The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture

by TChris

After enduring eight years of (mostly) unwarranted attacks against President Clinton – every new scandalous allegation reported with utter conviction on the right wing airwaves – it is easy to feel a not-quite-guilty pleasure in the accusations of misconduct directed at Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, Karl Rove, and every other miscreant in the reigning Republican government. They might all be innocent, but it is difficult to sympathize with those who built their careers by denouncing the invented transgressions of their political enemies.

Lanny Davis (quoted in this NY Times article) is correct that a “presumption of guilt culture … has come about in Washington in the last 10 or 15 years.” A presumption of guilt culture extends across the entire country. The presumption of guilt has been nurtured by the “get tough on crime” crowd, a movement spearheaded by right wing politicians, although plenty of Democrats have played along. It isn’t fair, but it isn’t unique to this administration. Accused Republicans may feel their guilt has been unfairly presumed, and maybe it has, but they played a part in building a culture that condemns on the basis of accusation, without awaiting due process or the testing of evidence by confrontation and counter-evidence.

Here’s Davis talking about his experience in the Clinton administration:

"It's hard to imagine how bad it is. You sit at your desk and you know what the facts are, but you can't get them out to the public because the lawyers tell you you can't - or if you can, the noise from the presumption of guilt culture overwhelms the facts."

That may have been true in the Clinton administration, but today’s Republicans have learned the value of the preemptive strike. DeLay’s supporters attack the accuser, buying TV time to condemn the prosecutor. While his lawyer might be telling him to zip his lips, DeLay is happy to blame a vast left wing conspiracy for his troubles. Rove is making a seemingly desperate return to the grand jury, perhaps to “clarify” earlier errors or omissions in the hope that one last spin will create reasonable doubt and avoid an indictment.

Perhaps DeLay and David Safavian will be acquitted, or the charges dismissed. Perhaps Frist and Rove and Scooter Libby will never be charged. They are all presumed innocent, and no writer at this site ever forgets that even people who clearly deserve our scorn are entitled to a fair trial and to the protections of the Bill of Rights.

To the extent that serious accusations of wrongdoing are supported by evidence rather than chatter – a distinction lost on much of the mainstream media during the Clinton years – they nonetheless deserve public scrutiny. And if that scrutiny produces in observers from the left a small measure of satisfaction, a sense of karma, or a reaffirmation that (as Last Night in Little Rock observed here) “what goes around comes around,” the Roves and Frists and DeLays have only themselves to blame. They and their ilk share responsibility for this culture; now they must live in it.

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    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#1)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:04:59 PM EST
    When I woke up this morning, I was excited about the possibility of turning on the tv and discovering that Karl Rove, maybe Dick Cheney, may be getting indicted today. I felt like I feel at Christmas when I'm about to open a present when I know what it is and I really really want it. Then I realized how terrible this is. This is my country. This is a disgrace.

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#2)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:04:59 PM EST
    Was it just me or was Chris Matthews implying on Hardball that the talk in DC is that Cheney may be in Fitzies's sights?

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#3)
    by Dusty on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:04:59 PM EST
    All I know is this..the Repubes made their bed when they went after Bill Clinton..now they gotta lie in it..I still say Clintons indescretions were nothing compared to what the Repubes have been caught and accused of doing..They spent millions of bucks on the Whitewater fiasco to no avail..and Monica-gate was tacky but it didn't endanger someones life, or funnel money to the DNC illegally..

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#4)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:04:59 PM EST
    In this situation the presumption of guilt eminates from the repigs themselves! They have consistantly got away with what would under any other circumstances indictable Crimes and misdemeanors! They know it. They arrogantly assumed their grip on power would protect them. I as a democrat do not accept that I have been assuming Guilt before innocents. Even if it is so a little pay back doesn't hurt and does not mean we have abandoned the principle, only suspended it, with just cause. In my mind it truly angers me that the repigs have always potrayed those of us who seek to protect and preserve our civil rights as weak and therefore soft on Crime. Now that the shoe is on the other foot I don't want to hear how I want to deny them their right to the presumption of innocents!

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#5)
    by jimcee on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:00 PM EST
    Yes the presumption of guilt has become the norm, just look at the Plame posts on this site. Heck, just look at some of the recent threads on TL.

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#6)
    by theologicus on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:00 PM EST
    Perhaps the presumption of guilt culture has something to do with the acceptance (even if uneasy acceptance) of how our country is treating "detainees" in the "war on terrorism" (to use those propagandistic words). The denial of due process and the resort to unlimited detention and the subjection of these human beings to torture and abuse all seem predicated on a "presumption of guilt." Perhaps we could say that a "presumption of guilt culture" is just a smaller part of our larger culture of death.

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#7)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:00 PM EST
    I appreciate Lanny Davis' point. But the very fact that we are talking about a culture-wide trend means that it is unlikely to change soon. I don't think Nancy Grace (queen of the lynch mob) is going to retire or change her spots because she read Davis's essay. So, sorry, but I can't see why Tom DeLay and Karl Rove should be treated any differently by the media and the public than Richard Jewell and Gary Condit.

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#8)
    by Talkleft Visitor on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:00 PM EST
    I am not sure this is a new phenomenon at all. In any case, whether it is a cultural trend or not, DeLay and Rove have Swift-boated lots of people, and Frist is such a gold-plated hypocrite that he makes a fun target for everyone. Let the games begin.

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#9)
    by SeeEmDee on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:00 PM EST
    Look, people, all this got started with ol' Tricky Dick and his calls for a "Law 'n' Order!" society...while quietly setting in motion things like the LEAA and the DEA that did nothing but trample laws and threaten order. This then led to the War on Drugs being trebled under Tricky's tutelage, and it has continued to gather steam since then, trample rights, (like civil forfeiture does to the 4th Amendment) and lead to the kind of 'presumed guilty' mindset that this and past Administrations have demonstrated. But its' primary engine is the War on Drugs, and most pols know it, but all are afraid to say something about it. Until that is stopped, until some legislator stands up and speaks the taboo words, the rot in the criminal justice system and the attendant assault on civil liberties will continue unabated.

    Re: The 'Presumption of Guilt' Culture (none / 0) (#10)
    by cpinva on Sat Dec 17, 2005 at 01:05:00 PM EST
    strange as it may seem, it makes no difference what nancy grace, or steven colbert, for that matter, think. since neither is actually a prosecutor, they can opine to their heart's content, and it is all just meaningless drivel. to colbert's credit, he tells you that up front, grace acts like we should take her seriously. what a potato head! the same goes for all the rest of the talking/writing heads clan: meaningless drivel, unless accompanied by an indictment. the meaningless drivel about delay was. big difference there. i've learned (the hard way) to pretty much ignore the media, absent their including independently verifiable facts. since most of the time they don't, that leaves me more free time to fish. fish don't care what sean hannity says.