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Michael Winship: The Bush Legacy Strikes Out American Justice

(Photo by Robin Holland)

Below is an article by Public Affairs Television senior writer Michael Winship.

The Bush Legacy Strikes Out American Justice
By Michael Winship

The Detroit Tigers are retiring the great baseball manager Sparky Anderson's number 11 this season. "It's a wonderful gesture," Detroit Free Press columnist Michael Rosenberg wrote. "I just wish Sparky could see it."

Anderson won three World Series -- one managing the Tigers, two with the Cincinnati Reds -- and passed away this past November. Rosenberg said, "Retiring his number now is the baseball version of waiting until a relative dies to say thank you."

That's because it comes sixteen years after Anderson left the Tigers in a bitter feud with owner Mike Ilitch. Yet as Sparky once said, "I've got my faults, but living in the past is not one of them. There's no future in it."

I wish I could say the same, let bygones be bygones and the rest, but when it comes to two other baseball devotees, the Presidents Bush, it's tough. Father and especially son left behind a heap of wreckage.

I hear some of you say forget it, time to move on. Maybe, but theirs is not a legacy that simply fades in the distance and leaves us in peace. What they did continues to impact our lives in deleterious ways, notably when it comes to the full speed, head-on collision of partisan politics with American justice.

Just this week, the US Office of Special Counsel (OSC) released a long overdue, 118-page report concluding that George Jr.'s White House used government agencies for Republican pep rallies and sent officials off on electioneering trips using taxpayer money, especially in the lead-up to the 2006 midterm elections. These are violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities in the workplace and forbids the use of tax revenues for political purposes.

According to the OSC's findings the abuses were "a systemic misuse of federal resources." As the website Talking Points Memo reported, "The Office of Political Affairs (OPA) in Bush's White House, overseen by Karl Rove, dispatched cabinet officials to campaign for Republican candidates on the federal dime and forced federal political appointees to attend political meetings during work time."

One memo, at the US Department of Health and Human Services, read, "This meeting is mandatory. It will essentially be the same large meeting that we had last year about this time. So, please clear your schedule, put your pom-poms on, and let's go!!!"

There won't be any punishment for the cheerleaders -- unless you count Democrats taking back the House and Senate in 2006, despite Rove and the GOP pulling out all the stops with their White House boiler room operation. No request has been made asking the Justice Department to file charges; Rove and any other miscreants fled the scene of the crime before Inauguration Day 2009 and can no longer be prosecuted. The Obama White House, however, has moved its Office of Political Affairs to Democratic National Committee HQ and the presidential re-election effort to Chicago. What could possibly go wrong in Chicago?

Attempting to rectify another Bush injustice this week, the Obama administration named two new commissioners to the US Commission on Civil Rights, which currently has an imbalance of four Republicans (two claim to be "independents") to three Democrats (one commissioner's reappointment by House Speaker Boehner will even things up -- it's a little complicated). Talking Points Memo: "The Bush administration stacked the commission with conservatives by having two of the commissioners switch their affiliation from Republican to independent. The move, said the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, was legal. But it was also, as former Commission Chairman Gerald Reynolds (a Republican appointee) acknowledged, intended to 'game' the system. The scheme unfolded in 2004, and the panel has since focused on racism against white people and claimed that measures intended to aid minority groups are discriminatory."

Meanwhile, the Bush family's Supreme Court appointees -- along with that mossback relic of the Reagan era, Antonin Scalia -- habitually thumb their noses at the very notion of an independent and impartial judiciary. Last week, the citizen's lobby Common Cause formally requested that the Justice Department investigate whether Justices Scalia and Clarence Thomas (Bush Sr.'s notorious appointee) should have been disqualified from hearing the Citizens United case, last year's landmark ruling that lifted restrictions on corporate political contributions, allowing huge amounts of secret cash to pour into our elections.

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Common Cause President and CEO Bob Edgar wrote, "It appears both justices have participated in political strategy sessions, perhaps while the case was pending, with corporate leaders whose political aims were advanced by the decision. With respect to Justice Thomas, there may also be an undisclosed financial conflict of interest due to his wife's role as CEO of Liberty Central, a 501(c)(4) organization that stood to benefit from the decision and played an active role in the 2010 elections."

Justice Thomas dismissed his failure to report his wife's income -- not only from the right wing Liberty Central but also the conservative Heritage Foundation -- as a "misunderstanding of the filing instructions." As for those "political strategy sessions," Thomas and Scalia attended secretive, invitation-only desert retreats, fundraisers held by billionaire Charles Koch, who, with his brother David, owns the energy giant Koch Industries, the second largest private company in the United States, and bankrolls the right wing, including elements of the Tea Party movement.

At those sessions, discussions may have been held about Citizens United while the case was under consideration; certainly, many of those in attendance have taken full advantage of the ruling and poured millions into the campaigns of conservative candidates -- Common Cause reports that Koch Industries' political action committee spent $2.6 million on last year's elections, in addition to tens of millions contributed by Americans for Prosperity, the right wing group founded by the two brothers. (The 2011 Koch retreat takes place this weekend; thousands plan to gather in nearby Rancho Mirage, California, to protest.)

This isn't the first time Justices Scalia and Thomas have hobnobbed with corporate bigwigs and right wing muck-a-mucks. Scalia is a regular headliner at the right-wing Federalist Society. In 2009, Thomas was featured at the Heritage Foundation's annual fundraiser and in 2008 delivered the Wriston Lecture at the conservative Manhattan Institute, an event that costs $5,000 to $25,000 to attend. Conservative court colleague and George W. Bush appointee Samuel Alito has also given the Wriston Lecture and attended fundraisers for The American Spectator magazine and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the wonderful folks who gave us ACORN hoaxster James O'Keefe.

(Thanks for this information to the progressive ThinkProgress website. And yes, I know liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has allowed the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund to name a lectureship after her; that's an issue, too.)

"The Supreme Court is the guardian of its own integrity," The Boston Globe editorialized on Thursday. "That means staying above politics and maintaining an air of dispassionate consideration of constitutional issues. The court is not an elected body, and shouldn't function like one. This is especially important because, unlike with an elected body, there are few external constraints on the justices: They set their own rules, and the need for comity on the court largely prevents them from policing each other. Their shared commitment to maintaining judicial decorum is all that binds them."

No one is above the law, it's said, but Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito certainly behave like they are. None of them attended Tuesday's State of the Union address -- certainly not the first time that's happened, but still symbolically disrespectful. Sadly, unlike baseball legend Sparky Anderson's, their numbers are unlikely to be retired any time soon.

Michael Winship was senior writer for Bill Moyers Journal on PBS and is president of the Writers Guild of America, East.


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