Can anyone still doubt that the Republican Party writes its own rules, making them up as they go along? The fact that they may be in complete defiance of the rule of law is a trifling matter to the likes of those who surround President George Bush, the master of the infamous signing statement, and the author of the disgraceful policy of preemption. The New York Times this week implored Congress to do its duty (why is it necessary for anyone to ask elected representatives to perform the duties they have sworn to execute? That is a question for another essay), and vote to hold several White House insiders in contempt for their refusal to respect Congressional subpoenas. Karl Rove, for years one of Mr. Bush’s closest advisers, has thumbed his nose at such a subpoena. He is being called to testify about his role in the firing of nine United States attorneys, who all appear to have lost their jobs for purely partisan reasons. Additionally, Harriet Meirs, former White House counsel and, very briefly, an embarrassing nominee for the Supreme Court, and Joshua Bolten, the White House Chief of Staff have also chosen to ignore subpoenas. The latter two have been found in contempt by the House of Representatives, and a court battle is now proceeding to coerce them to testify.
And now from Alaska, that mostly forgotten state until a wide-eyed, gun-toting, rabid conservative who somehow managed to propel herself from mayor of Wasilla (population about 9,700) to governor or Alaska (population about 690,000) to Republican vice-presidential candidate, we have more disdain for the rule of law by the Grand Old Party. The aforementioned candidate, one Sarah Palin, is currently under an ethics investigation for firing the supervisor of her sister’s former husband. Her own husband, Todd, has been subpoenaed to testify about this particular mess but, taking a page from the soiled playbook of Messrs Rove and Bolten, and Ms. Meirs, Mr. Palin has decided to ignore the subpoena.
Now, this writer has never been subpoenaed for any reason, and fervently hopes never to be. However, it has always been his impression that failure to respond positively to a subpoena, a legal document ordering one to appear in court to testify about some specific matter, would result in some punitive action. Apparently, he has been mistaken; a subpoena, it seems, is an invitation to testify, similar, one might say, to an invitation to share dinner at the home of a friend. If the dinner is scheduled for a convenient time, and the invitee feels so inclined, he or she may accept the invitation. If, however, the invitee has other plans for the night of the proposed meal, or perhaps simply doesn’t feel like going, he or she is free to turn down the invitation. And so it is with subpoenas, although it is not often that one sees ‘R.S.V.P’ on such a document.
If one digs deep back into history, one will find that President Bill Clinton was subpoenaed to discuss his relationship with an intern, Monica Lewinsky. Although he was not too happy to do it, he eventually testified during that particular circus. A Republican Congress believed, for reasons that defy any rational explanation, that Mr. Clinton, a Democrat, must testify about his sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. Today, a Democratic Congress seems reluctant to coerce major Republican players to testify about the illegal firing of U.S. attorneys, which must be seen as more a matter for government investigation then the bedroom habits of a president, no matter how tawdry they might be.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain, the elderly, decrepit, white male who would have the world believe he is a dynamic agent of change, seems already to be fostering business as usual. His running mate is under investigation for possible ethics violations, yet he would elevate her to the second highest office in the land. Her husband, Alaska’s ‘First Dude’ (how much more embarrassment on the international stage can the U.S. withstand?) will not testify as ordered. It appears that Mr. McCain, like his worshipped hero Mr. Bush, believes that the rules apply to other people, but certainly not to wealthy Republicans. Mr. Palin has turned down what the Republicans seem to see as an invitation.
What does this say about Mrs. Palin? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps we are unfairly painting her with the same used brush that has tarnished her husband. She should be judged on her own actions; did she or did she not improperly fire Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan? In order to determine the answer to this, a fair and impartial investigation must be performed; then and only then can a judgment be made. Oh wait, in order for that thorough investigation to be carried out, several people must testify. If key witnesses refuse, the judgment cannot be made.
Perhaps the answer lies in the very foundations of American jurisprudence: an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Mrs. Palin is accused; it may be impossible to investigate her actions because these trifling little subpoenas are being ignored, which is, we learn from the examples of powerful Republicans, the right of every well-placed Republican. If everyone refuses to testify about Mrs. Palin’s actions, she will be ‘innocent’ because she was not proven ‘guilty.’ And so there you are.
It is too bad Mr. Clinton did not know about this rule; he could have refused to testify in the Lewinsky case, and would never have been impeached. One could list many people who have been convicted of crimes because witness were subpoenaed to testify, and for reasons known only to themselves, agreed to do so. Certainly they, like Messrs Bolten, Rove and Palin, and Ms. Meirs, could simply have refused to testify.
Back on Planet Reality, rational people recognize the seriousness of a subpoena and its role in the justice system. But one cannot look at Mr. Bush or Mr. McCain as ‘rational people.’ Mr. Bush’s examples of irrational behavior have been deadly for hundreds of thousands, and one can hardly see the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate to be a rational decision on the part of Mr. McCain. The use of the Attorney General’s office, an office designed to be above partisan political activity, as an extension of the Republican National Committee is hardly rational, although it could be very effective for Republicans. Mr. McCain recently responded to a question about why he didn’t know the number of houses he owns (seven, in case anyone is interested), by dredging up once again his experience as a prisoner of war in an earlier U.S. military misadventure. One supposes it is better than just claiming that senility is setting in and using that as an excuse, but one tires of having every trivial question directed to Mr. McCain responded to with one more story of his POW experiences. It does not seem rational to say one forgets about his extensive real estate holdings because thirty years earlier he was in a prison camp. Better had he said ‘Ask Cindy; she’s the one with the money,’ but there does seem to be something unseemly about that, too.
One struggles to recall the last time a candidate for president or vice-president was under an ethics investigation, but perhaps Mrs. Palin was simply the best Mr. McCain could do; there are skeletons in many Congressional closets, and the closets of obscure governors are not immune to old bones either. But the glow in which Mrs. Palin has basked for a few weeks has started to fade, unable to withstand the scrutiny of reality. It is to be hoped that, despite her husbands, or anyone else’s for that matter, refusal to testify about her possible ethics lapses, the U.S. voter will see through the charade and the novelty and the gimmickry, and will allow her to wreak her havoc in the relative obscurity of Alaska for at least another four years. Any other decision will only rip open the too raw wounds which the U.S. has already inflicted upon the world.
ROBERT FANTINA is author of ‘Desertion and the American Soldier: 1776–2006.