Citizen in Exile: Lincoln Chafee (Part 1)

Lincoln Chafee is a soft-spoken patrician with fire in his heart.

Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee at Watson

His corridor chatter at the Watson Institute at Brown University (where we’re both visiting fellows) is unfailingly cheerful and correct, virtually Senatorial, but often the last word has a spur in it. “Did you see the Senate resolution to put a ‘terrorist’ target on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” he asked me the other day. “And did you see who voted in the majority for it?” Chafee had a rollcall list in hand. Rhode Island’s two Democratic Senators, and Hillary Clinton, were among the 76 votes for threatening Tehran. Sound familiar? “It’s almost a declaration of war on Iran,” Chafee said, starting to fume.

In the longer conversation recorded here, it comes clear that, boyish and buoyant though he always appears, Lincoln Chafee has suffered more for being studious, independent and foresighted — in short, for getting Iraq “right” back in October 2002 — than the Senate majority that got it “wrong.”

Chafee takes a hard line here that you haven’t heard on the campaign trail or read in a newspaper editorial: that Senators who voted to authorize the Iraq war should be disqualified for the presidency. On grounds of judgment, I ask him, or honesty?

“On grounds of ability,” he almost roars. “These individuals rendered a grossly wrong decision. It was important. Post 9.11 we needed to keep our heads. We’ve attained this pinnacle of worldwide, global supremacy. How are we going to use it? And the first thing we do is use it irresponsibly. It’s a disqualifier for me.”

Lincoln Chafee, in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 9, 2007 at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University

Anguish and incredulity rise in Chafee’s voice around the drumbeat for a US attack on Iran, which he believes could come without warning or debate: “anything’s possible with this administration.” It’s the final irony, the last of many twisted knives, that the Democrat who beat him for reelection last year, Sheldon Whitehouse, just voted with the 3-to-1 Senate majority for Joseph Lieberman’s resolution to target Iran’s elite force as a terrorist entity — an echo of pretexts for the Iraq war five years ago.

Chafee was the lone Republican among the 23 Senators who voted “nay” on the blank-check authorization of military force against Iraq in the autumn of 2002. Having repudiated George W. Bush and his war, and after announcing in 2004 that he would write-in Bush’s father for president, Chafee was himself run out of office in 2006 as the last obstacle to a Democratic recapture of the Senate.

Listen for yourself and check my judgment that it’s honest dismay, not self-pity, that we’re hearing in Lincoln Chafee’s voice. He seems to say that Rhode Island voters made a shrewd and effective judgment in 2006, against Bush, not against himself. He disaffiliated from the Republican Party last month. He’s a lower-case republican citizen now, uneasy about the steroid level in our politics and culture, about the imperviousness of official thinking in the face of catastrophic evidence from Iraq. The American discourse, he says, has turned “Clash-ist.” Rhymes with Fascist.

“This isn’t America,” he says, not uncheerfully, spirits rising. Born in 1953, coming of age in the Seventies, Lincoln Chafee was shaped, he says, by “the successful end of the Cold War,” that is, by ping-pong with China, by cultural exchanges and a slow thaw with Russia. He was formed still more perhaps by his father, John Chafee, who before he was Rhode Island’s governor and US Senator was a Marine volunteer, in the gruesome fight for Guadalcanal. John Chafee never spoke to his children about war. “The message was: it’s horrible. Avoid it at all costs.”

Our conversation is in two parts. The first is a mini-memoir of the US Senate and the no-win bind that forced him out of it. His biggest disappointment in Washington was the acquiescence of senior, safe-seat Republicans — Richard Lugar of Indiana, the Foreign Relations chairman, and John Warner of Virginia and the Armed Services Committee — who knew better but went along with the war mythology. On his short honor roll: the “absolutely prophetic” Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who shouted “Fie upon this Congress” in his almost unreported denunciations of the war; and Carl Levin of Michigan, who gave his fellow Democrats an out that few of them took: an amendment to the war resolution that would have extended the schedule of diplomacy.

Click to listen to part one of Chris’s conversation with Lincoln Chafee, (18 MB MP3)

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