My dad is a World War II hero, a winner of the Distinguished Flying Cross, so not much scares him. He does not, however, talk about politics. It makes him very uneasy and nervous to discuss subjects outside of his comfort zones — flying, tennis, golf, bicycles and the success of his children and grandchildren. So when he started to speak about people who oppose the president, the war in Iraq and issues like global warming, I listened.
My dad, as most citizens of this nation and planet, understands the concept of the First Amendment of our Constitution, the right to free and open speech and a free and open press. My father believes that personal opinion is sacred and is worth fighting for, except when it comes to criticizing the president of the United States. Moreover, he is not alone in that opinion.
John Adams, angered by criticism made against his government, was fearful that words could overthrow the government. The Sedition Act of 1798 said that it was illegal to “write, print, utter, or publish” anything criticizing the president and Congress. (Note that the rift between Adams and Thomas Jefferson was so great that the vice president was excluded from the list of officials.) The law died a natural death in 1801. But not for long.
Lincoln produced similar acts during the Civil War, Wilson during World War I, FDR during WWII and Bush II after 9/11 with the passage of the Patriot Act. However, the Bush administration seems to be exceptionally sensitive to criticism and scrutiny by the free press, private citizens and now President Carter.
James Madison said, “It would seem a mockery to say that no laws should be passed for preventing publications from being made, but that laws might be passed for punishing them in case they should be made.”
President Carter, or any citizen of the United States or of this planet, should be praised, not sanctioned, for criticizing a sitting president of the United States, the administration, policies or actions. It is this free, open society for which Americans fight and die.
President Reagan, in his eulogy of the Challenger astronauts, reminded the world that the First Amendment’s guarantees are sacred to Americans. “We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all upfront and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute.” He was talking about an open and free government, a free press and the fair exchange of opinion.
Unfortunately, presidents do keep secrets, lie and change rules when open and free speech may obstruct their lust for power. It took a free press to discover the wrongdoings by Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon, to catch Reagan with Iran-Contra and Clinton with Monica.
The American free press exposed administration wrongdoings. Individual citizens asked the questions and looked for the truth and will continue to expose future governmental acts of maladministration and malfeasances. As Mr. Reagan said, I would not give that up for a minute.
It took those criticizing the president’s administration to start the American debate. Think about the wars, the economy, the relationships the United States has with the rest of the world and with its own citizens. That is the purpose of the Opinion/Editorial page. That is the purpose of open forums: To make you think. To force the question into the open and to allow John and Jane Q. Public to voice opinions, pro or con, well-written or clumsy,
soft-spoken or screamed. The voice of the people allowed by the law of the land.
I believe President Carter has the right and the obligation to criticize on the administration if his opinion holds a logic base. My father thinks it is treason. We are both right. I believe that Madison and Reagan were also right. Without our collective voices, without our ability to question and criticize, the Untied States would be no better than the terrorists we fight.
David Rosman is a Columbia resident.