The nature of the right-wing attack on The New York Times — an attack not on the newspaper's judgment, but on its motives — seems to have startled many people in the news media. After an editorial in The Wall Street Journal declared that The Times has what amount to treasonous intentions — that it "has as a major goal not winning the war on terror but obstructing it" — The Journal's own political editor pronounced himself "shocked," saying that "I don't know anybody on the news staff of The Wall Street Journal that believes that."
But anyone who was genuinely shocked by The Journal's willingness to play the treason card must not have been paying attention these past five years.
Over the last few months a series of revelations have confirmed what should have been obvious a long time ago: the Bush administration and the movement it leads have been engaged in an authoritarian project, an effort to remove all the checks and balances that have heretofore constrained the executive branch.
Much of this project involves the assertion of unprecedented executive authority — the right to imprison people indefinitely without charges (and torture them if the administration feels like it), the right to wiretap American citizens without court authorization, the right to declare, when signing laws passed by Congress, that the laws don't really mean what they say.
But an almost equally important aspect of the project has been the attempt to create a political environment in which nobody dares to criticize the administration or reveal inconvenient facts about its actions. And that attempt has relied, from the beginning, on ascribing treasonous motives to those who refuse to toe the line. As far back as 2002, Rush Limbaugh, in words very close to those used by The Wall Street Journal last week, accused Tom Daschle, then the Senate majority leader, of a partisan "attempt to sabotage the war on terrorism."
Those of us who tried to call attention to this authoritarian project years ago have long marveled over the reluctance of many of our colleagues to acknowledge what was going on. For example, for a long time many people in the mainstream media applied a peculiar double standard to political speech, denouncing perfectly normal if forceful political rhetoric from the left as poisonous "Bush hatred," while chuckling indulgently over venom from the right. (That Ann Coulter, she's such a kidder.)
But now the chuckling has stopped: somehow, nobody seems to find calls to send Bill Keller to the gas chamber funny. And while the White House clearly believes that attacking The Times is a winning political move, it doesn't have to turn out that way — not if enough people realize what's at stake.
For I think that most Americans still believe in the principle that the president isn't a king, that he isn't entitled to operate without checks and balances. And President Bush is especially unworthy of our trust, because on every front — from his refusal to protect chemical plants to his officials' exposure of Valerie Plame, from his toleration of war profiteering to his decision to place the C.I.A. in the hands of an incompetent crony — he has consistently played politics with national security.
And he has done so with the approval and encouragement of the same people now attacking The New York Times for its alleged lack of patriotism.
Does anyone remember the editorial that The Wall Street Journal published on Sept. 19, 2001? "So much for Florida," the editorial began, celebrating the way the terrorist attack had pushed aside concerns over the legitimacy of the Supreme Court decision that installed Mr. Bush in the White House. The Journal then warned Mr. Bush not to give in to the "temptation" to "subjugate everything else to the priority of getting bipartisan support for the war on terrorism." Instead, it urged him to use the "political capital" generated by the atrocity to push through tax cuts and right-wing judicial appointments.
Things have changed since then: Mr. Bush's ability to wrap his power grab in the flag has diminished now that most Americans no longer consider him either competent or honest. But the administration and its supporters still believe that they can win political battles by impugning the patriotism of those who won't go along.
For the sake of our country, let's hope that they're wrong.