Anything goes in the Senate

Posted: Feb 16, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada, who each day roams the Senate floor protecting the minority party and pummeling George W. Bush, showed up Wednesday carrying a paperback book. It was David Brock's "Blinded by the Right," and Reid used it as a blunt weapon against President Bush's choice of Judge Laurence Silberman as Republican co-chairman of the bipartisan commission to investigate Iraq intelligence failures.

Reid cited at length Brock's screed against the author's erstwhile conservative colleagues, including his former mentor, Judge Silberman. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, another Senate Democratic leader, on cue showed up to join the auto-da-fe. They accepted as gospel Brock's accusations against Silberman, who is now in senior status on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. While Silberman describes Brock as "an unmitigated liar," Reid used the book as justification for calling on Bush to withdraw the judge's selection. Republican senators were as feckless as ever. Not one of them rose to speak in defense of Silberman.

Not since Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy's attack on Gen. George C. Marshall half a century ago has the Senate been such a cockpit for calumny against a distinguished lifetime public servant. Harry Reid is certainly no Joe McCarthy, but he is not the soft-spoken, deferential young lawyer first elected to Congress 22 years ago. Caught up in today's coarsely partisan ethos, Reid is intent on using the Iraq war as a political weapon against Bush. Silberman's co-chairmanship of the intelligence commission is seen by Democratic senators as an obstacle to that plan. In the Senate of 2004, anything goes.

When the semi-retired judge was named co-chairman (along with a Democrat, former Sen. Charles Robb), Brock's book came out of mothballs. A right-wing hit man turned left-wing hit man, he leveled unsubstantiated accusations against Silberman that within 24 hours of the Bush commission's unveiling were repeated around Washington. Brock was cited as a principal source in a Los Angeles Times article published Wednesday that questioned Silberman's impartiality.

Reid took the floor that afternoon armed with the book and the newspaper. He read the LA Times's quote from Herman Schwartz, a liberal law professor from American University who sees a conspiracy to pack courts with conservative judges. This combative critic designated Silberman as "fiercely partisan, pugnacious and very political." Reid agreed, calling Silberman "one of the most partisan people in all of America." Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, chimed in to call Silberman "a very strident, aggressive, partisan supporter" of Bush.

This verbal abuse has been heaped on a throwback to The Establishment's heyday, when prominent citizens sacrificed significant income to devote themselves to the nation. Silberman served as a Labor and Justice department official and ambassador to Yugoslavia before being named to the second highest federal court. He is a conservative Republican but stubbornly independent. At the Labor Department, he differed with the Nixon White House. He threatened to quit as deputy attorney general if the Justice Department did not pursue a corruption case against John B. Connally. His pro-choice views on abortion probably kept him from a Supreme Court nomination.

Silberman has six times been confirmed by the Senate without a dissenting senator, but those votes were cast in a very different institution than exists today. The current minority whip accepts the word of a journalist, whose veracity often has been challenged, over a distinguished public servant.

On Wednesday, Reid went on the Senate floor to repeat Brock's claim that the judge gave him "a specific tip involving the president's (Bill Clinton's) sex life to pursue." This allegation is totally false, Silberman said, adding that he knew nothing about Clinton's sex life. This, he said, is part of a book that is "laced with fiction."

"Here is a man," Reid told the Senate, "who is violating the canons of judicial ethics and responsibilities that judges have." Which canon? This column got no answer from the senator's office. There is no canon about judges expressing political opinions privately. They cannot talk politics publicly, and Silberman never has. Such nuances are lost as total war is waged in the Senate.