The Lone Dissenter:

Representative Barbara Lee

by John Nichols

The Progressive magazine, November 2001


"'Traitor', 'coward', 'communist.' Choose the name, I've been called it in the last few weeks," says Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California. "Some of it has been very harsh, very harsh."

The Congresswoman's voice trails off. Along with the name-calling came threats on her life. She moves around Washington these days shadowed by a plainclothes police officer who has been assigned to serve as a 'round-the-clock bodyguard.

What did Lee do to earn such threats? On September 14, she voted against the House bill that granted President Bush broad authority to use force to counter the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. She was the sole member of Congress to do so. "I am convinced," she said on the House floor, "that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States."

In the face of polls suggesting that close to 90 percent of Americans favored some use of force in response to the attacks, Lee's dissent was risky. "Obviously, this was not a poll-driven decision," she jokes.

Lee objected to several aspects of the resolution. "It did not identify who we were to be fighting," she says. "It did not contain an end strategy. The bottom line is to save lives and to make the world a more peaceful place. We can't do that by moving in a direction that will create a cycle of violence. As a nation, we've got to understand the implications of what we are doing."

She also objected to Congress abdicating its constitutional role.

"Congress," she argues, "has a responsibility to step back and say, 'Let's not rush to judgment.' Let us insist that our democracy works by ensuring the checks and balances are in place and that Congress is part of the decisionmaking process in terms of when we go to war and with whom. This resolution really took away that ability of Congress to play a role, and I don't think that's a good thing. I think we disenfranchised the American people."

Before casting her vote, Lee consulted with former Representative Ron Dellums, whose seat she now occupies. A champion of peace and social justice, Dellums shared her horror at the attack. And like Lee, he was concerned about the prospect of an extended war and about the erosion of congressional power.

She also relied on her religious faith. "I take my faith seriously," says the devout Christian. "I'm not going to wave the Bible. I don't use religion to force my views on others. But let me tell you: I am a person of deep faith. I think my vote was based in my religion and my faith. Where else do you go to at a time like this?"

On the Friday afternoon following the attacks, Lee attended a memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington. "As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore," one of the preachers declared. Those words struck the Congresswoman. She wrote them down and incorporated them into the statement she delivered on the floor of the House just a few hours later, during the hastily organized debate on the resolution.

When Lee told her Democratic colleagues of her plan to vote against the bill, they begged her not to do it. Yes, the resolution ceded too much warmaking power to the executive branch, they told her. Yes, the bill committed the United States to a response that might well be the wrong one, they acknowledged. Yes, it was absurd to declare war on an unnamed enemy and without the barest hint of how victory would be defined, they admitted.

But with the images of a horrific tragedy repeated again and again on television, with the body politic in shock, with the line between grieving and anger blurred, Lee's colleagues told her this was not the time to dissent.

"Many members asked me to change my position," she recalls. "They were friends, all friends, and they said, 'You don't want to be out there alone.' I said, 'Oh, no, don't worry. There will be other members who vote no. There have to be.' "

So Lee pressed the red button, recording her "no" vote.

The "use of force" resolution passed the Senate by a 98-to-0 margin. In the House, it was 420-to-Lee.

"I think a great many members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, shared my concerns," she says. "But they were told there was nothing they could do about them. Look at the floor statements that members made, and you get a sense that this was a tough vote for a lot of them."

She's got a point. Many of her colleagues' statements echoed her own concerns.

"Never have I been so torn over a vote," said Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., Democrat of Illinois. "I'm not willing to give President Bush carte blanche authority to fight terrorism."

"A hasty response to Tuesday's attacks-just for the sake of retribution-could mean killing even more innocent people," said Lynn Woolsey, Democrat of California. "That's why my constituents beg me, and I beg you, please do not respond to evil with evil."

"I do not believe-even in times of extreme crisis-that Congress should turn over our constitutional responsibilities to the President," said Pete Stark, Democrat of California. "The resolution we are debating today, I fear, begins to do just that."

So why didn't more progressives in the House vote with Lee?

"I admire the raw courage of Barbara Lee," says Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia. "She stood alone: one against 420. Several other members wanted to be there also but at the same time, like me, they didn't want to be seen as soft on terrorism."

Much of the media dismissed her as, at best, a dupe, and, at worst, anti-American. On television, members of her own caucus, such as Representative Gary Ackerman, Democrat of New York, mocked Lee as "foolish." On talk radio, she was the subject of diatribes from hosts who questioned not just her patriotism but her sanity.

Debra Saunders, a rightwing columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the major newspapers in Lee's Bay Area district, compared the House member's vote with the appeasement of Adolf Hitler. "Lee apparently belongs to the Neville Chamberlain school of dealing with murderous dictators that figures: Let thugs kill some people, and then they won't kill more." Declaring that "the old peacenik talk doesn't work here," Saunders dismissed Lee's vote with these words: "The doves don't get it: Pacifism begets violence."

Saunders was positively polite compared with some of the 20,000 emails and thousands of phone calls that came in so fast in the first days after the vote that phone lines were jammed at Lee's Oakland and Washington offices.

"It has been quite a difficult time for me," says Lee, who grew up in a military family and has no qualms about identifying herself as a patriot. "I'm as pro-American as anyone about this. I was horrified by the attacks. I had to evacuate the Capitol with other members on that Tuesday morning because we were told it could be the next target. A member of my staff had a cousin who died in the plane crash in Pennsylvania. So I have gone through the whole range of emotions that all Americans have: shock, confusion, grief, anger, a profound sadness. To have people who don't know me saying that I do not care, that I do not understand what the country is going through, hurts. It pains me.

As the days wore on, the tenor of the mail she was getting began to shift. Outside her office on Capitol Hill, a greeting book filled up with page after page of handwritten comments: "Thank you for standing up for peace"; "Thank you for maintaining reason in an unreasonable time"; "Thank you for taking the high road." At home in California, polls show that Lee's constituents still support her. One of the most popular posters in the Bay Area reads, "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me."

Dellums expects Lee will be reelected to Congress next year, just as he was after his many votes against U.S. warmaking. Her voice is needed, he says, now more than ever.

Lee does not regret her vote. "I am not sorry that I stood alone," she says. "I am one of those members of Congress who believes we are not elected to shy away from the challenges. We are elected to meet them."


John Nichols is Editorial Page Editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. With Robert W. McChesney; he is the author of "Its the Media, Stupid." (Seven Stories, 2000).

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