|March 21, 2006|
Speaking Truth, Out of Office and After the Fact
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
New York's greatest mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, famously said, "When I make a mistake, it's a beaut."
It was a rare moment of candor for a politician still in office, as the Little Flower was at the time. Far more typical of an officeholder's behavior is a stance built so solidly on prevarication and dissemblance that, in the words of journalist Michael Kinsley's now classic definition: "A 'gaffe' is when a politician tells the truth."
Take Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold's resolution to censure President Bush. In less than five pages it lays out its evidence and asks the Senate to condemn the president's "unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, his failure to inform the full congressional intelligence committees as required by law, and his efforts to mislead the American people about the authorities relied upon by his Administration to conduct wiretaps and about the legality of the program."
Feingold speaks true. He has a strong and convincing case, but by Kinsley's definition, it's a gaffe of the highest order, especially to Democrats fearful of alienating the center and energizing the right.
They may have a point. As justified and righteous as the Senator's stand may be, perhaps it's better for Democrats to keep their eyes on the prize and not distract from winning the midterm elections. Take back Congress, with all its attendant chairmanships, investigative and subpoena powers; then more fruitfully pursue presidential crimes and misdemeanors.
To Republicans, Feingold's censure attempt is even worse: it's (sputter) ... it's (choke) ... treason! "Democrat leaders never miss an opportunity to put politics before our nation's security," Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman e-mailed supporters last week. "They would rather censure the president for doing his job than actually fight the war on terror." (Remember that when a move was made to censure Bill Clinton instead of impeach him, the GOP fumed that it would be far too mild and wimpy a rebuke.)
You have to be a former incumbent to get away with being a truthful one. Like onetime Iraqi interim prime minister Iyad Allawi, who told the BBC Sunday, "We are losing each day 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."
Or a former military maven, like retired US Army Major General Paul Eaton, once in charge of training Iraqi troops. Freed of the constraints of service, in a March 19 New York Times op-ed piece, he shot straight: "Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not competent to lead our armed forces," Eaton wrote. "First, his failure to build coalitions with our allies from what he dismissively called 'old Europe' has imposed far greater demands and risks on our soldiers in Iraq than necessary. Second, he alienated his allies in our own military, ignoring the advice of seasoned officers and denying subordinates any chance for input.
"In sum, he has shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically, and is far more than anyone else responsible for what has happened to our important mission in Iraq. Mr. Rumsfeld must step down."
Equally outspoken have been recent speeches by former Vice President Al Gore about Iraq, domestic surveillance and civil liberties, media reform and climate change (including his upcoming global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth"). Ezra Klein writes in the current issue of The American Prospect, "Since his loss, Gore has undergone a resurrection of sorts, shrugging off the consultants and the caution that hampered him during the campaign... evolving into perhaps the most articulate, animated and forceful critic of the Bush administration."
If Gore were to demonstrate such forthright candor in a campaign he might make a hell of a candidate, although, according to Klein, "Long standing associates... say his appetite for a second campaign seems to depend, at least partially, on whether he judges it an issue-oriented endeavor that allows him to continue speaking out on matters of substance or just another round of dodging media-narratives and churlish characterizations."
Then there's former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who recently spoke out against such politicians as Republican Texas Senator John Cornyn and Rep. Tom DeLay, both of whom have attacked Federal court decisions, questioned judicial independence, and, in Cornyn's case, suggested a connection between judicial activism and violence against judges.
In a speech at Georgetown University March 9, covered only by National Public Radio and the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin, and not, unfortunately, recorded or transcribed, O'Connor warned, "We must be ever vigilant against those who would strong-arm the judiciary."
According to NPR's Nina Totenberg, O'Connor said she was "against judicial reforms driven by nakedly partisan reasoning" and pointed to "the experiences of developing countries and former communist countries where interference with an independent judiciary has allowed dictatorship to flourish... It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, she said, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."
DeLay scoffed that Justice O'Connor, "ought to read the Constitution again. There's no danger of dictatorship while people feel free to express their views and it's a ridiculous suggestion."
Ridiculous? One can only hope DeLay soon will feel freer to express the truth when he, too -- with any luck -- joins the ranks of former incumbents, gainfully unemployed.
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
Copyright 2006 Messenger Post Newspapers
Michael Winship, Writers Guild of America Award winner and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.
Interested in contributing an article to BuzzFlash? Click here for more info.
Articles in the BuzzFlash Contributor section are posted as-is. Given the timeliness of some Contributor articles, BuzzFlash cannot verify or guarantee the accuracy of every word. We strive to correct inaccuracies when they are brought to our attention.