Error by Trial

By O'Neill, Brendan | The American Conservative, November 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

Error by Trial


O'Neill, Brendan, The American Conservative


[The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, Vincent Bugliosi, Vanguard Press, 352 pages]

ALTHOUGH I WAS IMPLACABLY, on occasion almost violently, opposed to President George W. Bush's war in Iraq, I have never subscribed to the idea that he should be prosecuted for it. Something about the demand for Bush to be impeached or tried, either in an international criminal court or in the United States, left me cold. It didn't feel right.

Now, after reading Vincent Bugliosi's spectacularly self-aggrandizing book, I know why. The call to try Bush is built on lawyerly arrogance. It is informed by a deep disdain for the democratic process and the people who vote in it. It is powered by a conviction that politicians should be held to account in the court of experts rather than in the court of public opinion. And its central argument--that Bush's invasion of Iraq is "the most serious crime ever committed in American history"--leads to the excusing, even the whitewashing, of the foreign-policy crimes of earlier presidents.

The legalistic case against Bush is elitist, undemocratic, histrionic, and historically simple, and it ought to be rejected by anyone who wants to have a proper--or even, political--debate about American military interventionism and how we might bring it to an end.

Bugliosi has had a colorful career as a lawyer and author. At the LA County district attorney's office, he has successfully prosecuted 105 out of 106 felony jury trials, including 21 murder convictions. He has, he proudly tells us, secured capital punishment for eight murder defendants--which I admit is eight more people than I have ever condemned to death. He put Charles Manson behind bars and wrote about it in Helter Skelter, "the biggest selling true-crime book in publishing history." Yet none of these achievements excuses Bugliosi's continual and cloying self-congratulation. He must suffer from repetitive strain injury as a result of patting himself on the back so much.

His new book, it seems, aims to deliver two messages--the Bush administration is ghastly and Vincent Bugliosi is wonderful: "I seem to naturally see what's in front of me completely uninfluenced by the clothing--reputation, hoopla, conventional wisdom, etc.--put on it by others."

Bizarrely, Bugliosi spends two pages of the first chapter telling us that he was the only person who immediately noticed that, in the U.S. Open tennis final of 1983, Ivan Lendl simply "gave up" against Jimmy Conners. A month later, Bugliosi was vindicated when two "tennis greats" said that they, too, were "disgusted by Lendl's performance." If, like me, you find yourself bamboozled as to why a 25-year-old tennis match should be discussed in detail on pages seven and eight of a book about the "hell on earth that is Iraq," Bugliosi quickly explains: his perspicacious judgment of Lendl's performance shows "this tendency of mine to see what is in front of me in its pristine condition." Others are "blindingly patriotic," which is "not a mindset that is conducive to critical thinking."

At times, Bugliosi tries to be humble, but it's a false humility, actually designed to boost his claim to be the most farsighted defender of American values on earth. "I am not, as the Los Angeles Times said of me, an 'American master of common sense,'" he writes, but simply someone who doesn't fall "into the same unthinking trap that so many humans do." This is masterful: he lets us know that the LA Times thinks he is a "master of common sense" while disavowing the idea, thus proving himself both brilliant and modest, just the kind of aloof figure who could hold a president to account.

Having established in his first chapter that he is always right (on O.J. Simpson, on Paula Jones and Bill Clinton, and, of course, on Ivan Lendl), Bugliosi moves on to his argument for allowing wise lawyers to prosecute Bush. At first, he seems solid on the basics of the Iraqi debacle. …

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