Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Letter On The Fourth of July

Early this morning, I found my way to watching the Prime Minister's Questions in the British Parliament. Every week, the leader of the government presents himself to the legislature, where he may be asked questions about any topic and must answer. In response to an unsatisfactory answer or dodge, the chamber does not hesitate to howl in protest or heckle. It may be raucous. It may be passionate. There are often displays of admirable wit. What is always present, in the very tradition itself, is accountability. The executive leader of this government is accountable to the people's representatives, and is held accountable - in person - on an ongoing basis.

In that one important conviction - the accountability of its leaders - Britain has surpassed our democracy. In the United States partisanship and cynicism continue to prevail over the common good, over truth, over justice, over sound policy. And who in our republic expects anything better anymore? Who in our country values the words of our Declaration of Independence enough to feel personally insulted by our politics, and to demand something better with a deep conviction that the United States is better than this?

Partisan politics are always part of the process, and a competition of ideas is necessary for the health of a democracy. At the right time, however, politics must yield to truth and to justice. We are a nation of laws, not of men - and not of political parties. Or are we?

Last night, Keith Olbermann opened his dramatic call for Bush's resignation by quoting the actor John Wayne, who was a right-wing conservative. Upon learning that his choice, Richard Nixon, had been beaten for the presidency by John F. Kennedy, Wayne reportedly said, "I didn't vote for him, but he's my president, and I hope he does a good job."

There it is in a single sentence. Partisanship has a vital place, and at other times, we have to concede partisanship and put country first. In turn, presidents - who are also leaders of political parties - must do the same. There is a time for politics, and a time to put them aside and focus on what is truly best for the republic and her people.

The fourth of July is a day that commemorates a fateful choice: the choice to be independent of tyranny, to govern ourselves in a manner that is accountable, to hold our own government accountable. Where is that spirit today, when tyrants prevail in the executive branch, overruling civil law, our Constitution, and international law whenever it suits their partisan advantage? Where is that revolutionary spirit now that the opposition party, having been elected to lead Congress, fails to provide the check on executive power run amok, which is so clearly needed? Where are America's citizens, as they turn out to vote in fewer numbers and give up on the promise and the sacred duty enshrined in our founding documents, and the moving words of our Declaration?

The leaders of our government do not have to answer to the people's branch or to the people. What is far worse, is that few of us really expect them to. We abide, shaking our heads, while expensive and unproductive wars are launched over deliberate lies. We abide as boys young enough to be my son are shipped home dead or maimed, for no ultimate good and with no end in sight. We abide when a great, historic American city is destroyed in a flood, and the president fails to ensure that our emergency relief agencies are functioning effectively - and, indeed, when the president praises officials whose undisputed incompetence cost lives. We abide one disappointment after another, as the institutions of justice are put to political purposes over and above the dictates of blind justice. Finally, just before the fourth of July, the President commutes the sentence of a close political aide who was rightfully and properly convicted of lying under oath to obstruct an enquiry into our government's actions.

James Madison said, "If the President be connected in any suspicious manner with any person and there be grounds to believe that he will shelter him, he may be impeached." As if we hadn't enough other causes already.

Yet there is no proceeding. Only the solemn shaking of heads as the rival party - putting its own political ambitions for 2008 first - plays safe, steps back, and allows the debasement of our republic to continue. Yes, the Democrats also put partisan politics first, and as the disappointments mount and fewer people bother to vote, political ascension is a matter not of excellence but of funding and marketing.

I read the words of Declaration on the 4th of July and imagine the frustration, the suffering, and the aspirations of colonists who wanted liberty and self-determination, a chance to survive and prosper in their own right, and their audacity in rejecting tyranny in favor of self-government, a kind of representative democracy that must have felt like a precarious experiment.

What can I imagine those people would say of us today? What would Madison say of our current president, who has insisted he has a mandate to rule as a monarch; and what would he say of us, who have permitted it?

What we celebrate on the fourth of July is a fateful choice. It is the choice of people who risked their very lives on what was an audacious idea: that they somehow had the right to say no to tyranny and govern themselves. Their successors, two centuries later, can hardly be bothered to vote in regular elections - and certainly cannot be counted on to howl and heckle and hold their leaders personally accountable.

On this fourth of July, I would like to celebrate rare citizens such as Harry Taylor, who hold our top leaders personally accountable. And I would like to share, for those who haven't seen it, Mr. Olbermann's commentary, which aired on MSNBC last night, who notes that even Richard Nixon - a man tragically obsessed with partisan politics, to the point of doing crazy and illegal things - finally subordinated politics to what was best for his country.

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