ROME, ITALY -- A slightly unreal moment this afternoon. Here in the land of Dante, as the taxi from the airport sped by the ruins of the Roman Forum and glimpses of the Coliseum up the side streets, the car radio began playing the seventies hit "Disco Inferno." As Dorothy Parker would have said, what fresh Hell is this?

It has been that kind of year, one of incongruities and contrasts in which just about everything seemed a little off-kilter or more. It was the year of the real life-and-death Terri Schiavo story and fictional "Desperate Housewives;" the death of John Paul II and Rosa Parks; the re-election of Tony Blair and the indictment of Tom DeLay (who told one, presumably stunned audience, "Humility is something I work on every day.").

It was the year of Katrina and Rita, peace mom Cindy Sheehan and hawk turned dovish owl Jack Murtha, London underground bombings and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, intelligent design and runaway brides. President Bush announced his complete confidence in both Karl Rove and Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who told Congress in March he had never used steroids, then six months later tested positive.

The year saw the rise of UN Ambassador John Bolton and Justice John Roberts and the fall of Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers and FEMA?s hapless, hopeless Michael Brown. We found out the identity of Woodward and Bernstein?s "Deep Throat," and read the Downing Street Memos, but we still don?t know what columnist Robert Novak told the grand jury that indicted Scooter Libby (or even if Novak testified at all).

It was a year in which an episode of the kids show "Postcards from Buster" was kept off public television stations because it depicted a stable lesbian couple and their well-adjusted kids, but a moonlighting gay escort roamed the corridors of the White House playing journalist and pitching softball questions to the president and his press spokesman.

And it has been a year in which "Victory in Iraq" has become the new "Mission Accomplished." Promises of democracy in Iraq are ephemeral at best, and in jarring contrast to the continuing debate over those held at Guantanamo and allegations of torture at detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and secret prisons in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Sadly, the one thing that has remained consistent is the Bush administration?s obsession with power, secrecy and dissembling. As a fictional Bush explained to us in a political cartoon earlier this year, "I didn?t mislead. You misfollowed."

All of this has become blatantly manifest in the year-end revelations of massive, unilateral, domestic eavesdropping without judicial oversight. As the Washington Post reported December 18, "In his four year campaign against al Qaeda, President Bush has turned the U.S. national security apparatus inward to secretly collect information on American citizens on a scale unmatched since the intelligence reforms of the 1970s."

Much as the president and vice president used the horrors of 9/11 as the excuse to implement an attack on Iraq that had been desired by neo-conservatives since the end of the first Gulf War, they have also used the war on terror to hasten the agenda they?ve wanted from the start: bringing the presidency to an unprecedented level of power and dominance. They do so with near complete disregard for the system of checks and balances among the White House, Congress and courts essential to American democracy.

Their flouting of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is just the latest transgression. As Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold noted, "This is not how our democratic system of government works. The President does not get to pick and choose which laws he wants to follow. He is a president, not a king."

Or, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writing last year?s majority decision in Hamdi v Bush, "We have long since made it clear that a state of war is not a blank check for the president when it comes to the rights of the nation's citizens."

In the Chicago Tribune on Christmas Day, conservative columnist Steve Chapman wrote, "To call this an imperial presidency is unfair to emperors... What we have now is not a robust executive but a reckless one. At times like this, it's apparent that Cheney and Bush want more power not because they need it to protect the nation, but because they want more power."

Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Here in Rome, amidst the ruins of an ancient city that epitomize imperial hubris, those words ring especially, poignantly true. Happy New Year.

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