Powell no longer recognizes the steady, dependable “rock” with whom he served in the administration of George W. Bush’s father. Powell needs to be asked under oath about his reported observations regarding Cheney, not to mention his own appearance before the United Nations in which he spoke with assurance about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and insisted that the United States was seeking a way to avoid war, not start it.
Because Powell was regarded by some as the administration “good guy,” who was prescient in his anxiety about Bush’s determination to go to war in Iraq (“You break it, you own it”), he should not be handed a pass exempting him from tough questioning in a congressional investigation. Indeed, Powell is probably more capable than any other witness of providing both fact and context to the whole story of the road to war and the actions of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and the others.
O ne of the similarities between Bush and Nixon is their contempt, lip service aside, for the legitimate oversight of Congress. In seeking to cover up his secret, illegal activities, Nixon made broad claims of executive privilege or national security, the most important of which were rejected by the courts.
Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their colleagues have successfully evaded accountability for the dire consequences of their policies through a tried-and-true strategy that has exploited a situation in which the press (understandably) has no subpoena power and is held in ill repute (understandably) by so many Americans, and the Republican-controlled Congress can be counted on to ignore its responsibility to compel relevant, forthright testimony and evidence—no matter how outrageous (failure to provide sufficient body armor for American soldiers, for example), mendacious, or inimical to the national interest the actions of the president and his principal aides might be.
As in Watergate, the Bush White House has, at almost every opportunity when endangered by the prospect of accountability, made the conduct of the press the issue instead of the misconduct of the president and his aides, and, with help from its Republican and conservative allies in and out of Congress, questioned the patriotism of the other party. As during the Nixon epoch, the strategy is finally wearing thin. “He’s smoking Dutch Cleanser,” said Specter when Bush’s attorney general claimed legality for the president’s secret order authorizing the wiretapping of Americans by the N.S.A.—first revealed in The New York Times in December.
Before the Times story had broken, the president was ardent about his civil-libertarian credentials in such matters: “Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires—a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so,” Bush said in a speech in Buffalo , New York , in April 2004.
Obviously, Bush’s statement was demonstrably untrue. Yet instead of correcting himself, Bush attacked the Times for virtual treason, and his aides initiated a full-court press to track down whoever had provided information to the newspaper. “Our enemies have learned information they should not have, and the unauthorized disclosure of this effort damages our national security and puts our citizens at risk,” he declared, as if America’s terrorist enemies hadn’t assumed they were subject to all manner of electronic eavesdropping by the world’s most technologically sophisticated nation.
As in the Nixon White House, the search for leakers and others in the executive branch who might be truthful with reporters has become a paranoid preoccupation in the Bush White House. “Revealing classified information is illegal, alerts our enemies, and endangers our country,” Bush added. (The special prosecutor’s revelation that Bush himself—through Cheney—was ultimately behind Scooter Libby’s leaking to undermine Joseph Wilson has ironically caused Bush more damage among Republican members of Congress than far more grievous acts by the president.)
The irony of the Valerie Plame affair, like the Watergate break-in itself, is its relative insignificance in terms of the greater transgressions of a presidency that has gone off the tracks. The “third-rate burglary,” as it was famously dismissed by Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, was actually the key to unlocking the rest of the White House secrets and their cover-up by the President and his men. Absent the knowledge of those other illegal activities of the Nixon presidency, the vehemence with which Nixon, Mitchell, Haldeman, Ziegler, Colson, et al. denied any knowledge of the Watergate break-in, or even its tangential connection to the White House, never made such sense.
As in the case of the Watergate break-in and the Nixon White House, it is now evident that the Plame investigation by Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has opened the door to larger questions of transgression: at minimum giving clarity to how far this president and his men and women have been willing to go to protect their knowledge of the false premises and pretenses on which they went to war and sold it to the Congress, the people, the press, the United Nations, and the world.
Contrary to all the denials of the President’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, the White House sought “to discredit, punish, or seek revenge against Mr. Wilson,” according to the special prosecutor. And, Fitzgerald told the U. S. District Court, “It is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to punish Wilson .”
Lost in most accounts of the complicated Plame backstory is its relevance in terms of Bush’s 2004 re-election, and hence the obvious concern by Rove and other presidential deputies: that if Wilson’s credentials and information were not undermined they would serve as confirmation during the presidential campaign that Bush had knowingly used false claims (that Saddam Hussein had been trying to seek nuclear materials from Niger) in his 2003 State of the Union address to publicly justify going to war.
The parallel with potential damage from Watergate to Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign is almost eerie (and equally complicated): if the insistent denials about White House involvement in the Watergate break-in had been proven false at the time, or the door opened on the other illegal activities of the President and his men, Nixon might have been a far more vulnerable candidate for re-election in 1972.
Literally dozens of investigations have been ordered at the C.I.A., the Pentagon, the National Security Agency, and elsewhere in the executive branch to find out who is talking to the press about secret activities undertaken in Bush’s presidency. These include polygraph investigations and a warning to the press that reporters may be prosecuted under espionage laws.
Bush’s self-claimed authority to wiretap without a court order—like his self-claimed authority to hold prisoners of war indefinitely without habeas corpus (on grounds those in custody are suspected “terrorists”)—stems from the same doctrine of “unimpairment” and all its Nixonian overtones: “The American people expect me to protect their lives and their civil liberties, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with this [N.S.A. eavesdropping] program,” asserted Bush in January.
W hen Nixon’s former attorney general John N. Mitchell was compelled to testify before the Watergate Committee, he laid out the sordid “White House horrors,” as he called them—activities undertaken in the name of national security by the low-level thugs and high-level presidential aides acting in the president’s name. Mitchell, loyal to the end, pictured the whole crowd, from Haldeman and Ehrlichman and Colson down to Liddy and the Watergate burglars, as self-starters, acting without authority from Nixon. The tapes, of course, told the real story—wiretapping, break-ins, attempts to illegally manipulate the outcome of the electoral process, routine smearing of the president’s opponents and intricate machinations to render it untraceable, orders to firebomb a liberal think tank, the Watergate cover-up, and their origin in the Oval Office.
In the case of the Bush administration’s two attorneys general, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales, there are indications that—as in the Nixon White House—they approved and/or promulgated policies (horrors?) that would appear intended to enable the president to circumvent the Constitution and the law.
Ashcroft expressed reservations as early as 2004 about the legality of the wiretapping authority claimed by Bush, according to recent disclosures in the press, but Ashcroft’s doubts—and the unwillingness of his principal deputy attorney general to approve central aspects of the N.S.A. domestic eavesdropping plan—were not made known to the Congress. Gonzales, as White House counsel, drew up the guidelines authorizing torture at American-run prisons and U.S. exemption from the Geneva war-crimes conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners. (His memo to the president described provisions of the conventions as “quaint.”)
“Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country,” said Bush when confronted with the undeniable, photographic evidence of torture. “We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.” The available facts would indicate this was an unusually evident example of presidential prevarication, but we will never know exactly how untruthful, or perhaps just slippery, until the president and the White House are compelled to cooperate with a real congressional investigation.
That statement by Bush, in June 2004, in response to worldwide outrage at the infamous Abu Ghraib photographs, illustrates two related, core methodologies employed by this president and his cadre to escape responsibility for their actions: First, an Orwellian reliance on the meaninglessness of words. (When is “torture” torture? When is “ordered” “authorized”? When is “if someone committed a crime they will no longer work in my administration” a scheme to keep trusted aides on the payroll through a legal process that could take years before adjudication and hide the president’s own role in helping to start—perhaps inadvertently—the Plame ball rolling?)
“Listen, I know of nobody—I don’t know of anybody in my administration who leaked classified information,” the president was quoted saying in Time magazine’s issue of October 13, 2003 . Time’s report then noted with acuity, “Bush seemed to emphasize those last two words [’classified information’] as if hanging onto a legal life preserver in choppy seas.”
The second method of escape is the absence of formal orders issued down the chain of command, leaving non-coms, enlisted men and women, and a few unfortunate non-star officers to twist in the wind for policies emanating from the president, vice president, secretary of defense, attorney general, national-security adviser to the president, and current secretary of state (formerly the national-security adviser). With a determined effort, a committee of distinguished senators should be able to establish if the grotesque abuse of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo was really the work of a “few bad apples” like Army Reserve P.F.C. Lynndie England wielding the leash, or a natural consequence of actions and policies flowing from the Oval Office and office of the secretary of defense.
In a baker’s dozen of hearings before pliant committees of Congress, a parade of the top brass from Rice to Rumsfeld, to the Joint Chiefs, to Paul Bremer has managed for almost three years to evade responsibility for—or even acknowledgment of—the disintegrating situation on the ground in Iraq, its costs in lives and treasure, and its disastrous reverberations through the world, and for an assault on constitutional principles at home. Similarly, until the Senate Watergate hearings, Nixon and his men at the top had evaded responsibility for Watergate and their cover-up of all the “White House horrors.”
W ith the benefit of hindsight, it is now almost impossible to look at the president’s handling of the war in Iraq in isolation from his handling of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Certainly any investigation of the president and his administration should include both disasters. Before 9/11, Bush and Condoleezza Rice had been warned in the starkest of terms—by their own aides, by the outgoing Clinton administration, and by experts on terrorism—of the urgent danger of a spectacular al-Qaeda attack in the United States . Yet the first top-level National Security Council meeting to discuss the subject was not held until September 4, 2001—just as the F.B.I. hierarchy had been warned by field agents that there were suspected Islamic radicals learning to fly 747s with no legitimate reasons for doing so, but the bureau ultimately ignored the urgency of problem, just as Bush had ample opportunity (despite what he said later) to review and competently execute a disaster plan for the hurricane heading toward New Orleans.
There will forever be four indelible photographic images of the George W. Bush epoch: an airplane crashing into World Trade Tower number two; Bush in a Florida classroom reading from a book about a goat while a group of second-graders continued to captivate him for another seven minutes after Andrew Card had whispered to the president, “America is under attack”; floodwaters inundating New Orleans, and its residents clinging to rooftops for their lives; and, two days after the hurricane struck, Bush peeking out the window of Air Force One to inspect the devastation from a safe altitude. The aftermath of the hurricane’s direct hit, both in terms of the devastation and the astonishing neglect and incompetence from the top down, would appear to be unique in American history. Except for the Civil War and the War of 1812 (when the British burned Washington ), no president has ever lost an American city; and if New Orleans is not lost, it will only be because of the heroics of its people and their almost superhuman efforts to overcome the initial lethargy and apparent non-comprehension of the president. Bush’s almost blank reaction was foretold vividly in a video of him and his aides meeting on August 28, 2005 , the day before Katrina made landfall. The tape—withheld by the administration from Congress but obtained by the Associated Press along with seven days of transcripts of administration briefings—shows Bush and his Homeland Security chief being warned explicitly that the storm could cause levees to overflow, put large number of lives at risk, and overwhelm rescuers.
In the wake of the death and devastation in New Orleans , President Bush refused to provide the most important documents sought by Congress or allow his immediate aides in the White House to testify before Congress about decision-making in the West Wing or at his Crawford ranch in the hours immediately before and after the hurricane struck. His refusal was wrapped in a package of high principle—the need for confidentiality of executive-branch communications—the same principle of preserving presidential privacy that, presumably, prevented him from releasing official White House photos of himself with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff or allowing White House aides to testify about the N.S.A. electronic-eavesdropping program on grounds of executive privilege.
The unwillingness of this president—a former Texas governor familiar with the destructive powers of weather—to deal truthfully (“I don’t think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees,” he said in an interview with Good Morning America three days after the hurricane hit) and meaningfully with the people of the Gulf Coast or the country, or the Congress, about his government’s response (“Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”) to Hurricane Katrina may be the Rosebud moment of his presidency. The president’s repeated attempts to keep secret his actions and those of his principal aides by invoking often spurious claims of executive privilege and national security in the run-up to the war in Iraq—and its prosecution since—are rendered perfectly comprehensible when seen in relation to the Katrina claim. It is an effective way to hide the truth (as Nixon attempted so often), and—when uncomfortable truths have nonetheless been revealed by others—to justify extraordinary actions that would seem to be illegal or even unconstitutional.
I s incompetence an impeachable offense? The question is another reason to defer the fraught matter of impeachment (if deserved) in the Bush era until the ground is prepared by a proper fact-finding investigation and public hearings conducted by a sober, distinguished committee of Congress.
We have never had a presidency in which the single unifying thread that flows through its major decision-making was incompetence—stitched together with hubris and mendacity on a Nixonian scale. There will be no shortage of witnesses to question about the subject, among them the retired three-star Marine Corps general who served as director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the war’s planning, Gregory Newbold.
Last week he wrote, “I now regret that I did not more openly challenge those who were determined to invade a country whose actions were peripheral to the real threat—Al Qaeda. I retired from the military four months before the invasion, in part because of my opposition to those who had used 9/11’s tragedy to hijack our security policy.” The decision to invade Iraq , he said, “was done with a casualness and swagger that are the special province of those who have never had to execute these missions—or bury the results.” Despite the military’s determination that, after Vietnam , “We must never again stand by quietly while those ignorant of and casual about war lead us into another one and then mismanage the conduct of it.… We have been fooled again.”
The unprecedented generals’ revolt against the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, is—like the special prosecutor’s Plame investigation—a door that once cracked open, cannot be readily shut by the president or even his most senior aides. What outsiders long suspected regarding the conduct of the war has now been given credence by those on the inside, near the top, just as in the unraveling of Watergate.
General Newbold and his fellow retired generals have (as observed elsewhere in the press) declared Rumsfeld unfit to lead America’s military at almost exactly the moment when the United States must deal with the most difficult legacy of the Bush presidency: how to pry itself out of Iraq and deal with the real threat this administration ignored next door, from Iran.
Rumsfeld appeared Friday on an Al Arabiya television broadcast and said, “Out of thousands and thousands of admirals and generals, if every time two or three people disagreed we changed the secretary of defense of the United States , it would be like a merry-go-round.” This kind of denial of reality—and (again) Orwellian abuse of facts and language—to describe six generals, each with more than 30 years military experience, each of whom served at the top of their commands (three in Iraq) and worked closely with Rumsfeld, is indicative of the problem any investigation by the Senate must face when dealing with this presidency.
And if Rumsfeld is unfit, how is his commander-in-chief, who has steadfastly refused to let him go (as Nixon did for so long with Haldeman and Ehrlichman, “two of the finest public servants it has been my privilege to know”), to be judged?
The roadblock to a serious inquiry to date has been a Republican majority that fears the results, and a Democratic minority more interested in retribution and grandstanding than the national weal. There are indications, however, that by November voters may be far more discerning than they were in the last round of congressional elections, and that Republicans especially are getting the message. Indeed many are talking privately about their lack of confidence in Bush and what to do about him.
It took the Senate Watergate Committee less than six months to do its essential work. When Sam Ervin’s gavel fell to close the first phase of public televised hearings on August 7, 1973, the basic facts of Nixon’s conspiracy—and the White House horrors—were engraved on the nation’s consciousness. The testimony of the president’s men themselves—under oath and motivated perhaps in part by a real threat of being charged with perjury—left little doubt about what happened in a criminal and unconstitutional presidency.
On February 6, 1974 , the House voted 410 to 4 to empower its Judiciary Committee to begin an impeachment investigation of the president. On July 27, 1974 , the first of three articles of impeachment was approved, with support from 6 of the 17 Republicans (and 21 Democrats) on the committee. Two more articles were approved on July 29 and 30. On August 8, facing certain conviction in a Senate trial, Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president.
In Watergate, Republicans were the ones who finally told Richard Nixon, “Enough.” They were the ones who cast the most critical votes for articles of impeachment, ensuring that Nixon would be judged with nonpartisan fairness. After the vote, the Republican congressional leadership—led by the great conservative senator Barry Goldwater—marched en masse to the White House to tell the criminal president that he had to go. And if he didn’t, the leadership would recommend his conviction in the Senate.
In the case of George W. Bush, important conservative and Republican voices have, finally, begun speaking out in the past few weeks. William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the modern conservative movement and, with Goldwater, perhaps its most revered figure, said last month: “It’s important that we acknowledge in the inner counsels of state that [the war in Iraq] has failed so that we should look for opportunities to cope with that failure.” And “Mr. Bush is in the hands of a fortune that will be unremitting on the point of Iraq. … If he’d invented the Bill of Rights it wouldn’t get him out of this jam.” And “The neoconservative hubris, which sort of assigns to America some kind of geo-strategic responsibility for maximizing democracy, overstretches the resources of a free country.”
Even more scathing have been some officials who served in the White House under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s father. Bruce Bartlett, a domestic-policy aide in the Reagan administration, a deputy assistant treasury secretary for the first President Bush, and author of a new book, Impostor: How George Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, noted: “A lot of conservatives have had reservations about him for a long time, but have been afraid to speak out for fear it would help liberals and the Democrats”—a situation that, until the Senate Watergate Committee hearings, existed in regard to Nixon. “I think there are growing misgivings about the conduct of the Iraq operation, and how that relates to a general incompetence his administration seems to have about doing basic things,” said Bartlett.
A fter Nixon’s resignation, it was often said that the system had worked. Confronted by an aberrant president, the checks and balances on the executive by the legislative and judicial branches of government, and by a free press, had functioned as the founders had envisioned.
The system has thus far failed during the presidency of George W. Bush—at incalculable cost in human lives, to the American political system, to undertaking an intelligent and effective war against terror, and to the standing of the United States in parts of the world where it previously had been held in the highest regard.
There was understandable reluctance in the Congress to begin a serious investigation of the Nixon presidency. Then there came a time when it was unavoidable. That time in the Bush presidency has arrived.
Carl Bernstein is a Vanity Fair contributing editor. His biography of Hillary Rodham Clinton will be published by Knopf next year.