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LETTER FROM MEMPHIS

It is “a time to break silence,” Congressman. Or at least stop speaking in tongues.

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An Open Letter to Harold Ford, Jr.

Dear Congressman Ford:

It was good to see you again Friday night (August 19th) at the University of Memphis Law School Alumni Association's annual awards dinner, where you were the keynote speaker. I have not had the opportunity to hear you speak in person on the current situation in Iraq in quite some time, given how your duties in Washington and your travels across the state as you campaign for the Senate have kept you away from Memphis. And given our many differences of opinion as regards our nation's state of affairs, I was very much looking forward to your remarks, and to coming away with a better understanding of your point of view as regards this difficult situation.

I must say, however, that I left the banquet room even more confused than ever as to what exactly your attitude towards the Iraq conflict is today. More importantly -- despite your assertions to the contrary -- I had a hard time finding anything in your remarks suggesting that you have a clear idea of what our government's approach to Iraq should be going forward.

At least you made one thing perfectly clear: you in no way, shape, or form have any regrets about the support that you gave President Bush at the outset of this sad odyssey. "I support this war in Iraq,” you said forcefully. “I supported it from the very beginning for one reason. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy." Going forward, therefore, you’ll get no more pleading from me that you "do the right thing," and admit that your vote for the War Powers Act in October 2002 was a mistake. Because you clearly don't think it was…

But while I respect your clarity of expression in that regard, the rest of your speech left me, well, speechless. At one point, for example, when criticizing at length the Bush Administration's conduct of the conflict -- something upon which we do agree mightily -- you refer to "the erroneous point of view that we went to Iraq only because there were bad people (there)." And then, quite remarkably, you had this to say:

"If the new standard is ‘bad people’ for going to war, we're going to be busy for a long, long, long time. (Applause.) Because we can start at one tip of Africa and go to the other, we can start some places in Asia, and even there's a few friends in Europe along the way, if bad leaders, cruel leaders or leadership is now the standard for going to war."

I'm sorry? I sat upright in my chair when you uttered these sentences, having just heard you say from the same podium, not more than five minutes earlier, that you supported the initial decision to attack Iraq "for one reason. Saddam Hussein was a bad guy."

I know you are a graduate of the University of Michigan law school, and I know sitting alongside us in that banquet room Friday night were maybe 200 law-school professors, judges, and practicing attorneys. The law is all about language, about using words to achieve clarity, about using logic to arrive at fair judgments. And yet, here you were, one minute stating as unequivocally as possible that you thought our invasion of Iraq was justified because we were nailing a bad guy, and the next minute, with a straight face, saying that we couldn’t just go around the world invading countries whose leaders were bad guys. (Later, while leaving, I pointed out this seeming contradiction to a lawyer friend. “Yep,” he laughed, good-naturedly. “Those comments would look mighty bad in a deposition. We’d have some kind of fun with that.”)

So which is it, Congressman: are "bad guys" bad, or are they not? Do we beat up on bad guys only when we -- or in this case, you -- think it's a good idea? Or do you have any real opinion on the subject at all? If verbal gymnastics like this were part of a Jon Stewart Daily Show skit, it would probably be funny. But when such verbal duplicity comes out of the mouth of the front-running Democratic candidate for the Tennessee Senate, concerned citizens are well within their rights in asking for their money back.

You have been accused by many critics, not just me, of being, shall we say, "soft" on the issues, willing to say just about anything, in hope of striking the politically-correct “moderate” pose that might possibly get you elected to the Senate as a Democrat in a state that's gone heavily Republican in the last two national elections. Others besides me have pointed at your recent voting record in Congress as an indication of this zeal for the middle ground. But talking out of both sides of your mouth doesn't qualify as "middle-speak," Congressman; it qualifies as "mush."

The rest of your speech, frankly, was something of an anti-climax. You said much that I agree with; I particularly liked your suggestion that the Bush Administration’s greatest failing, not just in Iraq, but as regards our entire foreign policy in the region, was its over-reliance on military strength and our appalling ignorance of Middle Eastern cultures. But mixed in with your many cogent comments were nonsensical ones, about how Bush's "instincts" had been "right" (they have been consistently wrong), and about how the President was “right to take (Saddam) down.” What is that all about? After all, this is a President whose own well-documented incuriosity about Middle Eastern culture – just what you talked about – exactly mirrors Middle America's. This President has proven to be an ineffective leader whose own failure to prepare effectively for a strange new war in a strange old land has already cost tens of thousands of human beings their lives. This is a man who refuses to have a conversation with Cindy Sheehan about why her son died in that war, a man whom much of world regards as a war criminal. And yet you took pains to tell us all Friday night that you "love him personally"?

What gives, Congressman? What do you really think of George W. Bush, and what is your real opinion of the conflict in Iraq? And who is the real you?

Far be it from me, of all people, to give you any advice. But I would suggest you read a short essay about the Iraq debacle by Ray McGovern, entitled “There’s Such a Thing as “Too Late,” posted Friday on the Common Dreams web site. (Here’s the link.) In that essay, McGovern refers to the famous speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967 – one year to the day before his assassination here in Memphis.

This speech, as I am certain that you know, was among Dr. King’s most famous: “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break Silence,” in which he spoke of how the time had come to link the civil-rights struggle with the movement to end the obscenity which the Vietnam War had become. Re-read that speech, Congressman, if you can (here’s the link; you can actually listen to it here as well) and, please, ponder what Dr. King says. Substitute the word “Iraq” every place where he uses the word “Vietnam,” and perhaps you will agree with his contention that there does indeed come a time when silence or equivocation becomes, as he says, “betrayal.”

I’ll leave you with the thought below, not mine, of course, but Dr. King’s, from his memorable speech, which in places reads as if it could have been written yesterday. I look forward to seeing you again soon, and discussing all this in person:

“These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”

Kenneth Neill is the publisher/CEO of Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent company of The Memphis Flyer.

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