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© St. Petersburg Times, published September 29, 2002
SAN ANGELO, Texas -- I had been wondering when it would happen, when someone in Washington would grow some backbone and openly challenge President George W. Bush's sophomoric rhetoric.
Courage first broke out last week when Al Gore spoke at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The former veep attacked the president.
Oh sure, many pundits advised Gore to go back into hiding. Michael Kelly, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, for example, wrote: "Mr. Gore's speech was one no minimally decent politician could have delivered. It was entirely dishonest, cheap and low. It was utterly hollow. It was bereft of policy, of solutions, of constructive ideas, very nearly of facts -- bereft of anything other than taunts, jibes and embarrassingly obvious lies."
Even if Kelly's breathless indictment were true, the fact remains that Gore's speech may prove to be the most important act to help cowed Senate Democrats, notably Majority Leader Tom Daschle, start acting like the indispensable, loyal opposition again.
The source of the ongoing confrontation is Bush's wrongheaded, political attack against those, especially Democrats, who are wary of the president's Iraq obsession and who reject a federal personnel provision in the White House's Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security proposal.
Whatever the real fight is about, the president of the United States of America has proved to be a man of reckless words and blatantly crass politics.
Last Monday, in Trenton, N.J., Bush castigated the Democratic-led Senate for stalling approval of his homeland security measure, which the GOP-led House has approved. His words were unstatesmanlike: "The House responded, but the Senate is more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people. I will not accept a Department of Homeland Security that does not allow this president and future presidents to better keep the American people secure."
Besides being preposterous on their face, portions of Bush's words are insulting to many Americans nationwide, especially to those in Washington who served in uniform and were fighting in combat abroad while the future president was drinking with his Ivy League frat brothers.
This was Daschle's angry response to Bush: "Not interested in the security of the American people? You tell Sen. Inouye he's not interested in the security of the American people. You tell those who fought in Vietnam and World War II they are not interested in the security of the American people. That is outrageous. That is outrageous. The president ought to apologize to . . . every veteran who has fought in every war who is a Democrat in the United States Senate. He ought to apologize to the American people. That is wrong. We ought not politicize this war. We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death."
For the record, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, lost his right arm as an Army officer while fighting in Europe during World War II. Inouye simply stated that he was disappointed that the president had used words that "divide this nation."
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said the president's remarks "present a dangerous politicization of war. . . . The president should apologize to the Senate and to the nation."
Of course, Bush will not apologize.
Thanks to Gore's willingness to be attacked for his Commonwealth Club speech, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., mustered the courage to rebuke the president. During a speech on the Senate floor, Byrd said, "The blood of our sons and daughters -- our soldiers, sailors and airmen -- has far more value than a few votes in the ballot box."
Bush's response to the Democrats?
"The American people ought to understand that life has changed here in this country," he said. "My job is to protect the American people, . . . regardless of the season."
Protect the American people.
Apparently, Bush ignores the fact that Inouye, who questions part of president's homeland security proposal, nearly lost his life during World War II protecting the American people. Bush apparently dismisses the fact that Kerry was wounded in combat during the Vietnam War protecting the American people. And does he forget that Gore actually served in Vietnam (as a military journalist)?
Yes, the president is right when he says that life has changed in this country. Indeed, because life has changed so drastically in this country, principled, loyal opposition is indispensable for the long-term security of the American people.
Meanwhile, the president has some unfinished business with military veterans everywhere who question his policies: He needs to apologize.