The Perp

     Just as a Danish cartoon had become an international 
incident, the farce of Dick Cheney, vice president and 
alleged perpetrator, turned into a solemn episode. The 
apparently slight wounds suffered by his 78-year-old 
lawyer friend Harry Whittington suddenly appeared more 
serious when they resulted in a minor heart attack.

     A seemingly small incident, not without its comical 
angles, became the latest media uproar. It wasn't clear 
what, if anything, Cheney was guilty of -- are hunting 
accidents now impeachable offenses? -- but at this point 
he and the Bush administration have become so disliked 
and distrusted that even their innocent mishaps are 
subject to wild overreaction.

     To hear some journalists, you would gather that the 
White House had been trying to cover up a particularly 
ghastly crime during the few hours between the shooting 
and its curious disclosure via a local Texas newspaper. 
The incident provoked Maureen Dowd of THE NEW YORK TIMES, 
usually a level-headed commentator, to a hysterical 
recitation of the administration's atrocities, among them 
"setting up gulags abroad."

     Tempers were running high on both sides. Rush 
Limbaugh roared back by reminding his audience of 
Chappaquiddick, contrasting Cheney's solicitude for the 
wounded Harry Whittington with Ted Kennedy's callous 
abandonment of Mary Jo Kopechne.

     I'm all for historical perspective, but by now the 
Chappaquiddick parallels are getting a little dog-eared, 
and it may be time to move on.

     Meanwhile, the incident set off the Winter Olympics 
of late-night comedy, as the wags of the witching hour 
attempted to rise to the occasion with what they 
immediately recognized as the most promising mother-lode 
of merriment since the heyday of Monica Lewinsky. The 
laughter abated somewhat when Whittington's heart attack 
was announced, whereupon moral indignation displaced 

     Couldn't Cheney, Dowd asked, at least make some 
public gesture of "contrition and humility"?

     This was turning into one of those incomprehensible 
brawling debates where knives, bricks, foodstuffs, and 
dishware are flying through the air and even the two 
sides can't agree on just what they're fighting about. 
You can pretty well forget about making sense of it all, 
but David Ignatius of THE WASHINGTON POST gave it a try, 
finding "the arrogance of power" in the Bush White House. 
Cheney had acted as if he were "above the law" in his 
delay in reporting the shooting accident, just as he and 
Bush have misused privileged intelligence information ... 
well, the logic eluded me somewhat.

     Not that Ignatius didn't have some good points. When 
charged with breaking the law with warrantless wiretaps 
and the like, Bush and Cheney, he complained, "assert the 
commander in chief's power under Article II of the 
Constitution," which, according to them, "trumps 
everything," including acts of Congress.

     Ignatius is so right. But he forgets one thing. Bush 
and Cheney are just playing a Republican riff on the 
theme liberal Democrats have been singing for decades: 
the Living Document. Two can play this game, and the 
Republicans can find their own penumbras and emanations 
when they want to.

     Not so long ago, liberals were celebrating those 
great presidents who took a "creative" or "expansive" 
view of executive power. It wasn't until Richard Nixon 
that the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., one of the 
great troubadours of the famous victories of Franklin D. 
Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, began to have qualms about 
"the imperial presidency."

     Well, you never know where historical perspective 
will strike next, I always say. I am no great fan of 
George W. Bush either, but liberals can thank themselves 
for him.

     There is an even greater irony here: The men Bush 
has selected for the U.S. Supreme Court, John Roberts and 
Samuel Alito, seem likely to join Antonin Scalia and 
Clarence Thomas in rejecting the whole idea of the Living 

     The evidence isn't in yet, but they may wind up 
ruling against such usurpations of power as Bush has been 

     In the end, then, liberals may find themselves 
grateful for all those reactionary Catholics on the 
Court. Like nuclear weapons, the Living Document can be 
dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands!

Blasphemy and Law

     A rash of anti-Christian humor, as well as more 
serious projects like the novel (and forthcoming film) 
THE DA VINCI CODE, has prompted Neely Tucker of THE 
WASHINGTON POST to write a short piece on the history of 
American blasphemy. In 17th-century Maryland, for 
example, a blasphemer could be sentenced to having his 
tongue nailed to a tree.

     There is no record that this penalty was ever 
inflicted, but it's startling to be reminded that laws 
against blasphemy -- meaning insults to Christianity -- 
remained on the books until fairly recently even in 

     Today European culture is quite tolerant of 
anti-Christian blasphemy, but is getting nervous about 
anti-Muslim blasphemy. It has long since adopted 
anomalous taboos against a new kind of blasphemy, 
"Holocaust denial." This makes it odd for Europeans, in 
the current cartoon war, to insist that "freedom of 
speech is non-negotiable." They have already proved 
themselves ready to negotiate it, as David Irving, in his 
jail cell in Austria, can attest.

Who's to Blame for the Church?

     In a sense, the recent attacks on Christ, serious or 
flippant, strike me as long overdue. They have been 
implicit in all the hypocritical attacks on "organized 
religion" and "the institutional Church" which purport to 
distinguish between "the simple message of Jesus" and its 
alleged "corruption" in later creeds, rituals, 
theologies, and moralities.

     If you create a sentimental pseudo-Jesus, in harmony 
with modern fashion, you can make the Church your 
scapegoat for all the things you don't like about the 
real Jesus.

     For example, we are told that the Church was 
anti-Semitic from the first Apostles (who were Jews 
themselves) to the Second Vatican Council, which finally 
"repudiated" the anti-Semitism that had led to the 
Holocaust. If we suppose this ugly charge is true, it 
seems that Jesus created a religion of love that almost 
immediately became a matrix of hate, and then remained so 
for two millennia. Whose fault was that? Jesus bears no 
responsibility for the nature of the Church?

     Again, even many professed Christians deny that the 
words "This is my body" were meant literally. The 
Catholic Church still affirms that they were, and both 
John's Gospel (chapter 6) and St. Paul indicate the same. 
Is this another corruption of the "simple message"?

     Same-sex marriage, Andrew Sullivan now tells us, is 
in accordance with the Simple Message, whereas 
discrimination against homosexuals is contrary to it. 
Jesus, you see, stood for "inclusion," and the Pope still 
doesn't get it.

     This way of exculpating Jesus is pretty 
unconvincing. If we don't like the Church, why not put 
the "blame" where it obviously belongs?

                 +          +          +                  

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