How I Learned to Survive (and Thrive) in the Contact Sport of Congress
By Robert Wexler, David Fisher
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Robert Wexler
All rights reserved.
Capitol Warfare: When Do Liberals Have Their Surge?
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Big old Wexler, that lousy phony. Another liberal fraud from Brooklyn. Wexler. See him ripping into [Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales. A fake case if I ever saw one. Screaming at him. The last time I saw a politician scream at someone like that was in Nazi Germany in the kangaroo court trial against people who conspired to kill Hitler. Wexler really went crazy. Oh, the tough guy. He has more hatred for Gonzales than he does for Osama bin Laden and the Islamists. — Right-wing talk-show host Michael Savage
I was elected to the House of Representatives in 1996. For a decade I served not so quietly in the minority, watching with dismay as the Republican majority raged out of control. During my first term the right-wing Congress attempted to destroy the presidency of Bill Clinton by raising a personal failing to the level of a high crime or misdemeanor against the nation. And then, with the Supreme Court's appointment to the presidency of George W. Bush following the stolen 2000 election, the Republican Congress wholeheartedly abrogated its responsibility to serve as an equal branch of the government, instead acting in concert with a woefully incompetent administration to all but drain our country of meaningful political debate, dangerously minimize our standing in the world, and mortgage the economic future of our children. These so-called conservatives who have taken control of the Republican Party stood by willingly as the Bush administration invaded our privacy and violated our personal liberties while making all of us less safe. They have done this repeatedly, but certainly their most significant action was lying and manipulating America into the calamitous war in Iraq — and then using that war as a political weapon to question the patriotism of anyone who dared utter a peep of dissension.
These same right-wing Republicans have done everything possible to destroy the progressive movement in America — the people actively trying to stop them — by creating and utilizing an effective propaganda machine intended to turn the word liberal, or even simply Democrat, into a synonym for traitor. Unable or unwilling to debate issues on the facts, they have resorted to name-calling — which is why my simple act of asking legitimate questions to inept and disingenuous public officials such as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales can so casually be equated to the horrors of Nazi Germany.
To these people, opposing the policies of the Bush administration is not a philosophical or intellectual disagreement. Rather it is an affront to the core values of so-called true Americans. Rush Limbaugh actually told his listeners, "Liberalism is a kind of perversion." In the vernacular of the right there is no such thing as the loyal opposition; instead, anyone who disagrees with them is vilified, attacked, and if possible destroyed. Rarely will they have the courage to debate the issues. It's not "This is what Robert Wexler said, and this is why he's wrong." It's "Robert Wexler is a pacifist, unpatriotic, turncoat wacko who is committing treason." Their strategy of character assassination isn't limited to liberals and Democrats, either; even mainstream Republicans who do not embrace their agenda are subjected to vitriolic political and verbal attacks. They've even created a word, Rino, meaning "Republican in name only," to describe Republicans who dare to deviate from the party line.
I would be happy to debate these people about the issues facing this country — or about the damage they inflict upon this nation by spewing political hatred for their own profit — in front of a neutral audience. But I have little expectation that any of them — Limbaugh, Coulter, Savage — would have the courage to accept that offer. They refuse to engage in discussions they don't control completely. They have to own the microphone. George W. Bush set the standard for them during his election campaigns when the carefully vetted audiences at his appearances consisted solely of people who supported him.
Well, I am a proud liberal Democrat. I believe without reservation in the greatness of America and our Constitution. I'm a patriot. I love and respect our flag and what it stands for at least as much as the Rush Limbaughs and Tom DeLays of this world — I dare say even more, because I'm also brave enough to hold sacrosanct the rights conferred on every American by that Constitution — even those with whom I disagree. And that commitment to true justice is owed equally to the most and least deserving among us. I take freedom seriously. In my view, a liberal is someone who cherishes our liberties so much that at times he or she is compelled to take unpopular positions to protect and preserve our rights.
The most popular conservatives consider liberals to be their enemy. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, "Every day we come in here and have to defend this country against Democrats and liberals." He has referred to me as "the disgusting Robert Wexler" and my constituents in Florida's 19th Congressional District as "deranged," "lunatics," "wacko," and "devoid of rationality or reason." In 2000 Sean Hannity complained that Al Gore had "unleashed the most partisan people in the country, like Robert Wexler, to go out there and purposely distort issues." Neil Boortz ridiculously claimed that Senator Barack Obama chose not to wear an American flag pin on his lapel because "the U.S. flag — regardless of what he thinks — the flag of this country irritates a lot of Democrat voters."
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of these people — the conservative politicians and their media support group — is that they religiously appeal to the basest instincts of certain segments of the American people. They foment fear, they foment hatred, they employ stereotypes, and the net result is anger. There may well be times when anger is an appropriate emotion, but the conservative movement in America seems to me to be an ongoing effort to encourage people to be bothered and inflamed. These conservatives actively attempt to stoke profound division between Americans for right-wing political gain by using the most personal issues, issues like race and religion and sexual preference, to arouse that anger. This harsh tactic dates back to conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who launched his campaign for the presidency in 1980 with an appearance in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where only sixteen years earlier three young civil rights workers had been murdered and buried in a dam, a crime for which no one had then been convicted. In his speech that day Reagan proudly supported "states' rights," a code term at that time for racism and segregation. These wink-and-nod tactics continued through 2000 when George W. Bush spoke at Bob Jones University — which at that time officially prohibited interracial dating — as a means of appealing to white, fundamentalist voters. Rightwing conservatives like Bill O'Reilly fight the fictional "War on Christmas" allegedly being waged against Christians; they roil their political base by scapegoating homosexuals who seek only the same legal rights of partnership offered to heterosexuals, by claiming that their desire to marry would somehow threaten traditional marriages.
As a proud liberal I have been fighting these people throughout my political career. When the right wing disregarded the good of the nation and attempted to impeach President Clinton, I found myself, mostly by an accident of timing, acting as one of his most public defenders. When my congressional district and our butterfly ballots became the epicenter of the battle for the presidency in 2000 — during which conservatives ignored their own long-established support for states' rights to hijack the election — I became one of the most vocal advocates for election reform. Who could have imagined that concepts as basic to our democracy as one person, one vote, and that the right to vote includes the right to have your vote counted, would still be considered controversial in America? In fact, at every opportunity available to me I have spoken out against these right-wing attempts to subvert our political process, and along the way earned the enmity of their defenders.
Certainly a telling example of their way of doing political business was the appearance in September 2007 of General David Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq and the architect of the so-called "surge strategy," before a joint panel composed of members of both the House Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I am a member, and the House Armed Services Committee. This hearing was held supposedly to report the results of President Bush's decision to send thirty thousand additional troops to Iraq to provide the time and security necessary for the Iraqi government to move forward toward stability and political reconciliation. Rather than appearing himself to answer these vitally important questions, or sending a ranking member of his administration to defend his policy, the president sent General Petraeus. The general appeared before us in his impressive full-dress uniform — and the message was clear: To scrutinize the administration policy we would have to cross-examine a courageous soldier, and by inference we would be slighting our brave military men and women. It was a typically cynical Bush administration strategy.
And it reminded me of two historical appearances before Congress by soldiers in uniform: conservative hero and talk-show host Colonel Oliver North, who came before Congress wearing all his medals and smugly lied under oath by denying he had been selling weapons to the Iranian government; and the commanding general of our troops in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, who gave Congress a glowing and misleading report about the military's progress in that country. I have tremendous respect for the men and women of our military, and have become convinced that they, too, have been victimized by the Bush administration, and so I was determined not to be cowed into silence. I had no intention of blindly supporting General Petraeus because of his impressive uniform and distinguished résumé.
Several times throughout this war, military commanders had appeared before Congress to echo the political desires of the administration — and then, seemingly moments after they retired, they publicly offered scathing criticisms of the conduct of the war. Apparently they were just following orders. The truth is the truth whether you are an active general or a retired general. How was it responsible to the men and women they were commanding, to support a strategy that apparently they didn't believe in when they were in command? This country has paid a staggering price for their silence, but the men and women in uniform have paid the dearest price. More than twenty retired generals have defied military tradition by publicly criticizing the Bush Iraq war policy after they retired. Major General Paul Eaton, for example, who helped revive the Iraqi army, called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld "incompetent strategically, operationally, and tactically." Retired four-star Marine General Anthony Zinni, the former head of Central Command, described the behavior of the Bush administration as ranging from "true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility" to "lying, incompetence, and corruption." Imagine what might have changed had these generals spoken up years earlier. Knowing this, being angry about this, I was ready to confront General Petraeus when he appeared before Congress to testify.
I wish I could claim that I was one of those few brave politicians who spoke out against this war from the very beginning and voted against giving President Bush the authority he needed to wage military action against Iraq, but I was not. I came too late to that position. I remember the week Congress voted on the Iraq resolution. There is a homeless gentleman who can be found most days sitting on a bench outside the Rayburn building, a House office building. Sometimes he sings, sometimes he rants. Truthfully, I assumed he was mentally ill. As I walked to the Capitol one afternoon that week that we voted to give Bush the power he had requested, this man was screaming loudly, "There's no weapons of mass destruction! There's no weapons of mass destruction!"
I walked past him thinking, He's just another "crazy nut." The crazy nut turned out to be absolutely right. Admittedly it took me some time to understand how wrong I had been to trust the Bush administration. One afternoon I was being interviewed by Randi Rhodes on her Air America radio program. Randi Rhodes is the liberal answer to the Limbaugh-Coulter-Boortz axis of misinformation — the difference being that Randi deals with facts and reality, exudes integrity, and passionately appeals to our highest ideals of intellectual honesty and public service. Randi had been against the war from the very beginning. On this occasion, she listed simply and concisely all the administration's lies, all its fabrications, all its misdeeds and manipulations, and at the end asked me, "How could you buy this? How could you be fooled?"
As I sat there listening I thought, Randi makes a strong case. I hope I'm not wrong. How could I have bought it? I had voted to give President Bush the authority he requested based on a series of confidential briefings given to members of the House by high-ranking government and military officials. There had been a great deal of descriptive discussion about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). We'd been warned about the horrors that America would encounter if we didn't support the administration's policy. These briefings certainly reinforced my belief that Saddam Hussein was a repugnant and dangerous man and that the world would be safer if he was deposed. I'd believed the testimony detailing the possibility of nuclear weapons in a suitcase. I'd believed Secretary of State Colin Powell when he came before the Foreign Affairs Committee, and later stood in the United Nations, and presented evidence that Hussein possessed these horrific weapons. That was my mistake. Having seen up close the way the Bush team operated following the 2000 election, perhaps I should have been more suspicious. As jaded as I was about George W. Bush and his administration, I could not fathom that even Bush and Cheney would be so dishonest as to lead us to war on cherry-picked intelligence, manipulated data, and a series of blatant misstatements.
I was not going to repeat my initial mistake. Since that first vote I'd been a consistent critic of the manner in which the Iraq War was being prosecuted. About six months after the war began, in September 2003, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, then in charge of the provisional government, appeared before the Foreign Affairs Committee. At that time the full extent of the administration's postwar incompetence was yet to be known. The American people were still in the midst of the postcombat euphoria. Saddam Hussein had been deposed. The search for the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction was still in progress, but the assumption was that they would be found.
During my career in the Florida Senate and then the United States Congress I had questioned countless witnesses at innumerable hearings about an extraordinary variety of subjects, and rarely had I heard an answer that surprised me, much less shocked me. But that day I did. I asked Bremer, "I was wondering if you could share with us in terms of civilians and soldiers how many Iraqis have been killed during the military operation and how many have died since President Bush declared the military operation over."
Bremer replied, "I don't have those numbers, sir."
That seemed to me to be a pertinent piece of information. How many enemy soldiers had died in the war? How many civilian casualties had there been? Bremer seemed somewhat incredulous that anyone even cared. When he admitted he didn't know I was stunned. "You have never asked how many Iraqis have been killed?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from Fire-Breathing Liberal by Robert Wexler, David Fisher. Copyright © 2008 Robert Wexler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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