Magazine article The American Prospect

In Bed with Bob Barr: How Conservatives Became the ACLU's Best Friends. (GAZETTE)

Magazine article The American Prospect

In Bed with Bob Barr: How Conservatives Became the ACLU's Best Friends. (GAZETTE)

Article excerpt

IN A SENSE, THE ONLY PEOPLE truly prepared to spring into action after the terrorist attacks on September 11 were the civil-liberties groups. "I knew there was going to be a problem, that we were going to see an effort to restrict civil liberties," recalls Morton Halperin, a State Department veteran and former national-security analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. The day after the attack, Halperin began e-mailing his colleagues. By the time they called their first press conference on September 20, they had a name (Organizations in Defense of Freedom), a 10-point statement of principles, and even spin-offs (such as Computer Scientists in Defense of Freedom). They also had a secret weapon: Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, scourge of the liberals, conservative guru par excellence. "The Bush administration said, `We've got a bill that we've gotta pass right away,'" recalls Norquist. "As soon as I heard that, I began to get worried." While Halperin and the ACLU were rounding up the usual suspects on the left, Norquist was working his connections on the right. By the end of September, Organizations in Defense of Freedom included not just the left-leaning Alliance for Justice, Americans for Democratic Action, and Human Rights Watch, but also such conservative groups as Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation, and the American Conservative Union.

Almost immediately, prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill began to sound a lot like Ted Kennedy. "Why is it necessary to propose a laundry list of changes to criminal law generally and criminal procedure generally and cast such a wide net?" Republican Congressman Bob Barr demanded during the House Judiciary Committee's first hearing on Attorney General John Ashcroft's antiterrorism proposals. "And why is it necessary to rush this through?" Instead of passing Bush's antiterrorism bill in two days, as the administration had originally asked, Congress spent two weeks picking it apart. "We did triage," says Norquist. "We said, `Slow the bill down, and please read it.' And we said it is legitimate, in the middle of a crisis, to ask questions about this kind of bill."

HOW DID REPUBLICAN CONSERVAtives become the most important defenders of civil liberties on the Hill? A certain brand of high-minded civil-liberties thinking has always been a part of conservative ideology. But the ACLU's new allies hail from a more grass-roots antigovernment tradition, a conservatism that mixed frontier libertarianism with a bitter loathing of Bill Clinton and his attorney general, Janet Reno. For these hard-core antigovernment types, the early-1990s showdowns at Ruby Ridge and Waco were not tragic accidents but modern Palmer Raids: illegal federal crackdowns aimed at suppressing conservative dissent. And in 1994, the antigovernment conservatives found a political voice. That year, congressmen from the South and the Mountain West became the vanguard of Newt Gingrich's Republican Revolution. The federal government would never be the same again, they declared.

Then, in April 1995, came the Oklahoma City bombings. Two weeks later, the White House unveiled a massive antiterrorism bill that included funding for as many as 1,000 new agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms--"jackbooted thugs," as an NRA fundraising letter sent that March had described them--as well as new wiretapping powers and the establishment of a domestic antiterrorism center. A few days after that, Bill Clinton gave his famous speech that attacked "militias and all others who believe that the greatest threat to freedom comes from government"--drawing a devastating (albeit somewhat unfair) connection between Timothy McVeigh and the Republicans elected to Congress six months earlier. Suddenly, Clinton and the Democrats stood for law and order, while the class of '94 stood for militias and terrorism.

The Republicans were stunned. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.