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October 10, 2008

BILL MOYERS:For weeks now, as this campaign has unfolded, I've thought back to my interview with the historian and scholar Andrew J. Bacevich, to what he said about Congress and the presidency.

ANDREW BACEVICH:The Congress, especially with regard to matters related to national security policy, has thrust power and authority to the executive branch. We have created an imperial presidency. The Congress no longer is able to articulate a vision of what is the common good. The Congress exists primarily to ensure the reelection of members of Congress.

BILL MOYERS:Last week, we watched that mad fandango in Washington over the bailout. At first the House reacted to public outrage over buying off the bankers and they voted the bailout down. But two days later, Senators, many seduced by arm-twisting, check-writing lobbyists, gave in. Then the House capitulated, too. So no wonder Congress's approval rating is even lower than the President's. It's difficult for a voter of any stripe to respect a Congress that can be so easily strong-armed. Which brings us to a moment in recent history with consequences that are still playing out today. Let's go back to this same week in October, six years ago.

GEORGE W. BUSH:Saddam Hussein is harboring terrorists and the instruments of terror, the instruments of mass death and destruction. And he cannot be trusted. The risk is simply too great that he will use them, or provide them to a terror network. [...] Members of Congress are nearing an historic vote. I'm confident they will fully consider the facts, and their duties.

BILL MOYERS:That was October 7, 2002. President Bush was setting the stage for Congress's vote on his war resolution — advancing the official explanation of the imminent danger to American security.

SEN. BILL FRIST:Saddam Hussein is a direct and deadly threat to the American people and to the people of the world.

BILL MOYERS:White House talking points richocheted across Capitol Hill.

SEN. CONRAD BURNS:Hussein is a monster and a threat to the United States as we know it.

SEN. EVAN BAYH: In dealing with Saddam Hussein and the regime of Iraq, we are dealing with a brutal dictator.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK:He has chemical weapons we know. He has biological weapons we know. He is working on nuclear weapons we know.

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE:We know he has them. We know he has used them before. The question is will he use them again?

BILL MOYERS:A minority in Congress tried to stop the stampede to war.

SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE:No one trusts Saddam Hussein. Everybody knows he is a brutal dictator. That's not the point. The point is how to proceed, how to do this the right way.

BILL MOYERS:They called for diplomacy, for continuing to support UN inspectors combing Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: It is not simply a question of our policy toward Iraq or Saddam Hussein. It's a question of our policy toward the world.

SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE: This will have very negative repercussions around the Islamic world. I believe it is wise to heed the concerns of our friends. And our friends are telling us we are ratcheting up the hatred.

SEN. BARBARA MIKULSKI:This is why I believe America shouldn't face these threats alone. If we go in, we should not go in by ourselves. If the threat is so real, the world should take it seriously and then vote to be able to come with us.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD:We are urged, Mr. President, to get on board and bring the American people with us, but we don't know where the ship is sailing. On Monday night, the President said in Cincinnati, "We refuse to live in fear." I agree. But let us not overreact or get tricked or get trapped out of fear, either.

BILL MOYERS: But fear overruled reason, and haste did away with caution.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN:Here is the point. Saddam Hussein continues to acquire, amass, and improve on his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. He continues to attempt to acquire a nuclear weapon. These are all well-known facts.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN:The analogy that comes to mind is of a bomb on a timer. I don't know whether the timer is set to go off in a day or a year.

SEN. MIKE ENZI: Do we wait for him to attack with nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons? Do we wait for yet another international inspector team to be denied access to weapons stockpiles? Do we wait for another attack on the United States?

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER:By empowering the President to use force, we will send a message to both Hussein and the nations of the world that the threat of force is real and that we are serious about disarming him.

BILL MOYERS:They were debating just three weeks before the Congressional elections.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL:I regret that this vote will take place under the cloud and pressure of elections next month. Some are already using the Iraq issue to gain advantage in political campaigns.

SEN. PATTY MURRAY:Many here in Congress and many of our citizens are asking, what is special about November 5 in deciding this question?

SEN. ROBERT BYRD:All of the drive is on. We are being stampeded. They were saying the vote will take place this week. Why all the hurry?

BILL MOYERS:This bum's rush was intentional. Leaked documents would later reveal that the White House deliberately planned this propaganda campaign to coincide with the lead up to the elections. Their talking points now became a mantra.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We cannot wait for the final proof, the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: When there is a smoking gun or a mushroom cloud we have waited too long.

REP. ROBERT SIMMONS: We cannot wait for the smoking gun. A gun smokes only after it has been fired.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We've learned that Iraq has trained Al-Qaeda members in bomb making.

REP. ILLEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Saddam Hussein's regime trained Al-Qaeda operatives in bomb making.

REP. STEVE ROTHMAN: Saddam is now training Al-Qaeda in bomb making.

GEORGE W. BUSH: We know that Iraq and Al-Qaeda have had high level contacts that go back a decade.

SEN. FRED THOMPSON: Senior level contacts between Iraq and Al-Qaeda going back a decade.

BILL MOYERS:The President got his way. Even some prominent skeptics who didn't want to give the President so much power, equivocated in the end.

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN:I find myself supporting this resolution but worried that the rationale for supporting this resolution is gonna get us in some real trouble. [...] I hope we don't walk out of here with my voting for this final document and somebody six months from now or six years from now saying, "We have the right now to establish this new doctrine of preemption, to go wherever we want anytime."

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON:So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our nation. A vote for it is not a vote to rush to war; it is a vote that puts awesome responsibility in the hands of our President. And we say to him: Use these powers wisely and as a last resort.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD:What a shame.

BILL MOYERS:The loudest nay came from one of the longest-serving members of the Senate.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD:Fie upon the Congress!

BILL MOYERS:Democrat Robert Byrd.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD:Fie upon some of the so-called leaders of the Congress for falling into this pit.

BILL MOYERS:He tried to pull Congress back from the precipice.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD:Mr. President, the Senate is rushing to vote on whether to declare war on Iraq without pausing to ask: Why? We don't have time to ask: Why? We don't have time to get the answers to that question: Why? Why is war being dealt with not as a last resort but as a first resort?

BILL MOYERS:The Constitution, Byrd said, gives Congress the power to declare war.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD:In the proposed use-of-force resolution, the White House lawyers — ha, ha, ha — the White House lawyers claim that quote, "The President has authority under the Constitution to use force in order to defend the national security interests of the United States." It says no such thing.

BILL MOYERS:Beware, he warned, of concentrating power in one man. Byrd had already seen it once before in August 1964, and had regretted his vote ever since.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD:I, Robert C. Byrd, voted on the Tonkin Gulf Resolution--the resolution that authorized the President to use military force to "repel armed attacks" and "to prevent further communist aggression" in Southeast Asia. It was this resolution that provided the basis for American involvement in the war in Vietnam. It was this resolution that lead to the longest war in American history. It was this resolution that led to the deaths of 58,000 Americans, and 150,000 Americans being wounded in action.

It was a war that destroyed the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. It was a war that wrecked the administration of Richard Nixon. After all of that carnage, we began to learn that, in voting for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, we were basing our votes on bad information. We learned that the claims that the administration then in power had made on the need for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution were simply not true. And history is repeating itself.

BILL MOYERS: But once again the warnings were to no avail.

REP. DENNIS HASTERT: There will be a 15 minute vote.

BILL MOYERS: And on October 10, six years ago today, the House approved the resolution 296 to 133. Even as the Senate's unanswered questions still hung in the air.

SEN. EDWARD M. KENNEDY: How many ground troops will be required? How many casualties can we expect to suffer?

SEN. JON CORZINE: How in the future can we criticize Russia for attacking Georgia?

SEN. BARBARA BOXER: How much will it cost? How long will we have to stay there?

BILL MOYERS: In the early hours of the next morning, October 11, the Senate passed the resolution by a vote of 77 to 23.

SEN. BLANCHE LINCOLN:The joint resolution is passed.

BILL MOYERS:The course to war was set. Senator Byrd's bitter memory of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964 was especially poignant to me. I was there, as a young assistant to President Lyndon Johnson, when he asked Congress for the authority to use force against North Vietnam.

The resolution breezed through the House unanimously, 414 to none, and in the Senate with only two votes against it. When it turned out the President had acted on questionable and cloudy information, but proceeded anyway to use the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution to dramatically escalate the war, many of those members of Congress regretted having given him a blank check. Too late.

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