By Ray McGovern
Sept. 24, 2020 & Sept. 30, 2008
12 years ago, as vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden was about to debate Sarah Palin, I wrote him an open letter, published as “Time for Confession” (See: https://consortiumnews.com/2008/093008a.html). I urged Biden to apologize for helping President Bush attack Iraq, acknowledge the baleful consequences, ask for forgiveness, and promise not to let “that kind of thing happen again.” It struck me that such a statement would be disarming, in both senses of that word.
As he prepares to debate President Donald Trump next Tuesday, Biden might pause long enough to weigh the merits of complete honesty — now a highly endangered species. I still think that an expression of sincere contrition might have a novel appeal in this age of cynicism and obfuscation. The Iraq issue is sure to come up, even if Trump misses the chance to raise it himself.
Following is the text of my 2008 letter:
September 30, 2008
Dear Senator Biden
I don’t have to remind you of the importance of this Thursday’s debate from a political perspective. But as you prepare, I invite you to spare a few minutes to look at the opportunity from a moral and religious perspective.
You may wish to examine your conscience regarding how you have acted on key foreign policy issues and reflect on John 8:32: “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
The holy days of religious traditions serve a very useful purpose, if we but take the time to pause and ponder. I write you on Rosh Hashanah, the first of 10 days focusing on repentance.
In Judaism’s oral tradition Rosh Hashanah is the day when people are held to account. The wicked are “blotted out of the book of the living,” while the righteous are inscribed in the book of life.
Those in the middle are given 10 days to repent, until the holiday of Yom Kippur — the solemn Day of Atonement.
If that has a familiar ring to it, Joe, we heard it in as many words at Mass last Sunday in the first reading, from Ezekiel 18: “If one turns from wickedness and does what is right and just, that one will live.”
At Rosh Hashanah the ram’s horn trumpet blows to waken us from our slumber and alert us to the coming judgment. Rabbi Michael Lerner has been a ram’s horn for me. On Sept. 28, he sent a note addressing forgiveness and repentance.
He encourages us to find a private place to say aloud how we’ve hurt others, and then to go to them and ask forgiveness.
“Do not mitigate or ‘explain’ — just acknowledge and sincerely ask for forgiveness,” says Rabbi Lerner. He suggests we ask for “guidance and strength to rectify those hurts — and to develop the sensitivity to not continue acting in a hurtful way.”
Again, a familiar ring. Think, Joe, about the instruction we both received as Irish “cradle Catholics.” Surely you will remember the emphasis on examining one’s conscience, confessing, and pledging to “sin no more.”
The phrase comes back, clear as a bell; we were to “confess our sins, do penance, and amend our life, Amen.” Remember?
And remember how clean we felt at the end of that therapeutic process? I was reminded of that by the gospel reading from John 1, in which Jesus says of Nathaniel: “Here is a true child of Israel; there is no duplicity in him.”
Just think of how Nathaniel must have felt.
Joe, you can feel that clean; but one cannot short-cut the process. You must first come clean on your role in greasing the skids for President George W. Bush’s war of aggression on Iraq.
I use “war of aggression” advisedly, for that is the term used by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson to denote “the supreme international crime, differing from other war crimes only in that it contains the accumulated evil of the whole.”
There is no getting around that — despite the reluctance of church, state and the Fawning Corporate Media (FCM) to acknowledge it.
I imagine that you, as a lawyer, have moments of acute shame over our country’s flouting of international law and the U.N. Charter, duly ratified by the Senate and thus the law of the land.
And there is no getting away from the important role you played in roping Congress into facilitating that war.
Were the war not to have killed, injured, displaced hundreds of thousands, your lame circumlocutions regarding your own culpability would be laughable — on a par with, say, some of the recent comments of your rival for vice president. But they are in no way funny.
For my own penance, I made myself read again through your marathon, “in-depth” interview with the late Tim Russert on April 29, 2007. Your remarks are notable for two things: (1) periodic sentences that can be diagrammed only by a German philologist with the patience of Job in waiting for verbs and with a deep tolerance for dangling participles; and (2) lies.
It is not hard to spot the lies half-hidden in the underbrush of euphemism and circumlocution.
I do not refer to relatively harmless ones like your firm denial of any interest in running for vice president. I’m talking about the real whoppers — the ones we used to call mortal sins.
Despite the goings-on in Washington in recent years, Joe, I don’t believe anyone has actually passed legislation revoking the commandment against false witness. It’s time you come clean.
–For some reason, you were calling for an invasion of Iraq and making unsupported claims about its “weapons of mass destruction” even before President George W. Bush came into office.
Later, on Aug. 4, 2002, after it had become clear to many of us that Bush was intent on attacking Iraq, you declared that the U.S. was probably going to war. That was three weeks before Vice President Dick Cheney voiced his spurious “intelligence” and set the terms of reference for the war. And it was a month before the administration launched its marketing campaign for the new “product.”
–You became the administration’s most important congressional backer of Bush’s preemptive-with-nothing-to-preempt war advocated by neoconservatives and various oil-thirsty functionaries.
Former U.N. weapons inspector and ex-U.S. Marine Major Scott Ritter was correct in describing the hearings you chaired during the summer and fall of 2002, from which you were careful to exclude Ritter and other expert witnesses, as a “sham…to provide political cover for a massive military attack on Iraq.”
What the country needed was an appropriately skeptical Sen. William Fulbright who listened to dissenters after he got burned on Vietnam. Instead, you took unusual pains to ensure that those dissenting on Iraq would not get a fair hearing.
Ritter: “While we were never able to provide 100 percent certainty regarding the disposition of Iraq’s proscribed weaponry, we did ascertain a 90-95 percent level of verified disarmament…It is clear that Sen. Biden and his colleagues have no interest in such facts.”
Indeed, just before the Senate voted to give Bush authorization to attack Iraq, you plagiarized Cheney in assuring his Senate colleagues that Iraq “possesses chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear weapons.”
And tell us, Joe, why did you join Sen. John McCain and others in voting against the amendment offered by Sen. Carl Levin that would have forced the president to obtain U.N. Security Council approval before launching war on Iraq?
‘Explaining’ the Unexplainable
–Then, in 2007, when your catastrophic misjudgments were obvious and hundreds of thousands were dead and maimed, you borrowed the administration’s rhetoric to “explain” to Russert how “everyone in the world thought Saddam had them [WMDs].”
That was rank hyperbole. When you added, “The weapons inspectors said he had them,” that was a lie.
Please, no more torturous explanations of the kind you gave Russert, like this one: “It [the resolution] allowed the president to go to war. It did not authorize him to go to it.”
Come on, Joe. The resolution says: “The president is authorized to use the armed forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate.”
Sen. Robert Byrd, who unlike you and some other Democratic senators had no presidential aspirations, rightly observed at the time that those who “voted for a use-of-force resolution handed a ‘blank check’ to the president.”
–When the war/occupation brought bloody chaos, you expressed regret only that the Bush people weren’t doing it right.
For example, in 2004 you told Charlie Rose and in 2007 Russert: “If I’d known that they were going to be so incompetent in using it, I would have never, ever given them the authority.” So you approve of preemptive war as long as no one botches the job?
More recently, Joe, you have said of your vote to authorize the war: “It was a mistake. I regret my vote.”
Pardon the comparison, but you sound like the disgraced Colin Powell, who has expressed regret only for the “blot on my record.” But wait, Joe. “Imagine All the People.”
Im-Palin Old Joe
If you do not find my suggestion for confession and repentance morally compelling, Joe, think of it this way. Your debate partner on Thursday evening will be loaded for bear. I assume you wish to avoid being field dressed.
Ain’t no way out of your dilemma but making a clean breast of it, Joe. She is going to wave her finger at you and quote your fulsome remarks at length — no stranger she to dangling participles.
She will do a John Kerry on you, which worked so well four years ago. You were for the war before you were against it, she will wink. And she will have a field day, if not a field dressing.
I don’t know what your motives were in giving the president permission to attack Iraq — whether it was the neoconservative-cum-Israel-lobby cabal, the Cheney notion that the only way to ensure the supply of foreign oil is to control it, or a calculated move to ensure your viability as a candidate for president (the kind of thinking that turned out to be, deservedly, the kiss of death for Sen. Hillary Clinton).
You had more luck, landing on your feet, sort of.
But you are a “grave and growing” danger (so to speak) to the campaign of Sen. Obama; that is, unless you mount a (God forgive me) “preemptive attack.” And you have only two days — not 10 — in which to do it. It will not wait for Yom Kippur.
And it makes sense from a practical, as well as a moral, point of view.
Here’s What You Do…
Forget the natural inclination to try to defend the indefensible on your cheerleading for the war. To claim you were fooled by the administration, after almost 30 years in the Senate is not going to be any more persuasive or exculpatory than to cite what other pressures you may have yielded to.
Here’s something that might not have occurred to you, since it is a practice that has been out of vogue for so long: Shock everyone by telling the truth! But briefly, please.
Here is some suggested text:
“Gov. Palin, I feel terrible about the role I played in helping President Bush launch this godforsaken war. I confess; it was a terrible decision. I apologize to you and other mothers whose children have been deployed to Iraq, to the nation, to the hundreds of thousands who have died and been injured, to all Americans, to all Iraqis — and I ask for forgiveness. I have learned a painful but powerful lesson; you can count on me never letting that kind of thing happen again.”
Heed Rabbi Lerner’s caution: “Do not mitigate or ‘explain’ — just acknowledge and sincerely ask for forgiveness.”
Now, Joe, to be quite honest, I cannot guarantee a good result from this kind of approach, since I have no empirical evidence. That is, although I’ve been in Washington 45 years, I’ve not seen unvarnished honesty ever risked in quite this way.
But I am guessing it could be quite disarming, and could send your debate partner scurrying for less effective talking points.
You will be debating a “fundamentalist,” but that is actually a misnomer. The fundamentals of Judeo-Christian morality have to do with truth-telling, justice and concern for the unprivileged.
Confessing, forgiving, and repenting are also fundamentals. Don’t be ashamed of them, Joe. Embrace them. My guess is that if you do, you will leave your debate partner shocked — if not speechless.
In the process, you will have succeeded in drawing a stark contrast between the “lies to nowhere” that she continues to tell on the one hand, and your (hopefully) terse, disarming honesty, on the other.
You will be free to go ahead and demonstrate that in John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin, no presidential candidate in the history of this country has made a more irresponsible selection for a running mate.
And best of all, you will be able to sit back and smile next Sunday as you listen to the second Scripture reading (from Philippians 4):
“Whatever is true, honorable, and just…think about these and keep on doing them…Then the God who gives peace will be with you.”
Let Nathaniel be your model: no duplicity.