Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2005/ 19 Kislev,
A matter of trust, a duty to verify
President Bush is finally applying some of the lessons of public
relations grudgingly taught and probably reluctantly learned at the
Harvard Business School.
Politics is difficult to reduce to a spreadsheet, though
our masters of business administration can't resist trying. But over
the past several days George W. has offered details of the how and
when of what America can accomplish in Iraq, and yesterday he even
called an unexpected press conference to explain why it's a good
idea for government agents to eavesdrop on certain telephone
conversations without a warrant.
Some of the president's explanations are more persuasive
than others, but speaking out with as much candor as he can is what
Mr. Bush should have been doing a long time ago, for his own good as
well as for ours. George W. can be a very charming fellow when he
wants to be, persuasive when he moves beyond the inevitable clichés
and canned phrases of the talking-points memo. But like every CEO
who ever got a key to his own washroom, he can sometimes come across
as impatient and even dismissive of the legitimate concerns of the
customers. Presidents of principalities as well as presidents of
companies, as grand as they are, are subject like everyone else to
the temptations of power and authority. You could ask Lord Acton.
Explaining himself every now and then is good for any president's
soul (or at least for his approval rating).
A careful listener could hear the president occasionally
gritting his teeth yesterday, prefacing nearly every answer with, "I
appreciate that." Maybe he did and maybe he didn't, but it's
reassuring to know that he heard the questions. This president, like
the 42 before him, expects the rest of us to take a lot on faith, to
take as an article of that faith that whatever he does he does for
us. Most of the time, if not all of the time, he probably does. But
we're entitled to apply the formula enunciated on a different
occasion by Ronald Reagan: "Trust, but verify."
Most of the questions posed to the president yesterday
were about his authorizing government agents to eavesdrop on
telephone conversations between terrorists. Such conversations ought
to be eavesdropped on. But why, several interlocutors wanted to
know, must the government be allowed to do this without the
authority of easily obtained warrants? A conveniently obscure court,
established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA,
was established for just this purpose.
"First of all," the president replied, "right after
September 11, I knew we were fighting a different kind of war, and
so I asked people in my administration to analyze how best for me
and our government to do the job people expect us to do, which is to
detect and prevent a possible attack. ... We looked at the possible
scenarios. And the people responsible for helping us protect and
defend came forth with the current program, because it enables us to
move faster and quicker."
This sounds reasonable enough, but it also sounds as
much about convenience as about necessity. The weight of the U.S.
government is awesome, and no president ever runs short of
government lawyers to devise imaginative scenarios and compliant
judges eager to sign the necessary papers to enable the cops to do
whatever they have to do to suppress evil. Dispensing with
technicalities and formalities can make a policeman's lot a happier
one, but making the enforcers happy is not what the law in its
majesty is meant to be about. Plumbers, bishops and scullery maids
would like their tasks made easier, too.
A wiretap, as one of the president's congressional
critics noted yesterday, is no less effective for having been
authorized by a competent court. "It will not get you better
intelligence and it will not make us safer as a nation," said Sen.
Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate
Judiciary Committee. "It only excuses the government from having to
justify its conduct through constitutional checks and balances."
Several others of the president's Democratic critics
couldn't wait to pounce with the usual ration of vitriol, dispensed
with the usual portion of bad faith. Sen. Harry Reid, the leader of
the Democrats in the Senate who is very good at reducing everything
to a partisan obstruction, demonstrated once more his skill at
playing the patriot game: "The president ... should stop playing
But politics is what the business of government is all
about. That's what presidents and senators come to Washington to do,
to explain, to argue and maneuver for judicious compromise. The
president has been doing that skillfully for the past week.
Enjoy this writer's work? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.
Wesley Pruden Archives
© 2005 Wes Pruden