12/12 and 9/11: Tales of Power and Tales of Experience in Contemporary History

News at Home

Mr. Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is the author of many books including, The Populist Persuasion: An American History.

On Wednesday September 10, 2003 Mr. Kazin gave the following address at the Library of Congress in connection with the donation of a digital 9-11 archive. (Disclosure: The archive was created by George Mason University and the City University of New York Graduate Center.)

Some people may be puzzled by the title I chose for this talk. My purpose is to juxtapose the historical impact of events that took place on two highly significant days in the recent past. Then, I want to raise what I hope will be a few provocative suggestions about what we - as historians, archivists, and citizens - might think about what occurred.

9/11 is a date we know all too well - and will commemorate for the rest of our lives. But the consequences of what occurred late one evening nine months earlier may loom even larger to future historians who try to explain how the nation and the world were affected by the terrorist attacks. On December 12, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, by the margin of a single vote, reversed a ruling of the Florida Supreme Court and, in effect, handed the presidency to George W. Bush.

That decision did more than secure for the Republican Party control of both elected branches of the federal government. It brought to power an administration in which most of the officials who make foreign and military policy share an aggressive, self-confident view of the world and of America's place in it. Over the past two years, their actions - at home, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq - have put a frame around the meaning of 9/11 for most people at home and abroad. It's a tale of power - of vaunting rhetoric, determined diplomacy, the fighting of wars, and occupation of two nations - that have been familiar as history since Herodotus chronicled the "clash of civilizations" between Greeks and Persians 2500 years ago.

One could make a plausible argument that the historical import of 9/11 will depend to a significant degree on the election that was decided on 12/12. When President Bush declared that every nation had to make a decision-"Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists"-and then invaded Iraq to "confront the worst threats before they emerge"-- he was also making an historical argument: The attacks of 9/11, in his view, were a declaration of a new kind of world war. The U.S. would have to fight the enemy for years, perhaps decades, until our superior values and resources won a complete and total victory. Any other interpretation of what occurred on 9/11, the President implied, is either deeply mistaken or downright immoral. Unlike academic historians, Mr. Bush doesn't expend much energy refuting his critics' views. That's the privilege of being a part-time historian in charge of the largest economy and the mightiest military on earth. Of course, there's a down side for the President: he isn't eligible for tenure.

But if one looks at 12/12 as an event rather than a catalyst, it almost entirely lacks the emotional resonance of 9/11. In other words, as an historical experience, 12/12 doesn't rate, despite how momentous and controversial the Court's decision seemed at the time. How many of us remember where we were when reporters rushed up to Capitol Hill to read the decision?

Unless you're a true partisan of one party or the other, I suspect that other memories of the long election crisis - which dominated the news late that fall as completely as did 9/11 almost a year later - have also begun to fade. To my knowledge, there is no one collecting oral histories of the very long count or assembling a museum exhibit displaying images of sleepy election commissioners holding perforated punch cards up to flourescent lights. The Commission on Civil Rights did collect some stories about black voters in Florida who claim they were prevented from casting a ballot. But that report was predictably controversial -- and has largely been forgotten.

The contrast with the rich store of documents in the 9/11 archive is obvious. Spend just a few minutes with those documents, both written and visual, and you are overwhelmed with the passion of personal involvement. Almost every contributor has a sharp, indelible memory connected with the attacks. No event since John Kennedy's assassination in 1963 triggered such a massive emotional response. The individuals contributing to the Archive range from men and women whose spouses or children died on 9/11 to foreign tourists who sent in photos of the Trade Center they'd snapped from the deck of a Circle Line cruise on the Hudson River.

The assassination of JFK made the late president into a martyr and his entire family into a royal family with a curse over its head. But the experience of 9/11 gave rise to a different sense of tragedy, a vicarious one. Many story-tellers highlight connections to someone who died or could have died that day. "I lost my former Sunday School teacher in Tower One," wrote a sales clerk from Elizabeth, New Jersey. " I didn't even know he worked there until that Saturday, my stepmother had a t-shirt that had his picture on it, saying that he was missing from the 99th floor. God Bless Elder Sean Booker who always had a smile and an encouraging word for any and everybody." (Katrina Simmons, 2/25/03)

A college student from Hattiesburg, Mississippi recalls, "I ran into a friend of mine who happened to be engaged to a man who lived just down the street from the WTC, and I wondered anxiously as she tried to get in contact with Reggie." (Cathy Baxter, 12/12/02).

There's an easy explanation of the contrast between the memory of 12/12 and 9/11. 12/12 was "just" politics. It ended a contest that, until Election day, stirred the passions of few Americans other than that rather small minority that chooses to consume political fare on a regular basis. Nothing vital seemed at stake. As journalist David Brooks joked about the campaign: "Watching the two candidates speak about their rival plans was like watching an ad war between cellular phone rate plans: My plan gives you more choices! My plan gives you more minutes! My plan gives you free prescription drugs on weekends and holidays."

But 9/11 was profound and deadly: two acts of mass murder committed at symbolic icons of the American republic. 12/12 happened, for the most part, to other people. 9/11 happened, one way or another, to everybody.

The claims of experience are rich and indispensable. But, of course, 9/11 was also a political event. The suicide bombers were acting at the direction of an organization whose aims are as sweeping as those of the Bush administration -- however reprehensible we find their tactics. And it is striking how little politics, in the usual definition of the term, seems to show up in the documents contained in the Archive.

To prepare for this talk, I conducted a brief word search from the almost ten thousand stories sent to the Archive. I chose a few "keywords" and names ubiquitous in speeches and articles about 9/11 and its political consequences. In the aftermath of the attacks, many commentators in the media hailed a rebirth of patriotism. But it's curious that only six percent of the stories in the Archive use either that word or its variants, "patriot" and "patriotic." Only nine percent of the stories mention either "terrorism" or "terrorists." What about George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden-the two protagonists of the political story? In the different forms of his name, the President is mentioned in only five percent of the stories; he barely beats out Bin Laden, who, with or without his first name, appears in just four percent.

Abstract political terms fare even worse. Just one percent of story-tellers use the word "empire," and most who do are referring not to imperial dominion but to what is once again the tallest building on the Manhattan skyline. "Democracy" and "democratic" show up even less. And, surprisingly, "freedom" - a word claimed by individuals and groups from across the political spectrum - appears on fewer than five percent of the responses. The invocation "God Bless America" easily beats them all [831 responses- about nine pct].

Not surprisingly, terms referring to what is both intimate and routine proliferate throughout people's memories. Twenty-one percent of the story-tellers mention "family," sixteen percent "friends"; and thirty-six percent "work". "God" appears in just under a quarter of the stories; while "TV" or "television" shows up in forty percent of them.

In the future, serious students of these narratives will undoubtedly portray a complex and subtle set of responses and viewpoints. But it seems clear that most people who were moved enough by 9/11 to write up and submit a story of their experiences did not care to reflect on the political context or consequences of what occurred.

That wouldn't be remarkable if all or most of the stories had been collected a few days or weeks after the attacks. One would expect the shock of the event to drown out all other topics. But I'm told that the Archive didn't begin collecting stories until four months after 9/11; most were submitted a year after the event or later. Surely, this is enough time for writers to insert comments about Bush, Bin Laden, terrorism, and one or two of the wars the U.S. has waged since then, both in the name of stopping more such outrages. It's quite telling that so few people included a phrase in their stories like "the terrorists won't beat us" or vowed revenge on the leader of Al Queda.

The only section of the archive that offers political comments in any abundance is that which features digital art. And here, the dominant messages are colorful illustrations of the widespread desire, present in any manmade tragedy, to present the nation as unbowed and united. There are lots of collages of rippling flags and bald eagles soaring upwards from smoking rubble. Of the images I viewed, my favorite is one created by Julio Enmanuelle, of Newark, NJ. It's a pentagonal design enclosing a flag, a star, and one of the WTC towers. Around the five borders, one can read a chant of reassurance: "Be Strong, Strong Families, Strong Homes, Strong Country, God Bless America."

Both the personal stories and the graphics convey the same tale of communitarian bonding, the unending wake of an entire nation. That community is protective - often in self-sacrificing ways - and deeply affectionate of one's fellow citizens, or of anyone who happened to be caught in the Twin Towers or Pentagon that day.

It's the same emotion, I think, that most people feel when they sing God Bless America or write those words on a poster or plaster them on their car bumper. "Land that I love," "Stand beside her and guide her", "my home sweet home." These are not martial lyrics. In fact, there's less overt political content in the song than in the Star-Spangled Banner, which was, after all, written in the heat of a battle. Irving Berlin even considered God Bless America a "peace" song when he wrote the version of it that became famous in 1938.

Most of the tales of experience collected in the Archive did not require the kind of political response that the Bush administration made to 9/11. Policy-makers essentially decided to tell a story taken in part from the memory of World War II and in part from that of the Cold War. 9/11, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, began a long armed conflict with totalitarian zealots for control of the world, or for large parts of it. One conservative exponent of this view, who also worked for the Reagan administration at the end of the Cold War, states bluntly, "It's amazing how similar Islam is to Marxism. I mean, it's the same thing all over again."

Not only conservatives took this general position. Such writers on the left as Paul Berman and Christopher Hitchens also argued that 9/11 began a war of arms and values against an implacable form of tyranny. However, true to their ideological heritage, they defined the threat as fascism with an Islamic face. Of course, men and women on the Right have been more prominent in espousing what they see as a crusade for freedom-and only they have the power to carry out their ideas.

There were alternatives. Consider a counterfactual tale of power: Imagine that Al Gore did win the electoral votes of Florida (or West Virginia, for that matter). Would he have decided to follow the spirit of the "new security agenda" he outlined during the campaign? This asserted a commitment to multilateral methods and such transnational concerns as protecting the environment. At one point in 2000, Gore attacked his Republican opponent for being "stuck in a Cold War mindset." It's hard to imagine that Gore wouldn't have gone to war to overthrow the Taliban. Yet it's also hard to imagine him initiating the conquest of Iraq against the wishes of a majority of NATO members, much less a majority of the Security Council.

On the other hand, a Gore administration would have had to deal with a Congress, controlled, if narrowly, by the other party. And this may have quickly hollowed out the reality of "United We Stand." Would Republicans, resentful at Bush's defeat -- after he'd been officially certified as the victor in Florida -- have sought a measure of legislative revenge? Would we have watched televised hearings into intelligence lapses under Clinton and Gore during the 1990s-a woeful failure to heed multiple warnings about the threat posed by Al Qaeda?

What we do know is that Bush's policies- and the messianic rhetoric with which he defends them -- widened and exacerbated a dispute with the tale many people outside our nation wished to tell about 9/11. As the left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm puts it, "The world merely saw a particularly dramatic terror attack with a vast number of victims and a momentary public humiliation of the USA. Otherwise the situation was no different from what it had been since the Cold War ended, and certainly no cause for alarm, for the globe's only superpower. Washington announced that September 11 had changed everything, and in doing so, actually did change everything, by in effect declaring itself the single-handed protector of a world order and definer of threats against it."

So we're challenged to make sense of two kinds of stories about what happened on 9/11 and what that event should mean. One kind is dominated by, saturated with the memories of ordinary Americans and visitors from other countries; they are horrible, painful, exhilirating, wonderfully specific and quotidian. The other stories are fixed on matters of war and diplomacy; they make fierce claims about international justice and peace- and the role of the United States in either advancing those ideals or setting them back.

Is one of those stories more significant, more worth telling than the other kind? How might we bring the two kinds of stories together - those of high politics and of popular experience?

As it happens, historians not so long ago spent a good deal of time and passion debating such questions. In the 1960s, many scholars called for a "new history," a history "from the bottom up." They argued that the only way to understand the past was to place at the center of it the work, the families, the sexual behavior, the health, the dreams, and the disappointments of ordinary people. These millions of mostly anonymous folks may not have taken part in politics, either because they were legally barred from doing so or because they didn't feel that the contest for state power made much difference in their lives. But the true task of historians was to discover the complex pattern of those lives - to write the history of societies as a whole - instead of dwelling further on what kings, presidents, tycoons, and generals had done. As one scholar memorably put it, the history of menarche should be taken as seriously, if not more seriously, than the history of monarchy (Peter Stearns).

Traditional historians argued back. Governments, they pointed out, have always structured and often determined the fate of everyday lives-through taxation, conquest, established religion, and a myriad of other powers. "Contemporaries may have thought that their history was shaped by kings and statesmen, politics and diplomacy…" wrote Gertrude Himmelfarb facetiously. But "New historians know better. They know that 'high politics' are ephemeral and epiphenomenal, to say nothing of being elitist and sexist."

By now, most scholars recognize that this debate was "profoundly wrongheaded," to use a phrase favored by one of my grad school professors. Societies are made and remade through the actions and attitudes of millions of individuals and groups. But, to paraphrase Marx, those millions do not make history as they please. They live within a world of powerful rulers and the institutions and laws that express and enforce their power. And the same goes for terrorists who learn how to fly passenger jets.

To write a satisfying history of 9/11 and its aftermath, historians will have to integrate it with a history of 12/12 and the ways its consequences dovetailed with the memories of the attacks on American soil. A focus on popular experience and attitudes alone can lead one to overplay the importance of temporary responses.

For example, just a few months after the attacks, Robert Putnam, the Harvard sociologist, celebrated the discovery that "levels of political consciousness and engagement are substantially higher than they were a year ago in the United States." In a poll he conducted, large percentages of Americans reported greater trust in their local and national governments, their police, their shop clerks, their neighbors, even their local media. They also said they were watching TV less and spending more time working on community projects and following the political news.

The Mississippi college student I quoted testifies to a similar spirit: "I will…never forget how the people of Hattiesburg came together. Churches held memorials, people donated blood, and people were just a little bit kinder to one another."

Putnam, like many other commentators, compared the country's mood to that during World War II. He called on President Bush to support a big expansion in the AmeriCorps program and to reinvigorate citizenship education in schools. Perhaps a new age of altruism and service was dawning. Perhaps another "greatest generation" was being born.

Two years later, that trial balloon has gone rather flat. In fact, it may never have really lifted more than a few feet off the ground. Putnam downplayed the date of his survey -only a month after 9/11, when US troops were just landing in Afghanistan, and many Americans assumed that one or more new terrorist attacks were imminent. He also failed to point out that, according to his own poll, there was only a tiny boost in the number of people who claimed they'd become locally active as opposed to trusting governments to manage the crisis for them. For example, only six percent were more likely to work on a community project and only one percent to attend a public meeting.

The shock of 9/11 had not been sufficient to alter the political culture. Without a massive effort by the federal government and political leaders, the new era of citizen involvement proved quite ephemeral indeed. Strangely, given his past work, Putnam didn't inquire whether Americans were joining bowling teams in greater numbers.

President Bush hasn't been much more successful as a prophet. Right after 9/11, he chose to emphasize the more aggressive meaning of "God Bless America": the sense of American righteousness, the duty of God's people to vanquish evil in the world, that the title of the song conveys-as does its initial rise to popularity during World War II. For the President and his top advisors, the "light from above" illuminated the path all Americans should follow. For over a year, this interpretation was quite popular-- or at least no other viewpoint was able to compete with it.

On the first anniversary of the attacks, Nan K. Mims, who described herself as a "US Army widow," contributed her reflections to the Archive. "History was in the making and I was living through it," she wrote about 9/11, which she watched on TV from her home in Georgia. "It became clear to me that this will not be a conventional war and that the forthcoming events in human history will be unprecedented. I thought of the Crusades of early centuries, thinking of all those who died in the name of Christianity. Was this so different?" Mims thanked God for George W. Bush and was equally thankful that Al Gore had not been elected.

But such a tale of 9/11 was increasingly contested as the administration moved towards war in Iraq. In the bloody, frustrating aftermath of the invasion, it has almost disappeared from sight. Recent opinion polls portray a nation about as evenly divided along partisan lines as it was on 12/12. And there's more talk about whether there's a light at the end of the tunnel in Baghdad than about America being the light of the world.

Unfortunately, one result of the mounting skepticism about the U.S. armed mission in the Middle East is likely to be a wider gulf between the two kinds of history I've been discussing. The events of 9/11 made the experiences of ordinary people seem more vital than ever before-something momentous and shocking and heroic had occurred, and all Americans felt part of it. Many were convinced, as the phrase that rapidly became a cliché had it - that "nothing would ever be the same." The NYU historian Tony Judt looked out his office window on the morning of 9/11 and wrote that he'd seen a new century begin. That may be case when it comes to security in public places. But it would be hard to find clear evidence of a major transformation in any other area of national life.

And in one critical respect, the U.S. is very much the same. After a brief hiatus following the attacks, Americans once again mistrust politicians and their maneuvers; most believe they compose a class interested mainly in saying and doing whatever is necessary to keep themselves in power. When they fail, it only reinforces our skepticism about the project of remaking the nation or the world in the first place.

Such attitudes are not and cannot be shaped by a single event, whether 9/11 or 12/12. Their causes reach back into the anti-statist origins of the American republic itself - to the desire for what Tom Paine called an "empire of liberty" from overweening governments that helped led to the separation of powers in our Constitution. This anti-statism weakened somewhat in the two-thirds of the twentieth century; three waves of progressive reform, two world wars and one cold war made government activism look, if not entirely successful, at least essential. But activists on both the left and the right cheered and abetted the crisis of the liberal order in the late 1960s and the 70s. And the liberal crackup renewed a broad cynicism about authority in general, and political authorities in particular, shared by millions of Americans who were not very interested in politics at all.

Unintentionally, social historians were reflecting this attitude when they argued that writing the history of ordinary people was morally superior to focusing on the tale of governing elites. The collective memory of 9/11 has bolstered an analogous kind of thinking among millions of Americans who know little, if anything, about historiographical disputes. Encouraged by the media, they created a profusion of instant, largely nameless heroes -- ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

With the partial exception of Rudy Giuliani, the only acknowledged heroes of 9/11 were the firefighters, police officers, priests, and good samaritans without portfolio who calmly sought to rescue people from the crumbling towers -- and the passengers who battled terrorists on Flight 93, although most probably knew they would all go down together. In the two hot wars the US has fought since 9/11, the only public hero, or rather heroine, is a rather unlikely figure: Jessica Lynch, a soldier who lost her way and then stumbled into celebrity. In contrast with every successful conflict in the past, from the War of Independence to the Gulf War, not a single general or policy-maker can claim a small fraction of the honors Private Lynch has received.

If one believes that history should be a democratic endeavor, this may be a laudatory development. But it also signifies a strong desire to separate the positive, the uplifting tales of 9/11 from the less noble but more portentous consequences of 12/12. The interaction between leaders and led, between those who make policy and those who must cope with their handiwork, has always been essential to the fate of societies and the people who dwell within them.

We need a history that explains how that vital dialectic works -- how experience, both of the routine variety and of extraordinary events like 9/11 and 12/12, offers opportunities and sets limits for leaders, elected and appointed. In modern societies, the "public" is always a fragmented beast that runs in several directions at once. One or more paths may lead to the creation of a social movement capable of altering or destroying the plans of the powerful. But others lead mostly to dead ends of spectatorship or apathy.

That kind of history of our own time is still unwritten. When it is, it will be a tale fraught with contention, ideology, and pain-a history that, if done well, will defeat attempts to daub it with romantic hues of communal unity, vigilant warriors or virtuous anti-warriors, or the Almighty's fondness for one nation over any other.

But it is the only type of history that can make sense both of experience and of power-and thus help future citizens find their way in a world that is unlikely to become any less difficult to understand or dangerous to live in anytime soon.

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Thomas Gallatin - 9/15/2003

Welcome back, Gus.

The seeds of Al Qaeda in 1979 are certainly worth recalling. Thanks for doing so. Nevertheless, as you go on to point out, those decisions by Carter and Brzezinski fit well within a long, "muddled" web of blunder-prone overseas interventions.

What happened in October, 2002 has no such long history of precedents. "American blood" was not "shed on American soil", at least not by Iraq, as Polk at least claimed it was by Mexico in 1846, and on that occasion the U.S. did not first spend months obsessing about “regime change” in Mexico City. There was no great clamoring for war against Iraq amongst the American people this year, and no long prior rebellion within Iraq, as was the case with Cuba in 1898. Iraq did not declare on America first, as Germany did in 1941. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was not intended, granted, or ever used as a blank check for an invasion and permanent occupation of Hanoi. In Korea, Kuwait and Afghanistan, warmaking American presidents acted WITH the UN, and in Kosovo WITH NATO.

Pacifist pundits like to think of Bush's Iraq misadventure as just one more saga in the long running horror of American imperialism (even as Bush pretends to be a Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt, and stage-manage a remake of Iwo Jima with a statue in Baghdad). Historians looking at the clear transcripted record of the proceedings of the U.S. Congress will come to more informed and less warped judgments.

Gus Moner - 9/15/2003

Having read al the long-winded article (me complaining of long winded?), and the myriad argumentations for 9/11, 12/12 and/or 12/11, I am flabbergasted at the myopic view being taken by my fellow readers and participants here. I cannot single any of these dates out as being THE key element in this tangled web, nor particularly significant in and of itself.

No, I believe all these dates are relevant, but forming part of the broader, much longer web, and whether the 7-2 decision is more significant than the 5-4 USSC decision is really quite moot.

In fact, historians will eventually point to the fateful summer day in July 1979 when Carter’s Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski; (why do we always give our top foreign and security posts to East or Central Europeans?) set up the holy war against the USSR, six months before the actual invasion. Historians of this subject know quite well that the USSR had, for a number of years but with increased emphasis in 1979, been working to set up a puppet Soviet regime there.

Alarmed by this, the Iranian developments and at Pakistan’s urging, the die was cast on an Eurasian adventure. Did Carter know the USSR would invade Afghanistan? Were they really as taken aback as they pretended? Who knew what, when and with whom did they share it or who did they withhold it from? Why set up jihadists before the invasion? More to the point, why has no one asked these questions?

Some historians might argue, and there is enough cause and evidence already for it, that we have been sliding in a slippery slope into the Eurasian muddle ever since we went into the Iranian mess with Britain in the early 1950’s to overthrow the elected government that was nationalising UK interests. It’s a matter worth serious and further study.

History did not ever stand still nor end, book titles aside. Nor did it begin on 9/11. This latter date and its egocentric thinking is just what the Bush Judeo-Christian-Crusaders want us to believe. It all began then and there.

Are we historians or political analysts? Let’s shed some historical perspective on how on earth we got into Iraq. 12/11 was merely a step in the staircase. Maybe an important one, but this staircase is long, spectacular and winding as those that are so often featured in Hollywood films from the 1930-60 era.

Gus Moner - 9/15/2003

Person Herodotus makes a good point. We cannot jump to these conclusions without knowing what they knew and when. However, they are NOT both ‘parts of the same ‘coin’, and assuming “the administration CHOSE to concentrate on Iraq first, and for that there must be a good reason” is an equally unsubstantiated leap of faith.

The President may have made a bad choice. We’re all human beings and have made them in our own lives as well. What is missing and may warrant further investigation is why the info was withheld, what was known and not shared. This failure to fully inform congress and thus get a war in a backhanded way may be grounds for some sort of sanction. That Bush tactic too is “an awfully weird way to run a country.”

If proven, along with the already published evidence of so many administration cabinet and under cabinet people being involved in pro-Israeli, ant-Iraq campaigns may be background to prove they were acting in the interest of their own foreign allegiances and religious affiliation.

Howard Franklin Kennedy - 9/13/2003

Yes, Jonathan, but the Democratic debates are a 100% certain and established reality. Where, on a scale from .0001% to 100% say, does the probability of impeachment lie ? Senator Byrd could not even muster a majority (of HIS own party) against the Iraq War resolution, most of the very solid objections to which were as obvious then as now. Time to check out the precinct maps for Hawaii, seems to me. Parsing "IS" can wait.

Woody Wilson - 9/13/2003

I have not a clue what "Posse Comitatus" is either from prior contact with the expression or from your post, but I do have a copy of the U.S. Constitution handy. If violating that Latin phrase is not bribery, treason, or some other "high crime or misdemeanor" it is not an impeachable offense. Of course, if Congress were to decide that Bush insulting America's oldest ally constituted a "high crime or misdemeanor" then it could throw him out of office on those grounds, a scenario roughly as likely Clinton being impeached over Waco, but historians (this is a HISTORY website isn't it ?) usually insist on a higher standard of proof than whatever will sell during the next election cycle.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/12/2003

I know Congress was not informed because members of Congress said they were not informed. Whether or not the intelligence/military committees were briefed, before making a decision to declare war the entire Congress should have been informed that there might be other priorities to consider. More to the point, since Congress has the exclusive right to declare war, witholding information is a violation (a motivated prosecutor could argue) of the separation of powers.

The ease with which the Iraqi armed forces were defeated, and the lack of evidence of WMD, suggests strongly that the Iraq invasion could easily have been put off (indefinitely, especially if the inspection regime were ramped up properly) while the North Koreans were dealt with.

The Iraq invasion has made the North Koreans more, not less, inclined to keep their WMD (and the Iranians appear to be following suit for the same reasons). The Iraq invasion has made the US military less, not more, able to respond to changing strategic circumstances in Asia, and if the DPRK calls our bluff circumstances will change very quickly.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/12/2003

Mr. Kennedy,

If the Democratic party is paying attention (and recent debates by the presidential nomination candidates suggest that it is) and they don't get sidetracked, then George Bush's record will be the centerpiece of the campaign, and it will help immensely. Voter registration, activist inspiration, etc. are all important.

But there's nothing like the scramble for defensive cover that an investigation brings on to make leadership look shifty. And there's nothing like the high stakes of prosecutorial discretion to make an investigation interesting.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/12/2003

Well, I wasn't really talking about Bill Clinton's impeachability, but about his actual impeachment. I certainly don't want to get into an extended discussion of the Waco fiasco, except to point out two things.

First, the Geneva Conventions do not protect citizens against their own government unless they are staging a full-scale uniformed insurrection, and Koresh and his followers were not staging any such *before* their compound was isolated, so they don't really qualify as combatants (in which case they would have been shelled into oblivion long before CS gas became an issue).

Second, the Posse Comitatus act (if memory serves) does not restrict the US government from enforcing its own laws, only from using the military to do so. The DoJ is not the military, so armored vehicles or military-style helicopters are entirely acceptable tools of law enforcement.

Jesse Lamovsky - 9/12/2003

Actually, as long as we're talking about Bill Clinton's "impeachability", it should be pointed out that Slick Willie could, and should, have been impeached in the first year of his first term, for violating the Posse Comitatus Act, when he sent armored vehicles, helicoptors, and CS gas (banned under the Geneva Conventions) against women and children in Waco, Texas.

James Jefferson - 9/11/2003

You seem to have some legal knowledge, to go along with your pro-Republican bias (i.e. as far I recall, both Elephant and Donkey "dawdled" their behinds off in December 2000), Richard Thompson, so can you explain to me the following ?

The Constitution, Article 2, Election 1 clearly states that "if no person have a Majority [in the Electoral College], then...the House [of Representatives] shall...choose the President."

Because any possible margin of victory in Florida, however construed, was well below the margin of error, it is clear to me that neither Bush nor Gore had a clear majority in the state and thus neither had a majority of electoral votes overall. So why couldn't the "conservative" and "strict constructionist" majority on the Supreme Court follow this straightforward remedy laid out in the plain language of the Constitution ?

Presumably the House would have chosen Bush, so the Presidential outcome would have been the same, but (to my eyes at least) the whole thing would have been vastly more legitimate.

Am I missing something or was/is something terribly rotten on the Supreme Court ?

Howard Franklin Kennedy - 9/11/2003

Impeachment sounds like a long hard trail, Mr. Dresner. Even the Santa Cruz City Council only wants Congress to look into the "possibility" of impeachment. Why not just go out and register Democrats to vote ? How many will not be against tax cuts favoring the rich, record budget deficits, a costly war fought for phony reasons, clear-cut forests and gutted civil liberties ? Seems to me it should be a slam dunk, despite the assiduous efforts of a preponderance of articles on HNN seeking to distort History in order to give an unelected dry drunk president an election success.

Richard Thompson - 9/11/2003

Too bad for Mr. Kazin's history students if this article is any example of his professionalism. He begins by overdramatizing the date 12/12, and concludes, "On December 12, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court, by the margin of a single vote, reversed a ruling of the Florida Supreme Court and, in effect, handed the presidency to George W. Bush." Historians know that the per curiam opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court held 7-2 that the Florida Supreme Court's recount scheme was unconstitional. The issue was over equal protection and due process: should a vote in Broward County be counted the same as one in Dade?

The punch card ballots were manufactured so as to be counted by machine. Bush/Cheney won both the initial count and the recount using this method. Gore/Lieberman challenged the machine's findings in four Democrat counties, thus putting the count in the hands of Democrat election officials. The ballots were handed over to these operatives, with no standards for what constituted a legal vote, and, oh, by the way, they were told "we need 650 votes" (or whatever the actual number needed was.) This was just the type of election dreamed of by Democrats--unfortunately for them Lyndon Johnson wasn't around to help with the dirty work. They did have the assistance of the son of Mayor Daley of Chicago fame.

So the vote over the equal protection issue was 7-2. The 5-4 decision had to do with the remedy. The court was under an extreme time constraint, thanks to Democrat dawdling in Florida, and so as soon as a majority was reached as to a solution, the court went with it. This Mr. Kazin, is the real story of the election.

Jonathan Dresner - 9/11/2003

Well, I'm not sure if Bush is impeachable now (actually, I'm pretty sure he is, but that's another post), but I guarantee that a serious investigation by independent authorities would result in impeachment because I'm sure Bush would make the same mistake Clinton made: trying to hide. Clinton was not impeached for oral sex; he was impeached for lying about oral sex under oath.

This administration has no respect for public process and no interest in disclosure, and is already in violation of congressional subpoenas on the Energy Task Force. So if Congress were not being lapdogish, there would be indictments.

Woody Wilson - 9/11/2003

"How do you know that the information about the North Korean plan was in fact withheld"... What information do you have...I'm not seeing any attempt here to understand..."

Correct. We don't have enough information. Congress is not investigating as it should, and it is a scandal. For crying out loud, Ken Starr spent millions looking at ancient real estate shenanigans in Arkansas which did not have jacks--- to do with the national interest, foreign policy, or any substantive issue facing the country. Bush's offenses are probably not impeachable, (at least not based on what little we know so far) although they come much closer to impeachability than oral sex in the Oval office, but they should be investigated much more fully.

Herodotus - 9/11/2003

How do you know that the information about the North Korean plan was in fact withheld from Congress (the intelligence committees receive an awful lot of information)? Your fundamental premise, that the fight in Iraq and the effort to contain North Korea were separate issues, is in error. They're two parts of the same thing. By your reasoning, the U.S. ought to have invaded North Korea, not Iraq. What information do you have that would suggest that this was the wiser strategic move? None...so you are left having to face the fact that the administration CHOSE to concentrate on Iraq first, and for that there must be a good reason. I'm not seeing any attempt here to understand that reason, just a weird assumption that choice itself is grounds for impeachment...which is an awfully weird way to run a country.

Herodotus - 9/11/2003

It isn't useful to quote the resolution out of context. Why don't you post either the link to the original resolution, or note (as you should) that there are quite a few additional preliminaries BESIDES the one about Al Qaeda that you cite. Your selective quotation gives the impression that the Al Qaeda portion was the SOLE reason, which it was not.

Woody Wilson - 9/11/2003

The historically valid grounds for impeachment are actually much narrower than the youthful indiscrete Henry Hyde pretended a few years back (when the practically whole Republican Party turned its back on an excellent opportunity to confront Saddam, in order give us "all Monica all the time"). However, see John Dean's remarks for a somewhat more expansive view of impeachment clause ( http://hnn.us/articles/1506.html ).

Although the North Korea cover up sounds potentially treasonous, there is a question of what the President actually knew or did -this learning-on-the-job chief executive has not been very "hands on" and tends to run for cover when things get rough.

Having said all that though, I cannot see why the Congress couldn't at least hold hearings like the Brits have done recently, to bring some of the hidden dirt out into open.
( See also Santa Cruz's resolution: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/
chronicle/archive/2003/09/10/BA296721.DTL )

Jonathan Dresner - 9/10/2003

While I disagree with Dr. Gallatin's evaluation the purpose for posting this, I have to concur that the act of Congress and the broad interpretation of that act is at the root of our present situation.

I would add: The Bush Administration had intelligence that the North Korean nuclear program had been reactivated weeks (at least) before getting the "blank check" to operate in the Middle East, but did not reveal the imminent threat from an inconvenient direction until just after the vote. So the Bush adminstration made two deliberate decisions, both of which should be questioned: To prioritize the "war on terror" over nuclear non-proliferation and; to withold crucial security information from Congress and the American people in order to get their way.

Anyone looking for leverage to impeach?

Thomas Gallatin - 9/10/2003

I suppose this piece by Michael Kazin is HNN’s token “liberal” take on 9-11. Unfortunately, the jargon-laden and image-driven approach presented here has the makings of a "history" that will only "help future citizens find their way" to yet more apathy and confusion.

It was our democratically-elected officials in the U.S. Congress, on October 11, 2002, who turned the temporary horror of September 11, 2001 into a lasting self-inflicted tragedy. 10-11-02 was the day of infamy which gave what one commentator has called "the worst U.S. president ever" a blank check to turn 9-11's international sympathy and reverence for the U.S. into international horror and revulsion.

No need to tie yourself in knots over “contested dialectics”, you can just review the basic texts and roll call votes (available, for instance, on http://clerkweb.house.gov/ and http://www.senate.gov ). Here is the essence of what our elected representatives, by a large majority, passed on that day:

“H.J.Res. 114 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002

...Whereas members of al Qaida, an organization bearing responsibility for attacks on the United States, its citizens, and interests, including the attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, are known to be in Iraq...The PRESIDENT is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as HE DETERMINES to be necessary and appropriate in order to...defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq...” [emphasis added]

This can be compared against the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 8: “CONGRESS shall have Power...to declare war.” [emphasis added, again]

If you don’t want to take the time to do the web searches, take my word for it, the “Yea” votes on Resolution 114 include Democratic senators Kerry, Lieberman, Daschle, and Clinton, Democratic Congressman Gephardt, and almost every single Republican in Congress. Among the “Nay” voters were senators Graham (D), Byrd (D) and Chafee (R) and representative Kucinich (D).