Bursting Bush’s bubble

The president is a lonely man. Once, he was surrounded by admirers and acolytes. There was Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell and Alberto Gonzales and Condi Rice and Karl Rove -- many of them better known inside the White House by the affectionate but often unprintable nicknames assigned by their playful president. (Rove, you’ll recall, was “Turd Blossom.”) Yale University forgave Bush’s mediocre student record and gave him an honorary degree in 2001, and bright young Yale law graduates at the Justice Department struggled to acquire Texas drawls and develop legal rationales for White House criminality.

Those were the days.

It’s all so different now. Cheney is still there, but most of the rest of the rats are off the sinking ship. Rumsfeld and Gonzales walked the plank, but Powell marched off in disgust, as did a host of others. Rove left last week on a mission to find and destroy some other planet, and even the still-steadfast Rice hasn’t referred to Bush as her “husband” in several years.

The bright young Yale lawyers haven’t been very enthusiastic lately either. One of them, Jack Goldsmith, has a book coming this month with some choice things to say about the personalities and legal theories that once gave the Bush administration its Titanic-like illusion of unsinkability.


Goldsmith ran the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel for nine months in 2003-04 (and was briefly a colleague of mine at the University of Virginia School of Law). He and his book, “The Terror Presidency,” are quoted extensively in a Sept. 9 New York Times Magazine article.

Key takeaways: Bush and Gonzales had little appetite for substance; Cheney’s staff ruled the roost and insisted that the law was supposed to bend to their wishes; and top Cheney aides such as David Addington were every bit as contemptuous of their GOP colleagues in the executive branch as they were of Congress, the courts and their Democratic critics.

For instance: When Goldsmith tried to explain to Addington that terrorists and insurgents might be covered under the Fourth Geneva Convention, which applies to civilians (rather than under the Third Geneva Convention, which covers prisoners of war), Addington reacted with fury: “The president has already decided that terrorists do not receive Geneva Convention protections. You cannot question his decision.” That’s the rule of law, as understood by Cheney’s office.

Later, Goldsmith got an even stronger rebuke: “If you rule that way,” Addington informed him, “the blood of the 100,000 people who die in the next attack will be on your hands.”


A few months after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, Goldsmith had had enough. Defying Cheney’s office, he withdrew the infamous 2002 “torture memo.” Drafted by John Yoo before Goldsmith joined the Justice Department, the memo had been widely condemned for seeking to develop a legal rationale for interrogation techniques that arguably constituted torture and war crimes -- at least under the federal laws in force at the time. Goldsmith issued a statement informing federal agencies that the Yoo memo could no longer be relied on -- and submitted his resignation the same day.

Like so many other recent accounts of life inside the bubble, Goldsmith’s raises the question of how the Bush administration juggernaut lasted so long. From the outside, the administration looked powerful and dangerous, a finely tuned machine capable of rolling over any opposition. But it was hollow and illusory -- and on the inside, many knew it.

In the end, Goldsmith concludes that the administration insiders most determined to increase executive power actually undermined it. By relying on tactics involving “minimal deliberation, unilateral action and legalistic defense,” this White House has weakened the presidency as an institution. Future presidents from either party will face a suspicious Congress and skeptical courts, and will find it more difficult to advance their agendas.

Goldsmith may be right -- but critics of excessive executive power shouldn’t be too quick to start cheering. Bush may be the butt of jokes on late-night TV, but don’t expect Congress or the next administration to take serious action to reverse the damage his administration did to our constitutional fabric. On military commissions and secret surveillance, Congress has already handed the president pretty much everything he asked for. On Iraq, too, Congress seems cowed. And it goes without saying that nothing can reverse the death and destruction the administration unleashed in Iraq.


Admittedly, the president’s not all that happy about the way things have worked out either. As he confides to journalist Robert Draper in Draper’s new book, “Dead Certain,” “I cry a lot.”

Don’t we all?