Ready for Slime Time: Critics Slander Jeffords
           by my good friend Joe Conason

          For politicians who talk loudly and often about “character,” Republicans have made
          mostly a poor display of that quality since Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords left their ranks.
          Certain Republican Senators quickly sought to blame Mr. Jeffords’ courageous decision
          on hatchet-wielding associates of the President, while those White House operatives
          just as quickly tried to place the onus on Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

          While both factions deployed their spin, each against the other, neither accepted responsibility
          or contemplated the real reasons for Mr. Jeffords’ departure from his lifelong political home.

          Meanwhile, leading commentators associated with the G.O.P. attempted to smear
          Mr. Jeffords as both a liberal squish and a faithless opportunist. To them, the only
          plausible explanation for his daring shift of support from the Republicans to the
          Democrats was an urge to preserve a committee chairmanship for himself (in the
          event that 98-year-old Strom Thurmond should expire). According to these critics, it
          was foul play for Senate Democrats to guarantee that Mr. Jeffords would not forfeit
          his chairmanship if he changed his affiliation—but perfectly fair for the Republicans
          to offer him a position in the Senate leadership if he didn’t.

          Poisonous accusations about Mr. Jeffords have been spewed up by the same pundits
          who routinely praise GeorgeW. Bush for uplifting the atmosphere of Washington.
          Their bile carried the usual aroma of hypocrisy. “Changing the tone” was only a
          self-serving slogan, the kind of cheap sanctimony that winners forget as soon as they
          sense they might be losing.

          These conservatives, who in previous years have welcomed every Democratic
          turncoat with glee and gloating, didn’t notice how ridiculous they sounded when
          they suddenly began to wail about the treachery of the Jeffords move. Nor did they
          seem to realize that by spraying him with venom, they might gradually push other
          moderate Republicans toward a similar crisis.

          The chorus of denunciation was evidently orchestrated by Karl Rove, the
          President’s top political adviser, who tried to save face by questioning Mr. Jeffords’
          motives. The spectacle of a scoundrel trying to damage the reputation of a decent
          man should disturb the conscience of every fair-minded Republican. And there was
          once a time when it would have.

          That bygone era was evoked by Mr. Jeffords in the brief, dignified speech he gave
          announcing his decision. His statement paid tribute in passing to his mentor, Ralph
          Flanders, a liberal Republican who brought honor to Vermont as the first G.O.P.
          Senator to seriously oppose McCarthyism. As a young man and political neophyte,
          Mr. Jeffords helped Flanders to organize such opposition nationally, preparing the way
          for the Senate’s censure of McCarthy in 1954. Since then, of course, ideological
          leadership of the G.O.P. has fallen to admirers of the Wisconsin demagogue.

          So perhaps the real question about Mr. Jeffords is not why he finally crossed the
          aisle as an independent, but why he waited as long as he did. Nobody who knows
          him well, including his moderate Republican friends and colleagues, believes that he
          made his choice lightly—or selfishly. He has a long history of serving his state
          quietly and effectively, minus the bombast and self-aggrandizement that is
          unfortunately typical of the Senate. Having harmonized in a barbershop quartet with
          such ideological foes as Trent Lott and John Ashcroft, he may be a bit stunned by
          the current outpouring of hatred upon his head.

          Or maybe not. Mr. Jeffords was well aware that his decision would rupture old
          friendships, as he regretfully predicted the other day. After observing how his
          party’s enforcers treated the Clintons and anyone else who got in their way in
          recent years, he may well have anticipated the treatment he’s getting now.

          Before jumping the aisle, Mr. Jeffords was roughed up merely for dissenting from
          the party line on taxes and spending. Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot,
          among others, urged Mr. Bush to punish the Senator for voting to trim the
          irresponsible tax cut. “Don’t get mad publicly, get even privately,” he wrote.

          Only by forcing the Vermonter to kneel, according to Mr. Gigot, would the
          President prove he was tough enough to govern. Rather stupidly, the White House
          acted upon this advice. The President’s aides went into Mr. Jeffords’ state, brought
          heavy pressure down upon him from his campaign contributors, and threatened to
          cut off the dairy price supports so vital to Vermont farmers.

          All the blustering and bullying, however, only served to emphasize the
          disappointment Mr. Jeffords has felt about Mr. Bush’s performance so far.
          Like many Americans, he seems to have believed the Texan’s rhetoric about
          “compassionate conservatism.” It was not the first time that a liberal Republican has
          seen hope superseded by experience, but for him it was the last.

          What Mr. Jeffords’ bold response demonstrated was that a nice guy need not be a timid guy.
          His example deserves to be emulated by those who have profited from his courage

          You may reach Joe Conason via email at:

Privacy Policy
. .