Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Strange Twists of Fate

In 1998, Congressman Mike Pappas (R-NJ) was in a tight but very winnable battle for his seat with a little known physics professor from Princeton University. It appeared almost certain that Pappas was going to win, if only by a few points, until one mid-summer's day. On the day in question, Rep. Pappas (who was a member of a Congressional singing group) stood up on the House floor and sang, in honor of Kenneth Starr. For those of us who saw it, it was a tune that we will remember for the rest of our lives: "Twinkle, Twinkle Kenneth Starr." Several months later, Holt won a victory by only a few thousand votes over Pappas. For me, it was one of the most devastating moments in my then-developing experience with politics.

Today, 9 years later, Rush Holt is still in Congress, now with a safe seat (thanks largely to redistricting, but also due to turning into a capable politician). Moreover, he has become a key member of the House Intelligence Committee. In that capacity, he was a key force in drafting and passing the RESTORE Act- without telecom immunity.

The passage of that act has resulted in a fairly wild war of words involving primarily Glenn Greenwald and Joe Klein. For the record, Klein threw a whole bunch of accusations about the bill, and accused the House Dems of doing a poor job of acting in an appropriately bipartisan fashion. Greenwald took Klein to task about some of those accusations, and forced Klein to at least partially retract. Today, Congressman Holt himself decided to weigh in on Klein's half-assed retraction (in which he maintained his accusation that the Dems should have been "nicer" in structuring the bill).

Money quote from Holt:

What we have not agreed to do is give this or any other President a permanent blank check to spy on you, your family, the members of your congregation, or any other American citizen without any judicial oversight - a position shared by an overwhelming majority of Americans according to the latest public opinion surveys on the topic....

In an era where the government can conduct searches and seize the contents of communications without even alerting citizens to the government's presence, building in such safeguards is even more important than in James Madison's day,
when if the King's men were coming to take you or your papers, you at least saw them walking up to your door before they kicked it in.

But he saves this gem for later:

We must not let anyone advance the bogus argument - repeated by Mr. Klein - that protecting American's against unwarranted search and seizure necessarily requires a compromise in their security. The opposite is true.

Now, there are many, many areas where I have problems with Holt. And Congressman Pappas was, and to my knowledge is, a fine man. But if the Dems have had a leadership problem since they took over Congress, it seems clear to me that Holt is not to blame. It's been a long time since I heard a Democrat (with the possible exception of Obama) aggressively advance the argument that compromising civil liberties is not just a situation where the harm outweighs the benefit, but it is in fact a situation where the harm only causes even more harm- including harm to national security.

All that because a freshman Republican congressman sang a song.