Columns » Ernest Dumas

Bring on the subpoenas



Disarray reigns everywhere, from the U.S. ambassador to Iraq to White House aides. Even the Bush family cannot get in sync on the big message. President Bush had to tell his own father to shut up.

Trying to send the message that the party had too much at stake for Republicans to vote against their wayward congressmen or stay at home, the former president said at a fund-raiser for Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., that it would be “a ghastly thing” if Democrats took control of Congress and its committees.

“I would hate to think what Arlen’s [Sen. Arlen Specter’s] life would be like, what Rick’s life would be like, and what my son’s life would be like if we lose control of the Congress,” the elder Bush said. “... They would be issuing the subpoenas, dragging people in just to be getting headlines.”

The son responded Monday: “He shouldn’t be speculating like this.” Daddy should have called him first and he would have told him not to go out sounding so pessimistic.

George W. was having trouble staying on message himself. Washington is rampant with leaks and rumors that the administration will change its Iraq policy after the election. On George Stephanopoulos’ show on ABC Sunday, Bush hotly interrupted his host when he asked about Bush family consigliere James Baker’s search for something between “cut and run” and Bush’s policy of “stay the course.”

“Well, hey, listen,” the president said. “We’ve never been ‘stay the course,’ George.” He said his administration was constantly adjusting in Iraq.

By nightfall, bloggers were digging up all the vows to “stay the course” that Bush uttered between 2003 and the first of last month.

But the elder Bush had hit the nerve that gives everyone in the administration twinges. Committees run by Democrats would be issuing subpoenas and “dragging people in just to be getting headlines.”

What could have triggered such wild imagination? Papa Bush, of course, was describing Bill Clinton’s White House after Republicans gained control of both houses in 1995. Clinton’s attorney general began seven independent counsel investigations after Republicans called for them. In the two-year span after Republicans took control midway in Clinton’s first term, House and Senate committees sent subpoenas by the hundreds to White House aides, administration officials and people who had crossed paths with Clinton and his wife since 1976.

Only one congressional committee, the House Government Reform Committee, has conducted any oversight investigations, those owing to the lone Republican in Washington willing to buck the leadership and the White House, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. He led an inquiry into the Katrina bumbling and short investigations of the administration’s handling of bioterrorism and preparation for the avian flu and four Halliburton war contracts.

But the same committee in its first two years of control when Clinton was president had issued 40 subpoenas and held three hearings into the firing of workers at the White House travel office — completely legitimate firings, as it turned out — and four into the release of FBI files on past officials to a junior White House aide, accidental as it turned out. And it was one of the least active committees.

Republicans have refused to investigate any of the score or so of patent misdeeds or screw-ups in the Bush administration, all far more serious than any of those investigated by congressional committees or independent counsels in the Clinton years — yes, including the one that led to Clinton’s impeachment.

Though the independent counsel law died in 2001, thanks to the Republican Congress, it is still possible to request the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, but the discretion has been up to John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the speaker in January if the Democrats pick up 15 seats, says the House will not oblige those who want to start an impeachment inquiry on the president, which has drawn criticism that Democrats are too weak.

The country does not need to see the kinds of investigations that marked the Republican ascendancy of 1995. Americans don’t want to go back and look at Bush’s slimy business deals or his youthful drug and whiskey use or the petty conniving around the president.

But the country does need to get to the bottom of the most cataclysmic failures of government in our lifetimes, including corruption, cronyism and deceit in the conduct of the war and the intelligence failures and deceit in the run-up to the war.

Congressional inertia has given Bush the widest latitude of any president since at least Roosevelt. But not even that administration enjoyed such freedom from oversight, or sought it. Sen. Harry S. Truman led an investigation of profiteering in World War II. His committee called 1,798 witnesses for 432 hearings and issued 51 reports while the war was going on. One Democratic senator went to prison for his inveigling with contractors. Far from punishing Truman for his disloyalty, Roosevelt rewarded the doughty Missourian by making him his vice president in the next election. Imagine Bush doing something like that.

Daddy Bush reminded us of the best reason in the world to vote Democratic in 2006. It furnishes the only chance to learn the truth.

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