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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Lessons of Dead Presidents

It's amazing the number of dead presidents who've been exhumed to prove it's all right to trash the U.S. Constitution.

I'm referring to people who cite the authoritarian excesses of previous chief executives as reasons we shouldn't fear President George W. Bush's plans to run terrorists through military courts.

If these seriously threaten the rule of law and principles of civilian supremacy, so what? Some commentators have dusted off the corpse of John Adams, the second president, who rammed through the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, a hateful package of legislation aimed at Irish immigrants and dissenters who dared criticize the government. In 1800, Adams was mercifully defeated by Thomas Jefferson. America went back to the normal rules.

Since we only occasionally get presidents as great as Jefferson, I'm not sure how reassured I am. Abraham Lincoln may be a better example than the unfortunate Adams. He suspended the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War, a bit of overkill hardly justified when the Union enjoyed such disproportionate advantages of manpower and industrial resources.

Woodrow Wilson imagined himself one of the most high-minded men who ever lived. But he allowed his attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, to practice indiscriminate persecution of suspected radicals that went down in history as the infamous "Palmer Raids."

Franklin D. Roosevelt harnessed wartime hysteria to justify herding American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps.

The whole point is, I guess, that even our most saintly presidents commit atrocities that on longer reflection we wish they hadn't. But why are we so slow to learn that national emergencies are as perilous to civil liberties as the "evildoers" who make up the ranks of the known enemy?

J. Edgar Hoover's reputation with the right wing is not as exalted as it was when he was using a pathetically weak domestic communist menace to justify many of the extra-legal excesses for which his FBI is remembered. For one thing, conservatives squirm uncomfortably at evidence he led a double life dressed in sequined ball gowns.

Would that Bush's track record suggested greater resistance to incautious infringement of civil liberties in the name of security. He cut his teeth in the Texas justice system best known for executing people at the fastest rate in the nation.

If Hoover had had his life to live over again, there's no evidence he wouldn't be the same paranoid, self-promoting oaf. But who doubts that Adams, Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt would have preferred a place in history less flawed by their momentary lapses of good sense? I hope Bush knows enough history to realize his place in it is at stake.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday, to which he contributed this comment.