You don’t know me but, like millions of Americans, I’ve had a bit of a political crush on you for some time now.
It’s especially odd that this was the case, given that my politics are closer to those of the late, great Paul Wellstone than to yours. On issue after issue I have disagreed with you and the crowd with which you run. Indeed, it has become virtually unimaginable to me that I could ever vote for a member of your party. You were the one exception.
Note, please, the past tense. I regret to inform you that our furtive little romance has now ended. I wouldn’t have thought it could be done, but Monday night you cashed out everything I loved about you in one short speech.
And what was it that I (we) loved about you, Senator? For me, it was many aspects of character, so intertwined they are hard to disentangle. Words like integrity, courage, candor and (real) patriotism come to mind in reflecting on your achievements and your public spirit.
When I think about your signature issue, campaign finance reform, all these attributes are present in spades. I have long shared your belief that American government is the best that money can buy, and I admire you for shouting out that indictment from inside the very belly of the beast, despite the attempts at intimidation and silencing by your own party.
I believe you fought for campaign finance reform for the same reason you fought in Vietnam - because you believed that your country’s public interest comes first, way before profit, power or partisanship. And you therefore had the courage to stand up to ridicule and pressure from within your own ranks in response to a higher calling. Nor was this the only time you put these qualities on display for an admiring and grateful public.
But where were they Monday night, Dear John, when they were needed most?
If there are three things for which you’ve stood most passionately over the course of your career, they are surely strong national security, the public interest over the special, and a more mature and decent national politics. Last night, in your powerful endorsement of a man who epitomizes the opposite of all these things, and in your condemnation of his critics, I could not recognize any of these trademarks in the speaker on the podium who bore your name.
You spoke to a convention in which delegates wore band-aids with purple hearts printed on them, the better to mock John Kerry’s Vietnam sacrifices in an excavation yet deeper still of what seems the unfathomably bottomless pit of modern conservative ugliness. Wasn’t it enough when these people morphed Max Cleland’s face into Osama bin Laden’s?
You sang the praises of a man who, while you were rotting away in the Hanoi Hilton, sought the wartime special treatment awarded to children of privilege, and then couldn’t even bother to show up for that free ride. This is the same man, so much your moral inferior, who has conducted scorched earth smear campaigns against both you and John Kerry, among other good Americans, and has done so hiding behind the facade of his hit-men lackeys. And let history not forget, while America is mired in this season of through-the-looking-glass political surreality, that the ‘hero’ of 9/11 whom your party is so anxious to lionize is a man who actually ran to Nebraska on that tragic day, falsely claiming that Air Force One had been targeted for attack.
Imagine my horror, then, as you echoed his language before an admiring public who trusts you over other, garden-variety politicians, that those opposing the war in Iraq are weak appeasers who jeopardize American security. Can people of good intent not argue about whether the war was either necessary or advantageous to American security, particularly as the evidence seems now woefully lopsided against the president’s position on these questions?
Consider. Afghanistan is a mess, bin Laden is not caught, our traditional allies dislike and distrust us, much of the rest of the world has gone from loving to hating us in the three years since 9/11, North Korea and Iran are going nuclear while we do nothing, Pakistan has been giving away nuclear secrets, and the finances which we will require to fight our true enemies have been decimated by a feeding frenzy at the public trough of tax cuts for the rich. Under such circumstances, is it really so reckless to say out loud what is plainly true: that invading a weak and contained Iraq on the basis of patently false premises and bogging down half our land forces in a quagmire that has cost 1,000 American lives, perhaps 10,000 Iraqis, and $200 billion dollars, and which shows no end in sight - is it really so wrong to suggest that this may have been a mistake, even purely from the narrow perspective of guarding American security?
And, especially because all this is true, is it not beneath you to join the Bush-led chorus painting those who have been remotely thoughtful about this issue as somehow weak or dangerous to the country’s security? There are many of us - John Kerry included - who fully support the war against our real enemy, al Qaeda, but see (as did the 9/11 Commission) no relationship between that struggle and the invasion of Iraq, and even hold that the folly of the latter has weakened considerably our capacity to succeed at the former.
Must we who support the war against al Qaeda but not the unrelated attack on Iraq all be portrayed as naifish Neville Chamberlains, Dear John? If any side on this question has been foolishly naive and idealistic (and this is surely the most charitable motivational reading), wasn’t it those who, charged with preserving our national security, followed the criminal - cum pied piper - cum criminal again Ahmad Chalabi into the garden of Mesopotamia? Did the Iraqi people rise up to greet us? Where is Chalabi’s waiting army of patriotic revolutionaries? Where are the chocolates and flowers? Do we even seem more welcome than Saddam today?
So how is it that those who warned against this tragedy are tarred by you as fools? The Bush team would love nothing more than to convince voters that those who oppose the invasion of Iraq oppose fighting the perpetrators of 9/11. As of Monday night, this is an unpatriotic smear to which you have now lent your good name.
You called Michael Moore disingenuous for a war critique (which you’ve admitted not seeing) using plain facts and newsreels which supporters of the war have not disputed, because they cannot. Was it disingenuous of him to give voice to the mother of a fallen soldier who cannot reconcile her grief with the disproved reasons given for her loss? Was it disingenuous for him to allow that young man himself to speak, posthumously through a letter home, about the war’s inanities? Or, rather, is it disingenuous of Mr. Bush to avoid the funerals of the fallen, and to censor our eyes from the caskets arriving at Dover? You know personally what this man is capable of, and so I ask you, who is being disingenuous when we are told that this is done in order to honor the dead? And who, therefore, is being dishonorable?
I believe that you genuinely believed in the concept of the Iraq invasion. At minimum, though, I know that you know the disservice done to our country, our soldiers and our cause by the president vastly and deceitfully overselling the war rationale, and by his unforgivably poor execution of the occupation. None of this merits the hero mantle that your speech conferred upon him, and the credibility which his association with you buys in the minds of so many of your admirers.
Moreover, even if we set aside the question of the war and national security, we might also ask whether this president has joined you in fighting for the public interest, or has he not conducted the grossest parceling out of our national patrimony to the highest bidder since your hero TR busted trusts? Do you wish history to record that you twice actively helped elect the man who brought us the Haliburton and pharmaceutical industry looting of the public treasury, under the guise of rebuilding Iraq or serving our seniors?
And has this president raised the quality of American political discourse, or has he instead presided over the foulest brand of politics since Nixon’s White House, with you yourself as one of his victims? Are you proud to be associated with the insinuations his team and his surrogates have made on the character of genuine American heroes like yourself, Max Cleland and John Kerry, all for the sake of grabbing political power?
I believed you cared deeply about these matters, John, but I cannot reconcile those sentiments with Monday’s speech.
Nor can I figure out a plausible excuse for what you did. You are not ignorant enough to have bought the Bush lies, and so, even worse, I assume you put either party loyalty or your desire to win the presidency in 2008 ahead of the national interest, neither of which can I respect, especially at this time of national distress.
You could have remained silent and we would have understood your torn loyalties. But you have instead lain down with someone who represents the dark side of contemporary American politics and governs in direct opposition to so many of the values you hold dear. He arises from your embrace so much the brighter, reflecting the glow of your hard-earned national admiration. But you, unfortunately, are proportionately darkened by the shadow of his cynicism and contempt.
And so, it’s goodbye, then, Dear John. If this is the new John McCain, replacing the one who spoke to the aspirations of greatness, civility and integrity shared by Americans - all Americans - then Johnny, we hardly knew ye, and you are ripped from our arms too soon. If, alternatively, we have been deluded all along, then we knew ye even less than we thought.
The author (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York, and has published political opinion on CommonDreams.org and elsewhere