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Protocol for Lying

Even by the accounts of people inclined to hate her, Senator Barbara Boxer delivered a fierce argument on January 18 against Condoleezza Rice's nomination for secretary of state. But if all the news you caught the next morning was in the headlines on National Public Radio, you wouldn't have known that. In the distilled world of audio broadcast, the only reference to the Rice-Boxer exchange was a 10-second clip, with Rice telling Boxer, "I would ask you to refrain from impugning my integrity," and Boxer responding, "I'm not." It's hard to know who selects these bits, and why. Presumably, a 10-second excerpt is meant to capture the overall tone of the proceedings it's culled from, to give the listener a sense of a longer story in a very short time. But the impression one got from this segment was of a patient doyenne condescending to a nippy little harpy. It was not a representative excerpt: It was as if NPR had chosen to highlight Joe Biden's initial breathlessness, or Dianne Feinstein's tripping repeatedly over the word "Czechoslovakia." It represented Boxer at her worst, Woman at her worst, and whatever else Boxer had accomplished earlier in the day, what millions of listeners took away was this: Scrappy Boxer had launched a scud that landed inert at her opponent's pedicured feet.

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To read David Corn's article about Seantors Boxer and Feinstein during Rice's confirmation hearings, click here.

To read Erin Aubrey Kaplan's article about Rice, click here. That the text and context of Boxer's speech in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that day was much, much different was something you'd only find out had you stayed glued to CNN or C-SPAN during the hearing, or flipped channels after Morning Edition and heard the highlights of the day's dissent on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! In the longer version, Boxer had asked Rice for "a candid discussion," to account for discrepancies between her words and the president's, her words and her other words, her words and the facts as documented in reports by Charles Duelfer and the 9/11 commission. Such an accounting would have required Rice to admit that many of the administration's reasons for invading Iraq were bunk. Rice would never do this, of course - she reaffirms repeatedly that Bush and she speak with one voice - and Boxer knew it. And so Boxer's request that Rice account for these discrepancies served only one purpose: To establish for the committee, and for the world, that Rice is a liar. In other words, to impugn her integrity. As well it deserved to be impugned: In the words of Hans Blix, "It took much twisted evidence, including a forged uranium contract, to conjure up a revived Iraqi nuclear threat, even one that was somewhat distant," and yet there was Rice in the run-up to the war, talking about mushroom clouds. Or as returned-to the-chambers Senator John Kerry observed in the January 18 hearing, despite Rice's justification for the war as a pre-emptive attack on a country readying WMD, U.S. troops had not even bothered to guard a large cache of ammunition that was later used against them. In statements throughout the proceedings she dodged, obfuscated and boldly rewrote history, responding cagily to questions from Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island about her hypocritical disdain for Venezuela ("We hope that the government of Venezuela will continue to recognize what has been a mutually beneficial relationship on energy," she said); dismissing questions from Senator Joe Biden about whether the U.S. initially committed sufficient forces to secure Iraq ("I do believe that the plan and the forces we went in with were appropriate to the task," Rice told him); and stringing together a series of end runs around Senator Christopher Dodd's questions about what Rice believes constitutes torture - "Water-boarding?" Nudity? ("I don't want to comment on any specific interrogation techniques," she demurred. "I don't think that would be appropriate." Dodd called this "disappointing." You got the feeling Rice could have endorsed the decapitation of her critics, and the senators would have called it "disappointing.") Rice's answers were a triumph of insinuation as a substitute for facts. To impugn her integrity should have been uncontroversial. This past Tuesday, before the full Senate, Senator Mark Dayton almost did, even using the word lying. "I really don't like being lied to repeatedly, flagrantly, intentionally," he said. "It's dangerous." It sounded profound. So why didn't Boxer do the same in her own fateful moment? When I called her office to find out, I felt a little like Howard Stern's Stuttering John asking Gennifer Flowers whether Clinton used a condom. "She didn't call her any names," insisted Boxer's press secretary, David Sandretti. "She never called her a liar, she never said ‘You're not telling the truth.' She said, ‘You said this on this day, and you contradicted yourself on that day.' Excuse me, but doesn't that mean Boxer was calling Rice a liar? Sandretti didn't think so. "She was hoping to get satisfactory explanations about what she said, when she said and why she said it," he insisted. "[If she had said] ‘we had faulty information, we made a mistake' - those would have been acceptable answers, and had [Rice] given them, her integrity would have remained intact." But certainly it was clear by the time of the fateful exchange that Rice was not going to give such answers. And despite a groundswell of support from other Democrats on Tuesday, Boxer still felt the need to introduce her otherwise forceful presentation to the full Senate with a 15-minute preamble devoted to defending her right to speak up, invoking Hamilton, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the tens of thousands of constituents who signed a petition asking her to oppose Rice's nomination. "I am doing my job," Boxer said. "It's as simple as that." "She was responding to all the people questioning her motives," Sandretti said. "Because when the chief of staff at the White House says you're playing petty politics and you should just go along and get along - she just felt that was wrong." Much has been written about the Bush administration's aversion to dissent in its own ranks; Ron Suskind's best-selling The Price of Loyalty details a raft of stories in which people lost their jobs when they dared to dissent. Rice herself has promised that she and the president will "speak to the world with a single voice." Less has been said about how the current administration and its Republican allies have silenced dissent among the people they can't fire: not by fairly disputing their views, but by pretending to sneer at their bad-mannered ways - by branding them "obstructionist" and "unconstructive." The process played itself out in miniature in that final exchange on January 18 between the famously Sphinx-like Rice and her more emotional opponent: "Senator, we can have this discussion in any way you want," said Rice, the implication being that right here, right now, this discussion is a violation of protocol. It is shameful. As the Senate wrapped up its last full day of debate on the matter this week, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama took the floor to gripe in an exasperated drawl how "inappropriate" it was that "those people on the ‘hard left' had to express all their views"; Senator John Cornyn of Texas shook his head and called last week's grilling and the day's questions "a crying shame." Neither man addressed any of the the very real questions their fellow senators on both sides of the aisle had raised about the integrity of the well-coifed woman destined to be our next secretary of state - the woman who played piano at 3, who never missed an opportunity to remind the committee of her cultural superiority ("You'll provoke me to respond in Russian," she told Dodd when he welcomed her to the committee in Spanish), and yet could not bring herself to categorically condemn the practice of interrogating a human prisoner by forcing him into a tank of water until he panics on the verge of drowning. That, and not the responsible expression of political speech in the Senate chamber, for which no one should apologize, is the more horrifying, crying shame.


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