Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, August 21, 2006
The hypocrisy makes Günter Grass’ belated admission that he was drafted into the Waffen SS look saintly in comparison: Joe Lieberman is calling for Don Rumsfeld’s resignation. Joe Lieberman—best man at the Pentagon’s wedding with neo-cons, valet to the Iraq invasion, concierge to the Bush White House to this day and fuse-lighter to every missile with an Arab destination—now thinks, three years too late (six, by fairer measures), that gunning for a dead horse by means of reviving his own senatorial horse race can help him in November. Calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation now is like Robert McNamara apologizing in 1995 for his Rumsfeldian role in the Vietnam War. It’s not only too late. It’s an offense to those already ruined by the errors. Lieberman thinks “it’s still time for new leadership at the Pentagon.” A curious still that seems not to apply to an other equally pertinent, because parallel, change: It’s still time for Joe to withdraw, his tenure having been among the most enabling of a war he not only chose, but cheer-leaded while scouring others for opposing. The pity of it is that his McNamarian slither may just work. If George Bush could pass himself off for a moderate, a mild environmentalist and a reformed alcoholic in 2000, if his brother Jeb could pass himself off for a moralist at Terri Schiavo’s bedside, if Sam Alito and John Roberts, the two most reactionary justices since the Thomas-Scalia duo hit the stage, could pass themselves off as gentle, consensus-building constitutionalists, then of course Lieberman (with Karl Rove now in his corner) can pass himself off as an Iraq war reformist.
Lieberman says it’s time for an international conference to bring stability to Iraq. Perhaps 100,000 lives too late for this man who should know a thing or two about genocides, especially the preventable kind, Lieberman says, “We had a naive vision that the Iraqis were going to embrace us and then go on and live happily ever after.” We. Eve now, Lieberman is disingenuously sniffing around for the indemnifying we. No, Senator, you and the hubristic likes of you had a naïve vision that Iraq was going to embrace President Bush’s invading army and his fairy tale idiocies for the heart of the Middle East. Some of us knew better, said better, wrote better, and were called naïve for it—the way, incidentally, President Bush still calls doubters of his other wars (on Afghanistan, on terror, on the media) naïve. It’s not that Bush knows his stuff, it’s that Karl Rove knows how to channel Machiavelli to his boss and make it sound like Captain Courageous. And Lieberman has been channeling Bush since 2001, sucking at the tit of every GOP boogey man and never paying heed to what André Gide (author of “L’immoraliste,” incidentally) so aptly said: “ There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”
There’s a lot of Thomas Friedman in Lieberman. Friedman, too, took his Timesian time admitting that the war he egged on may have been a mistake after all. He had no qualms about the reason for war, only the means Bush was using to justify it: “Regime change in Iraq is the right choice for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world. Mr. Bush is right about that,” Friedman wrote on March 9, 2003, three weeks before the war. But at least Friedman had the analytical honesty to lay out the dangers ahead: “If the president can’t make his war of choice the world’s war of choice right now,” he wrote in the same column, “we need to reconsider our options and our tactics. Because if Mr. Bush acts unilaterally, I fear America will not only lose the chance of building a decent Iraq, but something more important— America’s efficacy as the strategic and moral leader of the free world.” That, by the way— America as moral leader of the world—has been a Lieberman specialty, or rather, opportunity: America as moral leader abroad, Lieberman as moral leader at home. That had been his cachet as Al Gore’s vice presidential pick in 2000.
My distaste for Joe Lieberman has nothing to do with his Republican cross-dressing, his picking up Bush’s boot-licking where Zell Miller left off. That — aside from giving cross-dressers an undeservedly bad name — has only intensified the distaste. My political revulsion with the man (because I should specify: I have nothing against him as a man) dates to the day in 1998 when, walking across the newsroom where I worked at the time, he happened to be delivering that speech condemning Bill Clinton for his “infidelity.” I put the word in quote because to this day it’s worth noting, as it always will: a president’s sworn fidelity is to his nation; what he screws, whom he screws and how he screws is neither anybody’s business, the president’s wife or girlfriend(s) aside, nor a matter of “fidelity” for the likes of Sen. Self-Righteous to judge. The moment Lieberman made it his business, his holier-than-thou’s hoariness to peddle and whore to the nation, he declared himself a political opportunist, which is nothing new, but a rank immoralist for using another person’s private affair for his public gain.
I revisit Lieberman’s dishonesty word for word in one particular passage because it contains the chemical DNA of the malodorous fumes he produced on Sunday while calling for Rumsfeld’s resignation: Once an opportunist, always an opportunist. “In this case,” he had said on Sept. 3, 1998, in that voice of his calibrated to mix the plaintive with the innocent, “the President apparently had extramarital relations with an employee half his age, and did so in the workplace, in vicinity of the Oval Office.” As if age should have anything to do with it, as if office blows aren’t the rhythmic romps Wall Street under-desks irrigate their days’ accomplishments with. “Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family, particularly to our children, which is as influential as the negative messages communicated by the entertainment culture.” The children, the entertainment culture, good and evil of our happy trails, and all of a sudden it’s about “Debbie Does Dallas” by way of Hollywood on the evening news. “If you doubt that, just ask America's parents about the intimate and often unseemly sexual questions their young children have been asking and discussing since the President's relationship with Ms. Lewinsky became public seven months ago. I have had many of those conversations in recent days, and from that I can conclude that many parents feel much as I do, that something very sad and sordid has happened in American life when I cannot watch the news on television with my ten-year-old daughter any more.” Because god forbid you might have to broach the subject of oral sex with your 10-year-old daughter when it should, as we all know, be left to her cafeteria pals between fourth and fifth period to explain over a dish of carrots and cream. Because watching the network news should be a fun, wholesome experience, interrupted only by ads for rectal and hemorrhoidal relief as if, as John Updike once wrote, only assholes watched the news.
Which brings us back to Lieberman. What he said then, he might consider re-saying with applications to the war in Iraq, the difference being that unlike Clinton’s blow jobs, Lieberman’s immorality contributed to public, bloody, criminal and uncontrollable consequences: who lacked fidelity to his country and his country’s armed forces three years ago, who, indeed, has been lacking it since, who hasn’t asked the “unseemly questions” for fear of seeming “inappropriate,” only to help lead us down a path that makes the “inappropriate” look, like Grass’s SS days, saintly in comparison with the reality we’re left with? Lieberman isn’t the only knave in the bunch of course. It’s been a Congress of dunces and worms. But Lieberman, for playing the role of “centrist,” has been the knaves’ hero, their poster-boy, their chief immoralist.
And now he’s grabbing headlines with a call for Rumsfeld’s resignation. What novelist wouldn’t despair at having reality outrun his every fictional spark? Then again, this is right up Grass’s dark alley. Maybe Lieberman, too, is hiding a prodigious shame, though what he’s shown in plain sight has been shame aplenty.