You Call this Democracy?





Mr. Kutler is the author of The Wars of Watergate (Norton) and the editor of Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes (Simon & Schuster).

Passivity and a sense of powerlessness are pervasive everywhere. Tabloids and cable channels refer to the "treason" of celebrities who oppose President Bush. Our political leaders march in lockstep with the president. The so-called "opposition" hedges its bets, "patriotically" supporting Bush's actions, but ever hopeful he will stumble on the economy and give them the opportunity of 1992 all over again.

The freedom and diversity we so cherish for others is strikingly lacking in our public discourse. We must not forget our traditions of challenge and dissent. For openers, we can invoke the injunctions of Theodore Roosevelt, the most red-blooded and manly of our presidents--if that is to be the litmus test for strong leadership. In 1918, ex-President Roosevelt challenged Woodrow Wilson's sweeping crackdown against dissent after the American entry into World War I. "To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong," Roosevelt said, "is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public."

Abraham Lincoln more pointedly serves the present, critical need. Challenging President James Polk's dubious response to alleged Mexican aggression against the United States, Congressman Lincoln voted to censure the president in 1848--while the war against Mexico still raged. He contended that the president's justification for war was "from beginning to end the sheerest deception." Polk would have "gone further with his proof if it had not been for the small matter that the truth would not permit him." Lincoln threw down the gauntlet: "Let him answer fully, fairly and candidly. Let him answer with facts and not with arguments. ... Let him attempt no evasion, no equivocation." Lincoln more than suspected that the president was "deeply conscious of being in the wrong."

Today, as we prepare to go to war, will the qualities of democracy, diversity, and the open society President Bush so ardently desires for the nation-building he will do for the Iraqis be available at home? The chorus for unanimity is rising, usually in the name of support for our troops in harm's way. Hardly a new ploy for presidential behavior. Once he commits troops abroad, the argument goes, then we must have a moratorium on criticism.

Again, Lincoln can help us. He realized that he had to distinguish between the role of the military and the policies of President Polk. The army had done its work admirably, Congressman Lincoln noted, but the president had "bungled" his. Polk, he feared, was "a bewildered, confounded and miserably perplexed man. God grant he may be able to show there is not something about his conscience more painful than all his mental perplexity."

Our "loyal opposition" at this moment borders on the comic. Most Democratic leaders desperately try to walk both sides of the line, keeping their options open, and say little to criticize or restrain the president in his headlong rush for war. Notably, ex-President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) have spoken out.

Carter rests his opposition to Bush's policy on Christian principles of a just war. We have not exhausted all non-violent options, Carter argues; we plan no distinctions between combatants and civilian non-combatants; and we face a strong prospect that war will only destabilize Iraq and the Middle East, and increase opportunities for terrorism. Carter also has noted that the war will not be sanctioned by the international community the United States professes to represent. George Bush's "alliance of the willing" apparently is a very exclusive club.

Sen. Byrd has pointedly challenged the president's recital of slogan, and his paucity of facts and evidence. Byrd is a powerful man within congressional boundaries, but he is readily dismissed as a caricature of sorts in the media, and elsewhere. Those anxious to discredit him resurrect his youthful membership in the Klan, a fact which he has decisively repudiated--unlike Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), and others like him, who never, never publicly disowned or repudiated their support for segregation, then or forever. But the passivity of the media is most striking in giving President Bush an open field.

Bush's March 6 press conference was not, in the minds of many observers, a particularly forceful or articulate moment for him. His answers seemed repetitious. Commentators suggested that many questions might have been planted, and that the president carefully limited his attention to friendly reporters. Planted questions? Favored softball questioners? How shocking; how surprising. Meanwhile, chattering commentators shortchanged their audience with little or no attention to the substance, or lack thereof, of his performance. Omission is the weapon of choice for the media's passivity.

The Sunday TV programs ignored the revelations of the executive director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, demonstrating that a document purporting to show an Iraqi purchase of uranium from Niger had been forged. That document was a key element in a British intelligence report, which the United States in turn had used to build its case against Iraq.

Even more lamentable has been the ongoing refusal of the American media to acknowledge a March 2 London Observer story detailing "an aggressive surveillance operation" against UN delegates, including the interception of home and office telephone calls and e-mails. The information came from a leaked memo from the National Security Agency. The targets were uncommitted UN delegations, including Angola, Cameroon, Chile, Mexico, Guinea and Pakistan.

The pro-war, Murdoch-owned London Times called it an "embarrassing disclosure."

American officials quietly labored to discredit the report, suggesting it was a forgery. Well, the British government has announced an arrest of someone in its National Security Administration counterpart, who is charged with leaking the memo. The New York Times did not print it because it could not get confirmation, although it had been confirmed in a variety of ways by the English press. Several days later, The Washington Post downplayed the story by noting that it was not particularly alarming, and the Los Angeles Times said American spy activities were "longstanding."

No one could quite bring themselves to acknowledge the obvious: It was true, however longstanding and commonplace such practices may have been.

And now, on CNN, Richard N. Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board and the president's "minister without portfolio" labeled Seymour M. Hersh a "terrorist"--"the closest thing American journalism has to a terrorist." And why? Because "he [Hersh] sets out to do damage." In a recent New Yorker magazine article, Hersh exposed how Perle's venture-capital firm invests in "companies dealing in technology goods and services that are of value to homeland security and defense."

CNN talk show host Wolf Blitzer sat silently through Perle's tirade and dutifully asked him if the opponents of war were "sending a mixed message to Saddam Hussein and giving him some comfort in suspecting that if he plays out this game, he's going to be able to get his way."

Perle almost smiled.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Stephen - 4/1/2003

You'll be surprised to learn that I agree with you.

I've tried to stimulate conversation on this board that goes beyond stupid name calling, but it seems quite impossible.

Since the standard post to this board consists of calling Mr. Bush "stupid," I decided to respond in kind. The hope is that this sort of nonsense might eventually wear itself out.


Rick Schwartz - 3/30/2003

I have never heard from ~any~ source that Mr. Bush has a documented trail that shows he was AWOL. I have heard from several participants in the Texas Air Guard that his drilling schedule may have indeed been jammed up into a shorter period than normal. As I mentioned, this was, and is, a common part of the Reserves. Since there is no evidence to the contrary, and there is a reasonable explanation for his alleged absence, the standard assumption of innocence applies.

I'd be happy to match my military experience with yours to see who is most embarrassed.

I was active military as a Personnelman from 72 to 78, working with enlisted/officer active duty and Reserve members. I was Reserve myself as a Personnelman from 78 to 98, again working with enlisted/officer but mostly Reservists instead of active duty.

My wife was active as a Yeoman admin clerk from 73 to 76, working with enlisted/officer active duty and Reserve members. She was Reserve herself as a Yeoman from 76 to 98, again working with enlisted/officer but mostly Reservists instead of active duty.

We met and married in 74 so most of our time was spent together, working side-by-side in the same personnel/admin office.

Yes, the paperwork was rudimentary for tracking drills in the early 70s. Another word for it very well could be "crude." This was in the days before even the credit card system was put into place. Cleveland was slow at best and quite often wrong in their accounting for drills. Any pay problems attributed to missing/made up drills could take months to fix. (Not “made up” in the sense of falsified. I need to clarify that for those who don’t know drilling terminology.)

If you have comparable military service to dispute that I'd be interested in reading it.

The mere fact that you bring up Rush shows that you are much more interested in arguing against a strawman position than of having enough of an open mind to listen for folk who have actually been there.

As such, you’ve lost any credibility you might have otherwise brought to this discussion.


Tom Kellum - 3/30/2003

"From my understanding of the participants, this is very similar to what Mr. Bush did."

What participants are you referring to, and what do you mean by "my understanding of the participants"?

You also say that "the paperwork back then was rudimentary at best." Back then? In the 1970s! Please. Don't embarass yourself. That kind of spin might work on Rush's board, but not here.


Rick Schwartz - 3/30/2003

"Passivity and a sense of powerlessness are pervasive everywhere."

And that's why Peter Jennings is so pro-US action on his newscasts? And why the NY Times has done a 180 and is now thoroughly in Mr. Bush's camp? And how 'bout them war protesters who have been trucked off to re-eudcation camps by the tens of thousands -- think they'll learn the proper lessons? That Columbia prof who wants to see "millions" of U.S. soldiers die in Iraq has surely been executed now -- it's been two days since he said it in a public forum.

"Tabloids and cable channels refer to the "treason" of celebrities who oppose President Bush."

Hoo, boy. Who says intimdation doesn't work? Those celebrities sure came out in support of Mr. Bush during the Academy Awards. Why, I must have seen red, white, and blue ribbons on everyone. And how they praised our efforts to despose a tyrant -- it impressed me. Even that Moore fellow voiced support for Mr. Bush in the deepest, more reverent terms.

When the first two sentences of an essay show the author lives in la-la land then one can certainly guess the worth of the rest.

BTW, is it ~accepted~ First Amendment speech for some people to refer to Mr. Bush as "babykiller" or "a worse murderer than Stalin" but it is ~not~ accepted First Amendment speech for others to refer to those same people as "traitors"? If not, why not?

Is this a case of "free speech for my liberal point of view, but not for your conservative point of view"?


Rick Schwartz - 3/30/2003

The "myth" of Mr. Bush being AWOL is just that... a myth. During that same time that he drilled I worked in the Reserves as a specialist in personnel matters. I can testify to the fact that there was a great deal of flexibility in drills, and being able to shift them around. If one was not a mandatory driller then the flexibility was even greater. I myself ran several months worth of drills together in a month, and then disappeared for four months as I moved from San Diego to Arkansas. Anyone looking only at that specific four month period would conclude that I had missed the drills. Certainly many of the people who were my co-drillers could state truthfully that I had just "disappeared" into thin air, never to return.

From my understanding of the testimony of the participants, this is very similar to what Mr. Bush did. His time was accounted for, but not in a linear fashion that looks neat and finished. This was not unusual, and we considered it a common work-around problem that a few minutes clarification resolved.

The paperwork back then was rudimentary at best, and trying to recreate from it alone any sense of what happened thirty years later is going to be futile.


Arthur Mitzman - 3/29/2003

Honor comes in where defense of one's nation (or caste or tribe) against a foreign aggressor overrides all other sentiments, including disgust at the brutality of a regime. It's what kept the Russians fighting in 1941-45.

I'm not contesting the cruelty of Saddam's regime. It no doubt equals Stalin's. But my point was about war propaganda. A new example is Blair's assertion that two British troops were executed after capture. The soldiers' commanding officers disputed that claim in communications to the soldiers' families. Here's the article in the Guardian on that:

"The sapper's family continued to insist yesterday that Mr Blair's claim had been expressly denied by the soldier's army superiors.

His stepfather, Michael Pawsey, told the London Evening Standard: "Both I and Luke's sister Nina are disgusted by the claims he was executed. There is no way that happened. The only way he would have been killed is in action. He loved his job and he would have died fighting. That's what he did. That's what his colonel and sergeant told us."

Mr Pawsey suggested the rapid pace of the war might have sown confusion. "It's probably just a big blunder by Blair but the last few days have been hell for us. The thought that he might have been executed has been very painful."

Sapper Allsopp's sister Nina has claimed that the regiment's colonel called at their home "to set the record straight". "The colonel from his barracks came around to our house to tell us he was not executed. Luke's Land Rover was ambushed and he died instantly.""

War propaganda is everywhere, on both sides. Just suspend belief about atrocity stories for at least 48 hours. They are sometimes true, but often turn out to be manufactured.


Mark J. - 3/28/2003

It is comments like Stephen's that demonstrate how disappointing this whole website has become. It is minds unable to fathom any complexity beyond a bipolar world that has gotten us into this mess. This should be called the History Namecalling Network. The same people leave comments all the time and they apparently have made bashing one another with the same arguments over a revolving series of issues. I understand why many people find a dualistic world appealing amid all the troubles we face, but the problem is that a willingness to yield to the simple and to avoid real analysis beyond plugging facts into one's prefabricated ideological circuitboard could be bringing us more trouble than anyone has imagined.


mark safranski - 3/28/2003

Stanley Kutler, a well known historian who ought to know better (without citation) attributes a charge to Jimmy Carter that the United States draws no distinctions between civilian non-combatants and combatants. This an outright lie and a slander on American troops whose caution about sparing Iraqi civilian lives is getting them killed as Feydayeen Saddam members use civilian garb to get close to American soldiers.

Strom Thurmond, for his many faults, was never a member of the Klan ( unlike Byrd )as Kutler implies and probably knows full well given his artful phrasing

Richard Perle was making an analogy, not an accusation, when attacking Hersh, as is obvious to anyone reading a transcript of the exchange.

Mr. Kutler is entitled to use his prominence as a historian to propagandize for his causes but misrepresenting the facts as he does here will ultimately undermine his reputation.

http://www.zenpundit.blogspot.com


Bill McWilliams - 3/27/2003

What is the truth about Bush being AWOL? I understand that he was "Away Without Leave" for more than a year. What do you know about that? If it's true, doesn't that make him a deserter (according to the UCMJ)? Time of War, and all that.

You obviously don't care for Al Gore; but he hasn't been accused of being AWOL. So, wouldn't it be more accurate to refer to Bush as the "deserter of two evils"?


Bill Maher - 3/27/2003



Honor? Today the New York Times reports bullets in the back of heads for those who do not resist American forces. Perhaps everyone should just call a truce and settle down until things become more clear. For the moment, however, I prefer Bush. There are times when the lesser evil has to do.


Craig Thurtell - 3/27/2003

I liked most of what Stanley Kutler said about the pathetic state of the media and the "opposition." But, in citing Lincoln, he fails to note that the Illinois Congressman was wrong in his favorable assessment of the US army in Mexico. They carried out widespread rape and plunder of the Mexican people, which was publicized by the war's opponents. Manifest destiny in action.


Stephen - 3/26/2003

Let's get our chronology straight. We're not talking about WWII. We're talking about today.

There aren't many WWII vets around today calling people "fascists."

The only people I've heard using this curse for the past decade or two are the Stalinists.

I stand by what I said 100%. When I hear somebody cursing the "fascists" I know that I am speaking to a Stalinist.


Pam Brunfelt - 3/26/2003

Kutler commentary


T. Davis - 3/26/2003

Both your historical revisionism and your logic are interesting.

First, let's take the revisionism. You say the word "fascist" "came of age" during the Spanish Civil War, and you imply that only communists used it, and that they did so as a "curse." So evidently, historians who point out that the word was in common usage in Italy by the late 1910s and who say that Mussolini took the name for his party in 1921 are a bunch of lying communists. Therefore, there's no need to listen to anyone who says that fascism really "came of age" between 1922 and 1925, when Mussolini turned Italy into a one-party state.

Similarly, I guess anyone who notes the similarities between Hitler's Nazi Party and the Italian fascists, or who sees in Hitler's writings praise for Mussolini and a conscious desire to imitate Italian fascism, is a Stalinist. And anyone who suggests that members of the Falange movement in Spain during the Civil War consciously thought of *themselves* as fascists is a Stalinist.

This point leads me to your logic. When you hear someone scream "fascist," you know you are speaking to a Stalinist. Just out of curiosity, let's suppose, hypothetically, that some of the 400,000 plus American servicemen who died in World War II considered themselves to be fighting against fascism. Should we perhaps chisel their names off our monuments? After all, we wouldn't want to glorify any Stalinists.


Edward Munch - 3/26/2003

I refer you to this piece in today's British papers, mentioned by someone else in here:

BBC's own man blasts his bosses over 'bias'
The Sun ^ | Mar 25, 2003 | TREVOR KAVANAGH

THE BBC was last night sensationally condemned for ?one-sided? war coverage ? by its own front line defence correspondent.

Paul Adams attacks the Beeb for misreporting the Allied advance in a blistering memo leaked to The Sun.

And he warned the BBC?s credibility is at risk for suggesting British troops are paying a ?high price for small victories?.

On Monday, he wrote from US Central Command in Qatar: ?I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering ?significant casualties?.

?This is simply NOT TRUE . Nor is it true to say ? as the same intro stated ? that coalition forces are fighting ?guerrillas?.

?It may be guerrilla warfare, but they are not guerrillas.?

Adams? memo was fired off to TV news head Roger Mosey, Radio news boss Stephen Mitchell and other Beeb chiefs.

It adds stunning weight to allegations that BBC coverage on all its networks is biased against the war.

In one blast, he storms: ?Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving ?small victories at a very high price??

?The truth is exactly the opposite.

?The gains are huge and the costs still relatively low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected.?

The BBC has come under attack for describing the loss of two soldiers as the ?worst possible news for the armed forces?.

One listener asked: ?How would the BBC have reported the Battle of the Somme in World War I when 25,000 men died on the first day??


Herodotus - 3/26/2003

And when the British media slants the news deliberately in the face of facts to suit it own needs? How does that help anyone? I invite Hotson to reply, and consider an absence of reply by him an admission that something is wrong with the BBC's coverage.

From today's Sun, in London:

BBC's own man blasts his bosses over 'bias'
The Sun ^ | Mar 25, 2003 | TREVOR KAVANAGH

THE BBC was last night sensationally condemned for ?one-sided? war coverage ? by its own front line defence correspondent.

Paul Adams attacks the Beeb for misreporting the Allied advance in a blistering memo leaked to The Sun.

And he warned the BBC?s credibility is at risk for suggesting British troops are paying a ?high price for small victories?.

On Monday, he wrote from US Central Command in Qatar: ?I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering ?significant casualties?.

?This is simply NOT TRUE . Nor is it true to say ? as the same intro stated ? that coalition forces are fighting ?guerrillas?.

?It may be guerrilla warfare, but they are not guerrillas.?

Adams? memo was fired off to TV news head Roger Mosey, Radio news boss Stephen Mitchell and other Beeb chiefs.

It adds stunning weight to allegations that BBC coverage on all its networks is biased against the war.

In one blast, he storms: ?Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving ?small victories at a very high price??

?The truth is exactly the opposite.

?The gains are huge and the costs still relatively low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected.?

The BBC has come under attack for describing the loss of two soldiers as the ?worst possible news for the armed forces?.

One listener asked: ?How would the BBC have reported the Battle of the Somme in World War I when 25,000 men died on the first day??



Arthur Mitzman - 3/26/2003

Simply to test his accuracy, I have just clicked on to the website recommended by Edward Munch as an example of non-compliant news media. I urge others to do so. It is a model of conformist war propaganda.
I should add that a great deal of what we have heard about the putative hostility of the Iraqi people to its regime and the likelihood of pro-American uprisings has also been war propaganda. Saddam is no doubt a tinpot Stalin. But does anyone recall how quickly, in 1941, the Russian people rallied to their regime, transformed overnight in the eyes of many from a tyranny to the organizer of national resistance to a brutal foreign invasion? I can easily imagine that it is not only the beneficiaries of Saddam's rule who will fight the Anglo-American invasion, but many ordinary people, in and out of the army, who may detest their brutal government but fear an American-imposed puppet regime even more. Rumsfeld cannot understand how, faced with the stick of the invaders' overwhelmingly superior fire power and the carrot of better material conditions once they have surrendered, many Iraqis nonetheless choose to fight. Has he never heard of honor?


Hotson - 3/26/2003

Bob Mutch wrote: "Much as I dislike the political compliance of the US media, what else can we expect? A country’s media will be partisan organs at worst, independent at best. But an independent press implies ... an opposition. Parts of the media can be the organs of a political party, but they cannot take the place of an opposition party where none exists."
I beg to differ, and present the British press as evidence. The Labour government is backing war with everything it's got. Ditto the Conservative opposition. Yet several mainstream broadsheets -- the Independent, the Guardian and the Observer most obviously -- continue to challenge the legitimacy of this war and the assumptions underlying it. It is appalling to Americans resident in the U.K. to see that, by comparison, the U.S. media are so feeble. The same observation is still more true of the Democrats: the Labour party has manifested far more determined and dangerous opposition to its own leader than the Democrats have offered to this Republican president.


Edward Munch - 3/25/2003

Political compliance of the U.S. media? What papers do you read, or what radio stations do you listen to? Haven't you ever clicked into http://www.andrewsullivan.com? There's massive anti-U.S. sentiment in the New York Times, NPR and the BBC, man.


Charlotte Borst - 3/25/2003

Stanley Kutler is hardly a flaming radical, and his piece is a thoughtful analysis that ought to provoke worry amongst all of us who consider ourselves "mainline liberals" (a title I proudly hold).Yet the virulent comments posted previously point out the bully scare tactics of the radical right--unthinking, uncritical patriotism is not supportive of our democratic values. Indeed, it did lead in WW1 in St Louis to "patriotic lynching" of a German-American who was wrapped in a flag and murdered (and the "patriots" who did this deed were found not guilty). We historians need to be particularly vigilant of those who would silence dissent.


Bob Mutch - 3/25/2003

Judging from the previous responses, Kutler hit a nerve. It’s not surprising that people who support the unilateralism of an extremist administration whose claim to office is a disputed election are happy when the Democrats roll over and play dead and the media either do the same or become a GOP cheering section. What does not make them happy is telling them this isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work. For them, apparently, posting a column on HNN is the equivalent of an opposition party and an independent press.

I do have one criticism. Much as I dislike the political compliance of the US media, what else can we expect? A country’s media will be partisan organs at worst, independent at best. But an independent press implies more than one political party to be independent of, i.e., it implies an opposition. Parts of the media can be the organs of a political party, but they cannot take the place of an opposition party where none exists.


Stephen - 3/25/2003

"Fascist" is a word that leftists often use, and most of them don't know the meaning of the word.

Unfortunately, the word has a history. "Fascist" came of age as an insult during the Spanish Civil War and was the favorite curse of the commies.

And so it has remained. When a leftist screams "fascist," I know that I am speaking to a Stalinist.


Norm - 3/25/2003

When I went to bed last night this country was still a democracy and now, according to Kutler, it is in danger because people like him have no outlet for their anti-war views. I guess hnn does not count much? The vile right-wing conspiracy strikes again. Someone throw Kutler a life preserver, I think he has gone off the deep end.


Bill Maher - 3/24/2003



Mr. Kutler apparently has reached the point of hysteria. The fascists are coming! Kind of like Malcolm Cowley back in 1943: "It is possible that a fascist state could be instituted. . . without many changes in government personnel, and some of those changes have been made already." Which is, I guess, the point of such folks. The fascists are always coming. Such an argument, however, is unfortunate. The left has already conceded the human rights issue in Iraq to the right. And now it raises the tired issue of McCarthyism. How sad.


Arch Stanton - 3/24/2003

I've written books, know more than others, and hate Bush. I see the evil of Bush. I see it everywhere. I see all its details. I tell others about it. No one will listen. There's something wrong with them. It must be that they aren't like me. It's wrong not to listen to me or be like me? We need a real democracy where everyone will listen to me and be like me.

Subscribe to our mailing list