In the past few weeks a number of influential Democrats have expressed an interest in legal prosecution of members of the Bush administration. Nancy Pelosi in particular has a lot of things she'd like to get to the bottom of, and has been seen wringing her hands and whispering, "I want to see the truth come forth." Patrick Leahy is pushing it this week.
John Conyers is also intent on playing Torquemada, going so far as to have the Judiciary Committee -- which he chairs -- release a 500-page "report" detailing the crimes of the Bush presidency. (This is a hobby of long standing for Conyers -- readers will recall that a few years ago he held some sort of "inquest" concerning Bush crimes in the basement of the House Office Building, borrowing tables and tablecloths from the dining room for the purpose.) During last fall's campaign Joe Biden also expressed enthusiasm for the idea, though little has been heard from him on the topic since he was fitted with a muzzle.
One Democratic official has expressed hesitation, the popular writer Barack Obama, currently serving in an office known as the "presidency". But how much influence he possesses still remains very much to be seen.
There's no point in asking for details concerning who will be prosecuted and for what crimes. That's not how these things work. (Karl Rove, for one, is convinced that he's on the list, which led to some good-natured ribbing from the Fox news team. I can't quite understand the skepticism -- after all, he's been a target before.) What's being discussed has little legal basis but lies more in the realm of theater. As readers of Orwell, Kafka, Koestler, and Solzhenitsyn will clearly recognize, what's being proposed here is a series of show trials.
I think it's an excellent idea.
Show trials are nothing new to the Democratic Party, although it's true that they're one element of Democratic governance that, like Democratic support for segregation and the fascist source of much liberal doctrine, has been allowed to slip down the memory hole.
Examples of such trials occurred during both world wars. During WW I, a number of specious prosecutions were made for "sedition". (Reading H.L Mencken's record of the period makes it clear that "sedition" often meant "having ancestors who came from Germany".) The most notable of these involved Socialist party leader Eugene Debs. Like a number of people, Debs opposed entry into the war and was not shy about saying so. That towering liberal Woodrow Wilson saw to it that Debs was tried, found guilty, and given the maximum sentence. He began doing his time in 1919, a year after the war ended.
It's likely that Wilson was out for revenge over Debs' run against him in the 1912 election, when he did extremely well for a Socialist, gaining nearly a million votes, and in the process embarrassing Wilson from his left. (The 1912 election was a particularly bizarre episode with three major parties involved, including Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party. It can be assumed that amidst all the uproar, a number of voters simply threw up their hands and decided to toss their vote to the lefty.) After Wilson left office, Debs was pardoned by the Republican tyrant Warren G. Harding, who invited him the White House. Debs died a short time later.
The Dems attempted a similar trick during WW II. As Richard Gid Powers tells it in his excellent history of American anticommunism, Not Without Honor, in 1944 the Roosevelt administration saw fit to prosecute a number of figures who had opposed American entry into the war, an odd mixture of Bundists and America Firsters along with pacifists and conscientious objectors. Curiously, no communists, the group most adamantly against the war during the 1939 - 41 period, were included. While it's unknown who instigated the prosecution, circumstantial evidence points to Harry Hopkins, with his fervent admiration for Josef Stalin and his methods.
Most of the "crimes" had taken place before the war, but all such evidence was disallowed, leaving the government with no alternative but to give speeches and harangue the witnesses. This was so effectively carried out as to reduce the entire courtroom - including defendants on the stand - to uncontrollable laughter. The judge repeatedly asked the prosecution if they had any actual evidence or testimony to present, and at last shut down the proceedings and dismissed all charges.
While the Democrats may have switched to the antiwar side this time, the intended message is the same in all cases: don't antagonize the Donkeys. The "criminalization of policy differences" as George H.W. Bush called it, is nothing new to the Democratic Party.
So why is it an excellent idea? Because from the Democratic point of view, it's a loser.
The Debs prosecution marked the beginning of the end for Wilson. The same messianic fervor that had led him to persecute Debs dictated his actions in the postwar period, when his alienation of the Allies, along with his own countrymen, assured the collapse of all chances of lasting peace. Shortly afterward, he suffered the stroke that effectively turned him into an invalid and led to that strange interval where the country was being run by his wife Edith (who did a better job than Wilson himself had done in the previous two years).
The 1944 antiwar prosecutions marked the high point of the FDR era, with Roosevelt reaching for an unprecedented fourth term, victory in Europe and the Pacific in sight, and the country united as never before. Within months after the trial closed, Roosevelt was dead, followed in short order by Hopkins. The pragmatic Harry Truman had little use for any New Deal loose cannons, who soon found themselves seeking employment outside the government.
Clearly, show trials in an American democracy are a "whom the gods would destroy" matter. It's been awhile since the gods destroyed any Democrats. I for one would rather enjoy witnessing such a spectacle.
The apparent model for Pelosi and Conyers' effort is the Scooter Libby trial, the one successful Democratic action against the Bush administration. What's being overlooked is that fact that the actual targets were Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and beyond them W himself. Libby was a kind of consolation prize, and one bagged only through blatant dishonesty by the prosecution, not to mention Colin Powell and Richard Armitage. Another major factor was weariness with the Iraq war coupled with a media-created uneasiness over the War on Terror. It's unlikely that all these elements will fall in place so perfectly a second time, which doesn't mean that the Dems won't try it.
It shouldn't be hard for the tables to be turned by a canny opposition. A number of tactics suggest themselves. It would provide a good opportunity to subpoena various Dems (including Madam Secretary Hillary) to learn exactly why they voted alongside the Republican criminals. The Dems could be forced to disgorge considerable amounts of confidential paper dealing with party matters. If they choose to dredge up bogus accusations of torture, it would prove entertaining to establish that the original Master of the Dungeon was one George Tenet, a Democratic appointee.
Such proceedings would likely prove embarrassing to Obama, who appears to be coming around to the recognition that his "out in 16 months" plan for Iraq is a nonstarter. It would also serve to put GOP "moderates" on notice as to the wisdom of "nonpartisanship", and act as a good solid lesson to the Republicans as a whole as to the wisdom of winning elections.
And in the end, it would likely be thrown out of court in any case.
Several liberal commentators seem to recognize that the show trial scenario is flawed and are instead calling for a "blue-ribbon commission" where the left would be able to control the narrative and allow the Democrats to play demagogue at no risk. (One of them termed it a "truth and reconciliation commission", of the type convened in former dictatorships such as Chile and Argentina. This adequately reveals the kind of mentality we're dealing with.) This is already one large step down from the trial proposal, suggesting that the Dems can be made to back off even further. But if not, they can still be embarrassed.
Last week the Republicans extracted... not a "promise"; I suppose you could call it an "indication", from Eric Holder, nominee for attorney general, that he does not intend to carry out such trials. This may well nip the scheme in the bud. But if not, the GOP should not view it as a threat, but as a superb opportunity to make the Dems squeal. The party has shown unexpected backbone regarding Obama's "simulus" program. That trend needs to be cultivated. However the Democrats choose to play it -- trials, commissions, whatever -- the GOP needs to make a point of punishing them for overreaching. Do it today, and they'll hesitate to try it again anytime soon. J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.