As I watched George W. Bush deliver his Big Speech on Iraq earlier this week, I half-expected to see the freckled, grinning visage of Dick Gephardt pop right out of the president’s breast pocket. But then I remembered the House Democratic leader had recently attached himself to a lower part of Dubya‘s anatomy and was out of view.

Throughout Dubya’s address, Gephardt‘s spirit hung heavily in the air. Indeed, just a few days before Bush offered up what the spinmeisters called his “closing argument” for war on Iraq, Gephardt performed an obedient rollover for the White House. Brokering a sordid pact with the president, Gephardt cleared the way for passage of a House resolution giving Bush a veritable blank check for war.

On the eve of the most important and far-reaching congressional vote since the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which set off the U.S. war in Vietnam, Dick Gephardt pulled the rug out from under his Senate colleague Tom Daschle, dozens of fellow House Democrats, and millions of Democratic (and Republican) voters who oppose this unilateral and reckless drive to war.

But that’s your problem, not mine. Fortunately, I can plead innocent to being a Democrat. I am not now nor have I ever been, thank you very much.

The problem we all share is that the congressional rubber-stamping of the war in Iraq far transcends the transitory question of what to do about Saddam Hussein. It codifies a radical turn in U.S. foreign policy by legitimizing the new strategy of pre-emptive, unprovoked military attack as cooked up by our Precog-in-Chief.

Bush‘s much-awaited speech on Iraq offered the same old unproven innuendo attempting to convince Americans that Saddam could somehow deliver a chemical-biological-nuclear football to the doorstep of your neighborhood nursery school. “We refuse to live in fear,” Bush mumbled to his TV audience. But his entire address was transparently designed to scare the bejesus out of average Americans, who he is betting cannot tell the difference between the Islamic nazis of al Qaeda and the secular cronies clustered around Saddam.

The only morally (if not legally) justifiable reason to invade Iraq would be to dispose of a bloody dictator, liberate its people, and pledge billions of dollars of aid and support to guarantee a transition to an open and equal society. But the last time I looked, the Bush administration wasn’t really in the business of fomenting armed revolution against tyrannical regimes (much to the relief of our allies like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan — the latter of which not only possesses nuclear weapons of mass destruction but has also recently taken to brandishing them about).

So if this unjustifiable attack on Iraq comes to pass, I don‘t want to see so much as a single Democrat out there whining that this is “George W. Bush’s War.” It‘s also Dick Gephardt’s war. And Joe Biden‘s. And every other Democrat who is voting this week to authorize use of force.

Just over a year ago, the local squishy liberals of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action held a “progressive” conference here in L.A. — pompously titled “Take Back America” — and it featured that same Dick Gephardt as keynote speaker, no less. At the time, I used this column to publicly tweak the softheaded conference organizers for inviting such an unctuous lout to appear as their Chief Progressive. In return I was peppered with e-mail from outraged liberals accusing me of playing into GOP hands by my dumping on Gephardt. So who’s laughing now? Maybe now these Internet revolutionaries will redirect their e-mail missiles toward Leader Gephardt and pledge to never again vote for any of these Bush Democrats. Most likely not. Two years from now you can bet these same progressives will be out there telling us to vote for Al Gore because . . . well . . . you know . . . Republicans are for war and Democrats are for peace.

More on this subject of spinelessness . . . Was I absent the day someone appointed the Los Angeles Times as official arbiter of who should or should not be considered a legitimate candidate for election? The Times was the official sponsor — this last Monday — of this season‘s only public debate in the California governor’s race. Gray Davis was invited. As was Bill Simon Jr. But Green Party candidate Peter Camejo — registering in some polls as high as 8 percent to 9 percent — was specifically un-invited. Times spokeswoman Martha Goldstein said that Camejo didn‘t meet the “threshold” of a 15 percent poll rating to merit inclusion — the same noxious, undemocratic standard used to keep pesky independent presidential candidates out of national debates. That the National Commission on Presidential Debates — a shill controlled by the two major parties and underwritten by big-money interests — discriminates against third parties should come as no surprise.

But the Times is an independent media organization that lives and dies by the First Amendment — or so it claims. It has absolutely no business stooping to this level and censoring what the voters can hear. On the contrary, the Times has an obligation to bolster and enrich the public debate — not narrow it. Barring a legal, on-the-ballot candidate like Camejo from the debate is an injury to civil democracy.

But it gets worse. After Camejo was banned, Bill Simon (for his own obvious and not so noble purposes) invited the Green candidate to be his guest and sit in the audience — and to be available to reporters after the debate. But the political police over at the Times barred Camejo from entering the building and sitting quietly in the audience as he had vowed.

Let’s be clear. This atrocity is not the work of the editorial department of the Times. Rather, the gagging of Camejo is the handiwork of the geniuses on the business side of the paper — the folks who organized the debate in the first place, and not out of any commitment to public service, but rather as a promotional tool. They kept Camejo out not because they feared his Green politics — a subject about which they are most surely vastly ignorant. Rather, the Times‘ suits were afraid that if Camejo were allowed in, Governor Davis would pull out (which he would have). And all those gobs of free PR that the Times reaped from the debate would evaporate (as it would have). But that would have been Davis’ doing, and he should have been allowed to publicly chicken out against Camejo.

After the Times‘ Staples Center debacle, the new bosses from the Tribune promised deep ethical reform. Censoring debate is a big step backward.

LA Weekly