What kind of country?

We are truly sleepwalking through history. In my heart of hearts, I pray that this great nation and its good and trusting citizens are not in for a rudest of awakenings … this war is not necessary at this time.

—U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va, Feb. 12, 2003

What may someday rank as one of the greatest speeches in the U.S. Senate was made last week by the longest-serving member in that body, old Robert Byrd of West Virginia. It was a speech that deserves some attention, and which was shamefully ignored by the media, which was devoting itself to the nonsense spewed by the fearmongers of the present administration.

We’ve paid more than enough attention to the men who were urging us to seal ourselves off with duct tape. It’s time to learn more about Byrd, a man who the Almanac of American Politics says, “may come closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other.”

His life story is quintessentially American. Raised an orphan in grinding rural poverty, he was a welder, a meat cutter and a fiddler before going into politics. Though their origins couldn’t have been more different, he was the same age as John F. Kennedy, with whom he served in the Senate many years ago.

Byrd’s made mistakes; he once joined the Ku Klux Klan, something he has forever regretted. He backed Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War. Later, he rose to become Senate majority leader, and later happily gave the power up of his own free will.

Now, at 85, he has nothing left to prove. He’s brought billions of dollars of what some call “pork barrel” spending to his state. When he runs for re-election he wins every county in West Virginia.

But now he is very deeply worried that his country is losing its way and its soul.

“The nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an unfortunate way at an unfortunate time,” he said.

“The idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening ... is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self-defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN Charter. And it is being tested at a time of worldwide terrorism, making many countries around the globe wonder if they will soon be on our — or some other — nation’s hit list.”

With that, he began a powerful indictment of our most reckless president in modern history.

“High-level administration figures recently refused to take nuclear weapons off the table when discussing a possible attack against Iraq. What could be more destabilizing and unwise than this type of uncertainty, particularly in a world where globalism has tied the vital economic and security interests of many nations so closely together?

“There are huge cracks emerging in our time-honored alliances. … Anti-Americanism based on mistrust, misinformation, suspicion and alarming rhetoric from U.S. leaders is fracturing the once solid alliance against global terrorism.”

The nation’s senior senator laid it all out, showing that without any doubt, on a variety of issues great and small, domestic and foreign, our government is, to use the language of our generation, screwing up, big-time, in ways more dangerous than our apathy can imagine.

Incidentally, more than any other senator now living, Byrd reveres his institution. He’s told a succession of presidents of both parties to back down if he felt they were crowding his turf or interfering with senatorial prerogatives. Now, he gave it to his fellow senators too.

“Every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war. Yet this chamber is, for the most part, silent — ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing.”

Bitterly, he continued: “We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.” Events that threaten to destroy us.

Then he told the real truth. “In only the space of two short years, this reckless and arrogant administration has initiated policies which may reap disastrous consequences for years ... this administration has split traditional alliances, possibly crippling for all time international order-keeping entities like the United Nations and NATO. This administration has turned the patient art of diplomacy into threats, labeling and name-calling of the sort that reflects quite poorly on the intelligence and sensitivity of our leaders, and which will have consequences for years. … Frankly, many of the pronouncements made by this administration are outrageous. There is no other word.

“Our challenge is to now find a graceful way out of a box of our own making. Perhaps there is still a way, if we allow more time,” he concluded.

Whatever does happen, history will show that one distinguished statesman got up in our highest legislative chamber and told the truth one day about the smirking, smug little imitation cowboy who somehow got miscast as the most powerful leader in the world. They used to say that God looks after fools, drunks and the United States of America. Well, old boy, No. 3 needs you.

And by the way, thanks for Robert C. Byrd.

Footnote: Last week, I noted that the battle for state Democratic Party chair between the UAW’s man, incumbent Mark Brewer, and Butch Hollowell, a Jennifer Granholm loyalist, would be a test of the new governor’s clout. What happened? The Dems decided to make Butch chair and Brewer executive chair. But who is really first among nonequals? Oakland Press reporter Lee Dryden discovered the answer. Brewer is being paid $60,000 a year. Hollowell, nothing.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail comments to [email protected]
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