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I often write about freedom, but have never defined it.

Freedom, in the classical liberal tradition, exists only within the context of three conditions: self-government, civil rights and the rule of law. Take away any one of these pre-requisites and you seriously erode a nation’s claim to freedom.

You could argue that all three of these conditions are under attack in America’s Clinton era.

When less than 50 percent of the eligible public chooses to participate in a presidential election and there is widespread disenchantment with both major political parties, the system of self-government is clearly in danger.

When new “special” rights are bestowed upon favored classes of people, because of their race, gender or behavior patterns, the universal rights that transcend government edict are cheapened and assaulted.

And, most of all, when the rule of law no longer applies to those in the most powerful positions of authority, the system is headed for a breakdown. It is the undermining of this last prerequisite of freedom in America today that threatens to knock the country off its enviable pedestal of liberty.

The first warning shot in this war on the rule of law was fired when the incoming Clinton administration chose an unprecedented course of action — the firing of every single U.S. attorney in the country and installation of handpicked replacements.

At the time, even Clinton critics missed the point. Some postulated that this was an action designed to camouflage the derailing of investigations into financial scandals in Arkansas. While that was no doubt a consideration, in retrospect, we should be able to see with the benefit of hindsight that the new administration had much bigger plans in mind — offensive plans rather than a defensive one.

This was a move designed to remove what Vice President Al Gore, later caught red-handed using his high office for overtly political purposes, would call “the controlling legal authority.” It was the first of many programs designed to place the administration above the law. It was the beginning of an effort to remove any legal accountability of a future pattern of criminal activity. It was the end of accountability to anything but public opinion polls.

A second major development — quite legal, but highly suspect — was the unexpected, summary firing of FBI Director William Sessions in the administration’s first year in power. Here was another independent law-enforcement figure who could prove inconvenient to a White House bent on breaking all the rules.

With just those two often overlooked but strategic political maneuvers, Clinton cleared the field for a broad pattern of abuse of power — misusing the White House Travel Office, misusing the confidential FBI files of political adversaries, misusing the Internal Revenue Service to target enemies and stifle opposition, misusing other federal law enforcement agencies to cover up crimes, misusing federal employees to conduct purely political work and damage-control operations, misusing the office of the presidency to sell favors to private interests including hostile foreign powers, and, yes, even misusing White House interns and volunteers.

If only Nixon had been this clever — if only he had planned ahead for the criminal activity in which he would participate — he would have served out his two terms in office. Nixon, however, waited until he got into trouble before he started firing the controlling legal authorities. Clinton removed them in advance.

This is how the end could begin for 200-plus years of increasing freedom in America. The attack on liberty has come from the top, as it always does. Power is the enemy of freedom — the polar opposite. And what we see developing in Washington today is a centralization and consolidation of raw, unprincipled, unaccountable political power.

I know, this may sound a bit dire, a trifle “conspiratorial,” maybe even a little paranoid. But think about it. Facts are facts. The events we are witnessing today on the national scene are unparalleled in American history. The consequences could be grave. The president’s power has paralyzed a Congress controlled by the opposition party. An “independent counsel,” appointed by the administration, has been reduced to a national joke. The establishment press is baffled, bemused and hopelessly disengaged.

Who can stop this juggernaut of officially sanctioned organized crime? Could this be the end of the world’s greatest experiment in freedom?

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