War debate amid loud Anna Nicole coverage

The Baltimore Sun

The nearly round-the-clock lip-flapping has been called everything from meaningless to shameful to even immoral.

No, it's not the endless cable TV coverage of dead celebrity Anna Nicole Smith. What's apparently meaningless, shameful and immoral to some is the resolution, and the debate about it, which since Tuesday has consumed about 12 hours a day of floor time at the House of Representatives. Every representative - that's 435 people, preternaturally drawn to microphones - gets five minutes to speak his or her piece on a resolution opposing President Bush's troop surge in Iraq.

Critics call the debate meaningless because the resolution is nonbinding, shameful and immoral because, they say, it will harm troop morale, encourage the enemy, tie the hands of the commander in chief during a time of war and take away precious time for the quest to determine who fathered Anna Nicole Smith's baby.

No, not really on that final count, although a media watchdog group found that Smith consumed the greatest chunk of cable TV airtime last week, relegating Iraq and the '08 presidential race to second and third place.

Which is why I found it somewhat cleansing to tune in to C-SPAN these past couple of days - admittedly not for long stretches of time, I may be a news geek but I'm not a masochist - to catch what promises to be at least 36 hours of debate before today's vote on the resolution.

You should tune in yourself - it's mostly dreary, it's often self-indulgent, it's not really a debate in the back-and-forth, you-say-tomato sense as most of us would define the word, it's a bunch of grown-up student council presidents referring to one other as gentlemen and gentle ladies and great Americans and true patriots, grandly yielding their minutes to each other or themselves. And with the chamber mostly unpopulated except for representatives waiting their turn in front of the microphone, you can't help but think about those mythical trees falling in an empty forest.

Yet, after years in which Congress has largely offered free rein and blank checks to the administration when it comes to the Iraq war, and with the Senate unable to even resolve the procedural debate over the debate over their own resolution, I found myself mentally cheering on the debate: Bring it on.

This is what last year's elections were about, when voters overwhelming rejected the Republican-led Congress and swept Democrats in, and this is what the polls have been saying - that more and more Americans no longer support the war in Iraq. If Congress is now catching up to public opinion, well, better late than never.

I caught up with Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest, the iconoclastic Maryland Republican, later in the day after he had his five minutes' worth. I was interested in talking to him because although he voted in 2002 for the Iraq war resolution, over the years has come to feel "duped" by the administration and oppose it.

As you might imagine, he relished the opportunity to speak his mind on the floor and has no patience for those who think nonbinding means nonmeaningful.

"I think this is a very good debate," Gilchrest said. "Most of our time usually is spent in the hallway."

Nor does he give much credence to those who say the resolution will break the spirit of the troops as they're trying to win a war. On this, he brings his particularly personal perspective, having joined the Marines after high school and served as a platoon leader in Vietnam. He took a shot to the chest, and came home with a Purple Heart and other honors.

"I remember [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara saying major combat operations will be over in six months. We knew that was wrong. We knew what was going on," Gilchrest said. "We would have loved an honest debate to have gone on.

"I think that when you have that ever-present - just under the surface - image of putting your rifle against another man's chest and pulling the trigger, and of a Marine, feeling his last breath on your face, the urgency to pull out of the chaos is overwhelming," he said. "It's a sense of urgency to find a solution, not just rhetoric."

Gilchrest said his district, which encompasses the Eastern Shore, swaths of Harford and Baltimore counties and a bit of Anne Arundel County, has lost 23 troops to the war in Iraq. A former high school history teacher, he used his five minutes this week to recall how previous presidents, from Eisenhower to JFK to Nixon, engaged with enemy countries like the Soviet Union and China, and called for similarly opening dialogue now with Syria and Iran. It's a point made by the Iraq Study Group, whose findings Gilchrest supports, and a point that he's made previously in a letter that he hand-delivered to Bush last month. At the time, Gilchrest told The Sun that Bush agreed to read it.

Hopefully he did, because he's said he won't be watching the congressional debate. And, in fact, Bush called a press conference on Wednesday at the White House, his first of the year, just as down on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Gilchrest and a group of fellow Republicans were breaking party ranks and voicing their opposition to his proposed troop surge.jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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