A quietly spoken, grandmotherly figure in her fifties, the Congress-woman from Oakland was nobody's picture of a revolutionary. Barbara Lee was best known as a woman who worked hard on House subcommittees looking out for the interests of a largely blue-collar constituency back in California's 9th Congressional district. She was active in African-American issues, but not in a high-profile Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton kind of way; no stunts or grand gestures.
Congresswoman Lee was one of the quieter campaigners of American politics. As a member of the House subcommittee on Aids, she was an energetic champion of Africa's infected millions. She'd sponsored an education bill aimed at making young kids from the ghettos into better prospective parents. But a defiant figure? A woman to stand alone against the biggest Congressional majority in modern history? Few on Capitol Hill would have bet on it.
Nor would I, if I had been inclined to go on first impressions. I met her far away from the febrile atmosphere of Washington DC (American troops had just been dispatched in large numbers to the Gulf) in a small federal office in Oakland, just across the bay from San Francisco.
She entered the room quietly, and was polite in a way that would surprise anybody who has regularly dealt with members of America's political elite. I have been harangued and patronized by a few US politicians over the years, but Barbara Lee was a very different prospect; not only restrained in her speech, but almost nervous.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (AP Photo)
Yet just four days after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, Congresswoman Lee made history by taking an extraordinary political stand. In her office on Capitol Hill, the California Democrat spent days struggling with her conscience. President George Bush was about to ask Congress to give him authority to make war on any person, nation or organization deemed responsible for the attacks. From the start, Barbara Lee thought that this wasn't a good idea.
"Those days were very difficult. The anger was looming over the Capitol, people were really sad, and making a decision to vote against this resolution did not come easily. I was struggling to find the right position, given the enormous tragedy that had taken place," she says.
Soon after the attacks she went to the memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington. All around her were the grief-stricken faces of friends and colleagues. One of them was Sandre Swanson, her chief of staff, who had lost his cousin on flight 93 the airliner that crashed near Pittsburgh after its passengers heroically fought the hijackers. The congregation prayed and sang and wept. As the service progressed, Barbara Lee wondered how these people would react if she decided to vote against the President. It was a time when even the most dependable dissenters and troublemakers on Capitol Hill thought it best to fall in with the majority.
In New York, they were searching for bodies in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. One wing of the nearby Pentagon was still smoldering. People feared that yet more suicide bombers were about to strike. On television the photographs of those murdered were flashed up hour after hour. Rescue teams fought heroically in the ruins of the twin towers. The country's airspace was still closed and fighter jets patrolled over New York and Washington. The nation had been brutally attacked, and the initial pulverizing shock was giving way to calls for retribution.
In Washington, councils of war were convened. The airwaves trembled with voices demanding that America's military might be unleashed against the perpetrators. Bomb them back to the Stone Age; whoever they were, whoever supported them, eliminate them. The American left would later pose awkward questions, but in the terrible hours after September 11 its spokespeople were silent. Now was the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the Republic.
But Barbara Lee was scared by this urge for unanimity. "You know the first few resolutions that came up directly after the attacks were even more open-ended than the one that was finally put to Congress. I said, 'This is not an appropriate response. We need to know who is responsible and study the possible ramifications of passing such a resolution.'"
It was something said at the memorial service that finally decided her. A clergyman implored the assembled Congressmen and Senators: "Let us not become the evil we deplore." She walked back to her office resolved to vote against the President.
At first she thought other Democrats might join her. "We talked about it in our caucus meeting and there were several members who spoke very aggressively about the reasons we should not support this type of resolution... but of course, then the anger and the sadness of the moment took over and I believe that what happened was that people went with the flow."
The resolution had been scheduled to go before the House on the Saturday after the memorial service. But the Republican majority in Congress deftly rescheduled for that very evening, a move Lee believes was probably designed to take advantage of the emotional climate. It also meant that there was little time for anyone to pressurize Lee into changing her mind. In the chamber she looked down at two voting buttons one red and one green. The Speaker called out the terms of the resolution, and Barbara Lee made history by sticking her finger on the red button for "no". When the tally was done, it worked out at 424 for and one against.
The emotion of the moment will probably live with her forever. "I went back into the cloakroom which is the area behind the chambers and many members came up to me and said, 'I think you made a mistake, you better go and change your vote.' These were members who were close friends. They said, 'Come on, Barbara, you can't be the only no vote on this,' and I said there was no way I was going to change it."
Her colleagues might not have agreed with her, but they did listen to her argument. Pared down to its essentials, it ran like this: Congress represented the rational. It was a body that had to remain above the fray. What decisions it made had to consider the lasting good and not respond to the emotion of the moment. By pushing for a vote so quickly, Lee believed, the Bush resolution was taking power out of the hands of legislators and giving it to the executive branch.
In another time there might have been plenty on both sides of the House who would have supported her. "Several members said to me, 'Look, we agree with you but there are other ways you can show your concern: you know, you can debate, you can put a statement on the record...' " Frightened of the public reaction, those who shared the same views, among them some of the most prominent figures in Democratic politics, went with the resolution.
While her colleagues on Capitol Hill were respectful, if astonished, the reaction outside was far more hostile. Radio shock-jocks blasted Lee as unpatriotic and accused her of treason. There were even death threats from people who called her a traitor. For a time, Barbara Lee had 24-hour protection from the Capitol police.
Among the more mendacious and nasty attacks came from Rupert Murdoch's Fox News (one of whose correspondents swaggered about Afghanistan with a gun), which abandoned any pretence of fairness and became an ardent cheerleader for military action, anywhere, at any time. Here was its correspondent Claudia Cowan writing about Lee on the Fox News website last March: "While her vote may not have changed the course of history, it has changed the course of her political career for the better... Although Lee faced death threats and hate mail after her controversial Congressional vote, she also received accolades and donations. Singer Bonnie Raitt and actor Bill Cosby are among the celebrities who have helped to boost Lee's national profile and political war-chest. Records show that Lee has raked in nearly $178,000 since June, more than twice her normal take."
Lee makes little of such venom. "I don't talk about those kind of negative reactions. I think that in moments like that it's very important to stay steady and to continue to put your point of view. Because sooner or later, when the dust clears, then those who were perhaps confused about my vote, or who disagreed, may say, 'Well, we disagreed with you, but we believe in your right to cast that vote and your right to dissent.'" In the case of at least one shock-jock, the notoriously fierce Rush Limbaugh, this appears to be true. He was recently reported as approving Lee's stand for the rights of Congress.
Certainly Lee did not suffer politically as a consequence of her stand. She was returned comfortably in the recent mid-term elections and has since become a prominent figure in the anti-war movement. Her political support ranges from middle-class liberals the so-called California "hot tubbers" and the peaceniks so loathed by the right to the people of the working-class black and Latino districts. The city of San Francisco and Oakland, its neighbor across the bay, have always lived gazing out towards Asia: they are the most open and liberal of the US conurbations.
The cab I took to Lee's office was driven by a Chinese immigrant who gave me a considered speech on the dangers of war. On the way out we passed several mosques and a Yemeni community Center. The San Francisco Bay area has a long tradition of leftist politics and alternative culture: it was, after all, the hinterland of the beat poets and later the fulcrum of the national movement against the Vietnam War.
But in Lee's case it seemed to me that the primary influences were not so much counterculture figures such as Timothy Leary or Abbie Hoffman, but rather more traditional role models from the pantheon of black American history. She admires and often quotes Martin Luther King, and her own role model and mentor was the legendary black Congressman, Ronald Dellums, with whom she cut her political teeth while working on his staff.
Her role in the peace movement has also been influenced by a simple fact of American military life: the disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos in military service, for many of whom the military has provided a welcome escape from ghetto life. Lee remembers the large numbers of blacks who died in Vietnam and clearly fears a repeat in Iraq. She isn't against military action per se; she just doesn't want her constituents dying in the wrong war. "Around 40 per cent of the military is African-American and Latino, so in any war you're going to see some very dramatic numbers of troops from communities of color throughout our country."
Her views on the "war on terror" could be defined as mainstream liberal. There is much talk about looking at the root causes of terrorism. But if she doesn't believe in giving President Bush a "blank cheque" to wage war, neither is Lee the treacherous pinko that many on the American right would have you believe. In fact, the hard left has been strongly critical of her for voting in favor of giving huge sums to strengthen homeland security. "It's very important that we deal with terrorism and bring terrorism to justice. You cannot allow the world to be taken over by people who want to destroy it," she says.
It is only after you listen to Barbara Lee expostulate at length about the prerogatives of Congress and the dangers of ceding power to the Presidency that another defining influence becomes clear. Lee represents an older imperative, one that lay at the heart of Thomas Jefferson's notion of American democracy: the belief that the legislature and constitution must act as a brake on elective tyranny. As Lee puts it: "Congress is the people's house."
Beneath the diffidence and carefully chosen words there is a tough politician. For example, within minutes of the start of our meeting she declared: "I don't talk about my private life. I simply don't." This is not because of any wild rumors or stories about her past there aren't any but because she believes her politics are what count, and that her family has an absolute right to privacy. The hatred that came in the wake of her September 11 vote has undoubtedly hardened her resolve. Look at her cuttings file and you see that she has successfully stonewalled any attempt to probe her private life. Nothing about marriage or relationships, and a swift rejection for any who ask about them.
There are a few scraps of information. She grew up in a military family and her father fought for his country in the Korean War. Her parents are still alive. Her father e-mails her regularly. Though a combat veteran of the 1950s, he supports her stand. "You know what's right," he wrote.
As an army child her upbringing was peripatetic. She told me she lived for a while on an army base in England, but missed the hamburgers of home. She had two sons when she was quite young and depended on welfare for a period. Later she trained as a social worker and went to work in the blue-collar communities around San Francisco. Dealing with their difficult family matters made her inclined to analyze before rushing to judgment, she says.
But it wasn't until the end of our conversation, by which time I felt I understood her politics but not much of the woman herself, that Barbara Lee revealed the strange world of her childhood, and in doing so told me most of what I needed to know.
"I remember very clearly going to restaurants with my family, and the waitress or waiter telling us, 'We don't serve...' and then they'd use the N-word, and we'd have to leave. I remember wanting to go to public theatres with my friends who were Latino and white, and I couldn't go because blacks weren't allowed." She pauses for a moment, then continues: "My mother told me this story as a child. When she was in labor and about to deliver me, they refused to let her in the hospital because she was black. Really, they left her to die. Finally my grandmother got her admitted; she was supposed to have a Caesarean section but by then it was too late. So they had to take me out using a forceps, and I had a scar above my eye for many years. I literally came into the world fighting to survive. That's what I knew and this is what I know."
Listening to our entire conversation about war, racism and September 11 was Barbara Lee's assistant. It was only afterwards, reading his business card, that I realized that the man nodding his head in agreement was Sandre Swanson, the cousin of flight attendant Wanda Green, who was killed on flight 93.
Fergal Keane interviews Barbara Lee on 'Taking a Stand', today at 9am (repeated at 9.30pm) on BBC Radio 4
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd