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Robert Jackson: American Idol

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November 26, 2008

In the midst of the transition hubbub, I want the world to remember that George W. is still very much in office – holding a pen and the power to obliterate civil liberties through the use of twilight provisions.

I realize why Americans are all too eager to awake from the strange nightmare that has been the Bush administration – it has seemed interminable. How far away does 2004 seem right now? Or 2003 for that matter? When I started working at the ACLU, John Ashcroft was still the Attorney General. Had someone told me then that Ashcroft would be redeemed as a defender of (certain) liberties in a melodramatic near-deathbed showdown with nefarious minions of Cheney, I would have laughed. The man who insisted the “Spirit of Justice” wear a robe? Surely you jest.

And yet this nightmare has been more brief than it seems. Only eight years ago the idea of the U.S. employing torture, spying on citizens, and issuing “national security letters” to librarians seemed like the realm of Orwell. Fitting then, that our current Attorney General keeps a portrait of the author of “1984” above his desk.

Dahlia Lithwick, in this week’s issue of Newsweek, chronicles some of the challenges ahead for the upcoming Attorney General. In addition to releasing the DOJ memos that authorized illegal conduct, Lithwick weighs in on whether the DOJ should be the agency in charge of investigating itself. For guidance, she points to former Attorney General and Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor Robert Jackson. Jackson said the AG should be a person who “tempers zeal with human kindness, who seeks truth and not victims, who serves the law and not factional purposes.”

Strangely enough, the other portrait currently hanging in Mukasey’s office is the very same Robert Jackson. Irony, it seems, is far from dead.

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