As Washington goes, it was a religious moment.
A slender man with sharp features and a thatch of graying hair in an invisible gray suit flitted down the big marble hallway seeming to want to disappear before he turned into a small room. Wrong room. This was some kind of teach-in crowded with antiwar soldiers. Priests with attitude, maimed Vietnam vets, seventies ghosts with silver goatees, the beaded fringe of the Congressional Black Caucus, and all led by a beatific congresswoman from Sonoma County with great legs and a habit of chanting, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here.”
Suddenly, the room was silent. Walter Jones, Republican of North Carolina, took a seat at the end of the table. “Walter Jones is here,” the congresswoman with the legs announced. He will go next.
“Thank you, Madame Chairman.” Jones looked out at the room through narrow eyes. “As you know, being a conservative Republican, I have taken some criticism for doing what I think is right. I believe that those of us, Democratic or Republican, whatever the issue is, if we don’t do what’s right, we cheat the people.”
“But I found last week this quote from candidate Bush chastising President Clinton because he did not have a timetable [for withdrawing from Kosovo]. I would like to read this, then I’ll close.
“April 9, 1999: ‘Victory means exit strategy, and it’s important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is . . . ’ ”
As quickly as he had appeared, Walter Jones—“French Fry” Jones, as he is known on the left, the congressman who once called for renaming the French fry the “Freedom fry” after the French refused to join us in the invasion of Iraq—vanished, and the room rocked to life. Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, said that Jones was a profile in courage. The Reverend Ed Bacon said that Jones certainly had gravitas if not charisma. Veteran antiwar leader Tom Hayden said it was the first time he’d ever seen a Republican holy man.
“Didja see, they bowed three times? In California, we only bow the head once.”
I was sitting behind Hayden and in front of Daniel Ellsberg, which meant that throughout the ad hoc hearing it was my privilege to pass along (the many) folded notes of the antiwar past. Hayden never thanked me for doing so, and before long I stopped politely tapping him on the arm and merely smacked the shoulder of his blue suit with the latest piece of origami. I was happy to do it. I demonstrated against the war, have always seen it as misguided and evil. Now I wanted to find out what the progressives’ ideas are, how the playbook differs from the one we got in Vietnam.
It’s the right time. The country is in a crisis of leadership. The deaths of fourteen Ohio Marine reserve troops in Haditha in early August gave the national media a heartland tragedy to focus on. Days later, Cindy Sheehan’s brilliant bivouac in Crawford, Texas, provided a TV-ready image of the president’s aloofness, which was only reinforced by Katrina and its aftermath. Now public opinion appears to be in an avalanche. Polls say a firm majority regard the war as a mistake, with a recent New York Times–CBS poll showing that a remarkable 52 percent of Americans think we should withdraw immediately. Even John Kerry has said that the failures of Katrina underline American failures in a misbegotten “war of choice” (one he voted to fund). And the blood you see running in the Washington gutters belongs to the neocons, their heads now impaled on spikes of They will welcome us with open arms. And last Saturday, in Washington, the movement had its biggest moment since last year’s Republican convention in New York.
All this signals an opportunity for the antiwar brain trust. “The rate of change is going to be very swift, and we’re right in the middle of it now,” says Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org, the movement’s Wal-Mart. Pariser adds that any politician who thinks he can straddle the issue in 2006 is courting disaster—a Democrat who takes the DLC line that success is possible in Iraq or the Republican line that we must stay the course is going to face a challenge from a dark horse who gets a pile of money off the Internet. “People want to see change,” he says. “They want to see Democrats standing up and making policy calls Bush doesn’t want to make.”
“The Democratic Party folded up their mental tents,” says Norman Solomon, an antiwar author and movement figure. “The conventional wisdom was that the war as an issue was a nonstarter. Because the Washington Post and New York Times and the rest of the conventional media were telling them that Bush was not vulnerable on the war.”