Paul Greenberg

Executive privilege has been invoked by presidents going back to George Washington in 1796. Among others who've cited it were Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Hayes, Cleveland, both Roosevelts, Coolidge and Hoover. And, in more recent times, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.

Speaking of the latter, the courts certainly have the right to allow subpoenas in order to obtain evidence of a crime - like Richard Nixon's White House tapes or Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony. Hence the attempt to manufacture a crime out of this president's decision to replace eight federal prosecutors - all political appointees. Call it trial by media.

If you still think letting Congress force the president's top advisers to testify under oath is a good idea, consider what would happen if the tables were turned, and the executive branch were allowed the same power over the legislative branch. Instead of Democratic congressmen getting to grill aides like Karl Rove and Harriet Miers under oath, suppose Rove & Co. could make Hillary Clinton or Chuck Schumer or Ted Kennedy reveal the details of their confidential political discussions?

The power to subpoena is the power to destroy. As Harry Truman well knew. Here's hoping George W. Bush does. Because if he allows Congress to invade the confidences of his presidency, he will pass on a much weakened executive branch to his successors. On this issue he needs to stand fast.

For now this president seems to be trying to reach some halfway, or maybe quarter-way, compromise with his critics in Congress. He's offered to let them question his top aides off the record, with no transcript recorded or notes taken, and certainly not under oath. But surely that gesture would not satisfy congressional inquisitors. And it smudges what ought to be a clear line between separate, independent branches of government.

Rather than play such games, this president - like a long line of his predecessors - should hold fast to his principles. The integrity of the executive branch of government, along with the separation of powers in a constitutional republic, depends on it. He shouldn't budge.

And if George W. Bush is tempted to, somebody should direct him to Harry Truman's letter of November 13, 1953, to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Or to one of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Papers on the need for a strong executive independent of the legislative branch - not under its thumb.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


 


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