“The Betrayal of America”

Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi accuses the Supreme Court's conservative majority of criminal conduct bordering on treason.

Topics: 2000 Elections, Supreme Court, Al Gore, Books,

The toughest, most uncompromising words I’ve read anywhere lately are in the spring issue of Dissent. In an issue devoted to strategies for dealing with the coming four years of Dubya rule, Philip Green confesses to having no appetite for such strategies. “What attitude,” he asks, “should the inhabitants of a conquered province have toward their conquerors? In Vichy France, for example, I doubt that the left cared in the slightest about Marshal Pétain’s views on old-age pensions, labor unions, soil erosion in the Dordogne, the rights of Algerian immigrants or any similar issues of ‘public policy’ that might have existed at the time.”

What else can explain the lack of what Green calls “any will to resist or defy” the unprecedented outrage of the Supreme Court stealing an election? The lack of such a will in the Democratic Party (with the notable exception of the Congressional Black Caucus) is another story, one that I’ll return to. For the rest of us 50 million Americans — whose votes, we were told by the highest court in the land, simply didn’t count — it can’t be simple apathy. How do you oppose the policies of a presidential administration when the U.S. is operating without a legitimate president? How do you participate in a democracy when Rehnquist and the four other thugs on his court — Scalia, Thomas, O’Connor and Kennedy — have used the democratic system to nullify the very idea of democracy?

We may, as a nation, have sprung from a revolution, but no matter what fairy tales the hard left is now telling, we are not a revolutionary country. So what do we do? Vincent Bugliosi, the author and prosecutor most famous for putting Charles Manson behind bars, argues that knowledge is power in his slim, trenchant time bomb of a book, “The Betrayal of America.” By clearly understanding what the Supreme Court did, we can remove the cloak of respect and legitimacy that shields its actions from protest. Bugliosi’s book started out as an article in the Nation last fall, and it received a greater response from readers than any other piece the magazine had ever published. It has been expanded here with a preface by the Nation’s editors, forewords by Molly Ivins and Gerry Spence, an introduction by Bugliosi, a series of 20 amplifications on various points made in the article and a summary of the legal proceedings that climaxed in the Supreme Court’s Dec. 12 ruling in Bush vs. Gore.

The article’s original title reveals Bugliosi’s intent: “None Dare Call It Treason.” Always grounded in the law but using the harshest language he can muster, hectoring and ridiculing where he deems it necessary, Bugliosi outlines his case. He argues that in stopping the Florida recount and effectively handing the election to George W. Bush (which was clearly, he claims, their intent), the five conservative justices engaged in criminal conduct bordering on treason. Bugliosi claims that the only reason their action isn’t legally treason is that Congress “never dreamed of enacting a statute making it a crime to steal a presidential election.”

Bugliosi sets about proving his case with a lethal focus. Part of that focus requires dispensing with what he considers irrelevancies, chief among them the question of whether it was Bush or Gore who actually got more votes in Florida. Whoever won the state, Bugliosi argues, has no bearing on the legal, ethical and moral culpability of the justices’ actions.

Bugliosi proceeds with a point-by-point demolition of the court’s reasoning that’s too complex to summarize here. His most trenchant assertion, however, is a refutation of the court’s argument that it was necessary to stop the recount because different standards of counting undervotes represented a violation of the right to equal protection guaranteed by the 14th Amendment (the same equal protection grounds, by the way, that had been rejected by the court in Bush’s previous petition). It’s absurd, Bugliosi argues, to claim you are protecting the right to vote when in order to do so you make sure that 60,000 validly cast votes do not count.

But as strong as Bugliosi’s arguments are here, and I think they’re unassailable, it’s the ferocity of his language and the lucidity of his thought that give the book its force. If Bugliosi’s respect for the law is paramount, it’s second only to his contempt for the servants who fail that master. The commentators and legal scholars who have called the court’s decision an “outrage” and “openly political” (which Bugliosi brilliantly differentiates from “ideological”) don’t go far enough. Bugliosi knows that the respect accorded an office is meaningless unless it is held by people who maintain the standards of that office, and he cuts right through the obsequiousness that is customary when talking about the Supreme Court. “Though the five justices clearly are criminals,” Bugliosi writes, “no one is treating them that way.”

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That’s the kind of directness that makes Bugliosi’s book a classic in the literature of political protest — his absolute refusal to be deluded by how things should be or to refrain from seeing things as they are. Though his arguments are grounded in law, reason and common sense, this willingness to speak the truth in the current atmosphere risks making Bugliosi (a political moderate) look extreme. He is extreme in the context of a media that routinely lies whenever it claims that Bush won the election. It was disgusting to watch Bush’s coronation (I won’t dignify it by calling it an inauguration) and hear every network anchor spouting the platitudes they dust off every four years about the peaceful transfer of power when nothing of the sort had occurred.

Toward the end of his original article, Bugliosi notes that the justices cannot be prosecuted for this travesty, and it’s a fantasy to imagine they could ever be impeached. The feeling of helplessness that has since overcome some of us is understandable. But what about the timidity that stymies the Democrats? One of the things that most appalls Bugliosi is that, with the exception of some legal scholars, he has heard no conservative condemn the court’s hijacking of the election. The ruthless installation of Bush in the White House serves the ends of the hard right (though it may well appall the principled conservatives who’ve been made to feel like pariahs in the Republican Party), and since for the hard right politics is about self-interest (just as it is for the Nader partisans), it can live with the court’s duplicity.

The worst thing, however, has been watching the Democrats’ response to the court’s decision and their interactions with their Republican colleagues. They resemble Alec Guinness’ British colonel in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” prissily insisting that war be conducted according to the rules of gentlemen. Or like Joan Allen’s milquetoast vice presidential nominee in “The Contender,” refusing to use the proof that the allegations against her are a sham because that would mean descending to her opponents’ level.

Democrats refuse to understand the nature of their opponent. President Clinton’s impeachment should have alerted them that they are dealing with people who are willing to flout the will and rule of the electorate to achieve their ends. The Supreme Court’s decision is the logical culmination of that arrogance. But Democrats continue to insist on observing the protocol of honor and bipartisan cooperation, concepts that are useless against a naked exercise of power. I’m not suggesting that Democrats resort to smears or illegal means to thwart the Bush administration. But I am suggesting that sometimes taking the high road only makes you a more virtuous species of saphead.

The public may complain about partisanship and attack politics, but deciding that you are too principled to respond to political attacks only leaves you more vulnerable. And politics is about getting things done or it’s about nothing. (This may be why the Democratic presidents who have best understood that, LBJ and Clinton, have been met with distaste even within their own party.) Gaining control of the Senate will do the Democrats no good if they have no stomach for ruthlessness — a ruthlessness, I should add, that must always remain within the rule of law. And that ruthlessness should start with a blunt insistence on the facts: that Gore won the election, and that Bush cannot claim to have been elected by all the people when he is only president because the wishes of 50 million voters were rendered moot by thievery on the part of the Supreme Court. Vincent Bugliosi has spoken the truth. It will not, for the next three-and-a-half years, set us free. But we should at least make good use of the chains the Supreme Court has left us in, rattling them loud enough to remind the bastards that we’re not going anywhere.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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