IN MANY QUARTERS it has long been taken for granted that George W. Bush is an aspiring dictator, ravenous for power and all too willing to shred the constitutional checks and balances that restrain presidential authority. Of course this kind of paranoia is routine in the ideological fever swamps . But you can hear such things said about Bush even in respectable precincts far from the fringe.
For example: When it was reported in May that the National Security Agency has been analyzing a vast database of domestic telephone records for possible counterterrorism leads, CNN's Jack Cafferty went ballistic. Thank goodness Senator Arlen Specter was asking questions, Cafferty fumed. "He might be all that's standing between us and a full-blown dictatorship in this country."
During the 2004 campaign, Judge Guido Calabresi of the US Court of Appeals told a lawyers' conference that the Supreme Court decision deciding the 2000 election for Bush was "exactly what happened" when Mussolini and Hitler came to power in the '30s. And "like Mussolini," Calabresi said, Bush "has exercised extraordinary power -- he has exercised power, claimed power for himself."
A year before, Michael Kinsley wrote in Slate that "in terms of the power he now claims, without significant challenge, George W. Bush is now the closest thing in a long time to dictator of the world."
Time and again the D-word or its equivalent has been invoked to describe the Bush presidency. On issues ranging from his "signing statements" to the treatment of enemy combatants and his defense of the Patriot Act, Bush has regularly been accused of harboring totalitarian impulses. "We're seeing clearly now that Bush thought 9/11 gave him license to act like a dictator," wrote Jonathan Alter in Newsweek last December. Just the other day, The American Prospect's Robert Kuttner warned that the Bush administration has been "a slow-rolling coup d'etat" but that "people are afraid to say so."
So when the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld last week, Bush's reaction was easy to foretell: He would show the ruling all the respect of a monster truck rolling over a VW Beetle. No doubt he would emulate one of his predecessors, Andrew Jackson -- another polarizing president whose enemies labeled him a dictator. It would be Worcester v. Georgia all over again.
Worcester was an 1832 case in which the Supreme Court held that the state of Georgia could not impose its laws on the Cherokee nation living within its borders. Its attempt to do so, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote for the majority, was "repugnant to the Constitution, laws, and treaties of the United States." Jackson saw the decision as a challenge to his policy of Indian removal and sided with Georgia, which refused to obey the court's ruling. What the case is best remembered for today is Jackson's withering observation that the court's ruling had no teeth.
"John Marshall has made his decision," Jackson supposedly said. "Now let him enforce it."
Fast-forward 174 years. President Bush learns the court's ruling in Hamdan has gone against him. A five-justice majority held the military commissions created by the administration to try the Guantanamo detainees are invalid, since they were never authorized by congressional statute. The justices seem to have repudiated Bush's claim that the Constitution invests the president with sweeping unilateral authority in wartime. "The court's conclusion ultimately rests upon a single ground," Justice Stephen Breyer pointedly notes in a concurrence. "Congress has not issued the Executive a 'blank check.' "
Whereupon Bush says -- what? "The justices have made their decision; now let them enforce it?" Something even more acidic? Perhaps he repeats a statement he has made previously -- "I'm the decider, and I decide what is best"?
Not quite. He says he takes the court's decision "seriously." A few moments later he says it again. And then comes this: "We've got people looking at it right now to determine how we can work with Congress, if that's available, to solve the problem." There is no disdain. No bravado. No criticism. Just an acknowledg ment that the Supreme Court has spoken and the executive branch will comply.
It isn't 1832 anymore. Even presidents who are aggressive in their claims of authority don't flout Supreme Court decisions. Harry Truman relinquished the steel mills, Richard Nixon turned over the Watergate tapes, Bill Clinton submitted to Paula Jones's deposition. Al Gore conceded the 2000 election. Now Bush will acquiesce as well.
For better or worse, our legal system as it has evolved makes the judiciary, not the president, "the decider." Bush presses his claims forcefully, as he is entitled to do -- but only to a point. We remain a nation of laws, not of men. For all the promiscuous talk about dictatorship, was that ever really in doubt?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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