Ready for Slime Time:Critics Slander Jeffords

For politicians who talk

loudly and often about “character,” Republicans have made mostly a poor display

of that quality since Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left their ranks. Certain

Republican Senators quickly sought to blame Mr. Jeffords’ courageous decision

on hatchet-wielding associates of the President, while those White House

operatives just as quickly tried to place the onus on Senate Majority Leader

Trent Lott. While both factions deployed their spin, each against the other,

neither accepted responsibility or contemplated the real reasons for Mr. Jeffords’

departure from his lifelong political home.

Meanwhile, leading

commentators associated with the G.O.P. attempted to smear Mr. Jeffords as both

a liberal squish and a faithless opportunist. To them, the only plausible

explanation for his daring shift of support from the Republicans to the

Democrats was an urge to preserve a committee chairmanship for himself (in the

event that 98-year-old Strom Thurmond should expire). According to these

critics, it was foul play for Senate Democrats to guarantee that Mr. Jeffords

would not forfeit his chairmanship if he changed his affiliation-but perfectly

fair for the Republicans to offer him a position in the Senate leadership if he

didn’t.

Poisonous accusations about

Mr. Jeffordshavebeen spewed up by the same pundits who routinely praiseGeorgeW.

Bush for uplifting the atmosphere of Washington. Their bile carried the usualaromaof

hypocrisy. “Changing the tone” was only a self-servingslogan, the kind of cheap

sanctimony that winners forget as soon as they sense they might be losing.

These conservatives, who in

previous years have welcomed every Democratic turncoat with glee and gloating,

didn’t notice how ridiculous they sounded when they suddenly began to wail

about the treachery of the Jeffords move. Nor did they seem to realize that by

spraying him with venom, they might gradually push other moderate Republicans

toward a similar crisis.

The chorus of denunciation was

evidently orchestrated by Karl Rove, the President’s top political adviser, who

tried to save face by questioning Mr. Jeffords’ motives. The spectacle of a

scoundrel trying to damage the reputation of a decent man should disturb the

conscience of every fair-minded Republican. And there was once a time when it

would have.

That bygone era was evoked by

Mr. Jeffords in the brief, dignified speech he gave announcing his decision.

His statement paid tribute in passing to his mentor, Ralph Flanders, a liberal

Republican who brought honor to Vermont as the first G.O.P. Senator to

seriously oppose McCarthyism. As a young man and political neophyte, Mr.

Jeffords helped Flanders to organize such opposition nationally, preparing the

way for the Senate’s censure of McCarthy in 1954. Since then, of course,

ideological leadership of the G.O.P. has fallen to admirers of the Wisconsin

demagogue.

So perhaps the real question

about Mr. Jeffords is not why he finally crossed the aisle as an independent,

but why he waited as long as he did. Nobody who knows him well, including his

moderate Republican friends and colleagues, believes that he made his choice

lightly-or selfishly. He has a long history of serving his state quietly and

effectively, minus the bombast and self-aggrandizement that is unfortunately

typical of the Senate. Having harmonized in a barbershop quartet with such

ideological foes as Trent Lott and John Ashcroft, he may be a bit stunned by

the current outpouring of hatred upon his head.

Or maybe not. Mr. Jeffords was

well aware that his decision would rupture old friendships, as he regretfully

predicted the other day. After observing how his party’s enforcers treated the

Clintons and anyone else who got in their way in recent years, he may well have

anticipated the treatment he’s getting now.

Before jumping the aisle, Mr.

Jeffords was roughed up merely for dissenting from the party line on taxes and

spending. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot, among others, urged Mr.

Bush to punish the Senator for voting to trim the irresponsible tax cut. “Don’t

get mad publicly, get even privately,” he wrote.

Only by forcing the Vermonter

to kneel, according to Mr. Gigot, would the President prove he was tough enough

to govern. Rather stupidly, the White House acted upon this advice. The

President’s aides went into Mr. Jeffords’ state, brought heavy pressure down upon

him from his campaign contributors, and threatened to cut off the dairy price

supports so vital to Vermont farmers.

All the blustering and

bullying, however, only served to emphasize the disappointment Mr. Jeffords has

felt about Mr. Bush’s performance so far. Like many Americans, he seems to have

believed the Texan’s rhetoric about “compassionate conservatism.” It was not

the first time that a liberal Republican has seen hope superseded by

experience, but for him it was the last.

What Mr. Jeffords’ bold

response demonstrated was that a nice guy need not be a timid guy. His example

deserves to be emulated by those who have profited from his courage