PROFILES IN COURAGE
"This is no time for politics as usual, in which no one responsible admits responsibility, no one genuinely apologizes, no one resigns and everyone else is blamed."
-- from Theodore Sorensen,'s commencement address delivered at the New School University in New York City, May 21, 2004
Ted Sorenson, now 76, peaked too early. As a young man from long ago, he is best remembered as John F. Kennedy's top speech writer, and, legend has it, the ghost writer of Senator Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning (1957) analysis of American political heroes, Profiles in Courage
Since he's not known for being much of a reader, George W. Bush may have missed this particular collection of essays, whoever wrote them. But let me assure you; Profiles
was required reading for all of his generational peers, myself included. If President Bush were to re-read it, I think he'd be amazed, for example, that the future Democratic President devoted an entire chapter to the Senate's Republican major-domo of his era, Robert Taft, Jr. He'd be astonished -- and alas, appalled, I suspect -- at Kennedy's willingness to cross partisan divides in his search for heroes.
Kennedy found Taft especially courageous, as he did such unlikely fellows as John Quincy Adams and Sam Houston. Ted Sorensen has been honorably discreet on the subject of the book's authorship, but if you've never read Profiles
, you probably should; it is more than a little appropriate for our "age."
Ah, yes, our age. I fear our current President has probably never even heard of Edmund G. Ross, one of Kennedy/Sorensen's heroes, a Republican senator from Kansas in 1868, when he cast an unexpected deciding -- and poltically suicidal -- vote against the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, thus, by the margin of a single vote, keeping Johnson in office for his full term.
For some reason, Kennedy/Sorensen's account of Ross' act of courage -- standing up to the witch-hunters of his age who were determined to "out" Andrew Johnson (an accidental president who took office only because of Lincoln's assassination) because pf his overly sympathetic (some might say reasonable) attitudes to his fellow defeated Southerners -- has always stuck in my mind, as, yes, a profile in courage. Here was a staunch Kansas Republican, counted upon by his party to "do the right thing," at the last minute committing hari-kari on the floor of the Senate. Even at 15, I knew political high-drama when I read about it.
If Ross is misplaced in Profiles
, then I'm a frog. Kennedy/Sorensen describe a packed Senate gallery, and how all eyes are on this man, whose vote is expected to be the forgone conclusion of the process. The Chief Justice tensely asks, Mr. Senator Ross, how say you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty or not guilty of a high misdemeanor as charged in this Article?
As Senator Ross later recalled (with words that have stuck in my mind for forty years): "I almost literally looked down into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, everything that makes life desirable to an ambitious man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever. It is not strange that my answer was carried waveringly over the air and failed to reach the limits of the audience, or that repetition was called for by distant Senators on the opposite side of the Chamber. "
Historian Nathan Bierma tells us what happened next: "Ross cleared his throat and declared his vote again: Not guilty. Everyone heard it this time. People recoiled in disbelief and disgust, slamming into the backs of their chairs. The article had failed...The Senate took ten days off to overhaul the remaining articles and to try to admit new states to the Union who could produce guilty-voting Senators. But when the Senate reconvened, there were still 54 Senators. The rest of the articles failed, all by one vote -- [the] Impeachment had failed. Andrew Johnson would stay in office by one vote."
(Wonder why Ross voted to preserve Johnson? Here's what Kennedy/Sorensen had to say on the subject five decades ago: "Why did Ross, whose dislike for Johnson continued, vote "Not guilty"? His motives appear clearly from his own writings on the subject years later in articles contributed to Scribners
"In a large sense, the independence of the executive office as a coordinate branch of the government was on trial...If...the President must step down...a disgraced man and a political outcast...upon insufficient proofs and from partisan considerations, the office of President would be degraded, cease to be a coordinate branch of the government, and ever after subordinated to the legislative will. It would practically have revolutionized our splendid political fabric into a partisan Congressional autocracy...This government had never faced so insidious a danger...control by the worst element of American politics...If Andrew Johnson were acquitted by a non-partisan vote...America would pass the danger point of partisan rule and that intolerance which so often characterizes the sway of great majorities and makes them dangerous.")
Edmund G. Ross, as we say today, was toast; he didn't even bother to run for re-election. What a remarkable contrast his career offers to that of people like George W. Bush , Dick Cheney, and, well, you get the idea. In his New College speech, Ted Sorensen speaks clearly about how he thinks times have changed. "The damage done to this country by its own misconduct in the last few months and years, to its very heart and soul, is far greater and longer lasting than any damage that any terrorist could possibly inflict upon us. The stain on our credibility, our reputation for decency and integrity, will not quickly wash away."
Last night, in my Chicago hotel room, I found myself thinking about Ted Sorensen (you can read his New College speech in full at www.newschool.edu/commencement/2004/sorensent.html) while I watched George W. Bush on the evening news. The President was in Oak Ridge, TN, talking about our "victory" in Iraq. saying:
"We removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them. In the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
Very clever words from this stupid-like-a-fox President. Note that however badly he usually mangles the English language, Mr. Bush is careful to get the syntax just right when discussing "sensitive" subjects. So it was with his comments in Oak Ridge yesterday.
Don't get it yet? Well, read his remarks again, with my caps below:
"We removed a declared enemy of America who HAD the capability of producing weapons of mass murder ...
Note that this statement is, strictly speaking, true; Saddam Hussein, it is true, HAD the capability to produce weapons of mass murder, back in pre-Gulf War times. No one questions that. But as all credible observers also now agree, Saddam did not HAVE the capability in 2003, when the Bushies launched their invasion of an already-shackled Iraq.
"In the world after September 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take,'' Bush said." Well, I would hate to call our President a liar, so let's just say that this is sophistry of the highest order. Whatever problem the Iraqis were in 1991, Hussein and Iraq did not pose a bonafide threat to the USA after 9/11; the country had no WMDs and no conspiratorial links with Al Qaeda.
These are the facts. But who needs facts if you can build a re-election campaign around the power of innuendo? Between half-truths and exaggerations, between using the word "had" but taking care to blur the distinction between the pluperfect 1991 and less-pluperfect 2003, the Bushies managed then to convince most and still convince many Americans that Saddam Husein was a full-fledged boogie man.
Here's the bottom line: We went to war because of what Saddam HAD before the Gulf War, not because of what he HAD in 2003. Got it? That's what Ted Sorensen might call a lie. And when we lie, we lose street cred. As Sorensen points out: "We are no longer the worlds leaders on matters of international law and peace. After we stopped listening to others, they stopped listening to us. A nation without credibility and moral authority cannot lead, because no one will follow."
Without putting words in his mouth, I think I can safely say that Mr. Sorensen agrees with me: Saddam Hussein was not a threat to America in 2003, and probably had not been for many years previous. Sadly, thousands of Americans and Iraqis had to die in advance of the proving of this fact (I think the legal term for this is "discovery"). And so we fought this obscene war that will end up being counted as a monumental defeat, yes, for "our side" in the war on terrorism. We abandoned our traditional allies, in the process came down unilaterally on the side of Israel in the Palestinian crisis, took our eyes off the prize (Al Qaeda) and weakened our national security, for perhaps decades to come.
And yet this man, this President Bush has the unmitigated gall to run for re-election, bending words to his purpose: glossing over his foreign policy failures, inciting fear among the electorate, raising little red herrings like gay marriage where and when politically appropriate, making sure, always, that as little attention as possible is focused on his "record."
Because this is now, not then, few Americans are aware that George W. Bush's campaign for re-election is very special, perhaps unprecedented in American history. With the possible exception of Herbert Hoover -- who was so dead a political duck in 1932 that no Republican in his right mind wanted to challenge him -- we have never had a President so thoroughly disgraced run for re-election. Never before has a man whose administration has been such an abject failure had the unmitigated gall to ask the American people for "four more years." Folks like Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce knew better; George W. Bush does not. The historians will someday marvel at this.
God-willing, Americans will put the Bush the Younger Era behind us come November. Some days I get downright cocky about that prospect; tonight, in fact, I met a waiter who wanted to bet me $100 that Kerry would win. (I declined; bad luck to bet on what you fervently desire.)
Yes, there are days when Bush's re-election drive looks like an accident waiting to happen. Then I realize that there's so much more to the Bush cartel than simply greed, stupidity and delusion. The President's speech Monday in Oak Ridge -- and its little "depends on your meaning of the word Ôhad" -- drove that point home to me, loud and clear.
There are times when this administration's continued shameless bending of truth and its intentional fogging of the line between fact and fiction make me realize what we're up against. The Bushies will NOT go gently into the night, much as sensible, sentient beings might find such a prospect inevitable.
Much as it shocks Ted Sorensen, probably, as well as myself, I think the Bush cartel will do whatever needs doing to "win" in November. And it might just succeed. That's the truly scary part.
I came to that conclusion after seeing how cleverly W used the word "had" rather than "have" yesterday, knowing of course that the media would hardly call him on it and that the great mass of Americans wouldn't even notice the difference. Now that he's gotten fired up about exploiting the gay-marriage issue (as if this is the greatest "crisis" facing our republic right now!), I am more than ever convinced that the Bushies intend to win at all costs.
Sorensen ends his New College speech with some direct advice for the Class of 2004: "If we can but tear the blindfold of self-deception from our eyes and loosen the gag of self-denial from our voices, we can restore our country to greatness. In particular, you--the Class of 2004--have the wisdom and energy to do it. Start soon."
He's right, my friends. We may not be the Class of 2004, but we're all in this together. The future is now.
K.N. (July 13, 2004)