On April 6, 1977, David Frost was having a particularly difficult time interviewing former President Richard Nixon. Frost's colleague James Reston, Jr. suggested a new line of questioning, one used earlier in the trial of former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman: Were there no limits to what a president can do, even if it's plainly illegal? Could he do anything despite the law?
"If the president does it,that means it's not illegal," Nixon notoriously replied, arguing, "that in war time, a president does have certain extraordinary powers which would make acts that would otherwise be unlawful, lawful if undertaken for the purpose of preserving the nation and the Constitution..."
While speaking recently at Stanford University, where she steadfastly defended the Bush Administration's "enhanced interrogation" policies, ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice revealed herself to be a Summa Cum Laude graduate of the Richard M. Nixon School of Government.
"We did not torture anyone," Rice told the Stanford students. "The president instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations, legal obligations, under the Convention Against Torture... And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture."
From Nixon to Bush and beyond, such contentions have seemingly passed muster with large swaths of both America's citizenry and its press. Now, however, challenges are finally emerging to such dangerous and unconstitutional ideas -- albeit from some unlikely sources. Have you ever heard the saying, for example, "Out of the mouths of babes?" Biblical in origin, the phrase is most often used when truth bubbles up unexpectedly - such as when a young person says something that surprises because it shows what we expect to be an adult's wisdom and understanding...
And so it was recently in our nation's capital, as Secretary Rice made "her first Washington appearance since leaving office" to speak to students at the Jewish Primary Day School -- only to be pressed once again on the troublesome topic of torture, just days after telling the Stanford undergraduates that the gruesome form of torture euphemistically known as waterboarding was "by definition" legal "if it was authorized by the president."
After years of facing softballs from a doting Washington press corps, Rice must have been taken aback as she fielded still more questions about torture -- from a 4th-Grader no less! As reported in the Washington Post, Rice "held forth amiably before a few dozen students about her love of Israel, travel abroad and the importance of learning languages" before opening the floor to their questions. The inquiries, developed by students with the assistance of their teachers, had not been screened in advance by Rice.
"At first, they were innocuous," noted Post Staff Reporter Alec MacGillis. "What was it like growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala.? What skill did she want to be best known for?"
Then a fourth-grader named Misha Lerner asked a tough one: what did Rice think about the things President Obama's administration had been saying concerning methods used by the previous administration to get information from detainees? (According to Misha's mother, Inna, her son had originally come up with an even tougher question: "If you would work for Obama's administration, would you push for torture?" But Misha's teachers apparently acted as editors: "They wanted him to soften it and take out the word 'torture,'" Ms. Lerner explained. "But the essence of it was the same.")
"Let me just say that President Bush was very clear that he wanted to do everything he could to protect the country," Rice responded. "After September 11, we wanted to protect the country. But he was also very clear that we would do nothing, nothing, that was against the law or against our obligations internationally. So the president was only willing to authorize policies that were legal in order to protect the country."
Rice's response to the Babes in TortureLand echoed what she had said earlier at Stanford, while pleading for sympathy: "I hope you understand that it was a very difficult time. We were all so terrified of another attack on the country." Nevertheless, she reiterated, "Even under those most difficult circumstances, the president was not prepared to do something illegal..."
Despite her contention, one student still demanded, "How are we supposed to continue promoting America as this guiding light of democracy and how are we supposed to win hearts and minds in the world as long as we continue with these actions?"
"Well, first of all, you do what's right," Rice replied. "That's the most important thing -- that you make a judgment of what's right.
"And I'll tell you something," she continued. "Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what second-guessing would really have hurt me -- if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn't do everything we could to protect them."
Apparently when you're in that position of responsibility, it helps to be 'tough-minded" like Bush and Rice.
"Foreign policy is full of tough choices. Very tough choices," Rice explained. "The world is not a bunch of easy choices in which you get to make ones that always feel good."
Rice's student questioner then pointed out that our government had never resorted to torture, "Even in World War II, as we faced Nazi Germany -- probably the greatest threat that America has ever faced."
She quickly shot back, "And we didn't torture anybody here either. Alright?"
"Is waterboarding torture?" the student then asked.
"I just said -- the United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture," Rice maintained. "And so, by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Conventions Against Torture."
Yes, but... is waterboarding torture? And if so, is it illegal --- even when the president condones it? Or are there no limits to what a president can do, even if it's patently illegal? Can the president do anything despite the law? Unless someone in the Obama Administration soon starts asking uncomfortable questions like those coming out of the mouths of babes like Misha Lerner, the Nixon/Bush/Rice position that we live in a nation ruled by men --- and not laws - may yet prevail.