When Congress voted to authorize the Bush Administration to use military force in response to the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee stood alone in opposition to what she saw as a "rush to judgment." Lee, the California Democrat who holds the Bay Area seat once occupied by antiwar activist Ron Dellums, spoke with John Nichols, The Nation's Washington correspondent, this week.
THE NATION: How did you reach the decision to oppose authorizing the use of force?
LEE: I was at the National Cathedral in Washington. I went to the memorial service on the Friday after the attacks and I prayed. I said to myself, "You've got to figure this one out." I was dealing with all the grief and sorrow and the loss of life, and it was very personal because a member of my staff had lost a cousin in the Pennsylvania crash. I was thinking about my responsibility as a member of Congress to try to insure that this never happens again. I listened to the remarks of the clergy. Many of them made profound statements. But I was struck by what one of them said: "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore." That was such a wise statement, and it reflected not only what I was feeling but also my understanding of the threats we continue to face. When I left the cathedral, I was fairly resolved.
THE NATION: Were you also concerned about the constitutional implications of the vote?
LEE: Absolutely. Given the three branches of government, and given that each has a role in the making of monumental decisions such as this, I thought the Congress had a responsibility in this instance especially to step back and say,"Let's not rush to judgment. Let us insist that our democracy works by insuring that the checks and balances work and that the Congress is a part of the decision-making process in terms of when we go to war and with whom.... I think we disenfranchised the American people when we took their representatives out of the decision-making on whether to go to war with a specific nation.
THE NATION: Were you surprised that no other members of Congress voted with you?
LEE: It never dawned on me that I would cast the only vote against this resolution. Many members asked me to change my position. They were friends, and they said, "You do not want to be out there alone." I said, "Oh, no, don't worry. There will be others." When there weren't, I said, "Oh my God." I could not believe it. It was an awesome feeling. And a lonely feeling.
THE NATION: You mentioned that other members said, "You don't want to be out there alone." Do you think other members shared your concerns but were unwilling to cast a risky vote with emotions running so high?
LEE: If you read the floor statements. you'll see that there are many members of Congress who share my concerns. I think that, when I cast that vote, I was speaking for other people in Congress and outside Congress who want a more deliberative approach.
THE NATION: At the same time, you have received precisely the sort of criticism that most politicians fear.
LEE: I've been called a traitor, a coward, a communist, all the awful stuff. It's been quite difficult for me. But I still believe that I cast the right vote. My district, I think, understands this vote.... I've gotten probably 20,000 e-mails. At first, there were a lot of very harsh messages. But now we are hearing more from people who are saying, "Yes, let's use some restraint. Yes, let's break the cycle of violence if we can." I think the further we get away from that tragic day, the more we will hear those voices of reason.
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There was a short note in the New York Times a few months ago reporting that Governor Jeb Bush wept while speaking to the Southern Regional Conference of the National Baptist Congress of Christian Education. He was crying, it turns out, for a press aide of his, a black woman who he said had been scorned by other blacks because she worked for him. "I'm not crying for me, I'm crying for you, Leslie, and others who have to make the ultimate sacrifice." The woman in question then mounted the podium and handed him "a tissue for his eyes." It was an affecting little story in its narrative elements, the strong but kindhearted white statesman who cries for the lost society of his black aide, while she, the brave moral soldier, risks all--race, face, culture, friends--for her beliefs.
I'd like to succumb to the feel-good sentimentality of it all, but when Republicans say they are going to reach out to the black community, as they have made such fuss about doing of late--well, frankly, I cringe. I remember George Bush the elder getting all choked up about Clarence Thomas's "ultimate sacrifice." I have awful recollections of the Republican Party courting Sammy Davis Jr. so that he could weep, or was it laugh, with Richard Nixon. Oh, the highs, the lows.
In any event, despite the Bush team's race to pose with black church ladies and black mayors and black children enrolled at failing inner-city schools, a recent Gallup poll shows African-American optimism about race relations is lower than it was thirty-five years ago. While seven out of ten whites say that blacks and whites are treated the same, a similar number of blacks say that blacks and whites are treated very differently. The poll also shows that since Bush's election, blacks have grown substantially more pessimistic about their political future, even as 70 percent felt positive about their personal lives. While some commentators found this contradictory, it was a statistic that struck home with me. I am a black person who feels personally content; I am grateful for what I have and work hard to protect my little status quo. But at the same time, I am just plain scared of what the future holds for dark-skinned people in the political arena.
Perhaps the Bush team will read of my dejection, perhaps they will read this much and weep. Then again, perhaps not: As David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, has said, reaching out to African-Americans most likely wouldn't win many black votes but could help Bush expand his base. "I think the strategy has less to do with getting black support than with making Bush appear more moderate to swing voters, particularly white women in the suburbs, who have a sense that the GOP is an antiblack party."
It is interesting to compare how well the Gallup poll's documentation of divided racial perceptions corresponds to actual conditions. After all, a recent Harvard study shows that US schools grew more segregated during the 1990s for both blacks and Latinos. A study conducted by the Washington Post shows that blacks experience more discrimination than any other ethnic group by far. (The "ethnicities" specified in the study were black, white, Asian and Latino. Native Americans weren't mentioned, and the complicating factor that Latinos are sometimes categorized as either black or white was not addressed. Nevertheless, if one accepts that these labels reveal more about our society as a pigmentocracy rather than about ethnicity in the strict sense, then such data are still extremely interesting.)
This deep division is not a matter of whether we see the glass half-full or half-empty--a cliché that minimizes the irrationality of what is going on as just a matter of conflicting opinions. In the face of nationwide statistics that establish that dark-skinned people of whatever ethnicity are stopped, searched and arrested more frequently and sentenced more harshly; in the face of statistics showing that blacks across the socioeconomic spectrum get much less comprehensive medical treatment for illnesses ranging from asthma to AIDS to cancer to heart attacks; in the face of figures revealing that banks, employers, restaurants and real estate agents still routinely engage in redlining and other discriminatory lending and business practices; given the realities of environmental racism; given the gutting of civil rights laws to the point where Congress is now debating handing money to religious groups that "believe" in discrimination; given marginalization in the voting process and given fears of a recession... well, it's no wonder blacks are a little less positive. The only wonder is how deeply race rather than citizenship affects the ability to hear this bad news.
On a recent radio program, I heard a woman describing a reunion of family and friends that had been planned for a resort in South Carolina during a time when the NAACP had called for a tourism boycott until the Confederate flag was removed from state property. She said that the extended family had "never" discussed race before, and so they consulted with one another about what to do and whether to go. They did go, but passed the hat and contributed the money to the NAACP. I didn't hear the woman reveal her race, but it's a safe bet that group was white. How else do you go through life "never" thinking about race?
I thought about race when I found myself at Boston's South Station last week, at midnight, vainly trying to get a cab to the airport. The fact that black cabbies pass blacks by as often as white cabbies is no more comforting than, say, having Clarence Thomas joy ride the freedom train right on past black precincts with the same blithe blindness as Antonin Scalia.
But, hey. If it's any comfort to Jeb Bush, my sense is that black people don't revile his black press aide any more than they revile old Jeb himself. And if there's weeping to be done about lost black regard, common decency demands that big brother George should lead the doing of it.
As for Jeb's press aide, the one with Kleenex to spare, I do believe she was last heard trilling, to the tune of "Oh, Susannah": "Oh, young Jeb Bush/Oh, don't you weep for me/For I'm going to make some big bucks/As a black con-ser-va-teeeev!"