At long last, the man who would be king receives rebuke

July 16, 2006|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

With apologies to the makers of the 1994 film, it's never been "the madness of King George" that troubled me.

No, it was the arrogance, a hubris so awesome and awful that you tended to forget George is not, in fact, a king but a president. One might have been forgiven for forgetting, since President Bush has governed pretty much as a king would have: by fiat and decree.

So the Supreme Court's recent rebuke of the Bush administration and the administration's chastened acceptance of same comes like spring air into a musty room.

Frankly, the substance of the rebuke is of secondary importance to me, though I will recount it here. Late last month, the high court, on a 5-3 vote (Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not participate), ruled that the president could not, of his sole authority, put detainees at Guantanamo Bay on trial before a military tribunal. The court found that the effort to do so violated both international law and federal statutes, a stinging rejection of the White House's attempt to expand executive authority.

Last week, as a direct result of that ruling, the White House conceded what it has refused to concede for years: that the prisoners at Guantanamo are protected by the provisions of the Geneva Conventions.

But, again, it's not the specifics of the court's ruling that enthuse me. It is, rather, the fact that there's a ruling at all - the fact that somebody finally told Mr. Bush no. In so doing, the court reaffirms that which never should have been in question: Even presidents have to play by the rules.

It's an elemental truth, but one that has been under assault and in doubt ever since Team Bush came to office. The most glaring example, of course, is its conduct of the war on terror, where the president has claimed for himself the virtually unfettered right to surveil and detain in violation of established law and custom. The electorate, cowed into silence by fear, watches complacently. Anyone who does dare raise a question or, God forbid, an objection, is shouted down by the president's catch-all excuse for excess: 9/11.

But it's not just the war that showcases the president's disdain for rules. It's everything. It's his intrusion into the Terri Schiavo affair, trampling spousal rights and the separation of powers. It's the administration's habit of quashing scientific reports that conflict with political needs, walking all over the public's right to know.

It's Mr. Bush's Education Department paying a supposed journalist, columnist Armstrong Williams, to say good things about the No Child Left Behind law, stomping basic tenets of journalistic ethics and federal law. It's his administration's habit of providing "news" videos to broadcast outlets, which air them without revealing that the "reporter" works for the White House, thereby violating those same ethics.

Indeed, for all the blather we've suffered these last years about the sins of so-called activist judges, the plain fact is that what really endangers us is an activist president, a man who evidently believes he can do what he wants, when he wants because the rules were written for someone else.

As much as his sycophants like to portray this bullheadedness as evidence of presidential resolve, what it actually illustrates is presidential disdain, the imperial hubris and messianic mindset of a fellow who believes himself on a mission from the Almighty, and therefore not to be troubled by such small niceties as what is customary or legal. So the Supreme Court's ruling is about more than just the fate of the Gitmo detainees, important as that is. In the larger picture, it is a stop sign for a runaway administration, a much-needed hitch in the giddyup. And a reminder, at the risk of cliche, that this is still a country of laws, not men.

Somebody pass the word to King George: At the end of the day, it turns out he's just a president after all.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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