Somewhere inside George W. Bush’s uncomplicated worldview, there is a deep commitment to democracy and freedom. Unfortunately, the President is better at making that commitment manifest when he is casting his gaze abroad than when he is acting out the role to which he was elected: executing the laws of the United States.
District Court Judge John Bates ruled yesterday that former White House counsel Harriet Miers and current Chief-of-Staff Joshua Bolton must comply with a subpoena from the U.S. Congress. The two Bush aides had invoked executive privilege in a sweeping and unprecedented manner that the court found unconvincing. And, before the conservative punditocracy gets itself all in a lather about activist liberal judges, Judge Bates was appointed to the bench in 2001 by Bush and served previously as a deputy independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation that targeted Bill and Hillary Clinton. No bleeding heart liberal he.
The court ruling was one of a string that have turned back the Bush Administration’s claims of virtually untrammeled executive authority. In this instance, they were trying to avoid congressional oversight. The administration has also had its efforts to hold Guantanamo detainees indefinitely with no judicial oversight turned back by the courts. The courts have also declined so far to acknowledge Bush’s “signing statements” by which he attempts to arrogate to himself the traditional judicial function of interpreting the law.
Most egregiously, last week the inspector general at the Justice Department found that under Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, the department routinely inquired about the political and ideological leanings of professional applicants in violation of both long standing legal and institutional norms. That scandal got lost when the less important, but more garish details of the Ted Stevens scandal broke. It is easier to understand the corruption of free contracting on a vacation home than it is the hiring practices of the government. But, the latter is important because, like Miers’s and Bolton’s refusal to testify before Congress, the scandal at Justice showed an administration that is contemptuous of democracy when it suits them.
So, it is always a little surprising to find President Bush doing precisely the right thing when it comes to democratic activists from abroad. Tuesday, Bush met at the White House residence with five Chinese human rights’ activists. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry denounced the meeting, saying Bush had “rudely interfered” in the internal affairs of China in advance of that country’s moment in the spotlight with the opening of the Olympics next week. Bush will attend the opening ceremonies at the Games despite calls for a boycott because of China’s repressive tactics against both democracy activists and Tibetan nationalists.
Bush has struck the right balance. Go to the Games, and do not insult the Chinese on their turf, but extend the cloak of democratic respectability and American prestige to Chinese activists when they are on American soil. One of the activists, Harry Wu, is an American citizen so the response of the Chinese government was even more hubristic than usual. Bush should not back down. The Chinese government may be terrified of Harry Wu, but the long view of history already perceives in him a future hero of the Chinese people because of his championing of human rights. Bush was right to welcome him to the White House. Maybe Wu can give the president some lessons on the limits of executive power.
Michael Sean Winters