Talking is the national sport in Washington. For the old geezers in Congress, it’s more fun than watching baseball, complaining about the weather or remembering sex.
Nobody drones on like a U.S. senator and nobody loves the sound of his raspy voice like a U.S. senator. Rand Paul, the freshman from Kentucky who stars in the bad dreams of every Republican geezer in town, talked for almost 13 hours on the Senate floor this week to delay a confirmation vote on John O. Brennan as director of the CIA, and earned only the scorn of the geezers.
Mr. Paul’s remarks occasionally strayed a few degrees over the top (enough of the “Hitler” comparisons), decrying the prospect of using drones against American citizens in America, but he strayed no further over the top than almost any congressman on almost any day on Capitol Hill. Mr. Paul argued at length (though not at record length) that assassinating an American, even an evil terrorist with an U.S. passport, deprives him of the due process guaranteed by the Constitution.
Challenging President Obama on anything will earn anybody the sneers and scorn of Democratic senators, but some of the Republican geezers joined the din of disdain, mostly about the temerity of a freshman senator talking when he should be listening to a housebroken geezer talk. It’s not the sharks who trouble the waters in Washington, but the minnows who nibble good men to death.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona rebuked the filibusterer just as he was sitting down, and just after Mr. McCain and a few of his Senate pals emerged from a cozy dinner with President Obama in the glow of fine wine and the warmth of a full belly of beef. Mr. McCain had a little patronizing advice for his talkative colleague: “Calm down, senator, the U.S. government cannot randomly target U.S. citizens.”
The presidential loser of 2008 sent further advice on how to win friends and influence voters: “If Mr. Paul wants to be taken seriously, he needs to do more than pull political stunts that fire up impressionable libertarian kids. I don’t think what happened is helpful to the American people.”
Nobody expected Mr. Paul’s filibuster to stop the confirmation of John Brennan, the senator himself least of all, but he set out to sound an “alarm” about the use of drones in what he calls the threat to Americans by their own government. He had written to the White House to inquire whether the government could order a drone strike against an American on American soil, and Attorney Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. replied with reassurance that does not necessarily reassure. He said drones are limited to killing in conflict zones in Pakistan and Yemen, and the government has “no intention” to bomb any place specific.
So far the argument is about drones and the word “random.” How vague can the word “random” be? The U.S. government can, and already has, targeted American citizens without due process. The government had no drones at Ruby Ridge, where government agents targeted and killed a teenage American boy, and had no drones at Waco, where government agents set fire to a religious compound and 76 men, women and children burned alive, Americans all.
The government’s record is not a good one. The government’s “intentions” can change, and “random” is a word even a jackleg lawyer could parse far into the next decade. It’s just not cricket to say so, and a geezer never would.
The confirmation hearings of John Brennan and Chuck Hagel reveal a lot about how Washington works, how weak and well-meaning geezers can conflate the good of the country with the good of their own biases. Mr. McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina took Mr. Hagel apart at his confirmation hearing, leaving him humiliated as few nominees have been humiliated. But when crunch time came, they fell into line, voting to confirm him despite all the flags they raised at his hearing, as if to say, “just kidding, guys.”
Mr. Brennan escaped close scrutiny over his role in the fiasco at Benghazi, where four Americans, including the American ambassador to Libya, died because the Obama White House could not or would not send the help the ambassador begged for — not even a drone.
The geezers know better, but it’s easier, quieter, and more refined to do nothing. When Mr. Paul, over the top or not, stood up to demand answers to some of the questions the geezers themselves raised, he was ridiculed and told, like an irritable child, to calm down. Geezers think their role is to pour oil over troubled waters, when they should be striking a match.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.