A Peculiar Politician
Senator Russ Feingold is an embarrassment to the US Senate, which makes him an authentic hero of the Republic. The Wisconsin senator gets up and says out loud what half of the country is thinking and talks about every day. This President broke the law and lied about it; he trashed the Constitution and hides himself in the flag. Feingold asks: Shouldn't the Senate say something about this, at least express our disapproval? He introduces a resolution of censure and calls for debate.
Well, that tore it in the august chamber of lawmakers. Democrats scurried away like scared rats. And Republicans chortled at the thought. You want to censure our warrior President, the guy who defends us every day against terrorist attacks? Let's have a vote right now, the Republican leader demanded. Yuk, yuk.
The joke is obvious to everyone in the Washington club--politics trumps principle, especially when it is about something as esoteric as the Constitution. It's a nonstory, the club agrees, not a constitutional crisis.
The Washington Post runs an obligatory account on page 8, quoting Mr. Anonymous Democrat Strategist on the unwisdom of Feingold's gesture. The New York Times story on page 24 quotes the esteemed constitutional authority Dick Cheney. The House Repubican leader (who replaced the corrupt House leader who resigned) denounces Feingold's resolution as "political grandstanding of the very worst kind." Like the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton for fellatio in the White House? Go away, Feingold, let us get back to the people's business.
The real story--naturally overlooked by cynical editors--is that an honest truth-teller is loose in the fun house and disturbing the clowns. Man bites dog, senator defends Constitution.
Feingold has a reputation for such quaint deviations--a naïf who voted against the war in Iraq and the Patriot Act. On principle! How naïve is that? He talks like he might run for President, yet he seems tone-deaf to the artful resonances of power politics--the cutesy games insiders play and the press cherishes. Hey, what is this Constitution thing anyway?
The senator is peculiar in this era of decaying democracy. There was a time, believe it or not, when his type was a familiar presence in the Senate. I think of Sam Ervin of North Carolina, a conservative Democrat on most matters but always a lion on the Constitution. Ervin is remembered for his heroic role in the investigation of Watergate. Old-timers remember that before Watergate, Senator Sam led courageous hearings on the illegal spying on civilians by the Army and FBI (Democratic scandals predating Nixon).
When liberalism was in flower, the Senate always included a good mix of such maverick voices. They were party loyalists but departed on principle in ways that sometimes kept the majority honest. Voted against the President's war in Vietnam and never let up. Ernest Gruening of Alaska, Wayne Morse of Oregon, Albert Gore Sr. of Tennessee. Phil Hart of Michigan was his own one-man reform party. George McGovern of South Dakota was another.
We might ask why the Republican Party has not produced a similar collection of independent thinkers. We might mourn the fact that pursuing a career in the Senate no longer seems compatible with stubborn self-directed character. The media, instead of kissing off Feingold as a dumb politician, might do a little honest reporting on the substance of what he is saying.
For the moment, however, let us celebrate the man. The club will try to shove him in a closet and forget his little unpleasantness ever happened. I hope they fail and other Dems are properly embarrassed. Amid scandals in high places, Senator Feingold is fresh air. The country should rise up and sing.
© 2006 The Nation