Investigative reporter and essayist Russ Baker is a longtime contributor to TomPaine.com. He is also the founder of the Real News Project, a new not-for-profit investigative journalism outlet. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Was it my imagination, or did I see the ghost of Joe McCarthy heading into the RNC headquarters the other day? And was that the ghost of Don Knotts’s quivery TV persona holding court in the Senate Democratic cloakroom?
Only a conscienceless bully—like the one dissected in the movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about Edward R. Murrow’s television crusade against McCarthy’s serial abuse of the public trust—could have come up with the disgustingly misleading radio ads now attacking Sen. Russ Feingold. And only the chickenhearted—or those henpecked by consultants—would fail to back up this courageous figure.
On Wednesday, taking its cues from remarks by President George W. Bush, the GOP launched radio ads against Sen. Feingold in his home state of Wisconsin, with these words: "President Bush is working to keep American families safe…But some Democrats are working against these efforts to secure our country…Their leader is Russ Feingold.”
The ad criticizes Feingold for his censure resolution against the president, but in a classic
trick, fails to tell listeners what the censure is about. They will not know that Feingold is upset by Bush’s unauthorized wiretapping. Instead, here’s what the ads claim:
Now Feingold and other Democrats want to censure the president, publicly reprimanding President Bush for pursuing suspected members of Al Qaeda.
Of course, an ad that actually respected the listeners would tell them the truth. Something like:
Now Feingold, with little support from his quaking Democratic colleagues, wants to censure the President…for authorizing wiretapping on American citizens that even many prominent Republicans believe is illegal—and unnecessary. Feingold wants the president to pursue real suspected members of Al Qaeda—not turn the U.S. into a police state.
And that’s the crux. Democratic senators were reportedly upset that Feingold didn’t notify them of his plan to introduce the censure resolution—and doubly wounded that he criticized them for “cowering with this president's numbers so low. The administration ... just has to raise the specter of the war on terror, and Democrats run and hide." Some of Feingold’s Democratic colleagues may also have resisted lining up behind the Wisconsin senator’s banner on this issue because they plan to compete with Feingold for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
The fact is, a Senate censure resolution would be a legitimate catalyst for discussion of the levels to which this administration has sunk in debasing democratic safeguards and process. It is not the same as impeachment, which must emanate from the House of Representatives. It is at once more attainable than impeachment and a strong symbolic reprimand.
Yet leading Democrats have started their customary throat-clearing exercise, saying that more time is needed to study the issue, and so forth. Even if that were true, allowing a censure resolution to advance need not preclude a serious Senate investigation of the truth behind the administration’s confusing justifications for ignoring the law in its domestic wiretap program. Indeed, with stonewalling by the GOP majority a given on almost any topic of import, a vote on a censure resolution that has garnered substantial public support may be the only way to force our representatives to do their jobs as watchdogs of the public interest.
As for the GOP ad, it could legitimately have attacked Feingold’s true position. One can always disagree on the merits. Instead, the RNC attacks him for what he did not say and did not do. Bush himself has publicly accused Feingold of opposing “terrorist surveillance.” And we all know who plays that kind of game: cowards like Joe McCarthy, who collapsed and faded away when confronted by a determined adversary, the Boston lawyer Joseph Welsh, in a memorable encounter during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
Taking their cue from Welsh and Murrow, the Democrats should be airing their own radio ads—if not to back Feingold, then at least to inform the public about the RNC lies—and to take the liars and those behind them to task. If people understood the facts of the situation, they would be appalled—and furious at being manipulated in this manner. Instead, the Democrats are running from Feingold as if he had the avian flu.
The spinmeisters who air attack commercials of this sort are like piranhas—they’re agnostic about whom they rip to shreds. If they can get away with doing this to Feingold, they can do it to anyone—and will continue to do so until someone stands up and gives a yell like Howard Beal in the classic film "Network": mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
But first, the Democrats need some backbone. That they lack one is evident because they will not even show boldness when the American people already get it. An American Research Group poll revealed last week that an astonishing 48 percent of American voters support Feingold's call for a Senate censure of President Bush and just 43 percent oppose it. Even a sizable chunk of Republicans (nearly one-third) favor censure while nearly a fifth of GOP supporters back impeachment.
It is no small thing that it took William Kristol, the conservative pundit and editor of The Weekly Standard , to intone (on Fox News Sunday, no less) that Feingold “is smarter than the Democratic congressional leadership” and “deserves credit for taking a principled stand.” Kristol, who presumably isn’t signing up for the Feingold-for-president campaign, nevertheless declared that the senator “is making his case coherently. He’s an impressive politician.”
Meanwhile, from the liberal side of the aisle, it is the apoplectic blogosphere that must yell and scream before even the most modest of official resistance bestirs.
Now, elected Democrats, standing up for your principles is not that hard once you get used to it. It’s just been so very long for you that you’re out of practice.