Investigative reporter and essayist Russ
Baker is a longtime contributor to
TomPaine.com. He is also the founder of the Real News
Project, a new not-for-profit investigative
journalism outlet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Was it my imagination, or did I see the
ghost of Joe McCarthy heading into the RNC headquarters the
other day? And was that the ghost of Don Knotts’s quivery TV
persona holding court in the Senate Democratic cloakroom?
Only a conscienceless bully—like the one dissected in the
movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” about Edward R. Murrow’s
television crusade against McCarthy’s serial abuse of the
public trust—could have come up with the disgustingly
misleading radio ads now attacking Sen. Russ Feingold.
And only the chickenhearted—or those henpecked by
consultants—would fail to back up this courageous figure.
On Wednesday, taking its cues from remarks by President
George W. Bush, the GOP launched radio ads against Sen.
Feingold in his home state of Wisconsin, with these words:
"President Bush is working to keep American families safe…But
some Democrats are working against these efforts to secure our
country…Their leader is Russ Feingold.”
The ad criticizes Feingold for his censure resolution
against the president, but in a classic
trick, fails to
tell listeners what the censure is about. They will not know
that Feingold is upset by Bush’s unauthorized wiretapping.
Instead, here’s what the ads claim:
Now Feingold and other Democrats want to censure the
president, publicly reprimanding President Bush for pursuing
suspected members of Al Qaeda.
Of course, an ad that actually respected the listeners
would tell them the truth. Something like:
Now Feingold, with little support from his quaking
Democratic colleagues, wants to censure the President…for
authorizing wiretapping on American citizens that even many
prominent Republicans believe is illegal—and unnecessary.
Feingold wants the president to pursue real suspected
members of Al Qaeda—not turn the U.S. into a police
And that’s the crux. Democratic senators were reportedly
upset that Feingold didn’t notify them of his plan to
introduce the censure resolution—and doubly wounded that he
criticized them for “cowering with this president's numbers so
low. The administration ... just has to raise the specter of
the war on terror, and Democrats run and hide." Some of
Feingold’s Democratic colleagues may also have resisted
lining up behind the Wisconsin senator’s banner on this issue
because they plan to compete with Feingold for the 2008
Democratic presidential nomination.
The fact is, a Senate censure resolution would be a
legitimate catalyst for discussion of the levels to which this
administration has sunk in debasing democratic safeguards and
process. It is not the same as impeachment, which must emanate
from the House of Representatives. It is at once more
attainable than impeachment and a strong symbolic
Yet leading Democrats have started their customary
throat-clearing exercise, saying that more time is needed to
study the issue, and so forth. Even if that were true,
allowing a censure resolution to advance need not preclude a
serious Senate investigation of the truth behind the
administration’s confusing justifications for ignoring the law
in its domestic wiretap program. Indeed, with stonewalling by
the GOP majority a given on almost any topic of import, a vote
on a censure resolution that has garnered substantial public
support may be the only way to force our representatives to do
their jobs as watchdogs of the public interest.
As for the GOP ad, it could legitimately have attacked
Feingold’s true position. One can always disagree on the
merits. Instead, the RNC attacks him for what he did not say
and did not do. Bush himself has publicly accused Feingold of
opposing “terrorist surveillance.” And we all know who plays
that kind of game: cowards like Joe McCarthy, who collapsed
and faded away when confronted by a determined adversary, the
Boston lawyer Joseph Welsh, in a memorable encounter during
the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
Taking their cue from Welsh and Murrow, the Democrats
should be airing their own radio ads—if not to back Feingold,
then at least to inform the public about the RNC lies—and to
take the liars and those behind them to task. If people
understood the facts of the situation, they would be
appalled—and furious at being manipulated in this manner.
Instead, the Democrats are running from Feingold as if he had
the avian flu.
The spinmeisters who air attack commercials of this sort
are like piranhas—they’re agnostic about whom they rip to
shreds. If they can get away with doing this to Feingold, they
can do it to anyone—and will continue to do so until someone
stands up and gives a yell like Howard Beal in the classic
film "Network": mad as hell and not going to take it
But first, the Democrats need some backbone. That they lack
one is evident because they will not even show boldness when
the American people already get it. An American Research Group
poll revealed last week that an astonishing 48 percent of
American voters support Feingold's call for a Senate censure
of President Bush and just 43 percent oppose it. Even a
sizable chunk of Republicans (nearly one-third) favor censure
while nearly a fifth of GOP supporters back impeachment.
It is no small thing that it took William Kristol, the
conservative pundit and editor of The Weekly Standard
, to intone (on Fox News Sunday, no less) that
Feingold “is smarter than the Democratic congressional
leadership” and “deserves credit for taking a principled
stand.” Kristol, who presumably isn’t signing up for the
Feingold-for-president campaign, nevertheless declared that
the senator “is making his case coherently. He’s an impressive
Meanwhile, from the liberal side of the aisle, it is the
apoplectic blogosphere that must yell and scream before even
the most modest of official resistance bestirs.
Now, elected Democrats, standing up for your principles is
not that hard once you get used to it. It’s just been so very
long for you that you’re out of practice.