On the 22nd of May, 1856, as the deteriorating American political system veered toward the edge of the cliff, U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina shuffled into the Senate of this nation, his leg stiff from an old dueling injury, supported by a cane. And he looked for the familiar figure of the prominent senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner.
Brooks found Sumner at his desk, mailing out copies of a speech he had delivered three days earlier — a speech against slavery.
The congressman matter-of-factly raised his walking stick in midair and smashed its metal point across the senator’s head.
Congressman Brooks hit his victim repeatedly. Sen. Sumner somehow got to his feet and tried to flee. Brooks chased him and delivered untold blows to Sumner’s head. Even though Sumner lay unconscious and bleeding on the Senate floor, Brooks finally stopped beating him only because his cane finally broke.
Others will cite John Brown’s attack on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry as the exact point after which the Civil War became inevitable.
In point of fact, it might have been the moment, not when Brooks broke his cane over the prostrate body of Sen. Sumner — but when voters in Brooks’ district started sending him new canes.
Tonight, we almost wonder to whom President Bush will send the next new cane.
There is tonight no political division in this country that he and his party will not exploit, nor have not exploited; no anxiety that he and his party will not inflame.
There is no line this president has not crossed — nor will not cross — to keep one political party in power.
He has spread any and every fear among us in a desperate effort to avoid that which he most fears — some check, some balance against what has become not an imperial, but a unilateral presidency.
And now it is evident that it no longer matters to him whether that effort to avoid the judgment of the people is subtle and nuanced or laughably transparent.
Sen. John Kerry called him out Monday.
He did it two years too late.
He had been too cordial — just as Vice President Gore had been too cordial in 2000, just as millions of us have been too cordial ever since.
Sen. Kerry, as you well know, spoke at a college in Southern California. With bitter humor he told the students that he had been in Texas the day before, that President Bush used to live in that state, but that now he lives in the state of denial.
He said the trip had reminded him about the value of education — that “if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don’t, you can get stuck in Iraq.”
The senator, in essence, called Mr. Bush stupid.
The context was unmistakable: Texas; the state of denial; stuck in Iraq. No interpretation required.
And Mr. Bush and his minions responded by appearing to be too stupid to realize that they had been called stupid.
They demanded Kerry apologize to the troops in Iraq.
And so he now has.
That phrase — “appearing to be too stupid” — is used deliberately, Mr. Bush.
Because there are only three possibilities here.
One, sir, is that you are far more stupid than the worst of your critics have suggested; that you could not follow the construction of a simple sentence; that you could not recognize your own life story when it was deftly summarized; that you could not perceive it was the sad ledger of your presidency that was being recounted.
This, of course, compliments you, Mr. Bush, because even those who do not “make the most of it,” who do not “study hard,” who do not “do their homework,” and who do not “make an effort to be smart” might still just be stupid, but honest.
No, the first option, sir, is, at best, improbable. You are not honest.
The second option is that you and those who work for you deliberately twisted what Sen. Kerry said to fit your political template; that you decided to take advantage of it, to once again pretend that the attacks, solely about your own incompetence, were in fact attacks on the troops or even on the nation itself.
The third possibility is, obviously, the nightmare scenario: that the first two options are in some way conflated.
That it is both politically convenient for you and personally satisfying to you, to confuse yourself with the country for which, sir, you work.
A brief reminder, Mr. Bush: You are not the United States of America.
You are merely a politician whose entire legacy will have been a willingness to make anything political; to have, in this case, refused to acknowledge that the insult wasn’t about the troops, and that the insult was not even truly about you either, that the insult, in fact, is you.
So now John Kerry has apologized to the troops; apologized for the Republicans’ deliberate distortions.
Thus, the president will now begin the apologies he owes our troops, right?
This president must apologize to the troops for having suggested, six weeks ago, that the chaos in Iraq, the death and the carnage, the slaughtered Iraqi civilians and the dead American service personnel, will, to history, “look like just a comma.”
This president must apologize to the troops because the intelligence he claims led us into Iraq proved to be undeniably and irredeemably wrong.
This president must apologize to the troops for having laughed about the failure of that intelligence at a banquet while our troops were in harm’s way.
This president must apologize to the troops because the streets of Iraq were not strewn with flowers and its residents did not greet them as liberators.
This president must apologize to the troops because his administration ran out of “plan” after barely two months.
This president must apologize to the troops for getting 2,815 of them killed.
This president must apologize to the troops for getting this country into a war without a clue.
And Mr. Bush owes us an apology for this destructive and omnivorous presidency.
We will not receive them, of course.
This president never apologizes.
Not to the troops.
Not to the people.
Nor will those henchmen who have echoed him.
In calling him a “stuffed suit,” Sen. Kerry was wrong about the press secretary.
Mr. Snow’s words and conduct, falsely earnest and earnestly false, suggest he is not “stuffed,” he is inflated.
And in leaving him out of the equation, Sen. Kerry gave an unwarranted pass to his old friend Sen. John McCain, who should be ashamed of himself tonight.
He rolled over and pretended Kerry had said what he obviously had not.
Only, the symbolic stick he broke over Kerry’s head came in a context even more disturbing.
Mr. McCain demanded the apology while electioneering for a Republican congressional candidate in Illinois.
He was speaking of how often he had been to Walter Reed Hospital to see the wounded Iraq veterans, of how “many of them have lost limbs.”
He said all this while demanding that the voters of Illinois reject a candidate who is not only a wounded Iraq veteran, but who lost two limbs there, Tammy Duckworth.
Support some of the wounded veterans. But bad-mouth the Democratic one.
And exploit all the veterans and all the still-serving personnel in a cheap and tawdry political trick to try to bury the truth: that John Kerry said the president had been stupid.
And to continue this slander as late as this morning — as biased or gullible or lazy newscasters nodded in sleep-walking assent.
Sen. McCain became a front man in a collective lie to break sticks over the heads of Democrats — one of them his friend, another his fellow veteran, legless, for whom he should weep and applaud or at minimum about whom he should stay quiet.
That was beneath the senator from Arizona.
And it was all because of an imaginary insult to the troops that his party cynically manufactured out of a desperation and a futility as deep as that of Congressman Brooks, when he went hunting for Sen. Sumner.
This is our beloved country now as you have redefined it, Mr. Bush.
Get a tortured Vietnam veteran to attack a decorated Vietnam veteran in defense of military personnel whom that decorated veteran did not insult.
Or, get your henchmen to take advantage of the evil lingering dregs of the fear of miscegenation in Tennessee, in your party’s advertisements against Harold Ford.
Or, get the satellites who orbit around you, like Rush Limbaugh, to exploit the illness — and the bipartisanship — of Michael J. Fox. Yes, get someone to make fun of the cripple.
Oh, and sir, don’t forget to drag your own wife into it.
“It’s always easy,” she said of Mr. Fox’s commercials — and she used this phrase twice — “to manipulate people’s feelings.”
Where on earth might the first lady have gotten that idea, Mr. President?
From your endless manipulation of people’s feelings about terrorism?
“However they put it,” you said Monday of the Democrats, on the subject of Iraq, “their approach comes down to this: The terrorists win, and America loses.”
No manipulation of feelings there.
No manipulation of the charlatans of your administration into the only truth-tellers.
No shocked outrage at the Kerry insult that wasn’t; no subtle smile as the first lady silently sticks the knife in Michael J. Fox’s back; no attempt on the campaign trail to bury the reality that you have already assured that the terrorists are winning.
Winning in Iraq, sir.
Winning in America, sir.
There we have chaos — joint U.S.-Iraqi checkpoints at Sadr City, the base of the radical Shiite militias, and the Americans have been ordered out by the prime minister of Iraq … and our secretary of defense doesn’t even know about it!
And here we have deliberate, systematic, institutionalized lying and smearing and terrorizing — a code of deceit that somehow permits a president to say, “If you listen carefully for a Democrat plan for success, they don’t have one.”
Permits him to say this while his plan in Iraq has amounted to a twisted version of the advice once offered to Lyndon Johnson about his Iraq, called Vietnam.
Instead of “declare victory and get out” we now have “declare victory and stay indefinitely.”
And also here — we have institutionalized the terrorizing of the opposition.
True domestic terror:
Critics of your administration in the media receive letters filled with fake anthrax.
Braying newspapers applaud or laugh or reveal details the FBI wished kept quiet, and thus impede or ruin the investigation.
A series of reactionary columnists encourages treason charges against a newspaper that published “national security information” that was openly available on the Internet.
One radio critic receives a letter threatening the revelation of as much personal information about her as can be obtained and expressing the hope that someone will then shoot her with an AK-47 machine gun.
And finally, a critic of an incumbent Republican senator, a critic armed with nothing but words, is attacked by the senator’s supporters and thrown to the floor in full view of television cameras as if someone really did want to re-enact the intent — and the rage — of the day Preston Brooks found Sen. Charles Sumner.
Of course, Mr. President, you did none of these things.
You instructed no one to mail the fake anthrax, nor undermine the FBI’s case, nor call for the execution of the editors of the New York Times, nor threaten to assassinate Stephanie Miller, nor beat up a man yelling at Sen. George Allen, nor have the first lady knife Michael J. Fox, nor tell John McCain to lie about John Kerry.
No, you did not.
And the genius of the thing is the same as in King Henry’s rhetorical question about Archbishop Thomas Becket: “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”
All you have to do, sir, is hand out enough new canes.