Peoria Journal Star

June 23, 2005

VFW accepts Durbin apology
Pundits debate effect of Nazi remarks on senator's political future


By Dori Meinert
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The Veterans of Foreign Wars on Wednesday accepted the apology of Sen. Dick Durbin for his controversial remarks comparing the actions of American interrogators at Guantanamo Bay to Nazis and other murderous regimes.

"The senator was totally out of line for even thinking such thoughts," said John Furgess, the commander-in-chief of the 2.4-million-member organization. "But his public apology Tuesday to our service members and their families helps bring to a close an unfortunate yet preventable accident."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Durbin's apology "was the right thing to do, and I think it was the right thing to say to our men and women in uniform who are serving and sacrificing in defense of freedom."

Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, made an emotional public apology on the Senate floor Tuesday night after a week of growing criticism. The controversy began June 14 when Durbin read part of a report from an FBI agent detailing the treatment of detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.

"If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime - Pol Pot or others - that had no concern for human beings," Durbin said on the Senate floor last week.

The VFW's Furgess said, "The message the senator was trying to communicate wasn't the message that was received by the public, and now that he's apologized, it's time for all of us to move on to the more important issues confronting our nation."

Several political analysts predicted the controversy would have no lasting impact on Durbin's political career and would only harden the positions of partisans.

"I think there's probably solidification of some Republican and conservative animus, aggravation, against Senator Durbin that will probably last into his next election campaign," said John Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University.

"I think it reinforces the tendency to see him in a very partisan light, and thus partisans on the other side will be even more eager to go after him next time ... I think that would have probably happened anyway. This may just increase their motivation to do so," Jackson said.

But Charles Wheeler, who heads the public affairs reporting program at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said Durbin's apology "takes a lot of the steam out of the attempt to try to vilify Durbin for having said this."

Durbin is the third senator this year to apologize for making a comparison to Nazi Germany. In the debate over judicial filibusters, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., each likened the tactics of opponents to those of the Nazis. Like Durbin, both Santorum and Byrd apologized. But they did it by press release rather than on the Senate floor.

"We feel that making inappropriate comparisons to the Nazis or the Holocaust has the effect of trivializing the Holocaust, the monumental crimes of the Nazis," said Adam Schupack, associate director for the Anti-Defamation League's Upper Midwest Region, who accepted Durbin's apology Tuesday.

"Political leaders and community leaders should think very carefully before making analogies to the Nazis and to the Holocaust.

In her book "The Argument Culture," Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., laments the escalation of political rhetoric, which she believes is harmful to public discourse.

In the debate over the Senate filibuster, she notes, Democrats spoke of the GOP's "nuclear option." Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh talks of "feminazis."

"It's not surprising that people use rhetoric related to World War II. 'Hitler is the worst person'.... because that is our touchstone for evil in our time," Tannen said. "But it's being applied much more liberally in recent years, and that's not necessarily a good thing."

At the same time, in this electronic age, it's easy to find some word or phrase to exploit, a practice Tannen calls "gotcha politics."

"I think it's a destructive cycle. People know they're going to get attention if they attack," she said. "It's also very destructive of the political process because it lowers everybody's respect for politicians."

"People think they are just attacking their opponents, but the truth is it demeans the whole process, and the cynicism is applied to themselves as well," she said.