Weekend Bookchat

September 20, 2008

This week’s big book has to be Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, Barton Gellman’s examination of how Dick Cheney made himself the most powerful player in the court of King George II, and how he has used that power to further a vision of presidential power that involves shredding the Constitution, promoting torture and manipulating America into a sordid, disastrous war.

Among the book’s more interesting revelations is the way Cheney, when put in charge of the selection process for Bush’s potential vice presidential choice, got unprecedented access to each candidate’s background and medical information, and apparently used that access to leak information on candidates he wanted to discredit.

But for my money, the most extraordinary news is the 2004 rebellion in the ranks of the Justice Department over the administration’s warrantless wiretapping and domestic surveillance program, which erupted while Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized and Acting AG Jim Comey decided he couldn’t go along with what he saw was an illegal program. This led to the famous visit by Andy Card, Bush’s chief of staff, to Ashcroft’s sickbed to get him to sign off on legal certification of the program, which had to be renewed every 45 days.

In an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, Gellman sets the stage:

The President comes back from a campaign swing in Cleveland, is told, “Well, we’ve got a problem. Justice—actually, Jim Comey won’t go along with this thing that Ashcroft has signed all this time.” And in fact, Card, Gonzales and Cheney and Addington know that Ashcroft is backing Comey in this. It appears that the President doesn’t know this. That’s why he dispatches his two guys to the hospital bed and say, “Well, I don’t know what’s up with this—

AMY GOODMAN: Gonzales and Card.

BARTON GELLMAN: Yeah, Gonzales and Card. “I don’t know what’s up with this Comey fellow, but let’s just go bring it to Ashcroft.” Ashcroft, everyone knows now, backed Comey.

What I found out about the hospital visit—I mean, I got a lot more detail about it, and that’s a lengthy scene in the book—is that Ashcroft said something much more dramatic than just “I’m backing Jim Comey.” He said, “If I knew then what I knew now—and I didn’t know it, because you didn’t tell me—I never would have signed off on this program in the first place.”

Now, Jim Comey, Jack Goldsmith, others at the top of Justice and the FBI considered it so outrageous that the President would try to go around the acting attorney general to a sick man in the hospital, that they were preparing to resign as of Wednesday night. And Andy Card knew that, too.

When a new order was drafted to proceed anyway, Comey and roughly two dozen executives — “about two dozen people who are getting ready to resign, including the director of the FBI, the chief lawyer for the CIA and quite a lot of people, at least the top five layers of leadership at Justice” — prepared to resign, a move that probably would have led to the end of the Bush presidency. Bush and Omey had an eleventh hour meeting, on the verge of the renewal deadline. Gellman again:

Because I had access to contemporary notes and emails and other sorts of accounts, I’m able to reproduce the conversation that Comey had with Bush pretty closely. And each of them gets a really big surprise. Comey is stunned when the President says, “I just wish you weren’t raising this at the last minute, day before the deadline,” which is sort of unbelievable. I mean, Comey has been fighting this battle for three months. And he does not believe in resignation threats, Comey told me. He believes that you shouldn’t try to, you know, blackmail your way to a policy, when, if you don’t feel comfortable, you should just leave. But suddenly he’s feeling like, “I can’t count on the idea that George Bush knows what’s happening here.”

So he says, “Mr. President, I think you ought to know that Director Mueller of the FBI is going to resign today.” Bush is just stunned to hear that. He has no idea. And so, he calls in Mueller. Mueller says, “Yeah. I’m sorry. I cannot execute an order that Justice tells me is illegal.” Upholding the criminal laws of the United States is actually the prime directive of the FBI. And Bush says no mas; he caves. He reverses an order that he had written, very in-your-face, or that he had signed less than twenty-four hours earlier.

And this is just a—this is a remarkable moment in presidential history. I’m unable to find any precedent for a time when the president in wartime, or what he considered wartime, gave an order that he considered very high priority and was forced by his subordinates to back down the very next day, or any time.

The significance of this—and this is not me talking, this is the President’s senior political advisers, including Dan Bartlett, his political counselor—is that if Bush had not discovered Friday morning or had not reversed himself Friday morning, then his presidency was over. It was March of 2004. None of the people I talked to who were Bush’s political advisers think he would have been reelected. You know, look. Nixon lost three senior Justice Department officials, and they call that the Saturday Night Massacre. This would have been a couple of dozen and the FBI director. I think that’s closer to suicide than a massacre.

We can only dream of how much better the world would be today if the resignations had taken place and Bush had taken a dive. But we can also learn from what did happen, and try to stave off a reprise of the moral squalor and corruption of the Bush presidency.

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Do you want to know the titles of the finalists for the “Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.” Sure you do. And you certainly want to know what makes a good business book.

* * * * *

What’s Neal Stephenson listening to these days?

* * * * *

A valedictory from the late David Foster Wallace, published for the first time. A farewell to crime novelist James Crumley, who died Wednesday at 68. Are you ready to read the secrets of Doctor Who?

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