At Large

The Longest Bad Week

From Gore to Daschle to Byrd to Bonior and McDermott to Torricelli, the Democrats have never sunk so low (at least so far this century).

By 10.2.02

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Nothing became Robert Torricelli's senatorial career so much as his leaving it. The Torch, as the tabloids now insist on calling him, did the right thing. He was mired in sleaze, and sinking like a stone in the polls, and his chance of winning re-election was virtually non-existent. So in a teary speech on Monday Torricelli did what he called "the most painful thing that I have ever done in my life." Even though he had done nothing wrong, he said, and the Senate would be much the poorer without him, he was dropping out of the race.

Actually Torricelli was never a major-league villain. He was mostly a small-time machine politician, with small-time tastes, and an apparently genuine belief that liberal positions compensated for personal failings. "I most certainly have made mistakes," he declared, but he never said what any of them might have been, and probably did not think them important.

And even if he had made mistakes, he said, "When did we become such an unforgiving people?" What mattered, it seemed, was not that he had accepted expensive gifts and illegal campaign contributions, and been "severely admonished" by the bipartisan Senate ethics committee, but that he had fought for the environment, senior citizens, and a woman's right to an abortion.

Torricelli, in fact, was the perfect Clinton Democrat., wallowing in self-pity, while blaming everyone but himself for his problems. Indeed as Torricelli announced on Monday, Clinton had called him "several times" from Britain that day to tell him he understood his predicament and that he shared in his pain.

"We recalled all the fights that we were in together," Torricelli said, "all the times I went to the White House and told him in the darkest days that what I admired about him is that 'you never give up -- you never compromise, you never stop, you never give up.' The phone connection wasn't the best, but I could hear his voice crack. I admire that man so much…"

So Clinton's voice cracked, and perhaps Torricelli's did, too. After all, they had a common bond. Both had been unfairly judged, and neither had deserved it. Meanwhile the Democratic Party seemed to be imploding. The week before Torricelli dropped out of the Senate race, a pusillanimous Al Gore spoke out about Iraq. His speech was disgraceful, and full of lies and innuendoes. The titular leader of his party began by saying his main concern was over "those who attacked us on Sept. 11, and who have thus far gotten away with it."

It was as if the Taliban had not been destroyed, or the members of al Qaeda were not being hunted down. It was as if there had been no retaliation. Indeed Gore insisted that "the vast majority of those who sponsored, planned and implemented the cold-blooded of more than 3,000 Americans were still at large, still neither located nor apprehended, much less punished and neutralized."

This was, of course, a lie. The "vast majority" was dead, in prison, or on the run, and the idea that Gore was appointing himself to avenge the deaths of 3,000 Americans was obscene. Gore also said the Bush Administration "has operated in a manner calculated to please the portion of its base that occupies the far right," and he expressed his concern about "the doubts many have expressed about the role that politics might be playing in the calculations of some in the administration."

And then he added, with breath-taking smarminess, "I have not raised those doubts, but many have."

The same day Gore spoke, Bush also spoke. "The Senate," he said, "is more interested in special interests in Washington, and not interested in the security of the American people." Bush was talking about the Homeland Security Bill, and the Democrats' insistence that jobs it created go only to union members. It was a dumb thing to say, but it hardly deserved the hysterical response it got from Tom Daschle.

Bush had impugned the Democrats' patriotism, Daschle said, and he demanded that Bush apologize. Senator Robert Byrd, a pious old fraud, also demanded an apology. The Democrats are sensitive to the charge that they are the peace-at-all-costs party, and that they do not always act in their country's best interest. Meanwhile their hysteria over Bush's mild jibe was heightened by the spectacle of the three Democratic congressmen who turned up in Baghdad as Saddam apologists.

The three -- David Bonior, Jim McDermott and Mike Thompson -- were useful idiots all. Bonior said in Baghdad that a "horrendous, barbaric, horrific" number of cases of childhood leukemia and lymphomas had been caused by "uranium that has been part of our weapons system that was dropped here during the last war."

That was not true, and numerous studies, some by the U.N., have said otherwise. Then, on his return to Washington, Bonior, once the second-ranking Democrat in the House, preached moral equivalence. Fair is fair, he said, and neither the United States nor Iraq should dictate the rules for on-site inspections. Meanwhile McDermott said we should take Saddam at his word on granting unfettered access to the inspectors, and forget about using "coercive stuff" -- armed force -- to make him comply. He also said that Bush was willing "to mislead the American people" about Iraq.

So it was a very bad week for Democrats. Gore and the useful idiots had reawakened the old notion that their party's foreign policy was still dictated by Jane Fonda. Then along came Torricelli, and a reminder about the sleaze. With the elections so near, it was a very bad week indeed.

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About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.