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Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle
Landon Lecture
Monday, May 10, 2004

 

Can We Talk? Free Speech and Civil Discourse in Turbulent Times

 

Thank you, President Wefald. Thank you, Professor Chuck Reagan, for inviting Linda and me to be here today. I also want to thank the K-State faculty and staff and students. Thank you as well to the members of the community who are here, especially any soldiers from Fort Riley. During World War II, General George Marshall was asked if America had a secret weapon to win the war. He replied, yes, we did. It was "the best darned kids in the world." America's soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are still the best in the world. From Fort Riley to Fallajuh, they are carrying a heavy burden today and we are proud of them and grateful to them.

Linda and I are delighted to be here today. K-State enjoys a special place in our family because of Linda's student days here and because she started her professional career in aviation not far from here. In fact -- you may not know this -- but a lot of South Dakotans are Wildcat fans these days. The reason can be summed up in two words: Megan Mahoney. Megan is from Sturgis, South Dakota. In her senior year in high school, she was South Dakota girls basketball player of the year. So many scouts came to see her, she added almost as much to the local economy as the Sturgis Bike Rally, the world's biggest Harley round-up. We're incredibly proud of Megan and her teammates this year: Co-Big 12 Champions! And that's just one of three Big 12 Championships for K-State this year. You've also got the best football and women's volleyball team in the Big 12. Now I know why my friend, Pat Roberts, has been so happy all year.

It is a truly an honor to be invited to speak at this prestigious forum. For nearly four decades -- beginning with Governor Landon's prescient opening address in 1966 on the use of American military power -- the Landon Lecture Series has given some of the most distinguished leaders in the world a forum in which to discuss the most important issues of the day. Landon lecturers have come from different political parties, and different nations and they have addressed many different and urgent questions. But there is a thread that runs through every Landon Lecture: that is the shared belief that our best hope for the future lies in honest, respectful discussion. I share that belief. That is why I wrote my book. The two years that made up the 107th Congress truly were, as the title says, like no other time in America's history. The events we experienced, and our reactions to those events, changed the world profoundly, and they will continue to shape the world for years, and probably generations, to come. As the Minority, and then the Majority Leader, of the United States Senate, I had a closer view of those events than all but a handful of people on Earth. I decided to write about what I saw and heard because I believe that Americans have the courage and intelligence to meet any challenge, and to make wise choices about our future -- as long as people are given the facts and the opportunity to reason through all the options.

The 107th Congress started, as we all remember, with a struggle for power at the highest levels of our government. The 2000 Presidential election marked the third time in our nation's history that a Presidential election was contested and the first time that a Presidential election was decided by the Supreme Court. For five weeks, some feared we were poised on the edge of a constitutional crisis, until Al Gore's gracious and patriotic decision to accept the Supreme Court's decision. Vice President Gore's decision, I believe, saved our nation severe turmoil.

Incredibly, the 2000 elections also produced a second electoral tie: the first-ever 50/50 Senate. 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans. Normally, whichever party has the most senators controls the Senate. Members of the majority party chair the committees. The Majority Leader decides which bills come to the Senate floor -- and which don't. But there is no majority party in a 50/50 Senate, so Trent Lott and I had to invent new rules for sharing power in an evenly divided Congress. Many Washington insiders said it couldn't be done -- and sometimes we feared that was true. But after five weeks of negotiations, we came up with an agreement that was fair and reasonable, and the Senate passed it unanimously.

Given the tie in the Presidential race and the 50/50 Senate, the conventional wisdom at the start of the 107th Congress was that President Bush would have to pursue a moderate agenda.

Conventional wisdom, as it turned out, was wrong. Instead of searching for consensus solutions that could pass with broad, bipartisan support in Congress, the administration, right from the start, seemed to prefer winning ideological battles by narrow margins.

About four months after President Bush took office, Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont was becoming deeply troubled by the administration's agenda and by what he regarded as their uncompromising style. At the time, Senator Jeffords held the longest continuously Republican seat in the Senate. He said publicly that he thought the President's first tax cut was too big, and that it would eat up money America needed for education.

One evening, he confided his frustration to Chris Dodd, a Democratic Senator with whom he had worked on many education issues. That night, Chris Dodd called me and said, "I think there's a chance, under the right circumstances, that Jim Jeffords might switch parties." We decided to keep the lines of communication open and see what developed. In mid-May 2001, the White House pointedly did not invite Senator Jeffords to a Rose Garden ceremony at which the President announced the national Teacher of the Year, who was from Vermont. As a fellow Vermonter -- and chairman of the Senate committee overseeing education -- he should have been at that ceremony. His exclusion was widely seen as a snub, the White House's way of punishing Senator Jeffords for speaking out about education and tax cuts.

The following day -- a Friday -- Senator Jeffords was visibly upset and told at least two other Republican Senators, on the Senate floor, that he was considering leaving the party. We felt certain that was the end of it. As soon as the news reached the White House, we thought the White House would do whatever it took to prevent Senator Jeffords' defection. All weekend, we waited for the bad news. But to our astonishment, the White House never called Senator Jeffords.

On Monday, he called me to tell me his mind was made up. He couldn't become a Democrat, but he would become an Independent. The next day, he went home to Vermont and made it official. Never before had control of the United States Senate turned on the decision of one Senator.

There were some who urged Senate Democrats to use our new majority to get even for what they regarded as excessive partisanship by Republicans. I tried to avoid that as Majority Leader. I believed then, and I believe now, that such retaliation would diminish both parties and hurt the American people.

The defining event of the 107th Congress was, of course, September 11. I was in my office in the Capitol, meeting with John Glenn, when the first plane hit the first tower. Someone on my staff ran in and said, "A plane has flown into the World Trade Center." We turned on the TV just in time to see the second plane hit the other tower -- and mistakenly thought we were watching a replay. Senator Glenn -- who knows something about flying -- said simply, "Pilots don't fly planes into buildings." He knew instantly that American was under attack.

I stepped into a meeting with other Senators in a nearby room. Suddenly, Senator Patty Murray, from Washington state, looked out the window and gasped, "My God, there's smoke above the Pentagon." Moments later, a Capitol Police officer burst in, said, "Senator, we are evacuating the Capitol. Now," and rushed us out of the building.

It's hard to describe the chaos of those first moments. There was no real evacuation plan for the Capitol. The police took all four Congressional leaders to the Capitol Police headquarters two blocks away. For "security," someone pulled down the window shades. Cell phones didn't work; the circuits were all overloaded. So we took turns using the one land line in the room to call our families and make sure they were okay.

After a while, we were helicoptered to one of those "secret, undisclosed locations."

There, we decided that members of Congress would regroup that evening on the Capitol steps to show the world that terrorism would not shut down American democracy.

On the steps, all four Leaders made very short statements. Then someone spontaneously began singing "God Bless America," and we all joined in. Some of us were a little off-key, but we were as united as I have ever seen the United States Congress.

In the weeks that followed, Congress passed an historic series of bills to help the victims of September 11 and to prevent future terrorist attacks, and the war in Afghanistan began.

Then, on October 15, 2001, the anthrax letter was opened in my office. That attack remains the largest bioterrorism attack ever on U.S. soil. It also remains a mystery. Twenty-eight people in the Hart Senate Office Building -- including 20 members of my staff -- were exposed to up to 3,000 lethal doses of anthrax. Tragically, five people -- among those presumably exposed to much lower levels of anthrax outside the Senate during those attacks -- died. The fact that everyone who was exposed in the Senate is healthy today is the result of luck, some very skilled and caring doctors and, I believe, the grace of God.

The 107th Congress also saw Americans' faith in the private sector shaken badly as scandals at Enron, Worldcom and other big corporations robbed tens of thousands of Americans of their jobs, and millions more of their life savings and retirement security. In reaction to those scandals, and against strong initial opposition from the White House, Democrats fought successfully to pass the most far-reaching corporate accounting reforms since the Depression.

We also faced months of opposition from the White House to our calls to create a new Homeland Security Department and to establish an independent commission to investigate September 11 -- the commission now co-chaired by former Governor Tom Kean and former Congressman Lee Hamilton.

Even in the final days of 107th Congress, history continued to be made. Weeks before election, Robert Torricelli, the incumbent Democratic Senator in New Jersey, dropped his re-election bid and was replaced by another candidate. In Minnesota, less than two weeks before the election, another Democratic Senator, Paul Wellstone -- a man I loved -- was killed in a plane crash, along with his wife and daughter and four others. His place on the ticket was filled by Walter Mondale -- a former Senator, former Vice President and former Presidential nominee -- another historic first.

On election day 2002, Democrats ended up retaining a Senate seat in New Jersey it had appeared we might lose and in Minnesota, we lost a seat it had seemed increasingly likely we would keep. In the end, we also lost our majority in the Senate. We went from one vote up, to one vote down. What disappointed many of us wasn't just the outcome of the 2002 elections. It was also the startling meanness in many of the races. Most disturbing was the calculated decision by Republican operatives to use September 11 as a political weapon in the elections.

In my state, South Dakota, my fellow Senator, Tim Johnson was running for re-election. Out of 535 members of Congress, Tim Johnson was the only member who actually had a child fighting in uniform in the war on terrorism. His son Brooks is a staff sergeant in the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He has served in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. In the fall of 2002, while Brooks Johnson was fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, Republicans ran TV ads in South Dakota comparing Tim Johnson to Osama Bin Laden.

In Georgia, Max Cleland, a man who lost both of his legs and one of his arms in Vietnam, was accused of not caring about Americans' security because he dared to have a different idea about one aspect of one bill. He, too, was compared in TV ads to Osama Bin Laden. And he lost his seat.

The ugliness, unfortunately, did not end when the 2002 elections. And -- let me be clear -- is not limited to the right. A while back, the left-leaning website Moveon.org hosted a contest for the best 30-second "anti-Bush" TV ad. One of the ads they received, and posted briefly on their website, compared President Bush to Adolf Hitler. There is no excuse for such an outrageous attack; it damages our political discourse.

Lately, I have felt almost sickened at times by the efforts of some on the right and the left to exploit the sacrifices and even the deaths of American service members for political gain.

When Nightline dedicated an entire program to reading the names and showing the faces of service members who have died in Iraq, Sinclair Broadcasting System -- which reportedly aspires to be the next FOX News -- refused to air the show on its ABC affiliates. Its lawyers said, "We find it to be contrary to the public interest."

How can it be "contrary to the public interest" simply to speak the names of soldiers who have given their lives in service to our nation? What kind of war is it when it is somehow unpatriotic to utter the names of our war dead?

On the other side, I was appalled to see the cartoon by Ted Ralls calling Pat Tillman an "idiot" for giving up a multi-million dollar NFL career to defend this nation after September 11.

Pat Tillman was a patriot, and so were the soldiers whose names were read on Nightline. If people can't see that -- on the left and the right -- it is because they have allowed politics to blind them.

I have had the privilege of working with some extraordinary patriots in Congress.

Bob Dole was Majority Leader when I first became the Senate Democratic Leader more than nine years ago. The conditions for a good working relationship could not have been much worse. Democrats had just lost the majority in the Senate. Newt Gingrich had just become Speaker of the House. Bill Clinton was halfway through his first term as President -- and Senator Dole was widely expected to challenge him for re-election.

When Senator Dole resigned from the Senate in June 1996 to run for President full-time, some people urged him to use his farewell address to "drive a wedge." Instead, he spoke with pride about the bipartisan accomplishments he helped forge: the School Lunch program that he created with George McGovern, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. He also recalled with great fondness three men he had met decades earlier in a veterans' hospital in Michigan, where they were all recovering from war wounds, and with whom he later served in the United States Senate. Two of the three were Democrats.

Nancy Landon Kassebaum is another American patriot. She is truly her father's daughter -- a proud Republican. Yet, in 1994 -- on the eve of another historic mid-term election -- she was one of five Senate Republicans who voted to support and help pass President Clinton's crime bill. In 1996, she joined with Ted Kennedy to pass the "Kassebaum-Kennedy" bill, which limits discrimination in health insurance based on pre-existing conditions.

There is nothing inherently wrong with partisanship. To the contrary, pride in one's party and the principles for which it stands can be admirable. But it should be principled. It should acknowledge -- as Senators Dole and Kassebaum and others do -- that there are things that matter more than political parties; there are lines we should not cross, regardless of the advantage we think it might give our party. Demonizing those with whom we disagree politically does not serve the interests of democracy. It does not resolve differences. It inflames passions and deepens divisions.

America has real enemies in this world. Creating false enemies among us to score political points does not make us safer; it makes us more vulnerable. And trying to bully and intimidate others into silence or compliance does not lead to progress. It leads to increased polarization and eventually, paralysis.

There are questions of enormous consequence facing our nation today -- questions that will define what kind of nation we are, and what sort of future we will leave for our children.

How do we balance freedom and security in a post-September 11 world?

When Congress passed the PATRIOT Act immediately after September 11, we deliberately included an expiration date so that Congress and the public would have a chance to review whether the law was working and decide whether it should be changed, renewed, or simply allowed to expire.

In his campaign speeches, the President routinely calls for the PATRIOT Act to be expanded and made permanent. Is that the right thing to do? We ought to debate that, and people ought to be able to ask questions and voice their ideas freely -- without being accused of aiding and abetting the enemy.

Four years ago, the federal government has just experienced the largest budget surplus in our history, and economists predicted we would accumulate additional surpluses totaling a $5.6 trillion by 2011. Today, the budget picture is radically different. This year, the deficit is expected to hit $400 to 500 billion -- a half-trillion dollars! The federal government is borrowing a million dollars a minute!

People talk about the "death tax." I worry about the birth tax. Linda and I have two grandchildren. The minute they were born, they both inherited $30,000 worth of public debt. Is that right? Is that moral? Americans ought to be able to discuss our national priorities and obligations without worrying about being called "obstructionists" -- or worse.

Americans are hungry for an honest, civil, national discussion about these and other big questions. I don't have all the answers. But let me quickly suggest seven ways I believe we can begin to restore civil discourse and bipartisan consensus in American politics.

First, campaigns should focus on real issues, not wedge issues. In 1963, Barry Goldwater proposed to his friend, John Kennedy, that they make a series of joint appearances the next year to debate the great issues of the day one-on-one in cities across the country. President Kennedy liked the idea. That's how they imagined the 1964 Presidential election. Americans today deserve that same kind of honest debate on the issues that truly matter.

Second, the perpetual campaign must end. When Pat Nixon died in 1993, a reporter was startled to see George McGovern among the mourners. When the reporter asked Senator McGovern why he would pay his respects to the wife of a man who had fought him so hard and so unfairly, George McGovern replied simply, "You can't keep on campaigning forever." Too many people in politics today don't seem to understand this. They get elected to office and continue their feuds as if the campaign never ended. After the ballots are counted, you have to stop thinking about how you can beat the other side and start thinking about how you can work with them to do good and constructive things.

Third, we need to reject the idea that civility is a weakness and compromise is a sin. Everett Dirksen, the great Republican Leader of the Senate when Dwight Eisenhower was President, said, "I am a man of fixed and unbending principles -- and one of my principles is flexibility." The result of hardball, all-or-nothing politics is usually nothing. We need to restore respect for principled compromise.

Fourth, this ugly business of impugning other people's patriotism because they see things differently, or they want to try to reach a good-faith compromise must stop. It is corrosive and destructive and it is fundamentally un-American. As President Eisenhower said, "Here in America we are descended in blood and in spirit from revolutionists and rebels -- men and women who dared to dissent from accepted doctrine. As their heirs, may we never confuse honest dissent with disloyal subversion."

Fifth, we should reject the idea that the family members of political figures are "fair game," to use the term Karl Rove reportedly used to justify the "outing" of former Ambassador Joe Wilson's wife as an undercover CIA operative. I have heard my own wife's career misrepresented and her character impugned for no reason other than to damage me politically. I have seen other political families, Republicans and Democrats, attacked in similar ways. It is ugly, and it only coarsens the political process. It should stop.

Sixth, we must protect free and independent media. Democracies cannot function without informed citizens. Manhattan is fortunate to have the Mercury, one of the vanishing breed of family-owned newspapers. Such independent voices are disappearing quickly today because of rapid consolidation among media conglomerates, which is one reason so many members of Congress -- Democrats and Republicans -- oppose the new FCC media ownership rules. We can't have a handful of giant corporations controlling what Americans hear, read and see. We need reasonable rules that protect the independence of the media.

Seventh, and finally, the media must use their extraordinary freedoms responsibly. They should rake the important muck, not just the sensational.

In closing, there is another Kansan I admire greatly. He was a Teddy Roosevelt sort of Republican, one of the leading voices of the Progressive movement in American politics at the beginning of the last century. He ran for Governor of Kansas in 1924 as an Independent, was branded as un-American and finished third -- after two candidates who were endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. But his greatest work was done in newspapers. He was one of the truly great muckrakers. I'm speaking, of course, about William Allen White, the legendary editor of the Emporia Gazette.

In 1922, William Allen White faced arrest and a possible jail sentence over his public argument with the state's then-Governor about labor rights and free speech. In response, he wrote one of his most famous editorials, titled "To an Anxious Friend." After it appeared, the charges were dropped, and White won a Pulitzer Prize.

This is part of what William Allen White wrote in that column -- and it's still true today.

"Peace is good. But if you are interested in peace through force and without free discussion ... your interest in justice is slight. And peace without justice is tyranny, no matter how you may sugarcoat it with expedience. ...Whoever pleads for justice, helps to keep the peace; and whoever tramples on the plea for justice, temperately made in the name of peace, only outrages peace and kills something fine in the heart of man which God put there when we got our manhood. When that is killed, brute meets brute on each side of the line. ...

"So, dear friend, put fear out of your heart. This nation will survive, this state will prosper, the orderly business of life will go forward -- if only men can speak in whatever way given them to utter what their hearts hold -- by voice, by posted card, by letter, or by press. Reason has never failed men."

The 107th Congress was filled with historic events, from the first day to the last. Today, enormous new challenges and opportunities confront us. We will not meet those challenges or seize those opportunities if we indulge in the brutal politics of division, if we attempt to silence those who have other ideas. Listening to each other and working with each other, however, there is nothing Americans cannot achieve. We proved that on September 11. We can do so again.

Thank you all for allowing me this chance to speak my mind. Now, I would be happy to hear what you think, and to try to answer any questions you may have.