October 01, 2006

Learn This Lesson Now: How to Fight -- and Win

[I indicated some of the numerous ways in which the Democrats could have fought to preserve the ultimate foundation of liberty and to resist the abomination known as the Military Commissions Act in an essay yesterday, "Thus the World Was Lost." Some months ago, I offered related suggestions about how to oppose the coming attack on Iran, assuming the Democrats wish to, toward the conclusion of "Morality, Humanity and Civilization: 'Nothing remains...but memories'."

Rather than offering further thoughts of my own about how to wage this fight, I here republish a critically relevant essay that I first offered on June 21, 2005, about the battles waged by the now-revered Senator Robert La Follette, battles whose ferocity is unmatched by anything today. It is worth remembering, and it should be emphasized repeatedly, that La Follette was most definitely not revered in his own lifetime; in fact, he was vilified far and wide. Yet history vindicated him, and his bleak warnings about the catastrophic effects of the U.S. entrance into World War I are today widely acknowledged to have been entirely correct. His voice speaks to us very powerfully now, especially at this terrible moment in the story of our nation.

So I say to the Democrats: if you still a give a damn at all, let this man be your model. Fight the way he did. Show the same fire, the same moral confidence and passion, and the same undaunted and unflinching courage.

To any Democrats who take up this challenge, I will offer my undying thanks, and my unstinting praise. Of much greater significance is the fact that all Americans, now and in the future, will owe them a profound debt, one that can never be repaid -- and, as in the case of "Fighting Bob," history will see and acknowledge what they have done, and the great gallantry they embodied.]



Let this be a lesson to all of us: with a very small handful of exceptions, there are no people in federal elected positions worth defending today. Even if they understand the issues, they will back down when under attack and when the heat becomes too great. What is infinitely worse in Senator Durbin's case is that he genuinely appeared to understand the truth -- and to know that he was entirely correct in what he said.

The crucially important truth that he spoke did not matter in the end, not even to him. So we finally come to concession, and surrender:
Under fire from Republicans and some fellow Democrats, Sen. Dick Durbin apologized Tuesday for comparing American interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp to Nazis and other historically infamous figures.

"Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line," the Illinois Democrat said. "To them I extend my heartfelt apologies."

His voice quaking and tears welling in his eyes, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate also apologized to any soldiers who felt insulted by his remarks.

"They're the best. I never, ever intended any disrespect for them," he said.


By last Friday, Durbin was trying to clarify his comments, yet the White House and top Republicans including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist refused to relent. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in an interview scheduled for broadcast Wednesday on Fox News radio's "The Tony Snow Show," tried to equate the comment with actress Jane Fonda calling U.S. soldiers war criminals during a visit to North Vietnam in 1972.

On Tuesday, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley -- a fellow Democrat -- added his voice to the chorus of criticism, saying, "I think it's a disgrace to say that any man or woman in the military would act like that."

Durbin said in his apology: "I made reference to Nazis, to Soviets, and other repressive regimes. Mr. President, I've come to understand that's a very poor choice of words."
The tears were a nice touch.

Anyone who is honest is well aware that Senator Durbin never "intended any disrespect" for our military personnel, just as anyone who is honest knows that the similarity he spoke of concerned only certain practices engaged in by various regimes, and that the similarity he referred to was one of principle, not degree. None of this is that complicated, but the intellectual gangsters in our midst -- among whom Donald Rumsfeld holds a leadership position -- have made it impossible to have a serious, adult conversation about anything, especially about those matters that should concern us the most.

Don't take false comfort from the notion that our culture has changed in some important way that makes it impossible to take a principled stand, and to remain committed to it no matter what the consequences may be. Certainly our national discourse is now very corrupt, and it has been turned into a viciously anti-intellectual contest of smears. Everyone -- from members of the mainstream media, to our political leaders, to the warbloggers -- trumpets the theme that dissent is treason without end. [Today, dissent makes you an "unlawful enemy combatant" -- as Ashcroft, Rumsfeld and others have told us. With the enactment of the Military Commissions Act, that means the president can now lock you up for the rest of your life. End of story. End of you.]

But not all those many years ago, another Senator faced a campaign of vilification that has never been equalled. The attacks on Durbin didn't even come close. Here is part of that other Senator's story:
ON March 25, 1921, at the age of sixty-five, Robert M. La Follette Sr. took the greatest risk of his long political career. Four years after he chose to lead the Congressional opposition to World War I, La Follette was still condemned in Washington and in his native state of Wisconsin as a traitor or--at best--an old man whose political instincts had finally failed him. But La Follette was not ready to surrender the U.S. Senate seat he had held since leaving Wisconsin's governorship in 1906. He wanted to return to Washington to do battle once more against what he perceived to be the twin evils of the still young century: corporate monopoly at home and imperialism abroad.

The reelection campaign that loomed just a year off would be difficult, he was told, perhaps even impossible. Old alliances had been strained by La Follette's lonely refusal to join in the war cries of 1917 and 1918. To rebuild them, the Senator's aides warned, he would have to abandon his continued calls for investigations of war profiteers and his passionate defense of socialist Eugene Victor Debs and others who had been jailed in the postwar Red Scare.

The place to backpedal, La Follette was told, would be in a speech before the crowded Wisconsin Assembly chamber in Madison. Moments before the white-haired Senator climbed to the podium on that cold March day, he was warned one last time by his aides to deliver a moderate address, to apply balm to the still-open wounds of the previous years, and, above all, to avoid mention of the war and his opposition to it.

La Follette began his speech with the formalities of the day, acknowledging old supporters and recognizing that this was a pivotal moment for him politically. Then, suddenly, La Follette pounded the lectern. "I am going to be a candidate for reelection to the United States Senate," he declared, as the room shook with the thunder of a mighty orator reaching full force. Stretching a clenched fist into the air, La Follette bellowed: "I do not want the vote of a single citizen under any misapprehension of where I stand: I would not change my record on the war for that of any man, living or dead."

The crowd sat in stunned silence for a moment before erupting into thunderous applause. Even his critics could not resist the courage of the man; indeed, one of his bitterest foes stood at the back of the hall, with tears running down his cheeks, and told a reporter: "I hate the son of a bitch. But, my God, what guts he's got."

This was the La Follette that his friend Emma Goldman referred to lovingly as "the finest, most inconsistent anarchist" of his time. This was the man so fierce in his convictions that he would risk consignment to political oblivion rather than abandon an unpopular position. The antithesis of the elected officials whose compromises characterize our contemporary condition, La Follette genuinely believed that the inheritors of America's revolutionary tradition would, if given the truth, opt not for moderation but for the most radical of solutions.
Because of his unique courage and integrity, La Follette won reelection overwhelmingly. Durbin and others might take a lesson from that.

Here is some more from the same article about Fighting Bob:
WHAT is it about La Follette that has made him such an enduring figure? It comes down to a single idea: America, La Follette argued throughout his political life, cannot live up to its ideals so long as militarism and corporate power warp our democracy.


By the time he was elevated to the U.S. Senate in 1906, La Follette was already a national figure. He soon emerged as a leader of the Senate's burgeoning progressive camp and by 1912 was a serious contender for the Republican Party's Presidential nomination. The fight for the nomination exposed divisions within the progressive camp, however, as La Follette's more radical followers battled supporters of a more centrist reformer who also claimed the progressive mantle: former President Teddy Roosevelt.

The Roosevelt/La Follette split grew more pronounced five years later, as the nation prepared to enter World War I. While Roosevelt urged U.S. participation in the war--the position supported by the nation's political establishment--La Follette emerged as the leading foe of a war he described as a scheme to line the pockets of the corporations he had fought so bitterly as a governor and Senator.

La Follette personally held up the declaration of war for twenty-four hours by refusing unanimous consent to Senate resolutions. From the Senate floor, La Follette argued: "We should not seek [to] inflame the mind of our people by half truths into the frenzy of war." He painted the impending conflict as a war that would benefit the wealthy of the world but not the workers, who would have to fight it. And he warned: "The poor . . . who are always the ones called upon to rot in the trenches have no organized power. . . . But oh, Mr. President, at some time they will be heard. . . . There will come an awakening. They will have their day, and they will be heard."

Those words sounded treasonous to some, and La Follette's constant efforts to expose war profiteers only heightened the attacks upon him. He was targeted for censure by the Senate, portrayed in Life magazine as a stooge of the German Kaiser, and denounced by virtually the entire media establishment of the nation--including the Boston Evening Transcript, which announced, "Henceforth he is the Man without a Country."

As mounting domestic oppression sent more and more anti-war activists to jail, La Follette emerged as their defender, berating his colleagues with the charge that "Never in all my many years' experience in the House and in the Senate have I heard so much democracy preached and so little practiced as during the last few months."

His critics declared that La Follette would never again be a viable contender for public office.

And yet, less than four years after the Armistice, running on a platform that explicitly recounted his opposition to the war and his opposition to imperialism, La Follette won reelection with more than 70 percent of the vote in Wisconsin. And two years later, he earned one out of every six votes cast for the Presidency of the United States.
Remember the nature of the battle La Follette fought against Wilson's drive to war:
Patriotic fervor for the War was strong following Wilson's decision, but vocal opposition continued. The Espionage Act, signed by the President on June 15, made it a crime to say anything that would discourage enlistment in the armed forces and also set penalties for those who disclosed information on ship movements or other actions affecting mobilization. Senator La Follette of Wisconsin, one of the six Senators who voted against the war resolution, also opposed the draft and argued that wealthy individuals and corporations should pay the costs of a war that he contended was mainly for their benefit. Pro-war newspapers and groups supported resolutions introduced in the Senate to expel him for treason, but La Follette eloquently defended the right to dissent in a famous speech delivered on the Senate floor in October. See Robert M. La Follette, Senate Speech on Free Speech in Wartime, October 6, 1917.
And here is an abridged version of that speech given on October 6, 1917:
Mr. President: I rise to a question of personal privilege.

I have no intention of taking the time of the Senate with a review of the events which led to our entrance into the war except in so far as they bear upon the question of personal privilege to which I am addressing myself.

Six Members of the Senate and fifty Members of the House voted against the declaration of war. Immediately there was let loose upon those Senators and Representatives a flood of invective and abuse from newspapers and individuals who had been clamoring for war, unequalled, I believe, in the history of civilized society.

Prior to the declaration of war every man who had venture to oppose our entrance into it had been condemned as a coward or worse, and even the President had by no means been immune from these attacks.

Since the declaration of war, the triumphant war press has pursued those Senators and Representative who voted against war with malicious falsehood and recklessly libelous attacks, going to the extreme limit of charging them with treason against their country.

This campaign of libel and character assassination directed against the Members of Congress who opposed our entrance into the war has been continued down to the present hour, and I have upon my desk newspaper clippings, some of them libels upon me alone, some directed as well against other Senators who voted in opposition to the declaration of war.
One of these newspaper reports most widely circulated represents a Federal judge in the State of Texas as saying, in a charge of a grand jury -- I read the article as it appeared in the newspaper and the headline with which it is introduced:

"District Judge Would Like to Take Shot at Traditions in Congress

"(By Associated Press lease wire)

"Houston, Texas, October 1, 1917. Judge Waller T. Burns, of the United States district court, in charging a Federal grand jury at the beginning of the October term today, after calling by name Senators Stone of Missouri, Hardwick of Georgia, Vardaman of Mississippi, Gronna of North Dakota, Gore of Oklahoma, and LaFollette of Wisconsin, said:

"'If I had a wish, I would wish that you men had jurisdiction to return bills of indictment against these men. They ought to be tried promptly and fairly, and I believe this court could administer the law fairly; but I have a conviction, as strong as life, that this country should stand them up against an adobe wall tomorrow and give them what they deserve. If any man deserves death, it is a traitor. I wish that I could pay for the ammunition. I would like to attend the execution, and if I were in the firing squad I would not want to be the marksman who had the blank shell.'..."

If this newspaper clipping were a single or exceptional instance of lawless defamation, I should not trouble the Senate with a reference to it. But, Mr. President, it is not.

In this mass of newspaper clippings which I have here upon my desk, and which I shall not trouble the Senate to read unless it is desired, and which represent but a small part of the accumulation clipped from the daily press of the country in the last three months, I find other Senators, as well as myself, accused of the highest crimes of which any man can be guilty -- treason and disloyalty -- and, sir, accused not only with no evidence to support the accusation, but without the suggestion that such evidence anywhere exists. It is not claimed that Senators who opposed the declaration of war have since that time acted with any concerted purpose, either regarding war measures or any others. They have voted according to their individual opinions, have often been opposed to each other on bills which have come before the Senate since the declaration of war, and, according to my recollection, have never all voted together since that time upon any singe proposition upon which the Senate has been divided.

I am aware, Mr. President, that in pursuance of this campaign of vilification and attempted intimidation, requests from various individuals and certain organizations have been submitted to the Senate for my expulsion from this body, and that such requests have been referred to and considered by one of the committees of the Senate.

If I alone had been made the victim of these attacks, I should not take one moment of the Senate's time for their consideration, and I believe that other Senators who have been unjustly and unfairly assailed, as I have been, hold the same attitude upon this that I do. Neither the clamor of the mob nor the voice of power will ever turn me by the breadth of a hair from the course I mark out for myself, guided by such knowledge as I can obtain and controlled and directed by a solemn conviction of right and duty.

But, sir, it is not alone Members of Congress that the war party in this country has sought to intimidate. The mandate seems to have gone forth to the sovereign people of this country that they must be silent while those things are being done by their Government which most vitally concern their well-being, their happiness, and their lives. Today, and for weeks past, honest and law-abiding citizens of this country are being terrorized and outraged in their rights by those sworn to uphold the laws and protect the rights of the people. I have in my possession numerous affidavits establishing the fact that people are being unlawfully arrested, thrown into jail, held incommunicado for days, only to be eventually discharged without ever having been taken into court, because they have committed no crime. Private residences are being invaded, loyal citizens of undoubted integrity and probity arrested, cross-examined, and the most sacred constitutional rights guaranteed to every American citizen are being violated.

It appears to be the purpose of those conducting this campaign to throw the country into a state of terror, to coerce public opinion, to stifle criticism, and suppress discussion of the great issues involved in this war.

I think all men recognize that in time of war the citizen must surrender some rights for the common good which he is entitled to enjoy in time of peace. But, sir, the right to control their own Government according to constitutional forms is not one of the rights that the citizens of this country are called upon to surrender in time of war.

Rather, in time of war, the citizen must be more alert to the preservation of his right to control his Government. He must be most watchful of the encroachment of the military upon the civil power. He must beware of those precedents in support of arbitrary action by administration officials which, excused on the pleas of necessity in war time, become the fixed rule when the necessity has passed and normal conditions have been restored.

More than all, the citizen and his representative in Congress in time of war must maintain his right of free speech.

More than in times of peace it is necessary that the channels for free public discussion of governmental policies shall be open and unclogged. I believe, Mr. President, that I am now touching upon the most important question in this country today -- and that is the right of the citizens of this country and their representatives in Congress to discuss in an orderly way, frankly and publicly and without fear, from the platform and through the press, every important phase of this war; its causes, and manner in which it should be conducted, and the terms upon which peace should be made.

The belief which is becoming widespread in this land that this most fundamental right is being denied to the citizens of this country is a fact, the tremendous significance of which those in authority have not yet begun to appreciate. I am contending, Mr. President, for the great fundamental right of the sovereign people of this country to make their voice heard and have that voice heeded upon the great questions arising out of this war, including not only how the war shall be prosecuted but the conditions upon which it may be terminated with a due regard for the rights and the honor of this Nation and the interests of humanity.

I am contending for this right because the exercise of it is necessary to the welfare, to the existence of this Government, to the successful conduct of this war, and to a peace which shall be enduring and for the best interests of this country.

Suppose success attends the attempt to stifle all discussion of the issues of this war, all discussions of the terms upon which it should be concluded, all discussion of the objects and purposes to be accomplished by it, and concede the demand of the war-mad press and war extremists that they monopolize the right of public utterance upon these questions unchallenged. What think you would be the consequences to this country not only during the war but after the war?

Mr. President, our Government, above all others, is founded on the right of the people freely to discuss all matters pertaining to their Government, in war not less than in peace. It is true, sir, that Members of the House of Representatives are elected for two years, the President for four years, and the Members of the Senate for six years, and during their temporary official terms these officers constitute what is called the Government.

But back of them always is the controlling, sovereign power of the People, and when the people can make their will known, the faithful officer will obey that will. Though the right of the People to express their will by ballot is suspended during the term office of the elected official, nevertheless the duty of the official to obey the popular will shall continue throughout his entire term of office. How can that popular will express itself between elections except by meetings, by speeches, by publications, by petitions, and by addresses to the representatives of the people?

Any man who seeks to set a limit upon those rights, whether in war or peace, aims a blow at the most vital part of our Government. And then, as the time for election approaches and the official is called to account for his stewardship -- not a day, not a week, not a month, before the election, but a year or more before it, if the people choose -- they must have the right to the freest possible discussion of every question upon which their representative has acted, of the merits of every measure he has supported or opposed, of every vote he has cast, and every speech that he has made.

And before this great fundamental right every other must, if necessary, give way. For in no other manner can representative government be preserved.
Setting aside the obvious exceptions, I hesitate to pass moral judgment on any individual I do not know personally, and even then I only make such judgments when they are required and upon those matters about which I am certain I am fully informed. So I do not presume to judge Senator Durbin's personal moral character. I don't know what pressures may have been brought to bear, private as well as public. Given the current climate, they may have simply proved to be too much, and too intolerable. Still, I find it hard to believe that they could have been greater than those marshalled against La Follette.

But I do know this much. At the conclusion of his article about La Follette excerpted above, John Nichols writes:
I know that, more than any other leader in American history, La Follette understood this country's promise. And ... I know that, so long as we keep his vision alive, that promise may yet be kept.
We can set aside the superlative employed by Nichols, although I think I understand the emotion that gave rise to it. Certainly there have been other leaders in American political life who "understood this country's promise" -- although not nearly enough, and certainly not nearly enough to keep us safe today.

But by his performance in this matter, Senator Durbin has not helped to keep La Follette's vision alive. That vision, and that promise, have died just a little bit more.

And because of that, all of us are the poorer -- and in even greater danger. Senator Durbin has done none of us any service, and perhaps himself least of all.

We have all lost today, and America has lost the most.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention that, as noted here, "in 2000, a U.S. Senate resolution recognized La Follette as one of the seven greatest senators in American history."

La Follette died in 1925. Nonetheless, I'm certain the belated recognition was a great comfort to him, after having been so unjustly vilified while he lived.