President Bush meets the press

May 12, 2006|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON -- I enjoyed President Bush's good-natured comedy act at this year's White House Correspondents Association dinner as much as everyone else did, up to a point.

We laughed as Bush impersonator Steve Bridges joined the real president on stage to reveal what the inner Mr. Bush was supposedly thinking. Sample: "How come I can't have dinner with the 36 percent of the people who like me?"

It was funny, yet I could not help but wince at the sharp contrast between his jovial rapport with the crowd of journalists and Hollywood stars and the war of words and legal actions that his administration has been waging against press freedoms.

News item: A week earlier, the CIA announced it had dismissed senior official Mary O. McCarthy for allegedly having unauthorized media contacts, including with The Washington Post's Dana Priest, who won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing the CIA's secret prisons for terrorists in Eastern Europe. Yet it is significant that the CIA has not said Ms. McCarthy was the source of that story, and Ms. McCarthy's attorney says she was not the source. So what did she do wrong? So far, that's a secret.

News item: Several Bush administration officials, including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, have spoken of prosecuting The Post over the secret American war prisons and The New York Times for its Pulitzer-winning scoop on the National Security Agency's secret surveillance of Americans. Conservative commentator William J. Bennett undoubtedly spoke for some members of the Bush administration when he said the reporters should have received prison instead of Pulitzers.

News item: The FBI is seeking access to nearly 200 boxes of papers bequeathed to George Washington University by investigative journalist Jack Anderson, who died in December. FBI agents have asked to comb through Mr. Anderson's papers first and remove any that they think should be classified, whether they are marked classified or not. Mr. Anderson's family has refused the request, citing the First Amendment and the many times that Mr. Anderson defied FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover when many others would not.

Some people naively think that Mr. Hoover's now-notorious abuses of wiretapping and other powers against the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other targets can't happen again. In fact, as Lord Acton said, absolute power corrupts absolutely. The more power you grant to any single branch of government, the more opportunities you grant for that power to be abused.

Less than a decade after the ratification of the First Amendment, the party that controlled both houses of Congress at the time, the Federalists led by John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, tried to repeal it with the Sedition Act of 1798. That law made it a crime for any person to criticize the president, Congress or the U.S. government.

Passed in the name of national security, the Sedition Act proved to be nothing more than an excuse to arrest journalists and others who were sympathetic to the rival Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In spite of looming war fears, the backlash against the Sedition Act helped Republicans to elect Jefferson president in 1800, and he pardoned those convicted under the Sedition Act.

History has funny ways of repeating itself. Some scholars say the Bush administration is taking a more aggressive stance than just about any other since the days of the Sedition Act to tighten the vise on press freedoms, intimidate journalists and put a chokehold on the public's right to know, all in the name of national security.

The First Amendment was written and strengthened over the years in order to protect the public's right to know about questionable practices, through whistleblowers, if necessary. When the public surrenders that right, we will have a hard time getting it back.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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