Rescuing the Democrats

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

The war maker’s conceit and cruelest lie is that he’s protecting the women and children. Now moms around the world have had enough of it and are stepping forward to save their children, and while they’re at it the human race itself, from this lie — even if it means being led away in handcuffs.

If George Bush’s devastating war ends sooner rather than later, it will be because those with the most serious stake in its cessation — the mothers with children caught in its maw, the dazed sane citizens around the world — get angry or desperate enough to disrupt the functioning of the military-industrial-media complex. Without such an effort, the war will grind along like a perpetual-motion machine.

I’m thinking right now about politicianspeak, a language of illusion and evasion that protects this machine that deals out such enormous suffering and such enormous profits. The language is not impenetrable. I saw it penetrated with casual, possibly even accidental ease, as I channel-surfed my way into a pop-culture stupor this past weekend, at a motel room in St. Paul, Minn. I almost never watch TV, but I was picking my daughter up at college and had this big, empty evening on my hands.

On one of the channels between playoff basketball and Major League baseball, I happened upon “Real Time with Bill Maher,” which does its best to slip serious issues into the entertainment format network television requires. And suddenly, in the midst of a discussion about terrorism, Maher asked his guests (Sean Penn, Gary Shandling and former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr.), “Isn’t war itself terror?”

What happened next was a moment of excruciating awkwardness, as Ford, a young, Bill Clinton-style Democrat who is current head of the Democratic Leadership Council, acted as though he were backing away from a live grenade. No way, apparently, could he allow himself to be tainted with even cursory agreement with such an observation, yet neither could he, in the climate of near-universal censure of Bush’s Iraq debacle, exactly disagree, so he spun a cocoon of say-nothing politicianspeak around himself, which, in the context of smart-ass political comedy, was almost too painful to watch.

And then the moment passed and life went on. But I thought about it again the other day when I talked to Cindy Sheehan, the country’s best-known Gold Star Mother and anti-war activist, about the 10,000-mom march she plans to lead on Monday, May 14 (the day after Mother’s Day) in the nation’s capitol — a march that will launch a summer of intense anti-war activism called “Swarm on Congress” (see

While giving Congress credit for “taking baby steps in the right direction” since the November election, Sheehan was adamant, “We have to let Democrats know we’ll be holding them accountable. We need to let Nancy Pelosi know where the American public stands. She needs to know she’ll be supported if Democrats are courageous and end George Bush’s nightmare.”

Pelosi and most other Democratic leaders do more or less oppose Bush’s war, but in such a delicately nuanced, politicianspeak way — a way that recoils from stand-tough action or any sort of behavior that would seem to criticize possible future wars (“Isn’t war itself terror?”) — that a mother whose son, let us say, has been killed by an IED, or who came home from his second deployment emotionally shattered and suicidal and can’t get adequate treatment at the VA, may have only limited patience with their machinations.

Such a mom might yearn rather for the spirit of Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of Congress and, in her 90s, a vehement opponent of the Vietnam War, who once said: “There can be no compromise with war; it cannot be reformed or controlled; cannot be disciplined into decency or codified into common sense; for war is the slaughter of human beings, temporarily regarded as enemies, on as large a scale as possible.” (Sheehan quotes Rankin in an essay about the May 14 march.)

Moms such as Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq in 2004, and Tina Richards, whose Marine son fits the above description — and who in March was led from Pelosi’s office in handcuffs for insisting on talking to the speaker of the House about her vote on the upcoming war appropriations bill — are doing the heavy lifting against this perpetual-motion-machine war that so many Democrats find they cannot oppose in a way that would actually end it.

The war will only end when the ones who oppose it stop compromising with it. This at any rate is the rationale of the upcoming Swarm on Congress, and I have to say I agree. Having witnessed Harold Ford’s quick, sad spectacle of compromise in front of a TV audience that would almost certainly have applauded a show of angry courage, I wonder what it’s going to take to rescue the Democrats from the quagmire of politicianspeak.

I hope their mothers can do it.