Last week, something exciting happened in U.S. politics. It was exciting in itself, and even if nothing else had come of it, it still would have been exciting. But what made it even more exciting is what followed – the reaction to this event that various people at various parts of the political spectrum had. The event, of course, was Senator Rand Paul’s 13-hour filibuster. The filibuster was more interesting than many observers have said, possibly because they relied on brief newspaper reports rather than, as I did, actually watching the filibuster for over four hours. The reaction was interesting, too, somewhat on the "right" and especially on the "left." Has Rand Paul realigned U.S. politics? It’s too early to tell. But he certainly has shaken things up.
Why did I watch the filibuster for four hours? There are two main reasons. First, I wanted to see history being made. This was the first filibuster I’ve ever known about while it was happening and, therefore, had a chance to see. Virtually all my life, I’ve put my nose to the grindstone and not watched as history was being made. On November 24, 1963, when I was 13, rather than being glued to the TV all weekend long after President Kennedy’s assassination, I stuck with my original plan of spreading my notes out in the living room and studying for my Christmas English exam. So I missed what my brother, Paul, saw, which was, in real time, Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Paul came running into the living room to tell me, but then, of course, it was too late. In the summer of 1973, when I was a summer intern in the Nixon White House, with Herb Stein’s Council of Economic Advisers, I stuck to my job rather than, as many people there did, watching the Watergate hearings on little TVs in their offices. In 1991, when the Clarence Thomas hearings were held, I was busy working on The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics and so I caught only small snippets.
But now I’m 62, my estate, as the British call it, is in pretty good shape, and I have tenure. So, dammit, I was going to watch.
Which brings me to my second reason. I don’t know that I would have watched the filibuster for four hours if it had been boring. But it wasn’t. It started out as Rand Paul asking President Obama to affirm that he had no right to kill Americans on American soil when there was no imminent threat simply because he suspected they were terrorists. That one seemed like a no-brainer, but Attorney General Eric Holder’s earlier letter to Rand Paul had not affirmed it. And when questioned in hearings by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Holder had kept answering that using drones on Americans was not "appropriate" rather than answering Cruz’s question, which was whether it was constitutional. The question of drone strikes on Americans was an important one to address. But, like a salesman who gets his foot in the door so he can persuade you to buy, Rand Paul used the "drone strike on Americans" issue as his foot in the door to get people to think beyond that narrow issue. How far beyond? Rand Paul quoted Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf, two people whose work often appears on antiwar.com. He questioned so-called "signature strikes," that is, shooting Hellfire missiles from drones at people who fit the profile of a terrorist, on foreigners abroad. He challenged the war on terror, pointing out that much of what the U.S. government does abroad creates more terrorists. And he called for ending the war in Afghanistan and pulling out. Not bad for a day’s, or actually, 13 hours’, work.
At no time during my watching did I get bored. I had read that in past filibusters, Senators had read from the phone book or read the Declaration of Independence multiple times. Rand Paul didn’t do that. Of course, his filibuster was repetitious, but often with little twists and new facts. Indeed, to get any of my work done last Wednesday, I had to mute the live stream from C-SPAN II on my computer. But through the afternoon, after 20 or 30 minutes of working, I found myself going back and listening for an hour.
I wasn’t alone in this impression. I’ve developed a loose e-mail relationship with a national security affairs reporter for one of the country’s most important newspapers. If I reveal his name, after I have proceeded to quote him, he probably won’t talk to me again. So I won’t reveal his name. We were in touch two days ago. I wrote:
I was really gung-ho on Rand Paul’s filibuster: the first real one I’ve seen in my lifetime and it set my own writing back by at least half a day as I found myself mesmerized. It could actually be the only real one of the last 100 years, in terms of content. Yes, he was repetitious, but he was virtually always coherent and never resorted to reading the phone book or the Declaration of Independence 9 times.
He replied, "Agree. Quite riveting."
Consider this passage from relatively early in the filibuster:
There was a man named al-Awlaki. He was a bad guy. By all evidence available to the public that I’ve read, he was treasonous. I have no sympathy for his death. I still would have tried him in a federal court for treason and I think you [he] could have been executed. But his son was 16 years old, had missed his dad, gone for two years. His son sneaks out of the house and goes to Yemen. His son is then killed by a drone strike. They won’t tell us if he was targeted. [I] suspect, since there were other people in the group, about 20 people killed, that they were targeting someone else. I don’t know that. I don’t have inside information on that. But I suspect that.
But here’s the real problem: When the President’s spokesman [Correction: Rand Paul has in mind Robert Gibbs, former press secretary for Obama, but that’s close enough for government work.] was asked about al-Awlaki’s son, you know what his response was? This I find particularly callous and particularly troubling. The President’s response to the killing of al-Awlaki’s son, he said he should have chosen [a] more responsible father.
You know, it’s kind of hard to choose who your parents are. That’s sort of like saying to someone whose father is a thief or a murderer or a rapist, which is obviously a bad thing, but does that mean it’s okay to kill their children? Think of the standard we would have if our standard for killing people overseas is, you should have chosen a more responsible parent.
This is not just someone worrying about Americans on American soil.
Unfortunately, some of those who regarded Rand Paul’s filibuster as theatrics or a gimmick seemed not to have actually watched much of the filibuster or even read the transcript on line. Blogging head Robert Wright, for example, admitted that he didn’t watch the filibuster and that "all I know is what I read in the papers." That didn’t stop him, though, from misstating the facts. He said, "I gather that he [Rand Paul] confined his criticism to the idea of the President killing American citizens on American soil with drones." On this basis, Wright dismissed Paul.
What was interesting, though, beyond the filibuster, was the reaction of various people on the right and the left. I admit that I was surprised by how positive Texas Senator Ted Cruz was to Ron Paul. Cruz spelled off Paul by asking questions preceded by long intros so that Paul could get a break. Also, if you had told me that Rush Limbaugh would be praising Rand Paul for challenging any aspect of the so-called "war on terror," I would not have believed you. I suspect that much of their reaction is due to Rand Paul’s providing them with a stick to beat Barack Obama. We’ll see.
On the left, it was even more interesting. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, true to form, accused Rand Paul of "spewing infantile fantasies." Aside: is there any more hateful man on television today than Lawrence O’Donnell? OK, maybe CNN’s Piers Morgan, but the two are competing. O’Donnnell’s attack was not interesting because, as I noted, O’Donnell was true to form. But when he tried to get his two guests, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post, to agree, they refused. As Dionne pointed out, this was the first time in a long time that "everybody was not falling on some predictable side." Lindsey Graham and John McCain trashed Rand Paul and defended President Obama. Some liberals, on the other hand, favored Paul. Grim used the chance to extend the issue, arguing that if the White House has a secret kill list, Obama should make it public. O’Donnell asked (at the 8:40 point) whether, in his 13-hour filibuster, Rand Paul had more than 14 minutes of actual "contact." (He meant "content.") I can’t count the number of times that O’Donnell pulled the mental health stick out of his arsenal, claiming that Paul was "crazy" and "mad." When O’Donnell asked what the 12 to 13 hours accomplished, Dionne answered, "We are talking about it. That’s what it accomplished." O’Donnell insisted that the filibuster was a stunt. Duh! To which Brim replied, "It was an effective stunt."
Even more heartening was left-winger Van Jones, who was booted from the White House early in Obama’s first term. Jones said (at the 3:15 point):
Well let me just say, I might shock a lot of people as somebody, you know I love this president and I respect this president, Rand Paul was a hero yesterday, and what I’ve been hearing is a lot of shame from liberals and progressives who felt like geez, we should be up there sticking up for civil liberties and we should be the ones asking those tough questions.
Good on ya, Van.
Mort Zuckerman’s and Ryan Grim’s reactions on the McLaughlin Group (at around the 16:00 to 21:00 section) were heartening too. Zuckerman, a traditional liberal and a strong supporter of the state of Israel, gave Rand Paul kudos. Grim got the big picture: people won’t necessarily remember everything said, but they will remember that Rand Paul and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party stood up for civil liberties. Interestingly, also on that show, conservative Susan Ferrechio gave Rand Paul points for his stand on civil liberties
Also, not to be missed, are the generally left-wing groups, Code Pink and the ACLU, both of which supported Paul. The Code Pink endorsement caused neo-con Bill Kristol to lament that Rand Paul was becoming "the spokesman for the Code Pink faction of the Republican party." That’s Kristol’s legendary snarkiness at play but, seriously, wouldn’t it be neat to have left and right unite against empire, something that arguably hasn’t happened in the United States since World War I.
As I noted, it is too early to tell what the effects of Rand Paul’s filibuster will be. But I’ll take every little bit of good news I can get. And this is good news.
Some of my libertarian Facebook "friends" have argued that this filibuster means little and have, correctly, pointed to Rand Paul’s many flaws. (As a result, by the way, I defriended one of them over it, something I have done only 3 or 4 times, but he always seems to rain on any optimistic parade.) I would answer with what Jeffrey Tucker, another FB friend, wrote:
To all people who are sending me evidence of Rand Paul’s various heresies, you can save your bandwidth. I’m not interested in saint making or witch burning. I’m interested in only one thing: progressive reductions of the role of all government power in people’s lives all the way to zero if possible. Whatever brings that about, in whatever sector it happens, and whether it happens slowly by steps or all in one fell swoop, I’m for it. I really don’t care who or what makes a contribution to this end or how it comes about, so long as it is ethical and it actually achieves the aim of human liberation, the mother of all progress, order, and higher civilization.
Or, as I pointed out in a short note to Jeff Tucker after reading his note on FB, "I come to Facebook to see friends, not to deal with Eeyore."
Rand Paul’s filibuster was on Wednesday, March 6. On March 8, Ryan Goodman, a law professor and co-chairman of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University, wrote an op/ed in the New York Times titled "The Drone Question Obama Hasn’t Answered." Here are the first four paragraphs:
The Senate confirmed John O. Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency on Thursday after a nearly 13-hour filibuster by the libertarian senator Rand Paul, who before the vote received a somewhat odd letter from the attorney general.
"It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ " the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., wrote to Mr. Paul. "The answer to that question is no."
The senator, whose filibuster had become a social-media sensation, elating Tea Party members, human-rights groups and pacifists alike, said he was "quite happy with the answer." But Mr. Holder’s letter raises more questions than it answers – and, indeed, more important and more serious questions than the senator posed.
What, exactly, does the Obama administration mean by "engaged in combat"? The extraordinary secrecy of this White House makes the answer difficult to know. We have some clues, and they are troubling.
Ask yourself this: without Rand Paul’s filibuster, would the New York Times, which has been strongly pro-Obama, have published this op/ed? If the answer is no, then there’s an effect of his filibuster right there.