Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Russ Feingold - a sea change

Recently, George Will suggested that Russ Feingold could lead the Democrats in a Presidential Race against John McCain. Below is an article I wrote about Russ Feingold in October, 2005, when he after he visited New Hampshire.

Only in the Bush administration can somebody be sent up to the Supreme Court who, " . . has no constitutionalist credentials that I know of," as one of Bush's own closest allies put it. After the sterling choice of Chief Justice John Roberts - and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if perhaps Justice Rehnquist had some subtle influence on his own replacement - it appears that Bush has put his foot down and said, "now its my turn to pick one." And then picked his own personal secretary for the Supreme Court.

There is something deeply disturbing in having a Chief Executive who has no apparent male friends his own age except the ones provided to him by his family and the Republican National Committee to play with. His closest real advisor - as Madison was to Jefferson, Marshall to Eisenhower, Stonewall Jackson to Lee – is always a middle-aged woman, and one whose skills are more empathetic than analytical. I'm surprised he didn't appoint Barbara to the high court.

It is more of the same. Awhile back, pundit David Brooks of the Weekly Standard crew said we face a hard turn ahead. We will look to a new figure for a new generation - John McCain perhaps. Then after Katrina, he said we are now past the turning point and at the breaking point. But still we get more of the same.

But Brooks is right - a sea change is at hand. It just hasn't changed yet. The neocons have left town, the Pentagon is off to Cloud Cookoo Land making war plans against China, and several of the President's closest allies could be behind bars before long. And although it still plays in New York, the Clinton season has passed as well. Hillary was always over-scripted. I'm always reminded of "the Protestant chick who never killed anybody," – the pithy self-description by the wife in the Corleone satire "Mafia!" - when I see her around Bill Clinton and his Deep South cadre, James Carville and recently, Wes Clark. Something new has to happen soon.

John McCain would be the classic Gray Champion – the old soldier which Nathaniel Hawthorne referred to who rises up out of the passive crowd to face down the tyrant to begin a new era. Grover Norquist, architect of the recent Republican movement which brought Bush to power, hates and fears McCain the most. It was McCain who first stood up and warned the world about the danger our country faced by the political blend of religion and politics growing in his own party. But I see a problem here.

There is no question that John McCain would win in a primary here in independent New Hampshire hands down today. He is a man of unquestionable character, a war hero and a folk hero. But people grow tired of war. And when people tire of war they don't vote for military men.

It is one of the simple facts of life. The cycles of history come and go and when war drags on too long, people want to leave it behind entirely and forget all about war. Peace movements are born in the midst of war. Stephen Ambrose made that point in his early work, Rise to Globalism. We looked to the atom bomb to end World War II quickly, he said, because pressure was building to bring the boys home. Ulysses S. Grant made the same point in his personal memoirs. Toward the end of the Civil War he was declared a barbarian and a butcher for the slaughter incurred in the final battles in Virginia. Even President Lincoln condemned his actions. But Grant stated calmly in his autobiography that he did what he did because he had to end the war in four months, before the Confederates could muster a Spring offensive. The North had tired of fighting, new recruits were hard to come by and anti-draft and anti-war movements were growing in the North.

In such times, unless there is a great victory, a military man is not the best choice. And we do not face a great victory in Iraq.

But we had a bright moment here in New Hampshire last week when Russ Feingold, the Democratic Senator from Wisconsin, came up to give us a talk. Feingold is not running for President but the series in which he spoke is called, "Road to the White House." So it is not an impossibility, and it must be somewhere in the back of his mind.

Feingold is a unique politician and one of the six who voted in opposition to the war on Iraq. But he is not a consistent pacifist, or an “alternative” candidate like Howard Dean or a perennial oppositional leftist like Ted Kennedy by any means. He is main stream and main street. He supported the President fully after the tragic events of 9/11 and supported the invasion of Afghanistan. Against the best interests of his own party, he thought then, because Bush, with such overwhelming support between 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan, had such full support of the American people that his party was certain to win reelection.

Feingold is not an old venerable, like Jim Jeffords or Fritz Hollings or the formidable Robert C. Byrd, senators who also voted against the Iraq resolution. They have the luxury of the wise posture late in their careers. He is still a young man and voting to oppose the invasion was personally a very dangerous career move for him. The country was in the blinding grip of war fever at the beginning of the invasion. Over 75% of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq. Had it been successful it would have been a great victory for the President and his party. In spite of that, Feingold kept his head and voted no on the infamous Iraq resolution because he did not believe the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein existed, and proof was not brought forth convincingly by the President. He is a man of conscience and ability and as the tide turns, it could well turn in his direction.

I've not enjoyed hearing such a politician in quite a long time. Feingold brings that clear voice from the storied land of Nick Adams where the sky swirls colors endlessly, which Hemingway wrote of in his greatest tales and Willa Cather saw as the backbone and future of America. The Land of the White Buffalo where Native Americans see a new world awakening and Black Elk pointed to as the “center of the world.” He speaks from the solid stock of the country to which we return when we fail in our vast pretensions, affectations and misguided meanderings. His is the can-do, no frills self-reliant America. He is also the kind of new Democrat which oddly resembles the Republicans of old New England in the 1950s. A vigorous, plain-spoken man and a fiscal conservative with a focus on trimming the deficit.

There are other good new faces out there – Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, whose plans to invest in America by investing in secondary education will help us in the real world of global competition with China and India. And Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, a likely candidate for president, who is one of the most decent of men and one of the best of managers in either party.

But I rarely recall the fresh feeling of new beginnings I felt as when I heard Feingold's speech the other night. From the darkest hour comes the clear light of dawn.

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