Monday, June 25, 2007

Power, Abused

Ours is a nation of spectacular ironies.

The greatest democracy on Earth, the greatest democracy ever, anywhere, does not directly elect its president, gives its vice president virtually no constitutional responsibilities and leaves it to the three branches to work out any differences in opinion about where the lines are drawn.

One of the greatest strengths of our republic, and potentially one of the greatest weaknesses, is the freedom we have to do what want, more or less. Oh sure, there are laws and conventions and politeness but it is in our DNA to be "free." I cannot possibly relate, born and bred on these shores as I am, but it must be this, above everything except perhaps the near certainty to make a living wage, that makes this nation a magnet for people from just about everywhere else. We are a laissez-faire society, built on a covenant that we each will exercise an appropriate level of self restraint. Whatever that is.

The president has awesome power, we learn in elementary school. He (it's been only "he" so far) is the most powerful man on Earth. Through the Cold War (and still) we invested power in a person who could, on his own authority, destroy the world. Not that he would. As it should be.

This is why the vice president's congenital refusal to abide by any oversight, and the president's tolerance of this, is so very scary. Even in competent dictatorships there is a yearning for transparency. It may be the case that the vice president answers only to the president, or to an impeachment panel. But what we yearn for in leadership, surely, is someone who does not push things to the brink, to assert a principle. Surely, it ought to be the other way around: principle is tested to achieve a goal for the betterment of society. This is why FDR apologists forgive the man behind the "New Deal" for trying to pack the Supreme Court, among other excesses.

As Democrats play out the clock and hope nothing will vex the inhabitants of the White House or Number One Observatory Circle to abuse power to the point where it cannot be ignored, we legitimately live in a state of unease. Is it better to rattle the cage or avert one's eyes?