Rice pulls a Nixon

RICE PULLS A NIXON…. There are all kinds of problems with the “Frost/Nixon” movie, but it’s hard to miss the significance of the disgraced president saying, “[I]f the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” It’s one of those iconic phrases the political world recognizes as the height of abuses of power. Illegal acts are not made legal by virtue of a leader’s whims.

It’s the kind of thing former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should probably be aware of. And yet, there was Rice speaking with some students at Stanford University, when she was asked if waterboarding is, in her opinion, torture. Rice replied:

“[T]he United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

I was especially impressed by Rice’s use of the phrase “by definition,” since it was literally the exact same phrase Nixon used to explain why presidents are incapable of committing crimes.

The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur, who I believe was the first to obtain the video of Rice’s comments, said the former secretary of state “absolutely pulls a Nixon.” (Annie Lowrey has a slightly longer video of Rice’s give and take with students, and a rough transcript.)

As for the substance of Rice’s argument, it’s fascinating to me how oblivious she is to its circular quality. Bush authorized torture. Is that legal? Yes, because Bush authorized torture.

The rule of law isn’t supposed to work this way. To argue, out loud, without humor, that the president is literally above the law is completely absurd, even by the standards of the Bush administration.

This is the kind of kind of argument that should lead Rice to be laughed out of polite company. That won’t happen, of course, but that doesn’t make her ideas any less foolish.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation