In 1953, a year after Harry S. Truman left office, precedent for post-presidential secrecy was set. The 33rd president made clear to the American people that while his term in office was over, his power to shield information pertaining to his White House stint was still very much intact.
Now, as the end of Pres. George W. Bush’s final term draws near, worry has developed that Bush might pull the Truman precedent out of his back pocket, allowing him to coast free and clear under the public radar post-term, despite the many illegal actions he took while in the White House.
During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama made a promise to the American people that “If crimes have been committed [by George W. Bush], they should be investigated.” Based on principle alone, whether or not Bush tries to skate, Obama needs to follow through on his promise of investigation for a host of reasons.
The foremost of these is the dangerous combination of secrecy and entitlement exhibited by Bush during his presidency. Obama needs to send a clear message to Bush, to everyone who worked for him and to the American people, that the United States presidency is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Under Bush, torturous methods of interrogation were used against detainees, requests by Congress for executive documents and adviser questioning were denied outright, wires were immorally and illegally tapped to no apparent positive avail and the Constitution was bent, squashed, stretched and defiled.
If an average citizen did any of these things that Bush has gotten away with, the key to his or her jail cell would long ago have been burned and the ashes settled at the bottom of the ocean for eternity.
But Bush has not been treated like a regular American. He has essentially done whatever he feels like doing without so much as a political speed bump in his way. The power of the executive branch ballooned under Bush, seemingly without question. In fact, throughout his time in office, the media checked Bush’s exertion of power more than Congress did. This is a flashing signal that our government, carefully constructed with a series of checks and balances to avoid inflation of any single branch of power, has seriously failed.
Obama must be careful in how he goes about investigating Bush’s presidential actions, though. A call for such prodding might easily be misconstrued as a vindictive, partisan effort aimed at defaming the GOP rather than serving any real justice or public necessity.
And these are uncharted political waters. Past presidents have traditionally pardoned their predecessors for wrongdoing, regardless of party affiliation or the severity of the lapses. Gerald Ford famously pardoned Richard Nixon despite the Watergate scandal, and Bush himself blocked subpoenas for controversial information pertaining to Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Therefore, Obama must make widely evident that any possible investigation will not be fueled by a petty desire to stick it to Bush. A punitive determination, with a sole aim of doling out punishment, serves no practical purpose for the government, for the people, or for Bush.
Thus, in fulfilling his promise to investigate any crimes committed by or under Bush, Obama needs to look at principle. Under the 43rd president, our well-crafted, checked-and-balanced government failed. For it to succeed, that failure and the mechanics behind it need to be publicly — and promptly — addressed.