Thursday, February 12, 2009

Note to the President: Take the shot

The great novelist and essayist John Edgar Wideman once observed that basketball, as best and most faithfully practiced, is an act of athletic levitation, a game performed in the air. When he wrote this, in an essay published in Esquire years ago, he was speaking of basketball, the literal, actual game. Perhaps he couldn’t have seen the dance and bruise and flight of the game in a political context. And he couldn’t have seen you coming, Barack Obama. No one did.

We’ve lived and breathed with you all through this brilliant career. You went from playing on the courts at the projects to slinging the rock with the pros at breathtaking speed. Primary after primary, you drained it from the top of the key or took it to the hole like nobody’s business. And against all odds, you won the championship. And you did it, you played the game in the air, on your terms.

You’ve been making history from day one. And it’s time to make some more.

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There is a quietly building chorus of Democratic leadership in Congress — less than a consensus but more than a few — calling for an investigation into the panorama of illegalities by the Bush administration, from warrantless wiretapping of American citizens to hiring and dismissal of Justice Department attorneys for brazenly political reasons, to a policy of torture of foreign nationals on the pretext of national security in the post-9/11 world.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has gone so far as to propose a commission with subpoena powers and the ability to grant immunity, levers by which to prosecute the suspected evildoers of the Bush White House and their enablers for what many are calling War Crimes.

None of this has escaped President Obama’s attention. He said as much in his first presidential news conference of the administration on Monday. (Read some of the transcript here.) “Nobody is above the law," the president said, "and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen. …”

He’d have been fine if he stopped there. But then this little … qualifier messed up everything.

“So I will take a look at Senator Leahy’s proposal, but my general orientation is to say, ‘let’s get it right and moving forward.’”

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Not so subtly built into that full-steam-ahead call to action is an implied desire to Close the Door on this Sordid Chapter in American Life. Moving forward, eh? The president had already said basically the same thing on Jan. 11, on ABC's "This Week." Vice President Joe Biden said almost exactly the same thing in January, too.

And check out the president's words on Monday: “take a look at.” Obama, as gifted an orator as we’ve had in generations, knows the power of words. There’s a cursory, incidental aspect to taking a look at something, and the president knows it. He also knows, or strongly suspects, that to engage in a seemingly partisan inquiry into the misdeeds of his predecessor could derail the sense of national unity he’s trying to enlist in pursuit of urgent business, and short-circuit his own domestic agenda.

That may not matter.

Those in the Democratic leadership — Rep. John Conyers, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold — have been taking up positions in support of independent inquiries into the Bush White House, in spite of how politically inconvenient it might be for the president.

Those in the rank & file, ordinary citizens, have let their feelings be known by the millions on the Web site, millions of people who said in early January that addressing this matter was of top importance, even more important than some aspects of the evolving economic crisis.

This is where you expect to read something about the Chinese ideogram that doubles for “crisis” and “opportunity,” and with good reason: For the Obama administration, in this crisis (not of their own making) there is real potential for change. It’s a rare thing when an administration can, in the literal dawn of its powers, take actions of principle that reinforce, starkly and clearly, the principles this nation was founded on. Opportunities are rarely as distilled, as unambiguous, as this.

This is a door President Obama must step through. This — the power of a return to the rule of law — is what he campaigned on, what swayed this nation to elect him. Now, there’s no turning back. If you're serious about walking it like you talk it, this is as good as it gets.

The warnings are already out there, tactful, nuanced and reasoned. Jonathan Turley, the eloquent constitutional law professor at Georgetown, and one of the watchdogs of the intelligentsia, said it plain Tuesday on MSNBC: “We need to be honest. There’s great love for President Obama and I have great respect for him. But you cannot say that no one is above the law and block the investigation of war crimes by your predecessor. It is a position without principle. It is because you believe it is politically inconvenient …”

“The Democrats,” Turley said, “are going to have to decide whether they want to detach themselves from principle, start their control of this government with an act of the most unprincipled sort.”

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It’s on you, Mr. President. Sir. B. You’ve made great strides in nothing flat, but the fact that the need for this kind of investigation is something you’re only considering, only “taking a look at,” is exactly the problem. You’re concerned about reanimating the red state/blue state division you campaigned to overcome. You’ve got unspoken fears of galvanizing the hard Republican right. Don’t worry about them. Rest assured that nothing — nothing — will galvanize your base more than your insistence on following the rule of law that you confessed when you pursued the job you now hold.

It’s on you, sir. This will not wait. There’s no backburner back enough to put this on. This should be one of those non-dilemma dilemmas for a president whose indelible sense of right and wrong resonated throughout the campaign just ended. There’s every reason to believe (to hope?) that the decision to follow where evidence leads into whether laws and treaties were violated by the Bush White House is one you’ve already made.

The world will long note and remember what you say and do here, or fail to say and do. Count on it. It will stay with you, for good or ill, for the rest of your life.

It’s on you, Barack. You got the ball. People in the stands are crazy on your side. No debates, no chin-pulling and no passing it off to someone else.

You got the ball. You have to take the shot.
Image credit: Basketball: Reisio (public domain). Obama jumper: MCC Eric A. Clement, USN (public domain).

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