I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Manchurian Terminator

Most significant political officials use speechwriters and other assorted aides for preparing public statements to be issued in their name. And they ought to. Writing well is neither a guarantee nor a requirement for possessing good judgment, and it’s probably best, at least in theory, if elected officials spend their time on the decision-making parts of their job rather than whittling away the late-night hours crafting pretty literary prose.

But to avoid the sensation that elected officials are just plastic puppets who have words inserted into their mouths because they are incapable of expressing coherent thoughts on their own, some effort should be made to comport those prepared speeches and statements to the actual personality and style of the official for whom they are being written.

Following is a (.pdf) excerpt of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s public statement explaining his decision to deny clemency to Stanely Williams. Could this sound any less like Arnold Schwarzenegger:

The basis of Williams’ clemency request is not innocence. Rather, the basis of the request is the "personal redemption Stanley Williams has experienced and the positive impact of the message he sends."4 But Williams’ claim of innocence remains a key factor to evaluating his claim of personal redemption. It is impossible to separate Williams’ claim of innocence from his claim of redemption.

Cumulatively, the evidence demonstrating Williams is guilty of these murders is strong and compelling. . . . Based on the cumulative weight of the evidence, there is no reason to second guess the jury’s decision of guilt or raise significant doubts or serious reservations about Williams’ convictions and death sentence. He murdered Albert Owens and Yen-I Yang, Yee-Chen Lin and Tsai-Shai Lin in cold blood in two separate incidents that were just weeks apart.

Is Williams’ redemption complete and sincere, or is it just a hollow promise? Stanley Williams insists he is innocent, and that he will not and should not apologize or otherwise atone for the murders of the four victims in this case. Without an apology and atonement for these senseless and brutal killings there can be no redemption. In this case, the one thing that would be the clearest indication of complete remorse and full redemption is the one thing Williams will not do.

Clemency decisions are always difficult, and this one is no exception. After reviewing and weighing the showing Williams has made in support of his clemency request, there is nothing that compels me to nullify the jury’s decision of guilt and sentence and the many court decisions during the last 24 years upholding the jury’s decision with a grant of clemency.

The whole statement is similarly sterile and legalistic, complete with footnotes containing ample case law citations.

Whether to issue clemency is one of the more personal and subjective decisions a Governor is forced to make as part of his public duties. And this specific case, for many reasons, provokes lots of passion on both sides. I have little doubt that Schwarzenegger engaged in at least some moral and philosophical thought processes in order to reach the decision he made. None of that is reflected in this statement, but it ought to be.

Part of Schwarzenegger’s original appeal was precisely that he does not speak this way. Like him or not, there is a colorful authenticity to him that most political figures lack, or at least conceal in public. People crave authenticity in political leaders. I think (perceived) authenticity is the first factor which accounts for the popularity of political figures such as John McCain, Howard Dean, and even George Bush. And it’s exactly the attribute which unlikable politicians, such as John Kerry, Bill Frist, and the 2000 version of Al Gore, so painfully lack.

This hallow and legalistic statement issued in Schwarzenegger's name is so unsatisfying because it does not convey the real thought process behind his decision to deny clemency. Clemency is not so much a legal determination as it is a philosophical and moral analysis. The public would benefit from an open and real discussion of what issues Schwarzenegger considered, and how he considered them, when reaching his decision. But this statement provides very little of that, instead feeding us abstract and legalistic rhetoric which was clearly not reflective of how this decision was reached, and is certainly not reflective of how Schwarzenegger would explain his own thinking.

These type of ghost-written statements -- particularly when they are so ill-fitting to the style of the official who is ostensibly issuing them, and when they are so devoid of life -- accomplish little other than to bolster the image of elected officials as artificial, disingenuous, and incapable and/or afraid of expressing a real or honest opinion.

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