The next Bush administration is taking shape, and the cabinet resignations have been flying. There's reason to celebrate some of them, especially Attorney General John Ashcroft's. But if the first replacement announcements --- Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state, Alberto Gonzales for attorney general --- are any indication, we're in for a rough four years.
Particularly now, with international relations strained and tension and danger around the world, the country needs a secretary of state who will inject words of sanity and caution into White House debates. Colin Powell has often tried to do that. Powell's record has serious blemishes, including his dangerously misleading UN address before the war began. But many other times, Powell disagreed with the Bush administration. Significantly, his opinions got exposure outside of the administration, strengthening the public discussion.
The Washington Post reported this week that Powell had been willing to stay for a second term, on several conditions. Among them: "greater engagement with Iran and a harder line with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon," said the Post. Bush didn't take him up on the offer.
Condoleezza Rice, who has frequently disagreed with Powell, is intensely loyal to Bush --- and seems to embrace the Bush policies. Rather than bringing a different perspective, she will buttress the opinions of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld.
Now, more than ever, we need a variety of perspectives and opinions in the president's cabinet. Instead, Bush --- who was poorly served by misinformation and narrow ideology leading up to the Iraq war --- is further restricting the voices he'll hear and the advice he'll get.
The attorney general is an equally crucial post, and with Ashcroft, we've seen what can happen if the wrong person is put there. Gonzales, like Ashcroft, is the wrong person. It was Gonzales who wrote the memo maintaining that the Geneva Convention "does not apply to Al Qaeda and the Taliban" --- a ruling to which Colin Powell strongly objected.
In addition, says a recent New York Times editorial, Gonzales has "a long record" of giving George Bush bad advice. "In Texas, when he was legal counsel to Governor Bush," says the Times, he "produced briefs on clemency appeals in death penalty cases that ignored evidence that some convicts were innocent or that they had gotten ineffective counsel."
This is a troubling time, and John Ashcroft's resignation statement to the contrary, there is no indication that "the objective of securing the safety of Americans from crime and terror has been achieved." There is every indication that much of the world is becoming less safe and secure.
If the Ashcroft pattern continues under Gonzales, we can expect more moves to restrict basic rights. And it is when the government begins to talk about suspending rights for reasons of national security that we should be most alert. Now, more than ever, we need an attorney general committed to upholding the principles of the nation.
The nation does have checks and balances, of course, or did have last time I checked. And for nominations to the cabinet, as for the Supreme Court, those checks and balances reside in the Senate. Moderate and liberal Democrats can exert some power --- if they have enough backbone. So far, the signs aren't good.
Both Gonzales and Rice have a bucketful of negatives, but Bush opponents apparently won't get in their way. They'll ask probing questions during Gonzales's hearing, but they'll confirm him. And, no doubt, they'll cave quickly on Rice. They'll save their opposition for Bush's Supreme Court nominees.
So what does this mean? That they feel forced to choose which of our rights are worth fighting for and which can be bargained away? Which are crucial and which are expendable?
Now, more than ever, we need a loyal opposition among members of the Senate,.
And you? Get those letters and e-mails flowing:
Charles Schumer: 313 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510; http://schumer.senate.gov/webform.html.
Hillary Clinton: 476 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510; http://clinton.senate.gov/webform.html.
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