(Please welcome in the comments Charlie Savage, author of Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his work on Bush’s signing statements — JH)
Ever since The New York Times revealed the illegal NSA warrantless surveillance program in December, 2005, it has been inescapably clear that the Bush administration is a lawless government, grounded in the belief that nothing — certainly not the rule of law — can limit the President’s powers. Despite how extraordinary this revelation was, very few establishment journalists paid any attention to it at all, and when they did, it was to defend this lawlessness and demand that nothing be done to impede it.
In January, 2006, Joe Klein in Time attacked Nancy Pelosi for daring to speak out against Bush’s NSA lawbreaking and said: “these concerns [i.e., that Bush's eavesdropping is illegal] pale before the importance of the program. It would have been a scandal if the NSA had not been using these tools to track down the bad guys.”
In Newsweek, Eleanor Clift in March, 2006 attacked Russ Feingold for daring to argue that Bush should be censured for his lawbreaking, claiming that Feingold’s efforts to impede Bush’s lawbreaking will doom the Democrats by showing how “unserious” they are with national security: “The broader public sees [Feingold's efforts] as political extremism. Just when the Republicans looked like they were coming unhinged, the Democrats serve up a refresher course on why they can’t be trusted with the keys to the country.”
The New Republic repeatedly ran articles –and still does — excusing, justifying and defending Bush’s lawbreaking. And even through today, establishment-worshipping “journalists” such as The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius continue to insist that Democrats must not stand in the way of ever-increasing Presidential powers vested in George Bush — whether that means legalizing more and more warrantless eavesdropping and even providing retroactive liability to lawbreaking telecoms — and that if they do impede any of this, they will be guilty of the Ultimate Beltway Sin: insufficient bipartisanship.
George Bush has been able to pursue an agenda of truly radical executive power theories with impunity because most American journalists have not only stood meekly by and expressed no interest in investigating or exposing any of this conduct, but worse, they have actively defended it. That is why the truly superb and tenacious reporting of The Boston Globe‘s Charlie Savage has stood out so nobly and conspicuously. While most of the political press in this country eagerly served as mindless vessels for White House claims about its conduct, Savage actually scrutinized and investigated those claims, exposed how they were false, and tenaciously documented the lawlessness and radicalism of this administration. Put another way, Savage acted as a political journalist should.
Beginning in early 2006, Savage published a series of probing articles in The Globe documenting the various ways the administration was subverting the law — from signing statements to absurd theories of executive power which administration radicals led by Dick Cheney had long embraced. Savage’s reporting almost single-handedly forced the issue of the President’s signing statements into the public eye, and led to Senate hearings held by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Earlier this year, Savage was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the administration’s executive power abuses. When the Pulitzer was announced, the Globe‘s editor provided this explanation — at once unremarkable and extraordinary — as to why Savage deserved the Pulitzer:
What Charlie does and the reason he won this richly deserved Pulitzer is because he covered what the White House does, not just what it says.
More than anything, that is a sad though powerful commentary on the sorry state of our country’s political press. Previously, reporting on “what the government does, not just what it says” was the basic function of political journalism. But these days, journalists who actually do that are so rare — they stand out so conspicuously — that they now win Pulitzer Prizes for it.
Savage has now expanded dramatically on the Pulitzer-winning reporting he did throughout 2006 with his invaluable new book, entitled Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy. There have been several previous books documenting just how radical and democracy-subverting are the Bush administration’s executive power abuses, but the true value of Savage’s book is to assemble all of the facts over the last six years and prove conclusively that virtually every Bush scandal — from eavesdropping and torture to U.S. attorneys dismissals and the politicization of virtually every branch of our government — all stem from the same common root: the decades-long quest by hard-right radicals to transform the nature of our government beyond recognition by vesting virtually unlimited power in the President.
One of the oft-overlooked aspects of these executive power scandals is how central these theories have been — for decades — to the most powerful administration officials, beginning with Dick Cheney, who has vowed since his time in the Ford White House to restore what he views as the majesty of the executive branch. Even for those well-versed in most of the current presidential power controversies, Savage’s book makes the uniquely clear case that virtually everything this administration has done domestically — such as the nominations of John Roberts and Sam Alito, both Reagan DOJ ideologues and long-time executive-power-worshippers — has been devoted to advancing the Cheney worldview of an imperial presidency.
Savage is a reporter, not a polemicist, at his core, and his methods here are the pure stuff of solid, fact-based journalism. There are little dramatic flourishes because the facts which Savage has assembled speak loudly and disturbingly for themselves. Because Savage’s book comes so close to the end of the Bush presidency (though not close enough), Takeover will certainly be one of the definitive accounts of how this administration has so fundamentally transformed the type of country we are.