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Sometimes it helps to get outraged


Representative David Bonior is different. In this era of blow-dried politicians -- where each focus-group-tested phrase is precision-tuned to achieve maximum palatability with the broadest possible audience -- the 13-term Michigan Democrat evokes strong, almost visceral, reactions.

He’s a divider, not a uniter.

The latest case in point: How better to infuriate vast numbers of Americans than to tour Baghdad on the eve of a U.S. war with Iraq? That’s precisely what Bonior and colleagues Jim McDermott, D-Wash., and Mike Thompson, D-Calif., did earlier this month on a three-day visit to Saddam Hussein’s domain. The trip was sponsored by the Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq.

Peace groups, it is true, hailed the trip as exactly the step needed to avert war. But outside that movement, the reviews ranged from harsh to apoplectic.

Liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne calculated that Bonior and McDermott set back the cause of peace through their media “grandstanding.” Less gently, conservative columnist George F. Will termed Bonior and his two Democratic colleagues “useful idiots”-- useful to Saddam Hussein, that is. Pundit Christopher Caldwell termed the Baghdad visit a “treason tour.”

Bonior has no regrets. “It’s about time we had some dialogue with the Iraqi people and some of their leaders,” he declared.

“We talked to the government officials there about the need to [provide] unrestricted access for inspections,” the lifelong Catholic and onetime prep seminarian told NCR. “We made it very clear to the [Iraqi] government that if in fact they didn’t do this, there would be war.” Plus, said Bonior, the delegation’s meetings played a role in moving the Iraqis to accept unfettered inspections.

Bonior’s blunt talk and ambition -- he rose to the No. 2 position in the House Democratic leadership before abandoning that post earlier this year as he pursued a failed run for Michigan governor -- has endeared him to many. Unions, peace activists and environmentalists will miss him in the House, where he is concluding 26 years of service.

He won’t, however, be missed by many of his Republican colleagues, who resent what they consider his fiercely partisan (supporters would say principled) stands.

The one-time Catholic high school quarterback -- he led that team to a championship and attended the University of Iowa on an athletic scholarship -- plays to win. He did so in filing more than 70 ethics complaints against then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (an act some saw as revenge for Gingrich’s attack on House Speaker Jim Wright, a Bonior mentor) and as a competitor in grueling run-bike-and-swim triathlons.

In the course of his congressional career, Bonior has:

  • Led the charge against Reagan-era Central America policy, particularly U.S. support for the Nicaraguan contras. Bonior, along with then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill, then-Majority Leader Jim Wright, and Reps. Edward Boland and Joe Moakley, worked closely with church groups to make the House the focal point of opposition to U.S. funding for the anti-Sandinista rebels.
  • Stepped out of his leadership role to oppose a Democratic president’s first major international initiative -- the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. He termed the deal a “sellout” of American workers.
  • Opposed, at considerable political risk, the 1996 welfare reform bill. “It was a big issue in my race,” said Bonior, but he opposed the measure because it cut off assistance to immigrants and had punitive work requirements that precluded job training as an alternative to paid employment. Bonior won the 1996 race with 54 percent of the vote in his predominantly Republican district.

Bonior, meanwhile, is less than pure on abortion. He’s pro-life -- at least to the extent that he thinks Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, is against government funding for abortion, and voted to ban “partial birth abortion.” But he’s managed to anger each side. In this year’s gubernatorial campaign, Emily’s List, a leading pro-choice political action committee, described Bonior as “firmly anti-choice.” Meanwhile, the Michigan Right to Life Committee condemns Bonior’s support for international family planning programs and fetal tissue research.

Bonior’s Catholic background is, he said, “central” to where he has stood as a politician. “The social and economic justice issues have been drummed into me since I was a kid in Catholic school, and at home, and in the community, and at the church. It’s a very important part of who I am and it’s reflected in what I do.”

As Democratic Whip for a decade, it was Bonior’s job to count the votes, and identify fence-sitters open to the party or personal persuasion. It’s a green eyeshade type job, not one previously associated with passionate ideology of any stripe.

Bonior, the headcounter, knew where the Oct. 10 vote authorizing war with Iraq was headed. “We got our number [the Democratic vote in the House] up to 133 a week or so before most people were thinking we’d be lucky to end up at 70.” Though a majority of House Democrats voted no, opponents of the measure were hampered by House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt’s support for the resolution, Bonior said.

The straight-talker resorted to a little spin. “The vote indicates that the president did not make his case very well, that war is not the answer and that we’ve got to allow the opportunity for unrestricted inspections to take place.”

Perhaps. But Bonior is not optimistic that message will be heeded: “The administration is bent on a war.” And Bonior, for one, thinks war -- this war, right now -- is a potentially huge miscalculation. “This could get very bad. The world community is as brittle as I’ve seen it in my 30 years in public life. I’m very concerned about the dynamics of what could occur here. I don’t want to say that this is going to turn out to be another Guns of August and 1914 all over again, but it has that potential.”

Bonior warned: “There are many places in the world that are tinderboxes.” Among them: Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan and India, Chechnya and Taiwan. “This really has the potential to set a lot of things off,” Bonior said. “We could be fighting on five or six fronts in a very short time.”

What does Bonior make of the fact that each of the Democratic senators mentioned as potential 2004 presidential candidates --Joe Biden of Delaware, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut -- supported the war resolution? What happened to the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party?

He refused the bait: “You’ll have to ask them.”

Have politicians gone soft, running to the mushy middle out of fear of alienating key constituencies? “Yes,” said Bonior. “It’s about having power rather than leading. There is a difference.”

“The extra dimension of leading takes more work, more insight and more toughness,” he continued. “Somebody once said if you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much room. If you don’t use your political capital to lead then no one gets led and you end up talking around problems.”

Partially to blame, said Bonior, is the media. “They don’t like this tension between people who have differing views; they think it should all be conducted with pure civility. To the extent that you can do that, of course that’s advisable, but when you’re dealing with issues of passion, war and peace, life and death -- justice issues -- it helps sometimes to get outraged.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002