Truth, Reconciliation, and Obama

As we step around the wreckage wrought by the Bush administration, one awkward but crucial question is how much we need to look backward in order to clearly see the way forward. President Obama, for the most part, has signaled a desire to avoid recrimination and retribution, and to focus on the future. That approach is noble and healing, as well as shrewd politics -- but only to a point.

The South African post-apartheid regime had to engage in a painful truth and reconciliation process before the nation could move on. South Africa's commission was unprecedented, and it took the stunning collaboration of Nelson Mandela and the more contrite veterans of the former racist government such as former President F.W. de Klerk. The more normal process, following revolutionary change, was for the victors simply to put the vanquished on trial; or to just draw a curtain around a hideous past, as many Germans did after the Nazi era.

In South Africa, as Mandela appreciated, the former oppressors and oppressed both had to come to terms with their past if they were to get along as one nation in the future. Something similar will need to occur if Israel and Palestine are ever to have durable peace.

This process should not be undertaken lightly. The Whitewater persecution and the impeachment of Bill Clinton was political farce. Yet the Watergate investigations of Richard Nixon culminating in an impeachment and a presidential resignation were not divisive; they were clarifying and unifying.

So it is not simple "recrimination" to come to terms with historical abominations. The analogy with post-Bush America, of course, is far from perfect. We did not lose all of our constitutional rights under the Bush-Cheney regime, only some of them. The peaceful election of an opposition-party administration is proof of that. And Barack Obama did not have to emerge from prison to begin a new chapter in American race relations.

Yet it is not quite enough for President Obama to simply reverse a series of Bush executive orders. The abuse of constitutional powers under Bush was so extreme that some kind of high-profile reckoning is required. It may even require trial and punishment of some high-level offenders, so that we are not left with a legacy of officially sanctioned torture in which only the lowest level G.I.'s were left to take the fall. At the very least, a public accounting of constitutionally dubious uses of executive power by some kind of prestigious commission that recommends safeguards for the future would help put closure on the era and prevent a repetition.

President Obama has spoken forcefully about false choices between liberty and security. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals," he declared in his Inaugural Address. "Our founding fathers, faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations."

Yet, there will be debates inside the administration on which parts of the so-called Patriot Act to repeal, if any, and whether the CIA and National Security Agency are to continue to be given any extra legal authority. These debates should be conducted in the light of day.

The same kind of official retrospective investigation of financial abuses is needed if we are to reform financial markets effectively. This enterprise is not just a matter of technical knowledge but of political will. Wall Street is not exactly volunteering to march compliantly into a new era of regulatory constraints. There is still enormous political resistance by many of the very people who bankroll America's political class -- people who get their phone calls returned much more quickly than ordinary citizens. Just as the risk to the stimulus package is that we will do too little, not too much, there is a risk that financial reform will fall short of what's needed.

Before the financial reforms of the New Deal could proceed, it took the masterful investigations of what came to be known as the Pecora Committee (actually the Senate Banking and Currency Committee) in 1933 and 1934. By laying bare the abuses and educating the public as to what had occurred (and this was before live TV coverage), Pecora laid the political groundwork for enactment of what had previously been considered impossibly radical reforms. These included bringing securities markets under strict federal regulation for the first time -- an achievement largely undone by the regulatory default of recent decades.

Though some committees have been doing a good job, such as the House Financial Services Committee under Rep. Barney Frank and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform under Henry Waxman, no congressional body currently has the mandate or resources to do a Pecora-scale inquest on all the financial abuses. Rep. Frank's priorities have been more legislative than investigative. Rep. Waxman, one of Congress's legendary investigators, has gone on to a new post as chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, leaving the oversight committee to be chaired by Rep. Ed Towns of Brooklyn, one of the most conservative of Democrats and a man who often votes with business special interests.

The Congressional Oversight Panel, created as part of the bailout legislation, will conduct oversight of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) process and make general reform recommendations. Looking under the tarp will help, but the panel has no subpoena power.

What Congress needs is a select committee with wide ranging powers to investigate just what occurred, so that reforms will be strong enough to prevent a repetition. Radical reform always requires public education and mobilization. Sometimes, a rearview mirror is just what's needed to help see the road forward.

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