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Bush and the Constitution

"Just a Goddamned Piece of Paper"

by GARY LEUPP

Doug Thompson, publisher of Capitol Hill Blue, says he’s talked to three people present last month when Republican Congressional leaders met with President Bush in the Oval Office to talk about renewing the Patriot Act. That act, passed by legislators who hadn’t read it, in the immediate aftermath of 9-11 (when most people were shell-shocked and lawmakers in particular disinclined to use their brains), has of course been criticized as containing unconstitutional elements. All three GOP politicians quote their president as saying: "Stop throwing the Constitution in my face! It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!"

At least one of Thompson’s sources says the president, when told his insistence on preserving some provisions of the act could further alienate conservatives following the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination disaster, stated, "I don’t give a goddamn: I’m the President and the Commander-in-Chief. Do it my way."

I don’t know how credible this report is, of course, but let’s suppose it’s true. It has the ring of truth, it seems to me, given numerous earlier reports on the Commander-in-Chief’s state of mind and penchant for profanity. (Capital Hill Blue has earlier noted his "short temper and tirades" during cabinet meetings. Thompson and Teresa Hampton, citing "a number of White House staffers" wrote in June 2004 that "[Bush] who says he rules at the behest of God can also tongue-lash those he perceives as disloyal, calling them ‘fucking assholes’ in front of other staff, berating one cabinet official in front of others." The Drudge Report has carried similar stories. The most recent Newsweek contains a report that Rice has to warn foreign diplomats, "Don’t upset him" before meeting the Chief.) The man told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2003 that "God told me to smite [Saddam Hussein]. And I smote him." Why should a man who conducts such conversations care about a document which makes no reference to God?

One can only hope that if Thompson’s story is true, one of those three Republican politicos will at some point share with the public the details of the Oval Office encounter. I mean, what a scandal for the faithful to learn that a man who in his oath of office swore to uphold the constitution of the United States, a document with virtually scriptural authority among his political base, is inclined to privately dis this "piece of paper" (sic—parchment, actually) while demanding that loyal Republicans help him sabotage some of its key provisions in order to prosecute his "War on Terrorism." That war, being a goddamned piece of cynical Nazi-like manipulation of fear and prejudice to unite people around an open-ended program for endless aggression, isn’t going well. It’s inevitably producing dissent, and the president wants to leave all options on the table as he confronts not only genuine terrorists but his critics among the American people.

That’s we the people who have amended that constitution over time, and obtained whatever constitutional advances we have through struggles against oppressive authority. President Bush majored in history at Yale, presumably American history, and ought to know that. But he was a C-student, and probably didn’t take his studies seriously, and privileged throughout his life, he seems to lack the empathy with normal humans that humanistic study encourages. Recall how he mocked Karla Faye Tucker, sentenced to death in Texas? How his former Harvard business professor Yoshi Tsurumi described him as "totally devoid of compassion, social responsibility, and good study discipline"? How his one-time biographer Mickey Herskowitz has quoted him as saying, in 1999, "If I have a chance to invade [Iraq]. I’m not going to waste it"?

The man, a Canadian official opined in 2002, is "a moron." He’s certainly an ignorant man, perhaps impaired by bad habits, lacking intellectual curiosity, poorly traveled, confused about basic geography, clueless about the history of religions but certain of the truth of his own. A thug indifferent to torture, happy to be led by advisors who specialize in subtly playing the race/religious bigotry card, driven by religious fanaticism rivaling that of any al-Qaeda militant, cockily averring that he "knows" the American people are good and Ariel Sharon is a man of peace, unable to admit error or even speak without embarrassing himself in any extemporaneous public situation. A man who read from his note cards with absolute assurance that Saddam Hussein threatened the world with his weapons of mass destruction. This is the man who calls the U.S. constitution a "goddamned piece of paper" which ought not stand in the way of his presidential mission. Let his remaining supporters chew on that.

Personally, I confess, I have no constitution fetish. To me there’s nothing sacred about that document, and if Americans are around in 300 years I expect we’ll be working with a better one. Many years ago I was recommended by a professor for a lectureship position in a state university, and after getting the job was told off-handedly that before starting I needed to make a trip to the Federal Building downtown. That state required loyalty oaths for state jobs, so I had to swear to uphold the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. I felt vaguely guilty, like I was reciting the Apostle’s Creed, secretly harboring doubts about the Trinity. But I did it pragmatically, needing the money and the job experience. Years later the university that had employed me offered a job to a senior scholar, who after hearing he’d have to perform this ritual turned the lucrative opportunity down. He said he’d always opposed loyalty oaths and would not swear one now. I felt slightly ashamed at my own spinelessness.

But now I think of the heroic work of the Center for Constitutional Rights, founded by the late great William Kunstler. I think of the domestic enemies of the constitution, the advocates of torture and detention without charges or trial, and I confess that with whatever reservations, these days I want to uphold the goddamned thing! It’s a document of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, based on reason and humanism, very impressive when read in context. It just takes up a few pages in your almanac. Imagine ripping them out, wadding them up, and along with hundreds of others armed with similar goddamned pieces of constitutional confetti paper chanting, "In your face! In your face!" hurling them at the Commander-in-Chief as his motorcade passes. I’m not suggesting that, because I don’t want to be accused of advocating assault in these sensitive times. Just thinking aloud here.

But I would suggest thinking seriously about American and world history, and reflecting on the history of fascism. Weimar Germany, with a constituion William Shirer called "the most liberal and democratic document of its kind the twentieth century had ever seen" morphed into the Third Reich, step by step as a crazy man with unthinking admirers convinced them that external and internal enemies threatened them. Hitler insisted that as "a defensive measure" (against communists, whom he readily conflated with Jews) "for the Protection of the People and the State," the seven sections of the Weimar constitution guaranteeing individual and civil liberties had to be suspended.

In that context those targeted made common cause with any who would join in a united front against war and fascism. The antifascists disagreed on many things, but found themselves obliged to break old and form new alliances based on the conviction that defense against fascism overrode all other concerns. Again, I urge any present at the above-quoted Bush explosion to speak out. Defend that piece of paper by exposing how little it means to a Commander-in-Chief using fear and intimidation, doing things his way, not giving a goddamn about we the people of the United States or people anywhere else.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu