Imperial powers

It’s been the punch line of late-night stand-up: When is the vice president not part of the executive branch? When he doesn’t want to be! And it’s hilarious that a recent Mad Magazine parody movie poster casts the current president, vice president and secretary of state not as Pirates of the Caribbean, but as Pirates of the Constitution.

But this is not funny.

It is, instead, a constitutional crisis. One branch of government—the executive—has not only exceeded and abused its powers, but its members also have scoffed at or outright ignored any suggestion that the laws of the land apply to them. The get-out-of-jail-free card handed to Lewis “Scooter” Libby is only the latest instance. From the vice president’s invocation of executive privilege to avoid releasing the names of the members of his special, top-secret “energy team” to his recent insistence that he’s not part of the executive branch in order to avoid oversight of his handling of classified material, he—like the rest of this administration, including the president—has demonstrated a complete unwillingness to play by the rules.

This most powerful of vice presidents—head of an acknowledged “shadow government” that’s supposed to make us feel safer—has had his hand in every misstep, mistake and outright lie this administration has engaged in. A recent four-part series in the Washington Post has heightened awareness of the scope of the man’s unprecedented and often secret influence. The list is appalling, but needs to be repeated until everybody understands just how serious the situation has become:

We were misled into an unnecessary war. The administration twisted the law into a pretzel to justify torture of prisoners and suspension of habeus corpus. We were bullied into giving up essential liberties in the name of “security.” Political cronies have replaced experienced public servants at every level of government, endangering American citizens and resulting in deadly debacles, like the mishandling of Hurricane Katrina. The president issues “addendums”—signing statements—to legislation willy-nilly, exempting his own administration from obeying laws he’s just signed. Political loyalties reign supreme, deciding which attorneys will prosecute crimes and which CIA operatives will have their covers blown.

John Dean—a key player in this nation’s last constitutional crisis—was nothing short of prescient when he titled his book about the Bush administration Worse Than Watergate. Three decades ago, an “imperial presidency” led to the first resignation of an American president. One of the architects of that disgraced “imperial presidency” was our current vice president, who seems to have learned the wrong lessons from the experience.

The Bush-Cheney crew is effectively telling the citizens that the Constitution of the United States and the laws enacted under it are meaningless.

Perhaps it’s true that we get the government we deserve. As Bush’s appalling presidency and Cheney’s imperial vice-presidency wind to a close, let us, as citizens, decide we deserve much more. Then let us go work for it.