While we celebrate

Anthony Lewis

August 27, 1991|By Anthony Lewis

IN A WEEK, in the twinkling of an eye, history has been unraveled and a great country transformed. We celebrate democracy's victory over an embedded tyranny. But what has happened is not a reason for Americans to be smug: not if we think about how faithful we have been lately to our own values.

Law was a major theme in the resistance to the coup. The Russians who stood bravely against it called it "anti-constitutional," and that became a crucial concept. After the coup failed, the plotters were charged with criminal offenses and all who worked with them made subject to investigation.

To pay such respect to constitutionalism and law is remarkable in a country where those ideas have been a bitter joke for more than 70 years. It is a dramatic demonstration of the longing for rules that bind the governors as well as the governed.

The United States has a written Constitution that for 200 years has been enforced by judges. It guards our guardians. So we believe and boast. But have we faithfully respected that tradition? Hardly.

Just a few years ago, men close to the president conspired to violate laws passed by Congress. It would be hard to think of anything more plainly "anti-constitutional." Oliver North made it clear that he would not let the Constitution stand in the way of what he deemed the national interest.

In a constitutional state, the law should surely have called those men to account. The president should have had to answer to an impeachment inquiry. But right-wing voices have mocked the attempt to bring the conspirators to justice. George Bush has evaded any meaningful inquiry into his role. And the public has hardly seemed to care.

Another important element in the Soviet events has been the demand for dispersion of authority. After the tragic experience of the Leninist system, people understood that centralization of power opened the way to tyranny.

Madison and the other Framers of the American Constitution knew that long ago. That is why they created a system of divided powers. But in recent years their system has been distorted by the unrelenting grab for more and more presidential power.

How far the tendency has gone was clear in the run-up to the Persian Gulf war. The White House claimed that the president could go to war without approval by Congress. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a veteran of Congress and an ordinarily sensible man, endorsed that anti-constitutional claim of power.

An important factor in the quick collapse of the Soviet coup was the public's access to information: to Boris Yeltsin's defiance and others'. The makers of the coup moved at once to suppress all but official newspapers and broadcasts. But glasnost had gone too far. The news got out. People tuned in to foreign broadcasts.

Afterward, government and the public moved to seize the files of the KGB. They understood, as had the victors over communism in Eastern Europe, that secrecy is the handmaiden of tyranny.

Americans should hardly need lessons in the importance of free speech and open government. We have the First Amendment. But we also have a recent tradition of presidential demands for more and more secrecy. And we have a statist Supreme Court that, last term, said one who takes government money can be told by the government what to say.

The Soviet drama, finally, made a point about what we call conservatism and liberalism in politics.

Liberals tend to be optimists about the potential of human beings and the benefits of reform. Conservatives, historically, are pessimists. Their skepticism was perfectly reflected in The Wall Street Journal's first editorial on the coup, which said it might be "a Potemkin coup intended to get the West to shower a restored Gorbachev with aid."

The second Soviet revolution has been a triumph of liberalism: of faith in human beings and the possibility of change for the better. The plotters of the coup were men of the hard right, who wanted to prevent change. Against the odds, they and then their whole system were overthrown.

It is a somewhat ironic point, given the state of American politics. Liberal was a bad word in the last presidential campaign, and the winning candidate trashed those who defend our civil liberties. Might we care more about liberal values as we see Soviet citizens cherish them?

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.