We are living in a time when scoundrels seek to bully the loyal opposition and demonize all dissent for their own advancement. That’s why certain Republican politicians and pundits have assaulted Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and other Democrats in terms usually reserved for foreign and domestic enemies.
What has been even more troubling than this ugly campaign, however, is the passivity of those who are its targets.
Mr. Daschle and his colleagues have remained inert during recent weeks and months, while their adversaries compared him with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and accused him of giving “aid and comfort” to the nation’s enemies. They have stood by in silence while authoritarian propaganda emanated from Republican fax machines and spread across the country. They’ve allowed the South Dakota Democrat, an Air Force veteran and bioterror target, to be taunted like a traitor by Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and other tough-talkers who avoided military service as if it were anthrax.
From the outset of the G.O.P. jihad against Mr. Daschle last autumn, it has been obvious that the motives of his critics are partisan and political rather than patriotic. Their aim is to regain control of the Senate next November, and they will use whatever divisive means are at their disposal. With no real provocation, Trent Lott, the former Senate Majority Leader, and Tom DeLay, the House Majority Whip, seized upon a few mild remarks uttered by Mr. Daschle about the Bush administration’s policy and rhetoric.
His comments were not only careful and inoffensive, as always, but-as recent events in Afghanistan have proved-quite prophetic. “I don’t think the success has been overstated,” said Mr. Daschle, “but the continued success, I think, is still somewhat in doubt. Clearly, we’ve got to find Mohammad Omar, we’ve got to find Osama bin Laden, and we’ve got to find other key leaders of the Al Qaeda network, or we will have failed. We’re not safe until we have broken the back of Al Qaeda, and we haven’t done that yet.”
The Republicans reacted as if mentioning the obvious is now worthy of punishment by a military tribunal. Mr. Lott, who missed the chance to serve in Vietnam, pretended to be outraged: “How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism?” he cried, as if he hadn’t repeatedly criticized Bill Clinton when Americans were in harm’s way overseas. Mr. DeLay called the Daschle comments “disgusting.” As for Mr. Daschle, he didn’t retreat, but neither did he fight back.
So it was refreshing to hear at last from a patriot who found his voice and addressed the Republican Congressional leadership in the tone that they deserve. The first Democrat to speak up was, unsurprisingly, a Senator who has been both a war hero and a war protester.
On March 2, John Kerry took the podium at a political dinner in New Hampshire to defend Mr. Daschle, a colleague who is likely to become his rival for their party’s Presidential nomination. What the Massachusetts Senator said about Messrs. Lott and DeLay-and, by implication, about all the would-be White House enforcers-deserved more attention than a single article in his hometown paper, The Boston Globe.
“Let me be clear tonight to Senator Lott and to Tom DeLay: One of the lessons that I learned in Vietnam-a war they did not have to endure-and one of the basic vows of commitment that I made to myself, was that if I ever reached a position of responsibility, I would never stop asking questions that make a democracy strong,” he told the audience of New Hampshire Democrats, whose startled murmurs quickly erupted into a standing ovation.
“Those who try to stifle the vibrancy of our democracy and shield policies from scrutiny behind a false cloak of patriotism miss the real value of what our troops defend and how we best defend our troops,” he continued. “We will ask questions, and we will defend our democracy.”
A combat veteran who received three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star in two Navy tours-and who later founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War-Mr. Kerry has ample stature to challenge the character assassins and commissars of the far right. The day after the Concord dinner, he didn’t hesitate to reiterate his rebuke, adding the name of another Southern-fried chicken hawk.
“My message to Trent Lott and Tom Delay and Dick Armey-each of whom did not have to endure the war in Vietnam … the lesson I learned in that war is, the best way to defend American democracy and our soldiers is to ask the right questions at the right time.”
Suddenly, it was the Republicans who had nothing to say.