- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

"We're not safe until we have broken the back of al Qaeda, and we haven't done that yet. I think the jury is still out about future success." (emphasis added) Sen. Tom Daschle, "Meet the Press," March 2002

As the senior elected Democrat in the country, what in the world did Mr. Daschle mean when he said that "the jury is still out about our future success?" What would the world have thought if Winston Churchill had said: "We have to beat Hitler, but the jury is still out about our future success?" The unambiguous import of those words is that he is uncertain whether we will win or lose.

Compare Mr. Daschle's timid doubts to Churchill's resolve in May 1940: "You ask me what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realized."

As the United States goes on nuclear alert, as our security services place radiation sensors along I-95, as President Bush manfully contemplates and acts on the realistic possibility of nuclear blasts in Washington or New York, Mr. Daschle idly contemplates the possibility of failure in our war on terrorism. "The jury is still out on our future success."

He has been criticized by some for undercutting the president for possible partisan advantage. Others have defended him for honestly dissenting and asking the needed questions that should be posed by a loyal opposition. Both the charge and the defense are beside the point.

Partisan calculation is inevitable on all sides. The right of dissent is explicit in our form of government. But for a national leader to think it acceptable to discuss the possibility of failure when our national survival hangs in the balance (and with our enemy listening), suggests a mind incapable of dealing with the grim world that has suddenly been thrust upon us.

In Mr. Daschle's mind, the jury may still be out on our future success, but the jury has come in on Mr. Daschle's fitness as a leader and it has found him wanting. His mind is still in the lovely, whimsical, temporizing, ironic world that was smashed beyond repair on September 11. As the cynical French say: It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder.

Writing about World War I, the cultural historian Paul Fussell observed that war is ironic because "its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed end." By that standard, our war on terrorism is the least ironic war conceivable. In this war, the means of our victory are relatively modest (in men and material) compared with the incalculable, unspeakable harm that is to be avoided.

Vietnam was an ironic war. Then, we were free to consider the incongruity of death in Vietnam in the context of our certain survival back in the United States. Defeat was contemplatible (if still contemptible). And contemplating defeat, we gained it. Watching Alan Alda's "MASH" on television where the military virtues were ridiculed made ironic sense. Our immediate survival was not at risk.

For Americans of a certain age (Mr. Daschle's age and mine), a war was simply another venue in which to exercise our admirably ironic minds. The blood of patriotic soldiers merely added piquancy to the game of being clever and alienated from the grown-ups.

But while Mr. Daschle remains in history's nursery whispering and mumbling his mincing, equivocating verbiage Mr. Bush and about 80 percent of Americans have been transported by the explosions of September 11 into the grim adult world of nuclear terror.

Mr. Daschle's effacing linguistic mien seems never to permit him to quite spit it out. He doesn't quite agree or quite disagree. Everything is fine, so far, I guess, sort of. He just wants to be consulted "because the Constitution says so." He is a nagging agent for inaction. He wants to talk, hold hearings, consider, advise, delay. He doesn't have opinions, only postures.

How ironic he thinks to himself that Tommy Daschle can block Senate votes on economic growth, energy development, war budgets, free trade agreements. All the great issues of the day can be slipped into Tommy's tiny pocket.

Mr. Daschle's self-selected role in political life is to be a semi-colon interposed in the president's simple declarative sentence; not quite a full stop, merely a partial blockage in the flow of events. If he weren't so modest, he would be dangerous. He could have aspired to be an exclamation point.

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