This afternoon, the Federalist Society at the University of Chicago Law School sponsored an interesting debate. It featured Berkeley law professor John Yoo, author of the so-called “torture memos,” and Bob Barr, the prominent libertarian and former congressman, debating the following subject: “Presidential Power v. Civil Liberties in Times of War.”
(Executive power is the subject of Professor Yoo’s new — and well-reviewed — book, Crisis and Command.)
Reports on the proceedings from attendees — plus comment from Professor Yoo, who apparently accused the Bush Administration of “incompetence and stupidity” — after the jump.
UPDATE: Photos added, after the jump.
One correspondent who attended the event emailed us the following collection of highlights:
1. John Yoo basically reaffirmed the thesis of his book, Crisis and Command, which is that the best US presidents are those that have acted strongly (and sometimes extra-constitutionally) during difficult times of crisis: Lincoln, FDR, and Andrew Jackson being the major examples.
2. Bob Barr accused Yoo of advocating a position that says that the best presidents of the US are the ones that act illegally.
3. Barr also said that those “below the Mason-Dixon line” don’t think that Lincoln was a good president, and that he had denied them their “fundamental rights” to secede from the union.
4. After being asked a question about whether one could criticize the Bush Administration for acting outside of Jeffersonian and Lockean theories of acting extra-legally, Yoo responded something very close to the following: “If you’re going to criticize the Bush Administration, there’s no need to limit yourself to fancy theories; the starting point to criticize the Bush Administration is ‘complete incompetence and stupidity.’” (The last four words are a direct quote.)
Professor Yoo, whom we contacted to check the accuracy of this write-up, had a correction here:
I think the quote is a little different. After “fancy theories,” I said more something along the lines “why not just try incompetence and stupidity?”. I think your correspondent is giving me too many words.
Note, by the way, that this comment is arguably ambiguous. Was Yoo himself calling the Bush Administration incompetent and stupid, or was he saying that a liberal critic might label it as such? It’s not perfectly clear (although multiple sources who were at the debate lean in favor of the former).
5. It wasn’t until the very last question during the question period that anybody said anything about the torture memos. Someone asked what he would have done differently if he had to do the torture memos over again. Yoo said that he would draw the line in “exactly the same place,” but that he would have been sure to “say nice things about everyone, I guess” if he had known that the torture memos would have been made public. He also said that it was difficult, that there were lots of time and political pressures involved, that it was a difficult legal issue that there wasn’t much authority about. But basically, he told everyone who disagrees with him about the torture memos to go fly a kite.
6. Barr added that he thought all of the crazy liberals (he didn’t quite say that, but implied it) who wanted to arrest John Yoo were trying to undermine the role of advocates in the legal process.
7. Oh yeah, John Yoo said that he “hate[s]” James Madison and Thomas Jefferson as presidents.
Our correspondent wasn’t the only person taking notes. A certain Zach Stephenson covered the debate on Twitter (but not in real-time; as he tweeted, and as we’ve reported before, Chicago Law doesn’t have wireless in its classrooms).
Stephenson’s tweets are basically consistent with what our correspondent sent us via email. Regarding the incompetence / stupidity comment, Stephenson tweeted as follows:
Yoo said that he thought it was fair to criticize the Bush Admin for being “stupid” and “incompetent.”
Let’s get to the bottom line: Who won? In Stephenson’s opinion, “I think Yoo won, though at times it did feel like they were trying to out crazy each other.”
P.S. We have a soft spot for the U. Chicago chapter of the Federalist Society. They were kind enough to invite us to participate in a joint event with Judge Richard Posner, on the topic of judges as public figures (podcast here, via the U. Chicago Faculty Blog).
Federalist Society Presents John Yoo & Bob Barr on “Presidential Power v. Civil Liberties in Times of War” [University of Chicago Law School]
UPDATE: Here are two photographs from the debate. Click on each image to enlarge.