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Americans in danger are vulnerable to dictatorship

Published September 12, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - A thousand dead in Iraq. For what? History's highest budget deficit. For what? George W. Bush has been so reckless with America's lives, wealth and reputation and so stupendously incompetent and untrustworthy overall as to defy belief that anyone but Halliburton and the House of Saud would want him to be elected.

And yet, if the polls are accurate, Bush is leading. Dismal as that news may be, what's more to be feared is the reason. Though they see through him in nearly every other respect, many people are convinced of his leadership, his courage, his sense of resolve.

This triumph for the art of propaganda - all we really know about his courage, after all, is how little of it he displayed during Vietnam - signifies mortal danger for American democracy.

The "man on horseback" mentality, the belief that a leader's strength is more important than where it leads them, defines a population that is vulnerable to dictatorship.

This is not to call Bush a dictator or suggest that he wants to be one. But let no one believe that it couldn't happen here, as has happened so often elsewhere.

It has happened here, and by the design of better statesmen than Bush.

John Adams, an original American patriot, signed the Alien and Sedition Acts that put people in prison for what they said or wrote.

Abraham Lincoln, one of our three greatest presidents, suspended the writ of habeas corpus.

Woodrow Wilson, a scholar by profession, jailed and deported people for opposing a war that, nearly a century later, still raises the question of what American interests compelled our participation.

Franklin D. Roosevelt put 110,000 men, women and children in concentration camps because of their race.

In each instance, danger was the pretext for suspending democracy and decency.

Dictatorship has struck even in the absence of danger. Right here, in Florida.

In December 2000, the Florida House of Representatives, in broad daylight, voted 79 to 41 to steal the 2000 presidential election by formally appointing the Republican slate of electors regardless of what a recount might show. Though presumptively legal under the Constitution, that was a dictatorial act in light of the modern expectation that the people, not the politicians, elect the president.

Florida rewarded the perpetrators by sending Tom Feeney to Congress and re-electing nearly everyone who followed his orders. If that disgraceful vote ever became even an issue in any of their campaigns, I am unaware of it.

The Senate did not follow suit, but only because of President John McKay's shrewd strategy of waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do. Nonetheless, a precedent was set for use in the next state where one party controls both houses and opportunity knocks.

Meanwhile, it is becoming clear that the great falsehoods of this administration were not limited to the phantom weapons of mass destruction, the fanciful link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, and (most recently) the phony Medicare drug benefit cost figures that were deliberately fed to the Congress.

To that list must be added the deception that the Republicans wanted Howard Dean for their opponent. The Washington punditry corps regurgitated that as fact and helped give the Republicans exactly what they did want: a senator (actually, two senators) on the opposition ticket.

It didn't matter who. Sitting members of Congress are sitting ducks because they come with the fresh baggage of complicated voting records that are easy to misconstrue and misrepresent.

The Homeland Security Act, for example, contained a poison pill for Democrats: Its labor-bashing component set up Max Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam War hero, to be smeared as unpatriotic. If there is such a place as hell, surely it awaits the liars who did that.

In the entire history of the United States, there have been only four presidents who went straight from the Congress to the White House. The last of them - and the only Democrat - was John F. Kennedy, 44 years ago.

Former members of Congress have fared much better, but in recent years only by way of the vice presidency.

The Democrats should have learned by now. Of the six Democratic presidents directly elected since the Civil War, all but one (JFK) were governors: Grover Cleveland, Wilson, Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (Michael Dukakis would have won too had he managed to show anger, or any other passion, at appropriate moments.) Truman and Lyndon Johnson would not have made the White House but for the vice presidency.

Governors, or former governors, have played well for the GOP too: e.g., Ronald Reagan, George Bush. A governor's record is rarely as complex as that of a member of Congress, and the job title itself conveys a sense of competence and authority.

Even if, as we see now, the competence is only an illusion.

[Last modified September 12, 2004, 01:44:40]

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