There’s a tendency among American media consumers and the hype-pushers who feed them to see news in the news. The case of Tom DeLay vs. the courts is a perfect example.
Depending on their political leanings, commentators, editorial boards and professional cable-network shouters have been heaping praise or condemnation on Mr. DeLay’s indisputably curious interpretation of the constitutional separation of powers. The spark for all this instant-messaging rhetoric, of course, was the legal controversy surrounding Terri Schiavo’s final days.
As the New York Times has just editorialized, “The low point” – or, I should inject, the high point if you happen to admire Sugarland’s contribution to representative democracy – “in the politicking over Terri Schiavo came last week when the House majority leader, Tom DeLay, threatened the judges who ruled in her case. Saying they had ‘thumbed their nose at Congress and the president,’ Mr. DeLay announced that ‘the time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior, but not today.’”
So far, so good, but then came the implication that had it not been for Terri Schiavo, the courts would have remained secure in their independence and free from the Texas congressman’s unconstitutional scheming and meddling. Again, I quote the Times: “Mr. DeLay's ominous statements were a calculated part of a growing assault on the judiciary. Through public attacks, proposed legislation and even the threat of impeachment, ideologues are trying to bully judges into following their political line.”
The fault line of that last sentence lies in what the meaning of “are,” are. For right-wing ideologues have engaged in bullying the judiciary for decades. Indeed, when DeLay was still spraying bugs for a living, the New Right – that 1970s “new conservative” movement stemming from Barry Goldwater’s quixotic, hard-right foray into presidential politics -- was growing in popularity with fundamentalist reactionaries because of its politically apoplectic denunciations of Supreme Court rulings on such hot social buttons as school prayer and abortion.
The right’s demagoguery on “liberal-judicial activism” paid off in no small way; by 1995 its political machine of little Tom DeLays was ruling the people’s House. Three years later the machine had cranked up the liberal-activism hysteria to the point that it finally met with opposition.
This, from the (Ohio) Columbus Dispatch, June 14, 1998: "Last week, a bipartisan group of former elected officials, law-school deans and constitutional scholars said they would begin speaking out against political assaults on courts and judges. Citizens for Independent Courts includes liberal Democrats such as former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and conservative Republicans such as former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming…. Attacks include passage by the House of Representatives of legislation that would limit the power of federal judges to order prisoner releases in response to unconstitutional conditions in state prisons and jails."
Here’s the kicker. In the same article, the Hammer himself felt emboldened enough to go public with the right’s inner intent: "House Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, who has called for increased use of impeachment of federal judges, said, 'judges need to be intimidated.'"
That was seven years ago, long before Mrs. Schiavo gave Mr. DeLay an excuse to intimidate judges and long before editorial boards became acutely alarmed.
And here’s the bigger kicker, though I would discourage anyone from getting too carried away with this because of dramatically differing historical and cultural circumstances. Still, there’s a lesson here in lapsed vigilance that’s worth noting….
Only well after a little Austrian with a funny mustache had gained ruthless power did thoughtful people begin asking how they could have known what was coming, how they could have predicted it, how they could have anticipated and guarded against its madness. The odd part of that exercise? The little Austrian had spelled out all his intentions in a book -- in 1925.
He had hidden nothing. It was in the record all along. It wasn’t news.