- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2003

“Uncivil,” the president of the United States called it, referring to a statement from Ted Kennedy about how the war in Iraq was nothing but a Republican plot.

For once, George W. Bush has displayed a sense of understatement. His restraint is all the more impressive coming from a Texan. For here is what the senior senator from Massachusetts said about the origins of this war:

“There was no imminent threat. This was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. The whole thing was a fraud.”

Can this be what Democrats mean by a return to civility in American rhetoric? And if so, how does it differ in any important aspect from plain old McCarthyism, conspiracy theories and all?

Forget the implication that the case for this war was based on Saddam Hussein’s being an imminent threat. On the contrary, the president explicitly argued last January that to wait till a threat was imminent in this nuclear — and biological and chemical — age would be to wait too long:

“Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late,” said George W. Bush, Jan. 28, 2003.

All this talk about whether the threat from Saddam Hussein was imminent is a bright-red herring, The question was whether Saddam should have been stopped before he became an imminent threat, and he has been.

Now the war to secure Iraq after Saddam’s regime was toppled must be waged, and won. Or soon enough we’ll be back where we started.

The heart of Sen. Kennedy’s accusation is his strange description of this war as just a hatched-in-Texas plot. It sounds like something you would hear on al Jazeera, or on one of those tapes attributed to Osama bin Laden. Only it came from an American senator.

There hasn’t been a baser accusation against an American president by a sitting United States senator since Burton K. Wheeler’s infamous description of Lend Lease as “the New Deal’s Triple-A foreign policy; it will plow under every fourth American boy.”

Isolationist vituperation really doesn’t change much from generation to generation in this country, does it?

That this outburst should come from the Knight of Chappaquiddick should not surprise after his personal history, which is scarcely honorable. Yet it does. Maybe because some of us, led astray by a great name and legend in American politics, assumed a Kennedy would uphold some minimal standards in public discourse. Clearly we were mistaken.

What a contrast Ted Kennedy’s vicious words make to those his brother uttered at another critical time a half-century ago:

“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans … unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world. Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” said John F. Kennedy, Jan. 20, 1961.

How far the Kennedys have come since that sunlit, windswept day when Robert Frost shared the platform, and a new birth of freedom was being celebrated. The forces of tyranny were being defied that day, not placated. The torch of freedom was being passed to the next generation.

What a contrast to that bright memory Ted Kennedy’s dark words offer. What a sad, shadowy conspiracy theory he is selling. This Kennedy is so caught up in partisan throes that he does not speak so much as thrash about, even while another decisive struggle is being waged to determine what kind of future awaits America and the world.

Will it be a future of fear or of freedom? A future in which America waits to be attacked again, or one in which the forces of freedom take the offensive?

There was a time when there could be no doubt which side of that question a scion of the Kennedys would take.

But now … well, it would take an Edgar Allan Poe to do justice to the Fall of the House of Kennedy.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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