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Fighting Words on Congress' War Debate

October 20, 2002|Frank del Olmo

So far only a few tactless Republicans have tried to attack those Democrats who voted against the congressional resolution granting President Bush a free hand to deal with Iraq, including a preemptive military strike if he deems it fit.

But the most egregious instance of someone in the GOP trying to make political hay out of the somber debate on Capitol Hill regarding Iraq involves 15 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who voted against the resolution. It was so off the wall that it merits a rejoinder.

Last week, an e-mail made the rounds among Latino activists that blasted the 15 Latino Democrats who voted against the Iraq resolution, a group that includes all six Latino Californians in Congress and four of six Latino representatives from Texas.

The e-mail, which reached many of its recipients from a user account in the White House, slammed Latino Democrats for not supporting the many Latinos in the armed forces. "If they have a defense for their actions," it stated, "they should deliver it to the kids in uniform."

Harsh words, and they stirred an immediate backlash among Latinos, who take particular pride in their military contributions to this country.

The Bush administration, which has worked hard to cultivate Latino political support, immediately disavowed the missive, saying it was written by a GOP activist who forwarded it to Washington. It was then "mistakenly" sent to Latino leaders by a White House intern.

I can verify the first half of that explanation because I was among those who got the e-mail two weeks ago, just after it was written in Los Angeles. Its author is longtime GOP activist Fernando Oaxaca, who often sends out sharp-edged e-mails about political issues. But I haven't a clue as to whether it was a mistake that caused it to be sent across the country via the White House. That's almost beside the point: Most of the Democrats that Oaxaca criticized are convinced it was a cheap shot orchestrated by the White House.

None of them is angrier than the chairman of the caucus, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas). Reyes, a member of the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees, said critics of his vote "don't appreciate how difficult a decision it was for me. But I believe we face greater threats than Iraq and know my vote was the right thing to do." Reyes, who was a helicopter crew chief in Vietnam, added: "I was thrust 35 years ago into one foolish war. I am not going to vote for another foolish war now."

A veteran like Reyes is in a safe position to rebut questions about his patriotism, of course. It is tougher for the many Latinos in Congress who never served in the military. Each voted after reaching his or her own conclusion following a restrained and thoughtful debate. "We never even considered taking a position as the Hispanic Caucus," said Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles. "You can't ask people to vote as a caucus on something as important as a question of war or peace."

Of course, if the GOP persists in trying to cast aspersions on the loyalty of members of Congress like Reyes and Becerra, Democrats can always point to all the Republicans who never saw combat -- like Bush himself, who served in the Air National Guard in Texas, or Vice President Dick Cheney, who got student and marriage deferments.

Bush got the Iraq resolution he wanted from Congress, so it now behooves him to act like a statesman. And I have the perfect role model: Rep. Jeannette Rankin, a Montana Republican who served in Congress in the 1940s. She cast a courageous vote in December 1941. With the nation still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt's "Day of Infamy" speech echoing in the Capitol, Congress declared war on Japan. Rankin was the only member of the House or Senate who voted no: She felt a democracy should not vote unanimously for war.

Rankin's vote obviously made little difference in the epic struggle that ensued once the U.S. joined the Allied war against the Axis powers. But her honorable stance remains a symbol of the freedoms that Americans, including many heroic young Latinos, have fought wars to defend.

Modern Republicans should remember Rankin when they are tempted to use Congress' Iraq resolution for political gain.

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Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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