Michael Kinsley once remarked that a mistake in Washington is when someone tells the truth. What he forgot to mention is that when someone tells the truth, they are made to pay a price for it in political blood, which is why such occasions are so rare. Although there were several stellar speeches given at the Republican convention, including the President’s own inspiring finale, it was Zell Miller’s stem-winder about his fellow Democrats’ partisanship in a time of war, which made the event for me.
This was the first time in the campaign that any speaker on the Republican side had summoned the courage to hold the Democrats to account for what they had actually done: for their feckless flight from the field battle the moment Baghdad was liberated; and for the disgraceful campaign they waged for an entire year to defame and discredit, and ultimately cripple, the commander-in-chief of America’s forces, still fighting terrorist armies in Iraqi streets. This is what made Zell Miller angry; this is what should make anyone who cares about the outcome of the war in Iraq, or the security of 300 million Americans, or the American future, angry as well. This is why Miller got the ovation he did. And this is why he has been so savagely and vilely attacked by anti-war “liberals” who can’t handle the truth.
Bill Moyer’s The American Prospect, a magazine that speaks for the Democratic Party left called Miller’s speech a “fascist tirade” (I’m cribbing this and the quotes that follow from Jonah Goldberg’s half-hearted defense of Miller in National Review. Like several other conservatives, Goldberg has gone wobbly under the left’s assault.) The normally sober New Republic compared Miller adversely to Joe McCarthy and Pat Buchanan (“Buchanan’s speech, after all, was an assault on decency [but] last night Miller declared war on democracy.”) Clinton maven Joe Klein declared, “I don’t think I’ve seen anything as angry or as ugly as Miller’s speech.” I guess Joe hasn’t been watching Al Gore, or Ted Kennedy or Howard Dean lately -- or for that matter John Kerry, himself, who called the policy that toppled Saddam and liberated 25 million Iraqis, “the most inept, reckless, arrogant and ideological foreign policy in modern history.” More inept than Jimmy Carter? More ideological than Harry Truman or John F. Kennedy? But then one of the generic problems of the left is its inability to smell its own bad breath or make even the most modest accounting of its own mistakes.
I won’t spend much time on the wretched accusation by Miller’s “liberal” detractors that he was once a Dixiecrat. Coming from a crowd that embraces its current racists (and defends racial preferences) and that is ready to bellow MCCARTHYISM! anytime anyone so much as mentions a past position or association reflecting negatively on one of their own, why should anyone stoop to answer such smears? Liberals abhor the “politics of personal destruction” except when they’re practicing it themselves.
One unexpected critic who joined this crowd of low-minded mudslingers is Andrew Sullivan, who should know better. Sullivan dredged up a forty-year-old segregationist quote of Miller’s, presenting it as though it were current news. It might well be current news if Miller were still a segregationist in the way say that Jane Fonda or John Kerry are still leftists defending their attacks on American soldiers in Vietnam. If Miller had not had second thoughts about his youthful positions on segregation, then dredging up the past could be appropriate. As it happens, he has changed his positions and it is not. It is just the same nasty political discourse, which the anti-Miller chorus pretends to be offended by.
Andrew Sullivan has been one of the most interesting commentators on the war in Iraq, defending the President’s policy while others turned their backs on the battle. But lately he has had second thoughts. These seem to have been prompted by his sharp and understandable dissent from the President’s domestic policy on gay marriage, a subject which is not only a cause with Sullivan but a passion. It has prompted him to abandon his support for the President in the coming election. Reading his most recent commentaries on the Bush presidency, including the outburst against Miller, one is struck by their lack of the very clarity that once distinguished his columns and one cannot help but think that the emotional nature of the domestic issue has colored his judgments on other policies, including the war, as well. On the other hand, because Sullivan once understood the nature of the war both at home and abroad with such acuity, his critique of Miller is the one that I will address. Doing so will cover a multitude of sins, since the issues Sullivan raises are also generic to those Miller attackers who simply hate the fact that he has called them to account.
Sullivan begins his critique on a false note, adversely comparing Miller’s powerful speech to Barack Obama’s empty boilerplate at the Democratic convention: “I kept thinking of the contrast with the Democrats’ keynote speaker, Barack Obama, a post-racial, smiling, expansive young American, speaking about national unity and uplift.” Miller of course was mean-spirited and “angry.” Everybody loves Barack Obama because he is black and a Democrat and yet not a racial charlatan like Sharpton and Jackson. Democrats are thrilled that they finally have a political star who comes across like a Colin Powell or a Condoleeza Rice so that they can catch up to Republicans on this frontier of racial equality and progress. Everyone else is relieved.
With regard to substance, however, Obama’s speech was quite empty, full of feel good sentimentality and politician “uplift.” He took no discernible political risks and made no marks requiring even a modicum of courage in the way that Colin Powell did at the 2000 Republican convention when threw down the gauntlet to his own party on the issues of affirmative action and abortion. Obama said absolutely nothing that would challenge his Party’s orthodoxies in order to help the constituencies of inner city poor that he claims as his own: no demurral from the Democrats’ destructive racial quota systems, no challenge to the corrupt inner city public schools his Party runs to the detriment of millions of poor black and Hispanic children who are forced to attend them.
I have dwelt on this false of note comparison only to show how easy it is to celebrate a politician whose only achievements are to be not as bad as someone else or to provide an occasion for people to feel good about themselves by feeling good about him, without having to make any difficult real world choices. It is just as easy and commonplace for pundits on political matters to smear a man for telling unpleasant truths.
From this false step, Sullivan plunges into the heart of his argument as to why Miller’s was a deplorable performance: “Miller’s … assertion was that any dissent from aspects of the war on terror is equivalent to treason. He accused all war critics of essentially attacking the very troops of the United States. He conflated the ranting of Michael Moore with the leaders of the Democrats.” Beware of declarative sentences that slip in weasel words like “essentially.” Sullivan’s reading of what Miller said is not only off the mark; it is unequivocally false.
Here is the quote from Miller’s speech, that Sullivan references to prove his point: “Motivated more by partisan politics than by national security, today’s Democratic leaders see America as an occupier, not a liberator. And nothing makes this Marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators.”
Sullivan describes this posing of the issue as “gob-smackingly vile.” To refute it, Sullivan refers to the fact that he himself believes that America has liberated Afghanistan and Iraq yet has used the term “occupation” to describe the American presence. He concludes that Miller’s intent is thus “to [claim] that the Democrats were the enemies of the troops, traitors, quislings and wimps…” But these are all Sullivan’s terms and do not appear anywhere in Miller’s speech.
Let’s begin by disposing of the canard -- repeated ad nauseam by Miller’s Democrat critics -- that the rhetorical contrast between those who regard America as occupying Iraq and those who regard America as liberating Iraq is in fact a false and misleading dichotomy. Of course America is occupying Iraq and would have to occupy any country, including Iraq, that it intended to liberate. The issue is not the terminology but the substance. If America’s mission in Iraq is liberating, then it is noble and deserves to be supported. How is it, then, that the Democratic Party leadership, starting in July 2003 the third month of the U.S. occupation -- with American soldiers still dying in the field, while terrorists streamed into the country for a holy war against them – launched a relentless campaign to denounce the commander-in-chief of America’s forces as a liar, a fraud, a misleader of the American people, a traitor and, worst of all, a reckless, cold-hearted killer of American youth? These were the accusations made not by Michael Moore (though no member the Democratic leadership stepped forward to repudiate Moore) but by Howard Dean, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore and … John Kerry. That is the issue. That is the source of the anger. And, like every other Miller critic, Andrew Sullivan doesn’t address it.
If you believe that America – and her troops – are a liberating force in Iraq, you will not proclaim that America has resurrected Saddam’s gulag (as Ted Kennedy did), a claim trumpeted on al-Jazeera TV to the entire Muslim world. If you want America to win the war in Iraq, because you believe that it is a liberating – and not an occupying force -- then you do not feature a minor prison scandal on the front pages of your world-influencing national media every day, for forty-five straight days. Everyone is aware that there is a propaganda war that is part of this war, including Democratic politicians whose exploitation of these chinks in America’s armor has been as shameless as that of the American media, which is apparently 90% Democrat and pro-Kerry.
The most central – and generally unarticulated – fact about the war in Iraq is the way the Democrats have broken a tradition of bi-partisanship in war which has been the central pillar of American foreign policy going back at least to World War II and Wendell Wilkie, a figure with whom Zell Miller began his speech. In 1940, with Hitler marching across Europe and 70% of the American people demanding that America stay out of the war, Wendell Wilkie gave Roosevelt support for an unpopular military draft -- because it was the right thing to do. Wilkie knew it was not the political thing to do. He knew that it might cost him the presidency. But before he died, as Zell Miller recounted, “Wilkie told a friend that if he could write his own epitaph and had to choose between ‘here lies a president’ or ‘here lies one who contributed to saving freedom,’ he would prefer the latter.” Then Miller asked, “Where are such statesmen today? Where is the bi-partisanship in this country when we need it most?”
If one were to fault Zell Miller, it would be to point out that there is such a Democrat who put his country above his party. His name is Joe Lieberman. As a former vice presidential candidate and the conscience of his party during the Clinton impeachment, Joe Lieberman was the Democratic heir apparent. An acknowledged statesman and much larger figure than any of his Democratic rivals, Joe Lieberman should have won the nomination. But unlike John Kerry, who turned his coat in mid-course, Joe Lieberman refused to back away from his support for the war to liberate Iraq. He sacrificed his bid to be president because he preferred the epitaph of “here lies one who contributed to saving freedom.” Today, Joe Lieberman is the invisible man of the Democratic Party and that is why Zell Miller’s charge is so telling and so true: “Now, while young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our Commander-in-Chief.”
Sullivan’s retort is no answer at all: “It is a calumny against Democrats who voted for war in Afghanistan and Iraq and whose sincerity …. should not be in question.” This is not about Democrats’ sincerity; it is about their judgment. Voting for the war in Iraq in November 2002 is of no help to Americans fighting terrorists in Fallujah and Najaf in 2003 and 2004. The same Democratic leadership that voted for the war has taken half the American people out of the war in the middle of the war. Never before in American history has an opposition led such a scorched earth campaign against a sitting Commander-in-Chief in the midst of a war, let alone a good war, let alone a war that we were winning, let alone a war that we have to win.
This is the difference between thinking that your country is the problem – and therefore an occupier – and thinking that your country is a liberator that is capable of making mistakes. There is no way on earth to interpret the vicious assaults on the President by Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and John Kerry – assaults that go to the heart of his decency and sincerity in conducting this war, and not just to his policies as any honorable criticism would.
Every intelligence agency in the world – including the UN inspectors – reported that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. What policy issue is involved in saying – as every Democratic leader has said – that the President “misled” the nation into war? If the President was mistaken so was every Democrat who supported the war. If the President misled the country, so did John Kerry who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee and is privy to all the facts. How can he accuse the President of something he is equally liable for and not be guilty of bad faith? What does it mean to vote for a war and then to oppose it when the going gets tough – and to oppose it not on the grounds of what was done in the war but because the reasons for going to war were allegedly wrong? If the war is a liberation (and not merely an occupation) then that should be reason enough to support it. The fact that 90% of the Democrats at the Boston convention were against the war is ample evidence that they do not consider the war in Iraq a war of liberation, but an imperial occupation.
The sixteen words in the President’s State of the Union address about Saddam Hussein’s efforts to acquire fissionable uranium in Niger have now been verified by a bi-partisan Senate Intelligence Committee investigation. They were true at the time. Yet every national leader of the Democratic Party (Bill Clinton excepted) took the flimsiest excuse provided by a now discredited diplomat to call the President a liar in the middle of a war of noble intentions over this trivial issue. In doing so, they were fully aware as John Edwards said (while making the accusation himself): “The most important attribute that any president has is his credibility — his credibility with the American people, with its allies and with the world.” If the Commander-in-Chief’s most important asset is his credibility, what justification can Democrats offer for undermining and attempting to destroy this asset while our troops were in harm's way? What indeed but rank partisanship and reckless disregard for the security of the American people and the saving of freedom? That is the charge against the Democrats and it is a charge that will stick.
Far from going over the top in confronting the Democrats’ betrayal of the President, of the country he serves, and of the young men and women in harm's way in Iraq who are risking their lives to serve both, Zell Miller was in fact too kind.