Robert Byrd is more than just a lone voice in Congress speaking out against the war. He is one of many people in Washington who have had enough.
And Bush will be hard put to get the 85-year-old Byrd. The senator has nothing to lose. Not only has he been in the Senate for decades (since 1958), but as a head of the Appropriations Committee for years, he's also at the heart of the legislative process. More to the point, he has been an ally of Republican business interests through his longtime defense of the West Virginia coal industry. Byrd has led the fight against pollution controls that would hurt coal sales.
Byrd began as a supporter of then-majority leader Lyndon Johnson, and during the 1960s, he won plaudits for successfully plotting to overthrow Teddy Kennedy as whip. Kennedy at the time was immersed in the Chappaquiddick affair.
Always taking care of business, Byrd has brought home to West Virginia such plums as FBI and IRS offices, as well as a Fish and Wildlife training camp. He tried but lost a drive to settle the CIA in West Virginia. The senator has been pushing a huge highway corridor from the Virginia border deep into the central part of his state.
From his post as ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd is fighting White House efforts to privatize, on a piecemeal basis, functions of government such as the Coast Guard. Privatizing removes congressional control over jobs and adds to the conservatives' campaign to reduce Congress's influence.
Byrd is not exactly the sort of figure that has come to typify politicians in latter-day Washington. He doesn't go to parties, and he's formal almost to the point of caricature. He carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution around with him.
Peter King, the Long Island conservative Republican, made a feeble attempt to launch a campaign against Byrd by resurrecting the senator's long-ago ties to the Ku Klux Klan. On MSNBC, King declared, "Let me tell you, as a Republican, I almost welcome [Byrd's attack on Bush]. This is handing us an issue because the Democrats make themselves look so small and petty. And if they're going to rely on someone like Senator Byrd as their spokesman, a man who, years ago, with his racist background, gave up any right to be a moral arbiter of anything, then bring it on."
Others in Congress have questioned the war in the mildest of terms, but Byrd has spoken plainly from the beginning, saying at one point, "I truly must question the judgment of any president who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50 percent children is 'in the highest moral traditions of our country.'"
And Byrd has kept on speaking out. After watching Bush's Top Gun act last week, the elderly senator delivered this scathing assessment of the president's landing on the aircraft carrier: "As I watched the president's speech, before the great banner proclaiming, 'Mission Accomplished,' I could not help but be reminded of the tobacco barns of my youth, which served as country-road advertising backdrops for the slogans of chewing-tobacco purveyors. I am loath to think of an aircraft carrier being used as an advertising backdrop for a presidential political slogan, and yet that is what I saw."
Tom Gavin, a spokesman in Byrd's office, said calls were running heavy and about even. Gavin said he doubts Bush would try to hurt Byrd because "President Bush relied on West Virginia to carry him through the last election."
IN BUSH'S DEFENSE
At a White House briefing last week, Russell Mokhiber, publisher of Corporate Crime Reporter, renewed his running colloquy with Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer.
Russell Mokhiber: The president was in Santa Clara, California, last week. And he appeared at United Defense, a major defense contractor controlled by the Carlyle Group. The president's father is a paid adviser to the Carlyle Group. So, you have a situation where the president is there touting the products of a company that directly benefit financially his father. Why isn't that unethical? Ari Fleischer: The question is are Bradley fighting vehicles part of what the military does and should [they] be supported? The answer is, of course, yes, regardless of who serves on the Carlyle Group. But what if the president's father was the president of United Defense? Would that be unethical?
What if the president's father was on Social Security and the president wanted to strengthen the Social Security system so that all Americans could have a strong retirement?
TURN THE OTHER SHEIKH
Following Franklin Graham's recent vituperative remarks about warmongering Muslims ("a very evil and wicked religion"), more moderate Christians sought to calm the waters, and Bush himself reiterated his opinion that Islam is "a religion of peace." But a recent poll strongly suggests that evangelical Christians have little use for Islam. The poll, conducted not by evangelicals but by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Beliefnet.com, indicated that 79 percent of evangelicals don't think Muslims and Christians pray to the same god and that 70 percent think Islam is a "religion of violence."
The Reverend Ted Haggard of the National Association of Evangelicals said, "The majority of times Islam is mentioned in the press it's in connection with a violent act. . . . It's the responsibility of Islamic leaders to get this under control."
Even evangelical leaders like Haggard were embarrassed by the poll's findings, which were pretty ghastly, with 77 percent of respondents having an "unfavorable" view of Islam. More than two-thirds believe that Muslims are opposed to democracy. Only one-third think U.S. Muslims are committed to democratic values. Three-quarters of the respondents think that fighting religious persecution should be a top foreign-policy priority. Almost everyone polled thinks it's either "very important" or "somewhat important" to evangelize among Muslims.
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The Christian take on Islam is key for politicians assessing the vote in domestic elections because Christian groups are waiting in line for government money to set up projects in Iraq.
Franklin Graham, Billy's son and the man who gave the benediction at Bush's inauguration, said his Samaritan's Purse organization is set to move into Iraq, handing out hygiene kits, pots and pans, plastic for tents, and medicine. "We realize we're in an Arab country, and we just can't go out and preach," Graham told Beliefnet. "I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his son. . . . We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian, I do this in the name of Jesus Christ."
The Christian right has always been a fickle bed partner for the conservative wing of the Republican Party, untiring fighters in the campaign trenches but, as a whole, unreliable political allies who may pull up stakes at any time and disappear into the woodwork. Bush Senior paid little heed to them, much to his regret, but his son, as a born-again, caters to every whim of the Christian right and counts on them as key players in his political base.
Additional reporting by Phoebe St. John and Joanna Khenkine.