Former U.S. Senator from Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee served in Washington, D.C., from 1999 to 2006. He was the only Republican Senator who voted against authorizing Bush to attack Iraq. A lot of Democrats did not do as well that day, or on several other days, as Chafee did. But his party moved away from him, and from the nation, and from the state of Rhode Island, and voters showed Chafee the door in the 2006 elections that saw membership in the party of Cheney and Bush become the greatest liability for incumbents and challengers alike.
Chafee's new autobiographical book, "Against the Tide," makes for an interesting read. The subtitle is "How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President." Most congress members' books these days (even the forthcoming autobiography by courageous liberal Robert Wexler) struggle to explain that they actually believed the pre-war lies put out by the White House. Chafee doesn't have to put his readers through such contortions, but he does have his own credulity-straining tale of naivete and trust. Chafee claims to have believed Bush and Cheney's campaign rhetoric in 2000 about compassion and bringing the nation together. (Does nobody read Molly Ivins or Lou Dubose?) Chafee says that his illusions were shattered the day after the Supreme Court halted the Florida vote counting. On that day, Dick Cheney met with Chafee and the handful of "moderate" Republicans in the Senate (Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins, James Jeffords).
"In steady, quiet tones, the vice president-elect laid out a shockingly divisive political agenda for the new Bush administration, glossing over nearly every pledge the Republican ticket had made to the American voter. We were going to get out of a host of international agreements, he said....We would slash taxes by $1.6 trillion and wipe out the budget surpluses.... He said that the campaign was over and that our actions in office would not be dictated by what had to be said in the campaign. And he pronounced this deception with no emotion or window dressing of any kind. He was fearless, matter of fact, and smug."
In response to Cheney's statement, "Senator Specter took no leadership role in representing the moderate point of view. He acquiesced, and others followed his example.... When it was my turn to speak," writes Chafee, "I made the case that our five votes would be crucially important in an evenly divided Senate. I chose my words carefully and probably stammered with the effort to contain my fury. We were on the cusp of a new millennium that held enormous promise for American leadership in the world, and what I had just heard was petty, arrogant, and irresponsible. It threatened to lead in exactly the wrong direction. I spoke in the perhaps too optimistic hope that I might yet rally the moderates to seriously apprehend the implications of the new agenda. When I told Mr. Cheney, "Our votes at this table are important," he could hardly be bothered. He gave me the back of his hand with a truism: 'Every vote is important.'"
But Chafee's eyes were not quite fully opened that day. When members of the Congressional Black Caucus asked a senator, ANY senator, to stand with them and challenge election fraud and vote suppression in the 2000 Florida vote, Chafee writes that he refused because he did not yet share those House members' opposition to the Bush-Cheney agenda. He writes as if the concern of those Democrats was simply the outcome and not the process. He does not even mention vote counting, and he adds that HAD he known what Bush and Cheney would do, he would have joined in challenging the Florida election results -- apparently quite regardless of whether he believed those results to be fair and accurate or not. In fact, Chafee's comments on election results throughout the book refer to victories and defeats over the past 8 years as if there is no question who actually won any given election. What, one wonders, will it take to stimulate an awakening in this area; does Chafee need to have a frank lunchtime meeting with Karl Rove or Ken Blackwell?
The rest of Chafee's book is a years-long tale of the last sane Republican in federal office refusing to go insane. We hear his exasperation as Republicans stage theatrical votes on bills doomed to fail, a technique that Democrats have practiced for the past year and a half, with the difference that the Republican bills actually deserved to fail. We read of Chafee's understanding, which exceeds that of most congress members of any party, of how the White House set out to strip the Congress of law-making power.
From Chafee's first meeting with Bush he found him disturbingly unpresidential:
"Several times, the president went out of his way to remind me that he was the commander in chief. You don't have to keep telling me that, I thought. I know who you are. Like others, I have been around people who are good at wielding power. They never have to tell you they are in charge. They just are, and you know it. What I saw and heard that day really unsettled me. I'm the commander in chief.... I'm the president.... I'm the commander in chief.... It was unpresidential."
Following September 11, 2001, Chafee showed courage in challenging the White House agenda and rhetoric, to the point of being willing to publicly consider the question of what had motivated the terrorists. Chafee describes the briefings he was given on WMDs in Iraq as completely devoid of convincing evidence. He publicly said that no WMDs would be found. His colleagues took a different course, and Chafee writes that in the months following 9-11, Congress gave up the last of its power and became entirely irrelevant. Chafee writes that he considered running for president in the 2004 Republican primaries but backed off because of the triumph and timing of the capture of Saddam Hussein.
Chafee gives us incisive and blistering accounts of Republican pandering to oil barons, of the corruption of the 9-11 Commission, of the demonization of Hugo Chavez, of the embargo on Cuba which Castro tells Chafee he himself supports, of the Bush administration's opposition to peace in Palestine. Yet Chafee writes of the toppling of Hussein's statue in Baghdad as if it was something more than a staged event. He writes with real fondness and admiration for Paul Wolfowitz. And he opposes unnecessary wars while shamelessly supporting the spread of the military industrial complex for the benefit of jobs in his state, apparently oblivious to the force that the complex is in driving the need for new wars. Chafee voted to confirm John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations although he writes that he was ashamed of the vote when he cast it. Senator George Voinovich decisively opposed Bolton, whom Bush then appointed during a recess. When the Senate reconvened the White House had won over Voinovich, but Chafee found his nerve and ended Bolton's tenure.
In Chafee's tale, the public turns against the war and the Cheney-Bush agenda, and Republicans suffer for it, but remain defiant and politically unwise in defeat. True enough, but the Democrats, of course, have remained defiant and politically unwise in success. They've been assigned by the American public to reverse course, and have instead maintained full speed ahead. While the public favors withdrawal, peace, impeachment, single-payer health care, fair taxation of corporations and the wealthy, and investment in human needs, the Democrats' actions - if not always their rhetoric - remain closer to the Republicans' than to the public's. Chafee offers no commentary on how the Democrats might be to the left of the public on any issues, and yet he concludes his book with an analysis that takes that point for granted. What's needed, he proposes, is a third party for the neglected "center." As the Democratic presidential candidates' positions range from unwillingness to forswear wars of aggression to threats to "obliterate" entire nations, I shudder to think what the "center" might have to offer.
On Tuesday, May 13th, from 8-9 p.m. ET, I'll have the pleasure of interviewing, with your help, the former Senator from Rhode Island. Go to: http://thepeoplespeakradio.net to learn more. Go to http://www.thepeoplespeakradio.net/listen-live to listen live. You'll find instructions there to enter a paltalk chat room where you can post questions, which I will ask. You can also phone in and ask Senator Chafee your questions on the air. Call in tollfree from anywhere in the United States or Canada at 888-228-4494 or anywhere else in the world at 877-489-6350. Following the show, the audio file will be posted at http://www.thepeoplespeakradio.net/audio/2008 and you can find there now the recordings of numerous shows with amazing guests.