Dead Senator becomes campaign issue

Being dead since 1940 hasn’t kept Idaho U.S. Sen. William Borah from being inserted squarely into 2008 presidential politics after Democratic candidate Barack Obama took issue with President Bush’s borrowing of a quote from Borah.

In a speech Thursday to the Israeli Knesset, Bush mentioned the president of Iran, and said: “Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along.”

Bush then recalled a comment attributed to Borah in 1939 following Germany’s invasion of Poland.

“As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939,” Bush told Israeli lawmakers, “an American senator declared: ‘Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.’ We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

Obama has said he would pursue talks with Iran without insisting on “preconditions” that could prompt Iranian leaders to spurn the request.

The comments have touched off back-and-forth salvos from the various camps, with Obama lashing out at President Bush and at Republican presidential rival John McCain for “dishonest, divisive” attacks in intimating the Democratic presidential hopeful would be soft on terrorists.

Idaho historians and academics say this business of dusting off Borah’s words illustrates the continuing resonance of Idaho’s longest-serving U.S. senator, the effectiveness of simple imagery in this blitzkrieg age of 24-hour news and the phenomenon of combining history and hindsight to make a potent political point.

“Trying to draw analogies from the past is something used a lot by political candidates,” said Adam Sowards, a history professor at the University of Idaho, where the William Edgar Borah Outlawry of War Foundation was founded in 1929. Sowards adds such efforts often make him cringe.

“There’s a common saying, ‘History always repeats itself,’ ” Sowards said. “Historians don’t like that saying, because the context is always changing. It’s never the exact same situation.”

Bush isn’t the first to use the comments by Borah, who was himself a contender for president in 1936.

In a Time magazine article in August 2006, writer Brendan Nyhan noted the very same reference had also been used by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer.

Sowards described Borah as something of an early 20th-century version of McCain for a maverick streak that included not endorsing fellow Republican Herbert Hoover for president in 1932.

In the process, Borah transcended provincial Idaho politics during his six U.S. Senate terms. He spent eight years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and fought President Woodrow Wilson over the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I and the League of Nation’s “entangling alliances” with Europe in the wake of that war.

Knowing today that no amount of talking by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Borah or anybody else could have dissuaded Hitler from trying to expand his empire makes for convenient but nonetheless powerful symbolism for politicians like Bush as they attempt to frame the presidential debate on ongoing tensions with Iran.

The Borah reference “got across exactly what he (Bush) wanted to get across,” said Bill Smith, director of The Martin Institute for Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution at the University of Idaho, which runs the annual Borah Symposium lecture at the Moscow, Idaho, school.

It makes political sense, but making Borah and his 1939 comments the poster child for foolhardy Nazi appeasement, then connecting the dots to the current presidential race, is a dicey intellectual proposition.

That’s because Borah was a complex figure, Smith said — a Republican isolationist who supported some of Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-era programs.

“Picking a spot in history and saying, ‘This is what this guy stands for’ is very difficult,” Smith said. “Borah, like a lot of historical figures, has different historical legacies. All legacies are complicated.”