GRUMPY OLD MEN: Sir, The Barbarians Are At The Gate

sidney1.jpgSidney Blumenthal is the former Assistant and Senior Adviser to President Clinton; author of “How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime,” “The Clinton Wars,” and other books including “The Permanent Campaign,” “The Rise of the Counter-Establishment” ( New York Times Notable Book of the Year), “Our Long National Daydream,” and “Pledging Allegiance: The Last Campaign of the Cold War”(New York Times Notable Book of the Year); current columnist for The Guardian of London and; former staff writer for The Washington Post, The New Yorker and The New Republic and contributing writer for Vanity Fair; playwright of the widely produced and broadcast “This Town”; associate producer of the major motion picture “Max” and producer of a forthcoming documentary on the Bush administration’s torture policy. He is currently a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.

From Wikipedia:

Sidney Blumenthal served as assistant and senior adviser to Bill Clinton from August 1997 until January 2001.[…] His role in the White House was significant enough for him to be crucial in the legal proceedings of the 1998/1999 Impeachment of President Clinton. During the investigations by White House independent counsel Kenneth Starr, Blumenthal was called to the Grand Jury to testify on matters related to what Clinton had told both Blumenthal and his senior staff in regards to Monica Lewinsky. It was on this occasion that Blumenthal was accused by the independent counsel of seeking to discredit the office of the counsel by passing stories to the media about Starr and his aides. The resultant statement by Blumenthal on the steps of the Grand Jury about the freedom of the press after his testimony resulted in a public fall of support for Starr and his investigations of the President.

Blumenthal on today’s election:

It is conjectural but conceivable that had Bush governed after September 11 as he campaigned in 2000, as a “uniter, not a divider”, he might have been able to forge a durable centre-right consensus. That would have required appointing prominent Democrats to his cabinet, reining in his power-mad vice-president and secretary of defense, making moderate court nominations, and listening to the voices of skeptical realism on invading Iraq. Imagining this parallel universe underscores how [Karl] Rove‘s victories helped pave the way to losing the potential for a lasting majority. [via SmirkingChimp]

Mr. Blumenthal was in town last week to talk about his new book, How Bush Rules: Chronicles of A Radical Presidency, at the National Constitution Center. Given all the above, we thought Mr. Blumenthal was an ideal guy to talk to on the eve of an election that may well prove to be a sea change in this country.

Phawker: Sid, thanks for comin’ on the show today. I realize we don’t have much time so just to cover as much ground in as little time as possible, I’m just gonna throw out a topic — Iraq, War on Terror, suspension of Habeas Corpus — and you give us the Sidney Blumenthal read, circa right now. Let’s start at the beginning of this mess: The 2000 presidential election?

Blumenthal: [Laughs] Well, I think [it was] one of only three contested presidential elections we’ve had [insidneyclinton_blumenthal.jpg American history] and, clearly, Bush didn’t win. The votes weren’t counted, he lost by half a million votes and for the first time ever the Supreme Court intervened to give someone the presidency in a illogical, badly written decision that clearly stated it had no bearing on future or past decisions, which is totally contrary to how the Court operates.

As a result, the presidency was tainted by illegitimacy from the beginning. 9/11 gave him an aura of legitimacy he had lacked through the 2000 election, and then he won the reelection, as it were. If you want to call it a reelection, in 2004. And then he took that to be a mandate and pursued a radical agenda that has left him in tatters.


Phawker: The 2004 presidential election — why did John Kerry lose, and why did Bush win?

Blumenthal: Bush won because of 9/11. He was still riding the momentum of 9/11. Most people in the country still believe the deliberate falsehood that was created by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein somehow was involved with 9/11. Therefore, going back to this question of legitimacy, the Iraq War was conflated with the so-called War on Terror and all that created an aura of justification [for the Bush agenda]. And that’s the momentum that Bush won on. Kerry made several major strategic errors in his campaign, including not responding immediately to the attacks on the integrity of his war records with the Swift Boat information. Also, insisting that speakers at the Democratic National Convention never criticize President Bush was one of the most bizarre decisions ever made by a presidential candidate. Since when does no one at a convention criticize the opponent? You know, it was a very odd campaign.

Phawker: What about the contention that the election was stolen? That there was massive irregularities in Ohio?

Blumenthal: I don’t doubt that there were irregularities, but I don’t think the election was stolen. I think that Bush won the [2004] election.

Phawker: So in spite everything that you’ve said so far, you still think that the integrity of American electoral process is intact?

Blumenthal: Well, let’s just say that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. That’s my take on that.

Phawker: What about NSA wiretaps on American citizens — is there a demonstrable national necessity?blumenthal.jpg Isn’t this a complete violation of the Fourth Amendment?

Blumenthal: If it is a necessity, Bush hasn’t said why. No one knows what he’s doing. I find it particularly entertaining and baffling that all those who support Bush claim to know what he’s doing, since he hasn’t offered an explanation. The only thing we do know is that he’s in violation of the law established by FISA and the court that was established by that act. Which virtually routinely approved every wire tapping request it ever got prior to 9/11.

Phawker: Why do you think the White House is afraid of going through FISA?

Blumenthal: Bush is, in principle, establishing the unaccountability of the executive and using the wartime justification to do that. And the aggrandizement of power in and of itself is the goal of what he’s doing. So, regardless of his activities with the wiretaps — which are unknown — creating this Imperial Presidency, beyond judicial review, is one of his major objectives.

Phawker: What about the pro-torture, anti-habeas corpus bill that Congress passed a couple weeks ago.

Blumenthal: I don’t see how the Supreme Court could uphold that law or any law that suspends habeas corpus. It’s the overturning of the cornerstone of American liberty and Anglo-American jurisprudence! It’s incredible, really.

Phawker: What about these presidential signing statements?

Blumenthal: The signing statements are another way Bush seeks to create the “Unaccountable Executive.” I think there are more than 800 [signing statements, which effectively alter or neutralize altogether the letter and intent of the legislation he is signing]. He has no real authority to do that. He is supposed to execute the laws that are passed by the legislative branch. Presidents don’t get to pick which part of laws they will enforce. This is another form of lawlessness on his part. He asserts that his presidency is above the law.

Phawker: What’s the future hold for Karl Rove?

Blumenthal: My view on Karl Rove is that after the 2006 election, in which the Republicans appear very likely to lose at least one or both houses of Congress, Karl Rove’s mission in the White House is complete and that the overriding motive for him to remain is to shield him from federal investigation [via executive privilege and other immunities afforded incumbents].

Phawker: Shield the president?

Blumenthal: No, to shield Karl Rove from federal investigation.

Phawker: So what do you think will happen on Election Day?

Blumenthal: I believe that we will have a radically different political dynamic in the 110th Congress. We’ll have a Democratic Congress that will revive and restore Congressional oversight and investigation, and begin to legislate on a very different agenda. And this will essentially be the end of the Bush presidency as we’ve known it, without checks and balances, for six years.

Phawker: Right. The end of the forward momentum. Do you suspect there’ll be a lot of congressional subpoenas, things like that?

Blumenthal: Yes, there should be.sidneyclinton_blumenthal.jpg

Phawker: You were good, close friends with Hillary Clinton, correct?

Blumenthal: I still am.

Phawker: What’s your read on her running in 2008 and her prospects if she does?

Blumenthal: I don’t know if Hillary wants to run. She hasn’t made up her mind. And if she does run, what I do know is this: Of all of those who are mentioned for running, she is the single most qualified and capable person to be president. And that includes her experience in foreign policy, military affairs, domestic programs and her understanding of the executive branch.

Phawker: What about Obama?

Blumenthal: I dunno. He says he’s “interested.” I don’t know what “interested” means. He’s certainly an intriguing figure who is new on the stage. He’s a freshman senator from my home state of Illinois, and he could have a very long and productive career. You know, one of the great things we will see is the unfolding of all this.

Phawker: Let me throw one more hypothetical at you. In say 2012 or 2016, what do you think of George Clooney running as the Ronald Reagan of the Left?

Blumenthal: He’s too successful as a movie star to be politician. Reagan was a flop and . . .

Phawker: Needed to find a job. What about Iraq? What should we do? When the Dems take over Congress, assuming that’s gonna happen, what should be done?

Blumenthal: The Congress has inherently very limited power over what can be done in Iraq. If they take over the House, the only real power is over the budget, and I don’t know what they will decide they should do — whether or not they want to cut off funds, which I think is politically a very questionable act. On the other hand, they certainly can conduct hearings even though the House International Relations Committee is less significant than the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But still, it’s good to have hearings and look into all all sorts of aspects of the politics. The Congress cannot legislate a foreign policy. And frankly, as someone who has worked for the White House, a lot of that is inappropriate. So I think the Democrats can do a lot with one or both houses of Congress but will still be limited in what they can do on foreign policy. In the end, this comes down to the dogmatism and stubbornness of George W. Bush and his refusal to understand what he has done — the consequences of his actions — and [to] admit error.

Phawker: What’s the prospect of him being impeached and/or brought up on criminal charges at the end of all this?

Blumenthal: Um. Zero.

Phawker: Yeah?

Blumenthal: Nor do I think that’s a good idea, politically. That would be his salvation.

Phawker: Make him a martyr.

Blumenthal: Yeah, turn him into a political martyr and rally the Republicans around him and distract from all of the issues on which the Democrats could focus attention for 2008 and beyond.

Phawker: Where is the media in all of this? It’s supposed to be their job to be the adult supervision, but in the last seven years the press as a whole has been astonishingly derelict in that duty — they’ve just become court stenographers taking down everyone’s talking points.

Blumenthal: Well, there are many great reporters and editors. But as a whole, this is a sorry episode for the national press corps, marked by passivity, timidity, intimidation, and self- censorship.

Phawker: Will the word “liberal” ever recover or will it always be tainted?

Blumenthal: The word liberal? Well, it’ll always be tainted amongst those who hate the word.

Phawker: Can you talk about Matt Drudge or do you have anything you want to say about that?

Blumenthal: I have nothing to say.

Phawker: Do you reject the notion of a War on Terror, if only on the grounds of linguistic fallacy? That’s it’s essentially been a cynical political construct that exaggerates a real but relatively limited threat to justify hijacking the entirety of the national agenda, launching wars without public approval and suspending the Constitution because, hey, we’re at war, and will be for the foreseeable future?

Blumenthal: I’ve listened very closely to what President Bush says. I believe that his description of this War on Terror does not describe the facts on the ground. His notion of what’s behind insurgency or insurgencies in Iraq, who we’re dealing with there, that Iraq is a central front in War on Terror, the importance of law enforcement on the nature of detainee policy. Our lack of adherence to treaties to which we are signatories, such as the Geneva Conventions. You know, the conflation of threats here, there and everywhere. I think all of these are, you know, distortions and morphing of reality and what have produced obviously incompetent policy.

They have done so against the best advice of our senior military and intelligence communities. That’s where we are today. And Bush seems very eager to redouble his failed efforts.

Phawker: If you actually look up the definition of fascism, it looks an awful lot like an objective understanding of the current state of affairs in this country: a velvet-gloved consumerist autocracy abetted, enforced, financed and directed by the corporations and the military industrial complex. Have we become the fascist state? Or put it this way, is this the closest this country has ever come to that?

Blumenthal: Oh, I don’t know. I wouldn’t use that word at all. I don’t think it’s a helpful word in analyzing what Bush has done. I’ve talked about Bush as having a radical presidency and in concentrating unaccountable power apart from the system of checks and balances and seeking to transform our constitutional system through the aggrandizement of absolute power. That’s my view of it. I don’t use that kind of word.

Phawker: The F word?

Blumenthal: Yeah.



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