A disillusioned look back

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By ANDREW MIGA

Former Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee often seemed to be odd man out in Washington.

He was one of the Senate’s most liberal Republicans, bucking his party on big issues such as Iraq, tax cuts, abortion and the environment. His reserved, sometimes quirky personality was never a smooth fit in the clubby Senate, where friendships can mean more than political ties in making things happen.

In his new political memoir, Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President (St. Martin’s Press, 245 pages. $24.95), Chafee revels in his outsider status as he chronicles his disillusionment with the bitter partisanship that dominated his seven years in the Senate. He wields a broad brush, heaping blame on Republicans and Democrats alike for putting party loyalty and ambition ahead of the public good.

Against the Tide

Chafee points plenty of fingers, but President Bush, whom Chafee backed in 2000, earns his harshest scorn.

He brands Bush as two-faced for solemnly promising during the campaign to be a ‘‘uniter, not a divider,’’ but later pursuing a hard-line GOP agenda using wedge issues like abortion and gay rights. Chafee complains about Bush’s ‘‘juvenile streak.’’ And he rails at Bush’s pretending to search for weapons of mass destruction behind the White House furniture during a skit at a black-tie Washington dinner.

‘‘It was obscene for him to joke about a falsehood that American troops had gone to their graves believing,’’ Chafee writes.

As U.S. casualties in Iraq mounted in fall 2003, Chafee says he even considered a primary challenge against Bush but quickly scrapped the idea after Saddam Hussein’s capture boosted the president’s political stock.

Chafee bemoans the GOP’s rightward drift and the disappearance of moderate Republicans such as himself. Chafee’s independence was a matter of political survival in a Democratic-leaning state.

Chafee’s hopes for a second full term were dashed in 2006 by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in the Democratic wave that swept control of Congress from the GOP. Chafee in 2004 voted for Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, as a symbolic protest against the younger Bush. Last year he became an independent.

Readers may detect a bit of pettiness, too. Chafee does not bother to refer to his 2006 GOP primary opponent Steve Laffey by name.

He recalls being ‘‘irked and amused’’ at the parade of ‘‘Democratic Bush enablers’’ who campaigned in Rhode Island for Whitehouse, such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

‘‘I was the only candidate in the race with a record of standing up to entrenched powers,’’ writes Chafee, the lone GOP senator to vote against authorizing the Iraq war.

The seeds of bitterness with Bush were sown early on.

Chafee recalls Vice President Dick Cheney outlining a ‘‘shockingly divisive’’ agenda during a meeting with a handful of moderate GOP senators shortly after Bush won the presidency in 2000.

‘‘Cheney was not asking for support — he was ordering us to provide it,’’ writes Chafee, who somehow seems surprised at such hardball tactics by Cheney, a man infamous for his take-no-prisoners brand of politicking. Chafee, too, seems stunned that none of his GOP colleagues put up much of a fight.

Chafee reminded Cheney that the votes of their small group of moderates would matter in a closely divided Senate.

‘‘I chose my words carefully, and probably stammered with the effort to contain my fury,’’ he writes.
Cheney, ever the conservative warrior, brushed Chafee aside.

Six years later, Rhode Island voters did roughly the same thing, ending the political balancing act that was Chafee’s Senate career.

AP

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Budasi published on April 29, 2008 6:18 AM.

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