My imperfect but pro-constitution choice for president

By Nat Hentoff, NEA Columnist

Sen. Rand Paul's unexpected March 6-7, 2013, 13-hour filibuster speech against the appointment of John Brennan as head of the CIA was widely seen and reported. But, as customarily happens in this digital age, it was out of the media after a few days.

Few of our kids, watching Facebook or texting, were aware of it, except in the very rare schools with class discussions and debates on contemporary issues relating crucially to citizenship.

For me, Paul made real a fantasy I'd long held: That someone running for the presidency, as he clearly is, would focus insistently on what it means under our Constitution to be an American -- with basic individual rights and liberties that no government has the authority to suspend or erase.

During that crisply related filibuster, for example, he told a sizable, but briefly attentive nation:

"Your government was given a few defined powers (by the Constitution), enumerated powers ... But your liberties are many ....When you read the Ninth and 10th Amendment(s), it says that those rights not explicitly given to government are left to the states and the people. They're yours, not to be disparaged."

Hearing that, I wondered how many Americans know what is in the Ninth and 10th Amendments. Do you?

Then Paul pounced: "They say that the United States is the battlefield (against terrorism) now ... This battlefield being here at home means you don't get due process at home ...



"The question is, is if the government's to decide who are sympathizers (with terrorists) and people who are politicians with no checks and balances are to decide who is a sympathizer, is there a danger really that people who have political dissent could be included in this?"

Edward Snowden's leaks on how relentlessly the government is spying on us have already answered that question.

I had already commented on the 13-hour filibuster ("John Brennan Won. Did the Meaning of America Survive?" Universal Uclick, March 20, 2013), in which I urged teachers to bring Paul's illumination of the dangers to individual Americanism into their classrooms. As far as I know, that hasn't happened.

Paul's filibuster speech also referred caustically to how the media is treating "bipartisanship" in Congress: "They see us not getting along on taxes and spending, but they fail to understand that on something very important, on whether an individual has a right not to be restrained indefinitely, there is quite a bit of partisanship, usually in the wrong direction."

Like Congress passing and Obama signing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which empowers the military to indefinitely imprison American citizens without a trial for "supporting" (not defined) terrorism.

Where did Congress find the authority for endless "restraining" in the Constitution? As for the president, he has made it clear that he has a pen, and having been re-elected, he is the Constitution.

A further sign of Paul's libertarianism appeared on the front page of The New York Times a few weeks ago: "Paul Diverges From His Party Over Voter ID." Speaking in Memphis, "a mostly black and Democratic city," he spoke of the increasing difficulty in voting with stricter regulations in at least 30 states.

"The bigger issue, actually," he said in the Times, "is whether you get to vote if you have a felony conviction. There's 180,000 people in Kentucky who can't vote. And I don't know the racial breakdown, but it's probably more black than white because they're convicted felons. And I'm for getting their right to vote back, which is a much bigger deal than showing your driver's license" ("Paul Diverges From His Party Over Voter ID," Jeremy W. Peters, The New York Times, May 9).

And with a growing presence of government drone planes in the skies right here at home, Paul said as plainly as possible at the start of his filibuster: "I will speak as long as it takes, but until the alarm is sounded from coast to coast that our Constitution is important, that your rights to trial by jury are precious, that no American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found to be guilty by a court."

How many other presidential candidates of either party will be stressing that during their campaigns?

And dig this: In 2011, Paul was one of 12 senators who voted against "three key provisions of the Patriot Act" that covered "roving wiretaps, 'lone wolf' terrorism suspects and the government's ability to seize 'any tangible items' in the course of surveillance" ("Senate passes short-term extension of Patriot Act provisions," Felicia Sonmez, www.thewashingtonpost.com, February 15, 2011).

There'll be more next week on why I'll be voting for Rand Paul if he is nominated -- unless another presidential candidate exceeds his insistent devotion to the Constitution.

A transitional reason for that vote: On March 7, 2014, Paul spoke at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, and at a rousing point in his speech, he said:

"You may think I'm talking about electing Republicans. I'm not. I'm talking about electing lovers of liberty. It isn't good enough to pick the lesser of two evils. We must elect men and women of principle, and conviction and action, who will lead us back to greatness."

These may have been just words, but I believe I have shown so far that this guy has not forgotten what it is to be an authentically active, Bill of Rights-acknowledging American.

We sure need that kind of president in the White House.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.

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