September 11, 2007

Two books

Two books getting a lot of press this week are Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency--an account of his time as the head of the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel--and Charlie Savage's Takeover, a legal history of Dick Cheney's project to expand the powers of the presidency. Goldsmith's book is illuminating for its insider's insights, and Savage's is essential.

A couple of things struck me about Goldsmith's book. Goldsmith was the brave bureaucrat who withdrew the infamous "torture" memo (and a number of others) after he came to the conclusion that they were riddled with erroneous legal reasoning. I hadn't realized that withdrawing memos was basically unheard of for the OLC--and Goldsmith wound up withdrawing not just one but a "short stack." We still only know about the contents of a couple of these.

Goldsmith's book is also interesting because Goldsmith is a conservative, and so he arrives at his destination from a different direction than most liberal critics of Cheney's excesses. For instance:

"On issue after issue, the administration had powerful legal arguments but ultimately made mistakes on important questions of policy. It got policies wrong, ironically, because it was excessively legalistic, because it often substituted legal analysis for policy judgment, and because it was too committed to expanding the President's constitutional powers."

Basically, Goldsmith's point is that the administration acted as it did because there are now more international and domestic laws relating to war and national security than there were a few decades ago. However, the president was unwilling to go to Congress to ask for new authorities because of Cheney and Addington's ideological opposition to granting Congress any voice at all in the realm of national security. Instead, they opted for legal positions which were not just contorted but actually wrong.

As for Savage's book, I would urge you to read it. Although this subject has become almost a fetish in the elite media over the past year or so, it's amazing how much new information he's unearthed -- including details about Cheney's views on presidential power from the Ford administration, and about John Robert's and Samuel Alito's worrisome views on executive power, as gleaned from their careers at the Reagan DOJ.

The other thing that's laudable about the book is its tone. There are no rhetorical or partisan indulgences here, which I hope will make it easier for Savage to convinced the unconvinced or unaware that for the past eight years, Dick Cheney really has been engaged in a radical endeavor to remake the American presidency for the foreseeable future.