This is the season of unfortunate remarks, and the remarks are likely to get worse as the bickering over Iraq policy accelerates. How could it be otherwise with seemingly half the Senate running for president and the Bush administration hunkered down to fight off those who would derail the latest solution for bringing Baghdad under control?
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., accused unmarried and childless Condoleezza Rice of not understanding the risk that is being shared by families of U.S. forces in Iraq. Across the Potomac, a deputy assistant director of defense, Charles Stimson, suggested that major law firms representing detainees were un-American. Both remarks fall into the “I don’t believe I would have said that” category of politically incorrect utterances that have ruined careers.
Boxer, of all people, should understand this, coming as she does from a political party whose stock and trade is to make mountains out of small-time verbal missteps, particularly those that show a moment of imprudence when applied to race or gender. Few groups are more sensitive to the equality of the single woman than the feminists who are an integral part of her party’s base.
Although Boxer squealed that she had been misunderstood in her questioning, Secretary of State Rice seemed quite disinclined to let her off the hook. One can hardly blame her, given the grueling interrogation she received from the august Senate Foreign Relations Committee members, including nearly all of those Republicans she should have expected to provide some sympathy for her job as a spokeswoman for a difficult position.
During her career, Rice has shown she feels as deeply about the impact of her actions as if she had given birth to those she has helped put in harm’s way. To suggest that a single woman could not understand the potential devastation to lives caused by the policies she is charged with promoting and defending is just stupid. To suggest this, in fact, is to accuse her of a monstrous insensitivity that makes her motives dishonest and almost inhuman. Has the incivility on the Hill reached that point?
Stimson, meanwhile, showed a woeful ignorance of the constitutional safeguards afforded anyone who comes in contact with our legal process. As the person in charge of detainee policies, he told interviewers that he was dismayed that top law firms were representing prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and that corporate clients of those firms should think about ending their ties to them. The suggested boycott brought a round of huzzahs and support from a gaggle of conservative radio talkers, who clearly hadn’t thought it out very well, and legitimate screams from the legal community far and wide.
The Pentagon was quick to disavow Stimson’s remarks, saying he was speaking on his own and that his views did not represent official policy. One would certainly hope not. It would be proper, I think, to ask at this point: Why is this man still on the job, and why was he hired in the first place?
Nothing is more sacred than the judicial system, flawed as it is, that keeps us free. Legal defense is an integral part of that. Anyone who doesn’t understand that should not be serving in this government, and perhaps should himself spend several nights in the hell of Guantanamo, where many are being held without charges and under only a supposition that they may have a link to terrorism.
The entire detainee policy has not been a pretty one. In fact, it has been a disgraceful twisting of the rule of law that threatens to do serious damage to the nation’s reputation as the world’s greatest democracy. It was a grotesque overreaction to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and it has morphed into a miscarriage that rivals those common to the repressive, regressive cultures we so righteously denounce. Obviously, Stimson has had a hand in that policy. His remarks now reveal exactly why it has become such a detestable experience.
So from both ends of the government, the word “blight” becomes more intense. Boxer’s tongue won’t be the only one that will get in the way of better judgment, and Stimson won’t be the only senior official to show a complete lack of understanding about America’s principles. We will survive, the songwriter says. Probably. But it certainly gets scary at times.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)