Silence of the Lambs

Forty years ago this week, Senator J. William Fulbright delivered a speech at Johns Hopkins University on “the arrogance of power.” Talk about a time bomb.

“The question I find intriguing is whether a nation so extraordinarily endowed as the United States can overcome that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and, in some cases, destroyed great nations in the past,” Fulbright said. “Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations -- to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image.”

Many people believe the Bush administration's foreign policy is misguided, arrogant, and headed for disaster. But few were making that argument back when George W. Bush was still in college. Of course, the context of Fulbright's speech was not Bush's virtuous unilateralism or the divine summons to Iraq; it was President Lyndon Johnson's deepening engagement in Vietnam. But it's doubtful anyone in Congress today has delivered a more thoughtful critique of Bush's foreign policy. What's even more striking from this vantage point, however, is that Fulbright delivered his broadside against a sitting president of his own party.

Johnson was still a commanding and fairly popular figure in 1966 -- the Vietnam War, remember, did not lose majority support until spring 1968 -- when Fulbright rose to fulfill what he called “the patriot's duty of dissent.” The White House, Senate, and House were all controlled by one party, as they are today. There were plenty of hacks around, then as now. But the White House was at one end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and Congress was at the other. The Capitol was not lodged in the presidency like a lamb bulging from the midsection of a python.

Today, with Iraq in flames and Bush's presidency threatening to come unhinged from its dwindling base of support, there is much talk of anxious Republicans “running away” from the president. But there is little evidence of congressional Republicans actually standing up to him.

Senator John McCain used to be good for an honest slap at the White House every now and then. But ever since he made up his mind to do whatever is necessary to win the Republican nomination in 2008, he's been a pussycat. Republican Senator Richard Lugar has been known to raise a paternal eyebrow and murmur something -- darned if I can recall what -- on a Sunday morning talk show. Senator Chuck Hagel occasionally strays from party, which is to say, White House, talking points. Arlen Specter held hearings on the NSA spying scandal -- and then refused to swear in administration witnesses. But faced with a situation not unlike Fulbright's in 1966, very few on the Republican side have dared to offer a critical public analysis of White House policy.

Washington's political culture was sickly before September 11. But one of the most insidious developments since then is the transformation of Congress into a holding pen for sheep with egos and a taste for pork. Columnist Walter Lippmann said that removing Fulbright from office would be a “national calamity.” Does anyone on Capitol Hill today merit a similar claim? Baaaaah.

“No one challenges the importance of national consensus,” Fulbright said at Johns Hopkins, “but consensus can be understood in two ways. If it is interpreted to mean unquestioning support of existing policies, its effects can only be pernicious and undemocratic, serving to suppress differences rather than to reconcile them.”

If historical parallels hold, it will take years to rationalize the mess in Iraq. At the time Fulbright first tried to put the brake on war in Vietnam, the number of American dead was close to the body count from Iraq today. It took another nine years -- and more than 50,000 more U.S. dead -- before the arrogance Fulbright had identified in 1966 was exhausted.

In 1966, while Fulbright was sounding the alarm, most of his Democratic colleagues were still toeing the White House line. Fulbright, of course, earned an honored place in history. Perhaps today's silent Republicans should consider the legacy of Fulbright's many colleagues who didn't.

Francis Wilkinson is a communications consultant and speechwriter in Nyack, New York.

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