Cheney behind turn toward dictatorship

First published: Friday, July 7, 2006

In the winter of 1933, before Franklin Roosevelt's first inauguration on March 4, there was a clamor in the United States for a military dictatorship. The banks were closing, a quarter of Americans were unemployed, rebellion threatened on the farms.

Only drastic reforms, mandated by the president's power as commander in chief, would save the country. Something like the fascism of Mussolini's Italy, viewed benignly by many Americans in those days because it worked, or so everyone said, would save the country from communist revolution.

As Jonathan Alter reminds us in "The Defining Moment," his brilliant book about FDR's first hundred days, men as different as William Randolph Hearst, financier Bernard Baruch, commentator Lowell Thomas and establishment columnist Walter Lipmann argued for the necessity of dictatorship to reorganize the economy. Both the New Republic and the Commonweal (a Catholic liberal journal) advanced the same thesis.

The call for a military style dictatorship is the ultimate temptation to the greatest treason of a democratic society. Fortunately, FDR resisted the temptation and reformed the American economy by a mix of gradualist changes, like Social Security, and magical fireside chats. Unfortunately, years later he yielded to the temptation to a military dictatorship when he interned Japanese-Americans simply because they were Japanese. In the first case, he resisted the demands of the American people. In the second, he caved into their racist demands, just as Lincoln caved in to such demands and abolished habeas corpus during the Civil War.

The United States is currently caught up in a new campaign for a military dictatorship rule by a military chief with absolute power. The White House, inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, has argued that in time of great danger, the President has unlimited powers. If he cites national security, he can do whatever he wants -- ignore Congress, disobey laws, disregard the courts, override the Constitution's Bill of Rights, -- without being subject to any review. Separation of powers no longer exists under this view. The President need not consult Congress or the courts, only the vice president, the attorney general and God.

Moreover, the rights of the commander in chief to act as a military dictator lasts as long as the national emergency persists, indefinitely and permanently.

Many, perhaps most Americans, wouldn't mind. The President is tough on terrorists and that's all that matters. What is the Bill of Rights anyway? Mr. Bush, his supporters will argue, is a good man, even a godly man. He won't misuse the powers, even if the power he claims is no less than Hugo Chavez exercises in Venezuela.

The Supreme Court, in its ruling about a Guantanamo detainee last week, was a sharp rebuke to Chenyism (fascism, American style). It dealt with only one case and left the President wiggle room. He could consult with Congress about new legislation that would provide more rights for the detainees in a military trial. But that violates Mr. Cheney's first principle that the commander in chief doesn't have to consult with anyone on matters of national security. If the President was consistent with the Cheney theory and the memos from Alberto Gonzales, first the White House lawyer and now the attorney general, he should defy the Supreme Court and insist that he has the right to establish whatever judicial process he deems proper for these potentially dangerous people without any interference from anyone. He may still do that.

Republicans who will seek re-election in November already suggest that they will run against the Supreme Court decision. The court, they will tell the American people, is soft on terror, just like Democrats in Congress. They could probably get away with this nonsense because fear will cause the voters to forget that this is the Republican court that gave Mr. Bush the Presidency.

Mr. Cheney is a vile, indeed evil, influence in American political life. He is a very dangerous person who would if he could destroy American freedom about which he and his mentor prate hypocritically. His long years in Washington have caused him to lose faith in the legislative and judicial processes of the government. The country, he believes, requires a much stronger executive. Such concentrated power would have been necessary even if the Sept. 11 attacks had not occurred. Mr. Cheney uses the fear of terrorists as a pretext to advance his agenda of an all powerful president, a military dictator.

So long, of course, as he is a Republican.