Whenever the opportunity arises, my dad takes the liberty to remind his friends of what Richard Nixon said upon visiting the Great Wall of China, “That’s some wall.” In similar spirits, I constantly look for opportunities to recall the timeless words of Nixon’s press secretary upon taking office, “Truth shall become the hallmark of the Nixon administration.”
I invoke these Nixon anecdotes for greater purpose than an offhanded chuckle. The Nixon presidency was a landmark in American politics and not before or since have we seen an executive office of similar character. But that may all be changing.
Enter the Cheney administration. According to an article in the Washington Post, vice president Dick Cheney is refusing to turn over key documents on the administration’s energy policy to congress for review. The General Accounting Office (GAO), an investigative organ of congress, has been attempting to retrieve such information for about half a year – to the ardent and steadfast opposition of the Cheney retinue.
In recent weeks, Enron’s collapse and the exposure of scandalous business practices have made the documents more relevant than ever. Accordingly, the GAO has put heightened pressure of the Cheney/Bush cadre to release information concerning the development of energy policy and dealings with Enron executives.
David Walker, head of the GAO, has threatened to file suit against the Bush administration in the coming week if the administration remains resolute in its denial. If he does so, it will be the first conflict of this order between an administration and congress since 1974 following Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
Cheney’s obstinate refusal is reminiscent of the Nixon administration’s secrecy in the Watergate affair of 1972-74. In interviews last weekend, he complained, “I have repeatedly seen an erosion of the powers and the ability of the president of the United States to do his job … We are weaker today as an institution because of the unwise compromises that have been made over the last 30 to 35 years.” Turning his attention to Enron, he proclaimed, “As a result of the Enron corporate collapse, some of the Democrats on the Hill are trying to re-energize this and try to turn it into some kind of political debate with respect to Enron … This issue of Enron isn’t about the administration. What it’s really about is whether or not laws were broken or laws need to be changed with respect to the functioning of a major corporation.”
Apparently, Cheney’s is Nixon’s last admirer. The “compromises” he scornfully refers to date back to the Watergate debacle and embodied an earnest attempt by congress and the American public to best guarantee candor, democracy, and to keep in check the office of the executive.
So much for balance of power.
For those of us of the democratic faith, Cheney’s calls for expanded presidential power (퀌� la 1974, Nixon, Watergate) are outright frightening. Moreover, such claims are as accurate as Henry Kissinger is philanthropic. There is little, if any, evidence to suggest that the office of the presidency has decreased in power over the last few decades. If anything, the influence, responsibilities and weight of the executive office have grown over the years.
Cheney’s willingness to make such claims in public – in fact, on national television – is even more bothersome. Apparently, Cheney hasn’t much confidence in the American populace. His claim that the release of these records is a partisan issue amounts to an indictment of the Republican rank-and-file as a collection of moral degenerates that are not concerned in the slightest about the affairs of the administration they elected. I disagree with Cheney, arguing that there is no reason to assume my Republican counterparts are any less ethical than the rest of us.
It’s a cause for suspicion as well to hear Cheney argue that the affairs of the administration are of no public interest, especially as he and Bush are often said to have been elected because of their stance against the ethics of Clinton-whose not only private but personal “affairs” were brought to public scrutiny on the rationale that what the president does in his free time is relevant to the rest of us.
Most alarming, Cheney’s refusal to release the documents to congress for investigation leaves one to wonder what involvement the administration really did have with Enron. Why jeopardize one’s image by withholding proof of innocence? Cheney’s refusal, along with his rationale of executive privilege (which, incidentally, was the same basis Nixon used to withhold official Whitehouse tapes from the prosecutor), adds to the suspicions concerning Bush’s involvement with Enron.
The administration’s refusal to release the records, along with Cheney’s statements on national television, drags into light the long-standing issue of executive and congressional power. The idea of separation of power was intentionally built into the constitution largely for fear of over-powerful executives and to prevent heavy-handed dictators from executing policy arbitrarily.
Call me a radical, but I think it was a good idea. If Dick Cheney wants a system in which he can execute his will without opposition from congress, the public, the bureaucracy, etc., that’s his prerogative. But for those of us who believe that democracy supposes openness, political debate, opposition, disagreement, pluralism and aboveboard negotiations, Cheney’s acts and statements appear a lot like an 800-pound gorilla bemoaning its size. And in my opinion, threats to democracy are the most worrisome of all.