Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Alf Landon Would Outwit George W. Bush

In one of the great (daily) ironies of public and political life yesterday, George W. Bush gave the annual Alf Landon Address at Kansas State University. Alf Landon would have shrunk in horror at a great deal of what Bush said.

In defense of his (patently) illegal domestic surveillance program, Bush said, “I'm mindful of your civil liberties, and so I had all kinds of lawyers review the process.” Fac ut vivas can’t be the only American who noticed the dangerous condescension of that statement: Bush sees himself as the sovereign and “you” as his subjects. In his benevolence, HE is mindful of YOUR civil liberties (“he” and his sycophantic entourage are not to be confused with “us”), so mindful that he checked with his courtiers for permission to do what he wanted, and for commentary proving that “your” civil liberties would not be abridged in any way “you” as his subjects could complain about.

George Bush is NOT the arbiter of “your” civil liberties. He is the servant who dares not do anything to abridge the civil liberties the American People have held as the hallmark of our citizenship since the First Congress of the United States passed the Bill of Rights.

In the campaign of 1936, when Alf Landon suffered the greatest electoral defeat for President up to that time, he took issue with Roosevelt’s Social Security plan, but not because he thought the country did not need the plan (in an interview from 1971 he told Studs Terkel that “we had better make [Social Security] work”). His fear was that the government could use the records of Social Security to spy on Americans. He said, “The Republican Party will have nothing to do with any plan that involves prying into the personal records of 26 million people” (see full quote below). Even with a program that would accomplish so much good for the country, according to Landon, we must be careful not to open the private lives of Americans to “prying” by the Federal Government. Even to protect us from “terrorists.”

To be sure, these days Americans are by and large convinced that “terrorists” are around every corner. According to KMBC TV in Kansas City yesterday, “When people have been asked in other polls to balance their worries about terrorist threats against their worries about intrusions on privacy, fighting terror is the higher priority.”

But, listen up, folks: obviously Bush’s illegal spying on Americans has worked (?). We haven’t had an “orange alert” since Ashcroft left office—you don’t suppose those alerts were designed to scare you and me into believing that the “threat” warranted any actions Bush and sycophants wanted to take? So shall we let them continue, or shall we have a moratorium on scare tactics and look at the realities of the terrorist threat? I’m NOT saying—and please don’t tell Mr. Gonzales that I am—that there is no threat. I am simply saying that perhaps it’s time we had enough of being manipulated into giving up our hallmark liberties, thus changing the meaning of being an American—manipulated by an Administration that sees itself as “big daddy” to all of us, that has taken upon itself the powers of the sovereign in order to have its way, always, of course, being mindful [gee, thanks, Big Daddy] of your civil liberties.”

From Arthur Schlesinger. The Age of Roosevelt: The Politics of Upheaval. 1960, p. 614:

“During the 1936 presidential campaign, Republicans escalated charges that Social Security would reduce individual freedom. Alf Landon, the Republican candidate who, as Governor of Kansas, had expressed some support for Social Security, now denounced the Social Security payroll tax as a ‘cruel hoax’ on American workers and said that ‘the Republican Party will have nothing to do with any plan that involves prying into the personal records of 26 million people.’ In St. Louis, on the last Saturday of the campaign, Landon asked how any administrative effort could possibly keep track of 26 million Americans. ‘Imagine the field opened for federal snooping,’ he said. ‘Are these 26 million going to be fingerprinted? Are their photographs going to be kept on file in a Washington office? Or are they going to have identification tags put around their necks?’ And on the day before the election, all the Hearst papers featured the following spread on page 1: ‘Do You Want a Tag and a Number in the Name of False Security?’”

Quoted in:
Thomas Kaplan. “New Deal to New Frontier: From Security to Opportunity in the American Welfare State.” Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison. October 1994, p. 11.