The Has-been

The Emperor Has No Vetoes

Why is the Imperial President stripping the presidency of its greatest power?

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

Gun Shy: For five years, the Bush administration has been boasting about its determination to restore the lost powers of the presidency. Whenever the White House makes a mistake or has something to hide, Vice President Cheney gives a civics lecture about the good old days, when men were men, secrets were secret, and a president’s home was his castle.

There have always been a million little holes in this fable. Reagan and Clinton strengthened the presidency by standing up to Congress; Nixon, the last imperial president, nearly destroyed the institution with his penchant for intrigue and secrecy. If Bush and Cheney really wanted to bolster the powers of the commander in chief, they might try winning broader support from America’s real political boss, the electorate.

Yet the biggest hole in the empire builders’ myth is in plain view this week. On Tuesday, Bush brought out the most powerful weapon in the presidential arsenal—the veto threat—to defend the sale of U.S. ports to a Dubai firm. By Wednesday, the White House was already negotiating the terms of presidential surrender.

The list of Republicans who have distanced themselves from the deal grew so long so quickly that the White House is now trying to distance the president as well, saying he only learned about the sale after its approval. The administration and congressional leaders will stall for time and look for a face-saving compromise to avoid the embarrassment of making President Bush’s first veto his first veto to be overridden.

The Dubai debacle shows that for all this administration’s chest-beating about restoring energy in the executive over the past five years, it has systematically avoided the most important presidential power of all, the veto. Like most powers in the illusory world of politics, the veto is use-it-or-lose-it. Because Bush hasn’t mustered the strength to use that power a single time in his presidency, even the meekest Congress in memory no longer fears it.

This time, the White House has left the president out there by himself, exposed. Far from strengthening the office, Bush’s Imperial Presidency turns out to be a fraud: The Emperor has no vetoes.

Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes: The country has already paid a heavy price because Bush never met a bill he wouldn’t sign. The president can’t simply blame Congress or 9/11 for the greatest domestic spending binge since LBJ. Every cut Bush proposes in his budget is dead on arrival because he always goes along with every appropriations bill. In Washington, everyone gives speeches about fiscal discipline; only the president has the power to enforce it. In spending parlance, “no” means “yes”; the only word that means “no” is “veto.”

When it comes to vetoes, Bush isn’t in the same league with other presidents. No president since Warren Harding has finished with fewer than 21 vetoes. The last president with no vetoes was James Garfield, who was shot in his first year. In fact, three of the last four presidents who never vetoed a bill had a good excuse: Like Harding, they died in office: Garfield, Zachary Taylor, and William Henry Harrison. (The fourth was Taylor’s successor Millard Fillmore.)

There’s no excuse for Bush letting the veto power die in office. On the rare occasions when he offers a veto threat, he has chosen battles that make him look weak, not strong. For example, he threatened to veto any attempt by Congress to let Medicare negotiate prices with drugmakers. That hollow threat just gave Republicans in Congress an excuse not to do what they weren’t going to do anyway.

In the early days of the Roman Republic, the veto power first belonged not to the consuls who served as chief executive, but to tribunes elected by the plebeians as a check on patrician power. Veto is Latin for “I forbid.” Tribunes could intercede to veto actions by a government official. When Roman emperors came along, they usurped the tribunes’ veto power for themselves—but unlike imperial wannabe Bush, emperors actually used it.

In this year’s State of the Union, Bush once again urged Congress to help give the president the line-item veto. Congress applauded, with reason: The line-item veto is a good idea and well worth a Constitutional amendment to achieve it.

Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006

Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006

In Memory of a Friend: All too often, politics can be a soulless, joyless, aimless business. But over the last four decades, no one brought a greater sense of decency, joy, and purpose to the American political scene than Eli Segal.

Segal, who died yesterday in Boston at the age of 63, spent his career fighting uphill battles. He poured his soul into the McCarthy campaign, the McGovern campaign, and both Hart campaigns. By the time he signed up to help run Clinton’s 1992 campaign, he joked that he was already 0 for 6.

But Eli Segal understood what so many in politics forget: To make a difference, a campaign—like any other great effort in life—must become a cause.

Between campaigns, Segal was a successful entrepreneur, running companies that made games and puzzles. When his longtime friend Bill Clinton became president, he could have asked for any ambassadorship on earth. But Segal didn’t think his country owed him anything after a quarter century in politics. On the contrary, all he wanted was the chance to give his country something back.

So Segal did what few CEOs would do: He took a low-profile White House staff job where he could make the greatest difference. As head of a tiny office on national service, he won quick approval from Congress for AmeriCorps, a signature promise of Clinton’s campaign. The first year of the Clinton administration was bitterly contentious, but Segal soothed egos and put out partisan fires by gently reminding everyone that the cause was larger than they were. Now AmeriCorps is part of Segal’s legacy as well, giving hundreds of thousands of young people the chance to do what he did—find a cause and make service a way of life.

In Clinton’s second term, Segal took on an equally challenging assignment: persuading businesses to hire people off welfare. The welfare-reform experiment Clinton signed into law in 1996 required two great leaps of faith: that women would leave welfare for work, and that employers would hire them. Welfare recipients deserve enormous credit for leaving welfare for work in record numbers. The person who did more than anyone else to challenge the American business community to see former recipients’ great potential was Eli Segal.

At Clinton’s urging, Segal founded the Welfare to Work Partnership. When Clinton announced the effort in his 1997 State of the Union, it included a grand total of five businesses. By the time Segal was through, he had signed up 15,000 more. As a businessman himself, he went directly to executives and told them to hire people off welfare not out of charity, but because they could be great employees. Many companies soon discovered that the extra effort they put into supporting workers off welfare did so much to reduce turnover, they started providing the same help to the rest of their work force.

During the Depression and World War II, FDR brought titans of industry to Washington to serve as dollar-a-year men, helping turn their country around. Eli Segal was the last great dollar-a-year man of the 20th century. He was so good at getting things done that he may have been the first cause-a-year man as well.

Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006

Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006

We Have a 2/11 in Progress: For America, the world changed on 9/11. In Madrid, nothing was the same after 3/11. And for the people of Kenedy County, Texas, everything changed when Vice President Cheney fired his shot heard ‘round the world on 2/11.

More than four years after 9/11, the rest of us might wonder whether America is truly secure, when it was so easy to fire a potentially fatal shot that close to the vice president. What if the situation had been reversed, and Dick Cheney had been the one to drop back with Katherine Armstrong’s dog Gertie to fetch his quail? After five years of meticulously stashing Cheney in secure, undisclosed locations, would the Secret Service have sat back and watched Harry Whittington clock the veep from 30 yards? As today’s Washington Post points out, Whittington is a prison reformer and “Rockefeller Republican.” If that’s not enough to make the NSA’s watch list, what is?

Folks down in Kenedy County, however, didn’t have the benefit of post-2/11 thinking. With certain exceptions (see below), they just trusted people. A couple years ago, a fellow looking for a good place to hunt knocked on a backdoor, unaware that it was the home of the local game warden. The warden gave the man a ticket for not having the proper paperwork, then joked that he was thinking about setting up a drive-through confession and citation window at his house.

The Kenedy police brought that same faith in their fellow man and let-them-do-it-to-us-before-we-do-it-to-them spirit to the Cheney shooting. As the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports, Kenedy County Sheriff Ramon Salinas III first heard the news from one of his officers at 5:30 p.m. on 2/11. Congress should hold investigative hearings for the sheer nostalgia of being able to call out that officer’s name: Captain Kirk.

Beam Me Up: Captain Kirk called Sheriff Salinas again from Armstrong Ranch, where the Caller-Times says he talked to “a U.S. Border Patrol agent who didn’t know what was going on.” You might wonder why a Border Patrol agent was guarding the Armstrong Ranch, instead of something smaller like, say, the Mexican border. More on that in a moment.

The more telling nugget is that the Border Patrol agent “didn’t know what was going on.” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees the Border Patrol, can already claim that his post-Katrina reforms are taking effect. As disaster poster child Michael Brown testified recently, the old DHS was a hidebound bureaucracy where those at the top were always the last to know. Chertoff doesn’t want to be embarrassed that way again. So in the new DHS, employees at the front lines make certain they don’t know anything, either.

Luckily, Sheriff Salinas was able to call a former sheriff, Precinct 3 Constable Ramiro Medillin Jr., who works as an Armstrong ranch hand. When the constable said, “Nothing to see here,” the sheriff stopped looking. “We’ve known these people for years,” he told the Caller-Times. “They are honest and wouldn’t call us, telling us a lie.”

Indeed, the Kenedy sheriff’s office may well be a prototype for DHS. So far, at least four sheriff’s employees have been mentioned in press accounts, an impressive bureaucratic payroll for a county of 400 residents. That means Kenedy County has more sheriff’s officers per person than people per square mile.

“It’s a multi-departmental effort,” Sheriff Salinas says. “It is DPS, Kleberg County, Border Patrol, and us.” Because Bush and Cheney visit so often, the Secret Service depends on his department. “They don’t treat us like a backdoor police department,” Salinas explains. “They can’t do this without our help.”

In fact, the last time the Kenedy County sheriff’s office made big news, it was for taking the Border Patrol’s job into its own hands. According to the anti-immigration group FAIR, Kenedy County was one of the first local law enforcement agencies to start arresting illegal immigrants “simply for being in the country,” rather than waiting for them to break a state law.

And what Kenedy County commissioner was the driving force to give the sheriff that authority? The late Tobin Armstrong, owner of the Armstrong Ranch. “It will be great for us,” Armstrong told the Caller-Times in 1999. “I hope we can divert the flow of illegal immigrants to other places.” Presciently, Armstrong went on to explain: “One of the constables lives on Armstrong Ranch and works for me part-time. … So if he or I see people coming through the pasture, it can be taken care of immediately.”

Back then, the sheriff wasn’t sure how he would decide which illegals to arrest, but he knew one thing: “If Mr. Tobin or another rancher calls and says there are a bunch of people in his pasture, then we will go.” He didn’t say “Tobin” or “Mr. Armstrong.” He said, “Mr. Tobin.” Welcome to the 19th century, Captain Kirk!

Obviously, Mr. Tobin saw the sheriff department’s job the very same way: “It is a matter of duty. …They have taken a solemn oath to uphold the Constitution and the law of the land. If they don’t do it, we are headed toward anarchy.”

In 1999, Armstrong testified before a House immigration subcommittee about the damage illegals had done to his ranch, including a problem that even FAIR rarely mentions: “forage contamination.” A year later, he criticized a nearby ranch for going soft by closing its gates to Border Patrol agents after they ran over two illegal immigrants on its land.

Tobin Armstrong dismissed that accident with the same these-things-happen disdain that his widow Anne and daughter Katharine have shown this week. “It’s not like they ran over the people deliberately,” Armstrong said. “(The illegal immigrants) were out hiding in a stack of grass in the dark. That would be easy to do.”

Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006

Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006

Dark Man: Even in his darkest hour, Vice President Cheney must have taken some perverse pleasure in watching the press corps whine for two days that the White House withheld information. The more reporters complain about secrecy, the more Cheney must be thinking, “Stop Me Before I Shoot Again.”

But after Republican leaders put a gun to his head, the vice president couldn’t hide out any longer and agreed to be interviewed by Brit Hume for this evening. Tonight on Fox: “I Shot the Lawyer, But I Did Not Shoot the Deputy.”

In the interview, Cheney takes responsibility for the shooting. While some Bush aides may gripe about the vice president’s initial handling of the crisis, he was just following the crisis-management guidelines the president established during Katrina: Blame everyone else for three days, and if that doesn’t work, agree to take the fall. Bush and Cheney have kept that campaign promise about ushering in “the responsibility era”; they just forgot to mention the tape delay.

The vice president told Fox that “it’s not Harry’s fault”—which is better than the line he wanted to use: “Harry, you forgot to duck!” Yet, true to form, even as he finally acknowledged that it was a mistake to shoot the man, Cheney refused to admit that he was wrong to keep his silence. “I thought that was the right call,” he told Fox. “I still do.”

Because he didn’t come clean right away, Cheney will never be able to put the conspiracy theories to rest—unless a Zapruder film turns up, or the NSA surveillance program turns out to be even more far-reaching than we thought. Those looking for motive might consider this Austin American-Statesman profile of the victim: “An East Texas boy whose family scraped by during the Depression, Whittington made no secret of his disgust for governments borrowing huge sums of cash.” Obviously not the kind of loose talk Dick Cheney wants to hear these days from Republicans.

The Best Defense: If the vice president decides to mount a more vigorous defense of his actions, I’ve come up with some new talking points. First, from a statistical standpoint, Cheney could hardly have found a place in the continental United States with fewer people to shoot by accident. Armstrong Ranch is in the heart of Kenedy County, population 407. With just 0.3 people per square mile, it’s one of the 10 most sparsely populated counties in America. A careless hunter could spend his whole life wandering blindfolded across the county’s 1,456 square miles—an area larger than Rhode Island—and never expect to pepper another human being.

Second, these days, even the quail are hard to come by. It’s easy for Monday morning quarterbacks to say Cheney should have just let the bird walk away. But look at the numbers. According to the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s 2005-06 Quail Forecast, the average number of bobwhites in the Gulf Prairies region last year was just four per route—down from the long-term average of 10, and a sharp drop from the halcyon days of 19.5 quail per route a quarter century ago.

The plunge in scaled quail is even more alarming: 1.55 per route in the South Texas Plains last year, compared to a long-term average of nine—and an astounding 32.45 quail per route in 2001. Of course, that was before the terrorists attacked our way of life on 9/11.

Obviously, Cheney and his friends have gone hunting down there a little too often. But it’s not Harry’s fault: When you’re only going to see 1.55 quail per day, you can’t blame Whittington for dropping back to claim his—and perhaps we can begin to understand why the vice president might have been so quick to shoot anything that moved.

Finally, the vice president might try to get back on hunters’ good side by pointing out their common enemy: the shy and elusive quail. The year I was born, Pat Flammia, an inspired artist and hunter in the Pacific Northwest, illustrated a beautiful book for me called “Bruce’s Handbook of Bird Hunting.” Flammia was the Richard Clarke of his time—his book is full of advice that could have spared our nation this most recent tragedy. In the chapter on “Quail Hunting Tips,” he wrote, “Quail are never lonesome. A quail’s feelings are easily hurt. It will fly away if you walk by without stopping.”

Monday, Feb. 13, 2006

Monday, Feb. 13, 2006

Friends Don’t Let Friends …:According to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which broke the story of Dick Cheney’s hunting accident, the 78-year-old victim Harry Whittington has no plans to sue the vice president. “This happens, and my God, I’ve never seen a case of hard feelings,” ranch owner and host Katharine Armstrong told reporters. “I bet this would deepen their friendship.”

No wonder Brokeback Mountain is bombing in the heartland. Real men don’t surprise each other by falling in love. A true friend accidentally shoots you in the face.

The White House was quick to circle the wagons, sending Mary Matalin out with the familiar line that mistakes weren’t made. “He was not careless or incautious or violate any of the [rules],” Matalin told reporters. “He didn’t do anything he wasn’t supposed to do.” After all, a mistake is when you shoot and miss.

Yesterday, Armstrong blamed the victim Whittington for failing to make his presence known. Today, her mother blamed Whittington’s dog. As the Washington Post reports, “Anne Armstrong said the accident happened after Whittington shot a quail and his dog couldn’t find the dead bird. He went to look for the bird but the other hunters didn’t know that he had returned.” It’s only a matter of time before White House spokesman Scott McClellan blames the true culprit – the bird.

I never accompanied my father and grandfather on their frequent quail hunts. In those days, the cowboy film they showed us in hunter safety class was about a guy who accidentally killed his best friend. A neighbor went through a similar tragedy. I decided to take up fly fishing instead.

But based on all the quail-hunting stories I’ve heard over the years, one detail from Anne Armstrong’s version rings true. Here again, Hollywood does not understand: When something goes wrong, real men always blame the dog.

Safety First: Thanks in part to those hunter safety classes, hunting is a lot safer than it used to be. Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine found a 1908 newspaper account on hunting in Iron River Country: “There were no serious accidents during the past deer season although there were 44 persons killed and 57 injured.”

At least until the Vice President’s latest outing, hunting accidents in Texas had fallen to a record low. Officials credit hunter education, which is mandatory for anyone born after 1971. Texas wildlife officials confirm that Cheney has a valid hunting license. I wouldn’t want to be the White House staff who has to ask the vice president whether he ever took a hunter safety course himself.

But as the New York Times presciently reported even before the Cheney news broke, aggregate statistics don’t tell the whole story. While other types of hunting accidents have fallen sharply, quail-hunting accidents in Texas are on the rise. In 2001, quail were at the back of the pack with squirrels and coyotes. By 2003, quail had shot past deer, rabbits, and feral hogs to trail only doves. In 2005, quail accidents remained in second place, even as new animals like snake, raccoon, and ram made the list.

Instead of insisting that the accident was not the VP’s fault, the White House should turn Cheney into the next Eddie Eagle. Of course, that would require the National Rifle Association to notice that the most powerful hunter in the world had misfired. At midday, the NRA website had the latest results for the U.S. Olympic biathlon team, but no mention of the vice-presidential shotgun.

In my grandfather’s day, no quail hunt was complete without a flask of brandy to beat back the cold weather and the frustration of searching the brush for birds that are afraid to fly. Today, few hunting accidents involve alcohol, although officials can’t say which has declined – the drinking or the aim.

Downhill Racers: If Dick Cheney is the Bode Miller of American politics, it most likely will be for other reasons: one disappointing performance after another, a penchant for making things go downhill, and enough errant self-confidence to guarantee gold should hauteur ever become an Olympic event.

In his novel Dreamcatcher, however, Stephen King writes that the second most common cause of hunting accidents is “eye fever” – when a hunter is so intent on seeing what he wants to see that his brain convinces his eye that he actually sees it. “Victims of eye-fever were uniformly astounded to discover they had shot a fencepost, or a passing car, or the broad side of a barn, or their own hunting partner,” King writes, adding that most of them are so convinced, they “could pass a lie-detector test on the subject.”