As you may have heard, the United States of America has a new Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates. To the dismay of many University of Texas and Louisiana State University graduates, he is an Aggie (well, sort of -- he was until yesterday the President of Texas A&M University, but not a graduate).
Texas Monthly has a well-timed profile of him running in the November issue, and I've been reading through it. I like what I see so far. One quote in particular stood out for me:
“Leadership in large public institutions requires a skill set different from the private sector,” Gates told me. “A&M and the CIA have this in common. Professionals in the organization got there before you were there and will be there after you leave. For changes to last, the professionals have to assimilate the changes and make them their own. My time here is finite. I want to build something that will long outlast me.”
I like it because it says that Bob Gates is a man who takes the long view. A man who understands how institutions, longer-lived by far than those who occupy their offices, are the surest protections from the excess of power. That's not surprising in someone who lived through the Nixon years, and saw first-hand what happens when an Executive seeks to overreach his authority. I like the quote, because it holds out hope that finally someone in the White House will understand that their first duty is not to security or politics or one man, but rather to the Constitution and the institutions that guard our liberty. Nothing is more precious than that -- Americans have shed blood for it for more than 200 years.
What has concerned me the most about the Bush Administration -- in particular Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Alberto Gonzalez, and John Yoo -- is their unrelenting assault on the basic, foundational, structural elements that protect our liberty. Things like freedom of the press, judicial independence, Presidential signing statements essentially overturning laws without a veto, direct violation of the FISA laws (as confirmed by the Supreme Court), circumvention of international treaties like the Geneva Conventions, repeated arguments in court that their actions are beyond judicial review, suspension of habeus corpus.
These are institutions and structures built into the Constitution to protect us from corruption by those in power. "All power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely" is no less true today than when Lord Aston wrote it -- men are weak, given to abuse their authority in pursuit of their own goals, whether those goals be good or bad. The temptation when one holds the levers of power is to use those levers to bludgeon the opposition into acquiescence. It is only through the rule of law -- the idea that no one is above the law, that we all agree on the same rules and processes, that the process matters -- that liberty is protected from the willful onslaught of the powerful.
The quote from Gates and his professional history suggest he understands this at a fundamental level. Others have pointed to his Iran-Contra involvement as evidence that he in fact cares only for ends, not means, but the rest of his career seems to belie that. He appears to be a man who cares about institutions, about doing things right, about seeing reality as it is and not as he wishes it were. Those are qualities long absent from this Administration, and I am relieved that, finally, someone appears to be on the way who reveres them.
When our legislators are sworn into service, they pledge to uphold not the Office of the President, or the generals of the military, or even the will of God. They swear to uphold and defend The Constitution. They do so not because it is a document that ties us down, that binds our wings and keeps us weak, but rather because it shields us from oppression, ensures our liberty, and underpins everything that has made this nation great for more than 200 years. I have opposed this Administration largely on grounds that it holds the self-same Constitution in contempt, that it has worked without relenting to weaken it, to build up one branch of government at the expense of others.
In that kind of battle, our liberty is the surest casualty.
I've heard people argue that these concerns are petty, that they can't wait to quit talking about rules and regulations and laws so we can get back to "catching the terrorists". But ultimately this is the most important fight of all. If we surrender the protections of the rule of law, we become no longer a nation of liberty and rights, but of cowards willing to sacrifice anything in the name of safety, in the end doomed to being preyed upon by the most ruthless, base, greedy nature that lurks in all of our hearts.
Freedom of the press. Respect for the rule of law. Separation of Powers. Checks and Balances. Adherence to the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. These are the structures that will outlast and protect us, but only if we are constantly vigilant. Outside enemies can kill some of us, they can destroy property, but the only way we lose our American soul is from the inside, if we give it away to those who hunger for power over liberty. I think -- I hope -- that Bob Gates is a man who understands that, and who will fight the good fight both inside and outside this great country of ours. Let's get him to work already, before even more damage is done.
Gig 'em, Bob.