Gore Speech --The Teeter-totter of History Revisited
Al Gore's superb speech for the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society at the D.A.R.'s Constitution Hall on Martin Luther King Day, January 16, 2006, brought abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner to my cousin Jill Sim's mind. It's an apt connection. My favorite Sumner quote could have been written today about the criminals now in charge:
"A humane and civilised people cannot suddenly become inhumane and uncivilized. We cannot be cruel, or barbarous, or savage, because the Rebels we now meet in warfare are cruel, barbarous and savage. We cannot imitate the detested example."
Would that today's radical Republicans had the souls of the Radical Republicans of yore.
If you haven't listened to the Gore speech, you should. To enhance that experience, you can follow along with the printed text of it here.
From that transcript:
This is just a taste. The speech, via references to history and solid reasoning, expertly deconstructs every major defense the president and his defenders have put forth for his actions and makes clear that we are facing a Constitutional crisis the likes of which this nation has never seen. It is a must-see for every citizen who wishes to claim the title of knowledgeable patriot. It is a rallying cry worthy of Charles Sumner, perhaps even of Thomas Paine.
At present, we still have much to learn about the NSA's domestic surveillance. What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law, repeatedly and insistently.
A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government.
Our founding fathers were adamant that they had established a government of laws and not men. They recognized that the structure of government they had enshrined in our Constitution, our system of checks and balances, was designed with a central purpose of ensuring that it would govern through the rule of law.
As John Adams said, "The executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers or either of them to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men."
An executive who arrogates to himself the power to ignore the legitimate legislative directives of the Congress or to act free of the check of the judiciary becomes the central threat that the founders sought to nullify in the Constitution, an all-powerful executive; too reminiscent of the king from whom they had broken free.
In the words of James Madison, the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed or elected, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.
Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet on "Common Sense" ignited the American Revolution, succinctly described America's alternative. Here, he said, we intended to make certain that, in his phrase, "the law is king."
Vigilant adherence to the rule of law actually strengthens our democracy, of course, and strengthens America. It ensures that those who govern us operate within our constitutional structure, which means that our democratic institutions play their indispensable role in shaping policy and determining the direction of our nation. It means that the people of this nation ultimately determine its course and not executive officials operating in secret without constraint under the rule of law.
And make no mistake: The rule of law makes us stronger by ensuring that decisions will be tested, studied, reviewed and examined through the normal processes of government that are designed to improve policy and avoid error.
And the knowledge that they will be reviewed prevents overreaching and checks the accretion to power.
A commitment to openness, truthfulness and accountability helps our country avoid many serious mistakes that we would otherwise make.
Recently, for example, we learned from just-declassified documents after almost 40 years that the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which authorized the tragic Vietnam War was actually based on false information.
And we now know that the decision by Congress to authorize the Iraq war 38 years later was also based on false information.
Now, the point is that America would have been better off knowing the truth and avoiding both of these colossal mistakes in our history. And that is the reason why following the rule of law makes us safer, not more vulnerable.
The president and I agree on one thing: The threat from terrorism is all too real.
There is simply no question that we continue to face new challenges in the wake of the attacks on September 11th and we must be ever vigilant in protecting our citizens from harm.
Where we disagree is on the proposition that we have to break the law or sacrifice our system of government in order to protect Americans from terrorism when, in fact, doing so would make us weaker and more vulnerable.
And remember that, once violated, the rule of law is itself in danger. Unless stopped, lawlessness grows, the greater the power of the executive grows, the more difficult it becomes for the other branches to perform their constitutional roles.
As the executive acts outside its constitutionally prescribed role and is able to control access to information that would expose its mistakes and reveal errors, it becomes increasingly difficult for the other branches to police its activities.
And once that ability is lost, democracy itself is threatened and we do become a government of men and not laws.
As Gore reminds us, as if Sumner had reached back into history to harness Jefferson (from his first Inaugural speech) as a solution for our current Adamsian Alien and Sedition Acts nightmare:
"The essential principles of our government form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. Should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and regain that road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety."