G.O.P. Senator In Spotlight After A Critical Iraq Speech

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
New York Times
December 28, 2006
Pg. 24

By James Risen
WASHINGTON, Dec. 27 — At the close of the Senate’s lame-duck session, in between formulaic tributes to senators departing voluntarily or otherwise, a Republican backbencher suddenly rose to give one of the most passionate and surprising speeches about the war in Iraq yet delivered in Congress.
For a solid Republican who had originally voted for the war, the words spoken by the senator, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, on the evening of Dec. 7 were incendiary and marked a stunning break with the president.
“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day,” Mr. Smith said. “That is absurd. It may even be criminal.”
But the real impact of the address came not just from Mr. Smith’s words, but from the way he delivered them. His somber cadence resonated in a way that made political Washington take notice, transforming him into one of the most talked-about Republicans heading into the new Congress.
After acknowledging that he had been “rather silent” on Iraq since voting to authorize the war in 2002, Mr. Smith said he was rising “to speak from my heart” because he had witnessed “the slow undoing of our efforts there.”
“I remember the pride I felt when the statue of Saddam Hussein came down,” he said. “I remember the thrill when three times, Iraqis risked their own lives to vote democratically in a way that was internationally verifiable as well as legitimate and important. Now all those memories seem much like ashes to me.”
“Many things have been attributed to George Bush,” Mr. Smith said, “but I do not believe him to be a liar.”
He continued, “He is not guilty of perfidy, but I do believe he is guilty of believing bad intelligence and giving us the same. I can’t tell you how devastated I was to learn that in fact we were not going to find weapons of mass destruction.”
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, stopped short as he was walking out of the chamber to listen to Mr. Smith. He was so struck by the speech that he called him to congratulate him, an aide to Mr. Kennedy said.
A White House official also quickly called Mr. Smith to discuss his speech, Mr. Smith said in an interview.
Before his speech, Mr. Smith had last garnered national publicity with efforts to pass legislation to prevent suicides among youths after his son, Garrett, killed himself in 2003, on the day before his 22nd birthday.
But within days of the Iraq speech, Mr. Smith emerged as a new spokesman for an endangered political species: the moderate Republican.
In the process, Mr. Smith may have signaled that some moderate Republicans in the Senate are poised to break openly with the White House on the war, just as President Bush is seeking a new strategy to deal with the bloody stalemate in Iraq.
Only three or four senators were in the chamber when Mr. Smith spoke, but his speech has been replayed repeatedly on cable news and on the Internet and has had reverberations throughout the Republican Party.
For some, the speech helped crystallize the post-election anger many Republican lawmakers have for the Bush administration and its conduct of the war, which they believe cost them control of Congress. In the aftermath of his speech, Mr. Smith said he heard from several other Republican senators who he said agreed with his views.
“I sensed a cold shoulder or two,” he said. “But many of my colleagues said, ‘Boy, you spoke for me.’ ”
Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine, said, “I think Gordon sort of struck a chord, and his speech represented a manifestation of frustrations that exists among many of us, not just moderate Republicans but all Americans.”
“I think for some, that speech was a tipping point,” Ms. Snowe added. “It was a reality check. We have to admit that something has gone terribly wrong.”
But other Republican lawmakers argued that Mr. Smith’s speech was not representative of most Senate Republicans’ views.
“I don’t believe it’s true that a lot of Republican senators are ready to break with the White House on Iraq,” said Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire. “I don’t think the views he expressed represent a significant number of senators in the Republican caucus.”
First elected to the Senate in 1996, Mr. Smith, 54, has forged an image as a centrist Republican in a swing state that is now tilting a bit Democratic.
He said he had previously refrained from publicly criticizing the war because he had been struck by the comment of a soldier from Oregon, who told him during a 2005 visit to Iraq that if he supported the troops, he also had to support their mission.
But Mr. Smith’s attitude began to change over the past year, particularly after he visited Iraq in May. In an interview, the senator recalled two occurrences in Baghdad during his visit, one in which a massive bomb killed about 70 people and a second in which some American troops were killed on patrol.
And a book on World War I he had been reading, by John Keegan, the British military historian, was beginning to haunt him.
Mr. Smith said that his use of the word “criminal” in his speech to describe the war in Iraq came from his reading of that book, which he said explained to him the “practice of British generals, sending a whole generation of British men running into machine guns, despite memos back to London saying, in effect, machine guns work.”
Much like the British in World War I, he added, “I have concluded that we are employing strategies that are needlessly getting kids killed.”
After returning to Washington from Baghdad, Mr. Smith said he listened with growing dismay to optimistic briefings given to senators by Donald H. Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, and other administration officials. Even in closed-door briefings, he said, “the answers always seemed to be, It’s tough but we have to stay the course.
“And so I started thinking about the British generals,” he said.
Last summer, on a flight from Portland, Ore., to Washington, Mr. Smith said he read “Fiasco,” a history of the Iraq war by Thomas E. Ricks, “and by the time I landed I was heartsick.”
As the situation in Iraq worsened in the fall, Mr. Smith said it became increasingly obvious to him that “we were playing street cop in a civil war.”
“I started thinking about those British generals again,” he said.
He said he had decided not to speak out before the midterm elections, both out of political loyalty and a fear that his words would be drowned out by partisan attacks.
“Then we were back in Washington for the lame-duck session,” he said, “and I woke up one morning and turned on the news and another 10 soldiers had been killed. And I went from steaming to boiled. And then I went to the floor.”
Mr. Smith faces re-election in 2008, and some Democrats in Oregon have suggested that his break with the White House was timed to aid his coming campaign, an accusation he adamantly denies.
Oregon’s Democratic governor dismisses talk that the speech was politically motivated. Instead, the governor, Theodore R. Kulongoski, said he believed that the suicide of Mr. Smith’s son had had a large effect on Mr. Smith’s thinking on a wide variety of issues.
“I think the loss of his son has dramatically changed his view,” Mr. Kulongoski said in an interview. “He understands the loss of a child. I think he’s gotten tired of reading about these kids dying.”
“I think he has been struggling through this for a long time,” he added. “I think the trauma in him has been his loyalty to his party and to his president, at the same time this gut-wrenching thing in him.”
Mr. Smith said he recognized that his words upset the White House and some fellow Republicans.
“It is not easy to stand up to the president of your own party to say you are unhappy with the way this has been managed,” he said. “But if you can’t speak up, then you should go home.”