The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne doesn’t like the Iran open letter released by 47 Republican senators last week. And his column today makes clear that he really doesn’t like my support of that open letter.
Let me say at the outset: I like E.J. Dionne. He spoke to my class on political reporting from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism during a trip we took to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1999. He likely doesn’t remember the visit, but I do. I’ve never forgotten the rule he said guided him in writing opinion pieces: Engage the strongest arguments on the opposing side of yours instead of mocking the dumb ones. It’s good advice and, with some exceptions, I have tried to follow it.
I’d like to think that this rule explains why Dionne chose to challenge my argument. But I’m still learning.
Among his problems: In 2002, I wrote critically of three Democrats who traveled to Baghdad to trash George W. Bush and last week I wrote in praise of the open Iran letter. This, he suggests, is evidence of partisanship or maybe worse.
Dionne’s case would be more persuasive if it didn’t include simple errors of fact. He writes: “The three members of Congress went to Iraq on their own, without any support from their party’s leaders, and were actively taken to task even by opponents of Bush’s policies.”
The delegation didn’t need “support” from party leaders. It included one. David Bonior had been the second-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. That fact was in both of my pieces.
To support his claim that the Baghdad Democrats were “taken to task” by those who agreed with them on Iraq, he cites a column that he wrote at the time. All credit to Dionne, but he was the exception. Indeed, in the 2002 TWS piece he cites, we reached out to numerous Democrats and, in a brief interview at the Brookings Institution, where Dionne is a fellow, DNC head Terry McAuliffe refused to criticize the trip.
There’s more. Citing my piece, Dionne claims: “To defend the 47 Republican senators who signed a letter to ‘the Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran,’ they invoke the everybody-does-it argument: that interfering with a president conducting a negotiation is as American as apple piece.”
Again, this is incorrect. In fact, I rejected that argument directly. “Of course, the past behavior of Democrats doesn’t justify the Republican letter on Iran.”
Dionne says he finds it “utterly baffling” that anyone who supports the Iran letter would bring up that trip. “For one thing, many of the same people who denounced the Democratic trio are now praising the letter. Hayes, for example, in an article posted last week headlined ‘A Contrived Controversy,’ said the letter, offered by ‘patriotic senators,’ was ‘fact-based, substantive argument, in public, about a matter of critical importance to the national security of the United States.’”
I’m glad to help unravel the mystery. Critics of the open letter – including Democratic senators, left-leaning commentators and ostensibly straight journalists – routinely used “unprecedented” to describe it. A report by NBC News suggested the letter brought an abrupt end to the bipartisan foreign policy. These claims were wrong and ahistorical. It was important to demonstrate that fact.
Dionne is right about one thing. The trip to Baghdad by Bonior and his colleagues is nothing like the open Iran letter from 47 GOP senators. The most important difference: In the former, the Democrats were consciously propagandizing for a rogue regime that posed a threat to the United States, and in the latter, the Republicans were challenging such a regime.
Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat on the Baghdad trip, understood that the trip would be used by Saddam Hussein to denounce the United States. But McDermott said that if it helps any children, then: “We don’t mind being used.”