Jon Meacham's subservient defense of monarchical power

The "torture debate" is forcing media stars to admit that they do not believe "the law" is for elites.

Published April 27, 2009 1:52PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

One of the few impressive abilities of establishment journalists is their aptitude at so rapidly embracing and so loyally reciting the standard Beltway script of conventional wisdom. Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham today has a new column on torture and prosecutions that is an almost exact replica of David Broder's and virtually every other column written by his fellow media stars [on the "torture debate," the Left and Right are the extremes; I'm above all of that and reside in the Serious middle; those who advocate prosecutions are leftists motivated by ugly vengeance; any investigations (like all important government proceedings) should occur only in secret and be devoted only to asking if torture works, etc. etc.]. But Meacham did manage unintentionally to express a thought that so perfectly reflects how they think that it's worth noting (h/t Retired Military Patriot; emphasis added):

And to pursue criminal charges against officials at the highest levels—including the former president and the former vice president—would set a terrible precedent. . . . That is not to say presidents and vice presidents are always above the law; there could be instances in which such a prosecution is appropriate, but based on what we know, this is not such a case.

Presidents and Vice Presidents aren't "always above the law" -- just most of the time. It's possible to imagine some extreme hypothetical case where it might be reasonable to want to impose accountability when the President commits crimes, but such a case is so unthinkably rare -- so theoretical -- that it's not even worth describing what that situation might be. That's the only view that can be heard on Meet the Press -- the masses must understand that it's wrong to treat Presidents the same way that ordinary citizens are treated when they break the law -- and Meacham was on yesterday with David Gregory to deliver that very message without challenge, the second consecutive week that show presented a unanimous panel endorsing presidential immunity for lawbreaking.

Also from Meacham: prosecuting Presidents for committing crimes would "set a terrible precedent" -- but placing Presidents above the law and adopting a bar against holding them accountable for crimes doesn't set a bad precedent at all, nor does it create any sort of destructive incentive scheme. If you were the President and were tempted to break the law, what possible reason would you have to refrain from doing so, given your certain knowledge that (as long as the crime did not involve a titillating sex scandal) you'd have the Jon Meachams and David Broders and the other decadent, monarch-worshiping establishment spokespeople to insist that you had the right to do so and nothing must be done when you're caught? That's what passes for reasonable, measured thought among our media elites: "That is not to say presidents and vice presidents are always above the law."

It just cannot be said enough that our political elites truly do believe that "law" is only for the dirty, filthy masses -- but not for them. It really is that explicit. Joan Walsh was on Howie Kurtz's CNN show yesterday and the other guests -- The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza and former Bush speechwriter David Frum -- responded to her like she was from Neptune all because she repeatedly made one point -- torture is against the law and therefore those who ordered it, by definition, committed crimes. This is a point they literally could not comprehend. That's because they reject the necessary premise in which this simple proposition is grounded: that political leaders are bound by what we call "law." The reason we have become the country we've become is because we've fallen all the way down to Jon Meacham and David Broder from what, at least in principle, used to guide us -- the Hard Leftist, vengeful idea of Thomas Paine:

But where says some is the King of America? I’ll tell you Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve as monarchy, that in America the law is King. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King; and there ought to be no other.

Or the Hard Leftist idea of John Adams: " the very definition of a republic is an empire of laws, and not of men. . . . that form of government which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of law, is the best of republics."

Or that of Hard Left partisan Teddy Roosevelt: "No man is above the law and no man is below it; nor do we ask any man's permission when we require him to obey it. Obedience to the law is demanded as a right; not asked as a favor."

If one surveys the wreckage that has become our political class, this explains much of it: we've gone from Paine ("so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is King") and Adams ("an empire of laws, and not of men") and Roosevelt ("No man is above the law") to Newsweek and Jon Meacham ("That is not to say presidents and vice presidents are always above the law") and David Broder (holding leaders accountable for lawbreaking is ugly, destructive, populist vengeance except when it involves a sex scandal).

It's difficult to imagine how nauseated (though perhaps not surprised) people like Paine and Adams would be if they would have known that, a mere 230 years later, we'd have as opinion-making elites people like David Broder and Jon Meacham declaring that "presidents and vice presidents are [not] always above the law" -- this is the American President we're talking about; criminal prosecutions are inappropriate for his crimes-- as though that theoretical concession represents the reasonable, centrist, responsible view rather than the authoritarian, lawless, establishment-revering, deeply un-American tripe that it is.


UPDATE: To illuminate what lies at the crux of all of this, one could no better than to re-review the explanation from Meacham's star reporter, Evan Thomas, about what he sees his role as being as a member of the establishment:

By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring.

There have been very few, if there have been any, better explanations of the role our establishment media plays than that. That is the idea that most of our "journalists" serve and revere, and from that necessarily follows the belief that "law" is something that only restricts what the lowly masses do but not "the ruling class." Thomas did everyone a great service by so clearly describing their true role.


UPDATE II: Andrew Sullivan cites my interview with Manfred Nowak, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, in which Nowak explained that the U.S. is bound by its treaty obligations to impose accountability on those who engaged in and/or ordered torture. After observing that "I don't see how proof that government officials waterboarded a prisoner 183 times leaves the attorney general any discretion at all," Sullivan asks: "So when does the U.S. formally withdraw from the UN Convention on Torture? And why isn't the pro-torture right advocating that?"

I think the answer is clear: We don't believe we have any obligation to abide by or even pay any attention to our treaty obligations despite the fact that our Constitution states in Article VI that "all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land." And the reason for that belief, in turn, is the more generalized conviction that political leaders are not bound by "laws" because we are a nation of men (of elites, to be more exact), not laws. There is simply no other conclusion possible after listening to the likes of Jon Meacham, David Broder and virtually the entire political and media establishment (with a few exceptions) demanding that the President not be held accountable for serious crimes -- even in the face of treaty obligations, undertaken by Ronald Reagan, which compel such accountability.

By Glenn Greenwald

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