Paul Greenberg

Knowing a little history is a great time-saver. One need only read the headline over a "news" story to realize it's an old story, and feel free to go on to the sports page.

For example: "Panel labels 2 Bush aides in contempt/ Vote seeks House citation regarding prosecutor firing" -Page 1, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 26, 2007.

To which anyone with even a smattering of American history might respond: There they go again.

How long have such subpoenas been used to embarrass American administrations? Well, that kind of story was probably front-page news when John Marshall issued a subpoena for Thomas Jefferson's correspondence in the Aaron Burr treason trial.

The script had been refined many times - indeed, it had become a classic performance - by the time Joe McCarthy's notorious Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was issuing subpoenas left and left in 1953.

The cast of characters changes from era to era, but the tug-of-war between the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the federal government has been going on since there was a federal government.

The founding fathers designed it that way, so that each branch of the government could keep the others from dominating the whole constitutional system, and therefore the people.

Checks and balances, the civics textbooks used to call it. It's not news but it's always drama when the subpoenas are being rolled out. You could almost hear the drum roll behind the opening paragraph of that front-page story:

"WASHINGTON - The House Judiciary Committee voted Wednesday to seek contempt of Congress citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and one-time counsel Harriet Miers, setting up a constitutional confrontation over the firings of federal prosecutors."

The good ol' Washington Post ran the subpoena story on its front page, too, and its tone, too, was fairly melodramatic. The administration was said to be making a "bold new assertion of executive authority" by resisting these subpoenas, and various constitutional "experts" were quoted calling its reasoning "astonishing Š breath-taking Š Nixonian." There was talk of a "constitutional crisis."

Crisis? Confrontation? This is more like an old, old dance in which the partners know their steps very well. Congress demands testimony, documents, evidence or anything else that might embarrass an administration. Then the administration declines to provide it, citing what has come to be known as the doctrine of executive privilege.

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.