Goodbye, Baltimore

August 19, 2005|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - After 24 years, this is my final column in The Sun. I'm not retiring; my column will continue in other newspapers around the country through syndication. But it has been at The Sun that it has evolved into the voice that I hope will be remembered by readers in Baltimore.

When the column started in 1977 with my partner Jack Germond, who retired 4 1/2 years ago, it was based at The Washington Star. When the paper was closed in mid-1981, Jack Lemmon, the managing editor of The Evening Sun, gave it a new home.

In those years, the column was focused primarily on pure politics, the field on which we each had concentrated most of our newspaper years, and we continued that focus at The Evening Sun. For the most part, we emphasized reporting and analysis over opinion.

When The Evening Sun closed in 1995, we moved to the morning paper. And when in 2001 I continued the column on my own, I adhered to the same approach.

But on Sept. 11 of that year, the cataclysmic event that reshaped the world began also to reshape the column's focus. When the new president, George W. Bush, seized upon the terrorist attacks and cast himself as a "war president," I shifted much of that focus to examining his response to them.

At the outset, I expressed strong support for his decision to retaliate by attacking Afghanistan and deposing its Taliban regime as the first imperative to destroy the al-Qaida organization that was harbored there, and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

But in 2002, when President Bush began to shift his strategy to Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that were a major threat to the United States, and he linked him to 9/11, I began to question that strategy and the motives, information and logic behind it.

In April 2002, I covered a Senate committee hearing led by Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin devoted to Congress' constitutional power to declare war and whether a president could legally assume it. Several scholars said emphatically no, but a Justice Department lawyer argued he could do so as commander in chief.

From then on, as Mr. Bush moved toward invasion of a country that had not attacked us, I wrote columns in The Sun challenging the concept of pre-emptive war in the face of the U.N. position that such an act could be justified only in self-defense.

Into 2003, I took ever-firmer positions against Mr. Bush's actions, noting only when the invasion began that U.S. forces deserved support without my surrendering my obligation to examine and criticize the policy.

At the outset, I received much e-mail accusing me of disloyalty and even treason, but as the situation in Iraq festered and Mr. Bush's rationales for the invasion crumbled, the mail began to turn around. In time I was criticized by some readers for not calling for Mr. Bush's impeachment for misleading the nation into war.

I wrote then that there was a more realistic vehicle for expressing public disfavor - the approaching 2004 presidential election. I argued that those who were against the war could use the election as a referendum on what I argued was an illegal war begun under false premises.

Many voters obviously did so, but not enough, in part because the Bush campaign succeeded in making Democratic nominee John Kerry, himself ambiguous on the war, and his Vietnam service record the issue rather than the man who had started that war. In retrospect, I lament not having advocated impeachment, even as achieving it was unlikely.

I have continued the column's focus on this unnecessary and calamitous war and will be doing so as the column appears elsewhere. My principal regret in leaving this space in The Sun is that my readers in Baltimore will no longer read my views on what I consider the most critical crisis facing this country for the foreseeable future.

Jules Witcover may be reached at juleswitcover@earthlink.net.

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