PARTICIPATING AUTHOR: THOMAS L. DUMM
Thomas L. Dumm is Professor and Chair of the political science department at Amherst College. His new book, Loneliness as a Way of Life, will be published by Harvard University Press in September 2008.
Currently, I'm preparing my American presidency course for this fall's semester. I've not taught this course since 2004, so I've been updating the syllabus. But there is something different about my preparations this time. I am finding myself waking up in the middle of the night, worried about how to explain to my students what has been revealed about the presidency since the last time I taught this course.
Over the past several years, it has become clear that there has been systematic and deep violation of law and Constitution by President Bush and members of his administration. In the wake of 9/11 the Department of Justice issued memo after memo giving cover for domestic spying and the abandonment of the Geneva Conventions. They advised the CIA and Department of Defense on the use techniques of interrogation that everyone except themselves would call torture. The CIA used such cover to vastly expand the already dubious foreign rendition program, kidnapping "persons of interest," sending them to dungeons in countries like Syria and Egypt, where police use brutal techniques to elicit confessions. That these policies were made at the behest of the Vice President and the President is now no longer even news. But it will be to many of my students.
How do I tell my students that our President ordered the torture of hundreds of prisoners? How do I explain that our President, Vice-president, and their key advisors implemented policies that resulted in the beating, shocking, drowning, terrorizing and sometimes the deaths of human beings? How do I teach the torture presidency?
Bureaucratic battles between the CIA and FBI for control of terror suspects, turf wars between the departments of Defense and State for control over implementation of policy, all overseein by the Vice-president and his assistants, these are classic examples of the politics of bureaucracy, power politics, all the ordinary stuff of any presidency course. The difficulty is that there was nothing ordinary about the substance of the matter.
I will try to explain how this happened. We will examine John Yoo's theory of "the unitary executive," comparing it to the relevant Federalist Papers and the history of Supreme Court decisions that contradict it. I will detail power struggles within the Bush Administration, the use of secrecy, executive statements, and other devices to frustrate Congressional oversight. I will review the climate of fear that enveloped the country following the terror attacks of 2001, how the early response by the Bush administration reflected genuine worry concerning the possibility of another, even more massive attack on the country, how this fear fomented policy choices that resulted in water-boarding and an entire panoply of torture techniques.
I will also explore with students how the system of checks and balances, so praised and honored as the core of American political genius, was tossed overboard during a period of panic, not only by an administration that came to office to reassert executive power, but by a Congress that put political expedience over loyalty to the Constitution. I will compare the Congress of the past eight years with that of the previous eras of executive abuse, especially the Congress of the Nixon era, when concern for the Constitution eventually trumped loyalty to Party.
We will discuss the silence of the Democratic and Republican nominees for the Presidency concerning the need to restore the Constitution, and roll back policies of torture; we will review the refusal of the Democratic leadership of Congress to use the one instrument available to it to reset the course of our polity, namely, the impeachment power. We will evaluate the political shrewdness of this silence, and the possibly harmful long-term consequences for our polity.
I will treat the terror presidency as a "teachable moment," as we sometimes say in the academy. But unlike other times I have taught and worried about abuses of power, overreaching, and executive arrogance, this time I will have a specific image in my head: a hooded prisoner, precariously balanced on a box, wires extending from his body. I will try get my students, to the extent that they are able, to see and feel that image, deciding each in their own way how to respond to this new condition. Sadly, this is what it means to teach the American presidency in our time.