Partisanship stalls efforts to find a fix

May 28, 2002|By Susan Reimer

The unified front America presented against terrorism cracked wide with revelations about the unheeded Aug. 6 warning that Osama bin Laden's followers might use hijacked planes to blow up civilian targets.

Democrats dusted off the old Watergate rallying cry and demanded to know what the president knew and when he knew it.

Republicans immediately wrapped themselves in the American flag, clapped their hands over their mouths in shock and said anyone who would ask such a question was not a patriot.

Things got so shrill so fast that both sides took to Sunday talk shows and pleaded for calm.

For good measure, and to frighten critics into silence, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld grabbed the microphone and warned that we all needed to stick together because they had information that a new and more horrible act of terrorism was due to occur at any moment. This scene brought back memories of President Clinton's bombing of Iraq on the eve of an expected House vote on impeachment.

So much for a polarized nation, torn apart by a contested election, newly unified against a common threat.

I thought the political leadership of both parties might like to know how this show is playing out here in the sticks.

Not well. Not well at all.

Gentlemen, if you only knew how transparently political you appear to us, and how utterly cynical we have become in the face of your histrionics, you would be ashamed to take the stage.

We were frankly surprised that this one-big-happy-political-family thing lasted as long as it did. At some point, we knew, hard questions would have to be asked about our naked unpreparedness for Sept. 11.

But we also knew the necessary examination of what went wrong would almost certainly be made more unpleasant, and less productive, by partisanship.

I don't agree with Sen. John McCain's Pollyanna notion that "in a lively democracy ... partisan and institutional loyalties will influence both sides in an honest debate."

I am not that sanguine. This is politics as usual.

Democrats are looking not only for vulnerabilities in our intelligence gathering systems, but also for vulnerabilities in an incredibly popular president on the eve of November congressional elections in which command of the House and Senate are at stake.

And I do not believe the Republicans will cooperate in any way in such an inquiry because it is not in their nature to do so. I can't imagine Bush purging Attorney General John Ashcroft or anyone else on his team. In fact, the administration is holding its papers closer to its chest and snarling.

In any case, I am hard pressed to believe that either side will make an honest effort to fix what is broken when there is any other advantage to be gained.

This comes too closely on the heels of the vicious partisan campaign to unseat a previous president for me to believe that what is going on now is the sign of a healthy democracy taking stock.

We have been down this road before, and we know where it ends: $60 million later, lives are ruined, the country is torn apart and absolutely nothing helpful is discovered.

That's what it looks like to us, gentlemen.

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