Speech Defect

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As they began their debate over Iraq last week, senators rose one
after another to promise a history-making deliberation. "[W]e embark
on this historic debate," intoned Virginia Senator John Warner
Friday morning. "We will see in the days to come the evolution of
one of the greater debates in the contemporary history of the
Senate." Warner later promised that "we are going to perhaps even
exceed the thoroughness, the thoughtfulness, and the strength in
the debate we had in 1991," before the first Gulf war. Republican
Leader Trent Lott added that "the Senate will, once again, show why
it is called `the greatest deliberative body.'"If only. By midweek the Senate debate over Iraq had become less a
historic exercise in democracy than a showcase for banality and
self-importance--one that showed little hope for improvement as it
threatened to drag on, thanks to cunning stall tactics by the
mule-stubborn West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, into a second
week. Contrary to Warner's assertion, the Iraq debate hasn't
recalled any great moments in recent history or even the relatively
impressive 1991 Iraq vote. Part of the problem is the preordained
nature of the vote. The 1991 resolution, which barely passed the
Senate by a 52 to 47 vote margin, involved a measure of suspense.
It was not clear beforehand what many senators were going to say;
many seemed to speak with a truly heavy heart. That's hardly the
case now. This war resolution will pass overwhelmingly with support
from nearly every Republican and a majority of Democrats. With a
few exceptions, notably Byrd and Paul Wellstone, senators are less
interested in conducting an actual debate than in getting a little
airtime to recite the same politically popular points over and over
and over, ad nauseam.

Lott kicked off the debate last week with remarks that sounded like
they'd been scrawled on the back of a napkin. "[W]e got plenty mad
last year because of the horror we saw here at home," Lott
explained, his voice strangely bereft of inflection. "We now
realize the danger is not just `over there,' as they said in World
War I and World War II. Oh, no, it is here." This insipid oratory
set the tone for what was to follow. Typical was the Monday speech
of Republican George Allen from Virginia. Despite having served a
term as Virginia's governor, Allen read uncomprehendingly from a
prepared text like a high school jock running for class president.
"The history of military action shows there are frequently
unintended consequences and unseen dangers whenever the military is
utilized," Allen droned. "Can one imagine a nuclear weapon in the
hands of Saddam Hussein? Let's not forget this is a head of state
who has demonstrated his willingness to use chemical weapons on
other nations and his own citizens with little or no reservation,"
Allen continued, adding exactly nothing to anyone's understanding
of the issue. But that was par for the course.

And when senators did offer new information on the floor it was, as
often as not, wrong. On Friday, for example, Ted Kennedy blurted
out a startling assertion. "What about North Korea?" he roared.
"They've already got nuclear weapons!" Kennedy presumably
recognized his error after the fact. Thanks to an apparent
airbrushing, the Congressional Record now renders Kennedy saying,
"They may have nuclear weapons." (Even that isn't likely.)

It's little wonder, then, that even fellow senators can't bear to
listen to one another. During most of the debate this week, the
floor was nearly empty. At most a handful of senators milled about
at any one time--and even then only because they were waiting for
their turns to speak. This inattention applied even to Warner, the
purported enthusiast of high discourse. Tuesday saw one of the
relative high points of the debate as Wellstone rose to explain, in
his trademark impassioned style, his objections to a unilateral
use-of-force resolution. As his Minnesota colleague got rolling,
however, Warner crossed the Senate floor and began chatting with
Kennedy, who was seated just two desks away from Wellstone. An
exasperated Wellstone had to ask them to be quiet-- twice. More
comical still was Warner's reaction to a particularly excruciating
speech by freshman Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska. As
Nelson held forth--"[This] is an endeavor that the United States
should not undertake alone which, in my opinion, strengthens the
need for any use of force to be multilateral"--Warner strategized
intently with an aide seated beside him on the Senate floor. But
when Nelson finished his remarks, Warner snapped to like a man who
had been caught napping. "I thank our colleague for his
contribution to this debate. Listening to him, as I have to all the
others who have spoken today, underscores the importance of each
senator hoping to contribute to this debate," Warner bluffed.

Further undermining any sense of history-in-the-making was the
specter of electoral politics hovering over the proceedings. The
list of the resolution's co-sponsors, for instance, reads like a
who's who of vulnerable incumbents. Joseph Lieberman made a point
of asking that the names be read on the floor Tuesday. Of the
twelve senators listed who are not primary sponsors--such as
Lieberman, John McCain, Warner, and Evan Bayh of Indiana--five are
imperiled candidates: Democrats Mary Landrieu, Tim Johnson, and Max
Baucus and Republicans Wayne Allard and Tim Hutchinson. Allard even
managed to finagle his way into a Tuesday press conference with the
four lead sponsors of the bill, where he basked in the cameras'
glow but uttered not a word. None of these senators is known as
much of a foreign policy leader, but of course that's not the
point: Bragging rights back home are.

A handful of senators have been distinguishing themselves. Rather
than simply repeat the points that a dozen colleagues had made
before him, Lieberman actually offered new insights and
facts--quoting, for instance, from a study about Saddam in a new
book by former National Security Council staffer Kenneth Pollack,
to explain "the radical upbringing [Saddam] had ... the extent to
which he fell under the so-called pan-Arabist influences to create a
power that would gain control over the entire Arab world." (One
suspects Lieberman is one of very few senators who has actually
read a book on this subject recently.) On Wednesday John Kerry
struck a wise balance, supporting the resolution while assailing
the White House's shifting pro-war arguments. And Republican Robert
Bennett offered the intriguing (though not particularly reassuring)
argument that there is no "right" answer to the Iraq
question--ultimately the president must go with his gut, not his
head. "[T]his is a truly presidential decision fraught with so many
unknowable consequences and possible side effects that no one, no
matter how smart, can accurately analyze them in advance and come to
a neat and tidy and firm conclusion."

But for sheer entertainment value, no one could compete with Byrd's
theatrical efforts to delay a vote. The octogenarian, who believes
the Iraq resolution amounts to an unconstitutional "blank check"
for the president, may be driving his colleagues crazy with his
endless filibustering speeches. But he was a delight to watch in
action, a whirlwind of historical references and rhetorical
devices. Byrd waved the printed text of the resolution furiously in
the air and referred to it as "a rag" and a "vast waste of
verbiage." He shouted that if Congress passed the resolution, its
members should hang a "gone fishing" sign atop the Capitol and quit
their jobs. He pulled a dog-eared copy of the Constitution from his
breast pocket and flapped it about, as if taunting his colleagues,
whom he accused of having "rubber spines." He quoted James Madison,
saying, "The trust and the temptation" to wage war "are too great
for any one man." "Hear his voice," Byrd thundered, "as it rolls
across the decades of history!" It may have been a tad demagogic,
but it was at least earnest and impassioned--and better fulfilled
Warner's grandiose predictions than anything else I saw. Too bad
only three other senators were around to hear it.

[Correction: Senator Ben Nelson is from Nebraska, not Montana. We
regret the error.]

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