GHWB’s Gallery of Irony

You could fairly ask why the National Constitution Center – a museum devoted to the US Constitution – would name a new gallery for George H.W. Bush. This, after all, is the president who irresponsibly appointed Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court’s least qualified appointee since at least WWII, whose signature contribution during 20 years on the bench is his ongoing effort to legitimize prison beatings. (Really.) VP while the Reagan administration was running roughshod over the Constitution during the Iran-Contra affair, Bush, as president, pardoned everyone implicated, arguably to obstruct investigation into his own law-breaking.

But the salient facts are that GHWB is a former chairman of the Center, and that his son Jeb is the current chair – and so with nauseating irony GHWB is getting his eponymous gallery. According to Center president Jeffrey Rosen, the George H.W. Bush gallery will for the next three years, “be the focal point… of debate and education about the meaning of the Bill of Rights.” Barf bags, anyone?

As if to double-down on the grotesque, the task of obfuscating George Bush’s antagonistic relationship to the Bill of Rights was given to Justice Samuel Alito, who Bush appointed to the Third Circuit in 1990. Alito, after all, has himself been hard at work eviscerating the Bill of Rights since Bush Duh put him on the Supreme Court in 2006. It’s kind of like adding a George Wallace wing to a Black History Museum – with the dedication ceremony conducted by Charles Murray.

Conservatives like Alito cannot sing the praises of the Bill of Rights without irony. Speaking at the dedication ceremony, Alito distinguishes the American Bill of Rights as “having teeth” – as compared to other declarations of human rights that, through history, have not been so readily enforceable. The joke is that Alito has made a career of knocking those teeth out at every opportunity.

Three Constitutional cases were deadlocked 4-4 at the time Alito was seated on the Court, each implicating the Bill of Rights. Solely for Alito’s benefit were they reargued, so that he might cast the tie-breaking vote. Alito went 3-for-3: his was the fifth vote to undercut liberties protected by the 1st (speech), 4th (search and seizure) and 8th (cruel and unusual punishment) amendments in those three cases, respectively.

Alito was just warming up. His subsequent decisions have undermined women’s right to choose, expanded the police power, and reduced free speech protections; his dissents have often advocated even greater violence toward the Bill of Rights. So perhaps it’s unsurprising what his short talk on the history of the Bill of Rights included – and excluded.

Alito began by asserting that the Bill of Rights is a “codification” of those “unalienable rights” alluded to in the Declaration of Independence. He conveniently fails to mention that, as a codification, it is explicitly incomplete. Which is probably why, in his discussion of the views of the late 18th century supporters and opponents of the Bill of Rights, he fails to mention one of the Bill’s most important objections: that the absence of a particular right from the Bill might be used as evidence that that right does not exist. This problem was cured by the 9th amendment, which forbids that specific form of reasoning. But go try finding a conservative like Alito who has ever used the 9th amendment to expand the protections of the Bill of Rights.

Alito goes on to discuss the importance of the defeat of fascism in WWII for the spread of human rights worldwide. Ever more ironically, he fails to acknowledge that the Bill of Rights itself was not generally operable against state governments until the 1960s. Before then, the state police could break into your house without a warrant, arrest you and beat you for a confession, and the Constitution had nothing to say about it. That only changed when liberal justices changed the law, over the objection of the Court’s conservatives.

If the National Constitutional Center were enhanced by a gallery dedicated to efforts to undermine the Bill of Rights, it could hardly have a more fitting name, nor a more apt individual to introduce it.

 

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