For some of progressive cast, there was at least one thin silver lining to Tuesday’s crushing Democratic defeat: For the first time in decades, Jesse Helms wasn’t running, and come January he’ll be gone from Washington once and for all. But while Elizabeth Dole is technically the new occupant of Helms’s Senate seat, his philosophical billet—think of it as the Endowed Chair in Retrograde Conservatism—passes to an ideological soulmate and worthy inheritor, Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss.
A heretofore obscure figure, Chambliss is perhaps best known for his comment last year to a group of Georgia law enforcement officers on homeland security. The best antiterrorist measure for his district, he said, would be to “turn loose” Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk “and let him arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line.” Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, quickly criticized the riff as “the kind of dumb remark that people who lack political judgment tend to make.” Ibish was not only observant but prescient: Rather than defaulting to an apology–as Representative John Cooksey did after stating on a talk radio show that “someone who comes in that’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over”—Chambliss first tried to persuade the Valdosta Daily Times reporter who caught the remark to nix it from his story. When that failed, he forcefully appealed to thereporter’s bosses, and even sought Paulk’s aid “to help block publication,” according to a brief Washington Post item on November 21 of last year.
Such an attempt to mobilize law enforcement in the service of stifling free expression is, sadly, par for the course with Chambliss—who has yet to encounter a piece of legislation that gives greater powers to federal law enforcement or big business that he doesn’t like (tax legislation, of course, excepted). An opponent of measures that would compel banks to cease prying into their customers’ lives and force law enforcement adherence to a higher standard of proof when engaging in asset forfeiture, Chambliss was also an enthusiastic champion of the USA Patriot Act (hardly surprising for the chair of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security) as well as the Bush Administration’s steroidal version of Homeland Security Department legislation. Also in the name of “homeland security,” he co-sponsored a House bill that would allow federal law enforcement to share all manner of federal investigative information with state and local authorities “not restrict[ed] to terrorism and national security investigations,” which, according to the ACLU, “means that sensitive foreign intelligence information can be shared with local law enforcement agents even if they are only investigating petty crimes.”
Of course, when it comes to probing federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, Chambliss is the quintessence of deferential, having fought against 9/11-related public post-mortems. Like the departing Helms, he’s positively jihadist on issues of gay rights and reproduction: Carrying on the long tradition of Southern Congressmen hellbent on preventing the District of Columbia’s citizens from enacting progressive measures, Chambliss wanted to keep DC from providing benefits to same-sex couples, and he supported the draconian antichoice measures that withhold federal aid from overseas NGOs if they so much as mention abortion, and that disallow abortions on US military bases. The League of Conservation Voters has put him on its “Dirty Dozen” list of legislators with the worst environmental voting records, and he’s recently proven himself a shamelessly dirty campaigner as well: Despite his now-defeated Democratic opponent Max Cleland’s decorated service in Vietnam, which cost him two legs and an arm, Chambliss—who, courtesy of three deferments, avoided the draft—accused Cleland of being weak on defense for not rubber-stamping Bush’s homeland security bill, going so far as to picture the disabled veteran with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.
While it’s one thing for individual Georgia districts to have elected the likes of Newt Gingrich and Chambliss to the lesser 435, having the entire state exalt Chambliss to senatorial heights is enough to make one nostaglic for the Georgia of a bygone day—immediately post-Sherman.