Give Barbara Boxer credit for sparking the most engaged debate that the Senate has yet seen over the Bush Administration lies that led the United States into the quagmire that is Iraq.
Boxer, the California Democrat who has been increasingly vocal in her objections to the Administration's reign of error and excess, seized the opening provided by President Bush's nomination of Condoleezza Rice to serve as Secretary of State to try and force a necessary discussion about the misstatements, misconceptions and misdeeds that Rice and others in the Administration used to make the "case" for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And, to the surprise even of some war foes, she got it.
Yes, of course, Rice's confirmation was certain. In a Senate where the balance is now tipped 55-45 toward a Republican caucus that for the most part puts party loyalty above duty to country, and where there are still too many Democrats who continue to preach the failed "can't-we-all-just-get-along" mantra that has relegated the party to minority status, there was never any chance that the national security advisor's record of failure and deception would prevent her from taking charge of the State Department.
But Rice's road to Foggy Bottom proved to be far rockier than had been expected. Tuesday's Senate debate on her nomination was one of the most charged that the chamber has seen in recent years, and while Rice survived, she did not finish the day unscathed. Senator after Senator rose to recall what Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, described as Rice's "false reasons" for going to war, and to charge, as Kennedy did, that had Rice told the truth "it might have changed the course of history."
Though he and others were eloquent in their critique of Rice on Tuesday, the person who changed the course of history with regard to the debate over the Bush Administration's nominee for Secretary of State was not Kennedy, nor West Virginia's Robert Byrd, nor any of the other more senior senators who ripped Rice. Rather, it was Barbara Boxer, the diligent if not always prominent senator from the Golden State.
When Rice appeared on January 18 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on which Boxer sits, it was the California Senator who did the heavy lifting. She began by announcing that, "I will...not shrink from questioning a war that was not built on truth." And she then detailed the role that Rice played in creating the foundation of lies for the war.
"Perhaps the most well known statement you have made was the one about Saddam Hussein launching a nuclear weapon on America, with the image of a 'mushroom cloud.' That image had to frighten every American into believing that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of annihilating them if he was not stopped," said Boxer, who then announced that, "I will be placing into the record a number of other such statements which have not been consistent with the facts nor the truth."
Then Boxer hammered home the point that really mattered: That when Rice and her team lied, people died.
"This war was sold to the American people--as Chief of Staff to President Bush Andy Card said--like a 'new product.' You rolled out the idea and then you had to convince the people, and as you made your case, I personally believe that your loyalty to the mission you were given overwhelmed your respect for the truth," Bixer calmly declared. "That was a great disservice to the American people. But worse than that, our young men and women are dying. So far, 1,366 American troops have been killed in Iraq. More than 25 percent of those troops were from California. More than 10,372 have been wounded."
When Boxer read out the statistics, it was a devastating moment -- and a rare one. Seldom do Senators accuse prospective Cabinet members of lying. Rice knew she was taking a harder hit than anyone had expected. The nominee tried to get the upper hand with classic Washington spin. "Senator," Rice whined, "I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. It's not in my nature. It's not in my character. And I would hope we could have this conversation...without impugning my credibility or my integrity."
Rice's problem was that her credibility and integrity had been impugned--not by Boxer but by the nominee herself. All Boxer did was bring Rice's deceptions to light and, perhaps most significantly, to link them to the continuing crisis in Iraq. In so doing, she shamed a number of her fellow Democrats into joining her in opposition not just to Rice but to the Administration's entire approach to the war.
Tuesday's Senate debate was distinguished by the bluntness of the criticism of Rice's record. "She exaggerated and distorted the facts," said Michigan's Carl Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Minnesota Democrat Mark Dayton announced that he was opposing Rice's nomination in order to hold the Administration accountable for its lies. "I don't like impugning anyone's integrity," Dayton said. "But I really don't like being lied to--repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally."
"My vote against this nominee is my statement that this administration's lies must stop now," the Minnesotan explained.
Other senators were equally pointed in their condemnations of the nominee.
"Dr. Rice is responsible for some of the most overblown rhetoric that the administration used to scare the American people," thundered West Virginia's Byrd, who argued that, "Her confirmation will most certainly be viewed as another endorsement of the administration's unconstitutional doctrine of preemptive war, its bullying policies of unilateralism, and its callous rejection of long-standing allies."
Byrd remarks were, as always, historically rich and intellectually powerful. But the dean of the Senate did not hesitate to give credit where credit was due.
Recalling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee session at which his colleague from California had grilled Rice, the senior Senator said, "I was particularly impressed by Senator Boxer, who tackled her role on the committee with passion and forthrightness..."
Expressing his dismay with Republicans who have accused Senate Democrats of engaging in "petty politics" by demanding a debate on Rice's nomination, Byrd argued that, "Nothing could be further from the truth. The Senate's role of advice and consent to presidential nominations is not a ceremonial exercise."
Byrd was right to assert that the Senate's constitutionally dictated "advice and consent" duty "is not a function of pomp and circumstance" and that senators must never "acquiesce mutely to the nomination of one of the most important members of the President's Cabinet."
He was equally right to recognize the critical role that Boxer played in assuring that so many Democratic senators recognized their responsibility to assume that the consideration of Rice's nomination was something more that "a ceremonial exercise."