Gordon Smith: "an affable figurehead"

Russell Sadler

Was Sen. Gordon Smith’s floor speech criticizing the Bush regime’s handling of the war in Iraq a Profile in Courage, or a Profile in Cynicism as Steve Novick suggests on the blog Blue Oregon? Or could it be that Sen. Smith has finally decided what he wants to be in this life -- a U.S. Senator from Oregon -- and is putting distance between himself and the Bush regime to better reflect the people he represents?

There is an old adage about politics. Some people enter public life to do something. Others enter public life to be something. Sen. Gordon Smith always appeared to me to be an example of the latter.

Smith is one of the most enigmatic people in Oregon public life. Although he has been a public figure since 1993, it is difficult to list any significant accomplishments. Smith was elected to the Oregon Senate in 1993 and elected Senate President in 1995, where he was regarded as a figurehead for Sen. Brady Adams, R-Grants Pass.

Smith was elected to the U.S. Senate to replace the retiring Sen. Mark Hatfield in 1996. Smith promptly dropped off the radar. He was most prominent when he was traveling the state with his fellow U.S. Senator, Ron Wyden, holding joint town hall meetings.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that during most of his public career Gordon Smith simply enjoyed being Senator Smith. He was more interested in being something than doing something. In the Oregon Senate he had few of the accomplishments of two distinguished former legislators from Umatilla County -- State Sen. Mike Thorne, D-Pendleton, and the late State Rep. Stafford Hansel, R-Athena. In the U.S. Senate, Smith has few of the accomplishments of the man he replaced, Sen. Mark Hatfield.

Yet Smith’s criticism of the Bush regime was brutal for someone who has reliably voted their way.

“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. That is absurd. It may even be criminal. I cannot support that anymore. I believe we need to figure out how to fight the war on terror and to do it right. So either we clear and hold and build, or let's go home.”

Tony Snow, the White House answer to Jon Stewart, promptly dismissed Smith as “emotional” over the Republican loss of Congress last month. Smith’s complaint is far more serious than that.

“I would have never voted for this conflict had I reason to believe that the intelligence we had was not accurate. I was greatly disturbed recently to read a comment by a man I admire in history, Winston Churchill, who after the British mandate extended to the peoples of Iraq for five years, wrote to David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of England: "At present we are paying 8 millions a year for the privilege of living on an ungrateful volcano,’" said Smith. “When I read that, I thought, not much has changed. We have to learn the lessons of history and sometimes they are painful because we have made mistakes.”

That quote is not cynical political opportunism. It is a very public admission of poor judgment in voting for the war. If we had a president with the Smith’s courage to admit bad judgment, our situation would not be this dire.

Smith recognizes the election for what it was: A repudiation of the Bush regime and the Republican Party as it now operates. Smith realizes that if he wishes to be reelected in 2008 he must be more more attuned to the crossover voters in Oregon who turned the Republicans out of the Oregon House and reelected a Democratic governor despite misgivings about his performance. These crossover voters hold Smith’s fate. If Smith wants to be a Senator, he must try to represent them. That’s the discipline of democracy, not craven cynicism.

But Smith’s recognition of reality may come too late.

State Sen. Ben Westlund just scored a 9.5 on that most difficult of political maneuvers, a Wayne Morse double reverse with a twist. Westlund announced, to no one’s surprise, that he is giving up his independent label to join the Democratic Party in time for the legislative session that convenes in January.

Westlund entered public life to do something. His recent brush with cancer, for example, makes him a candidate who wants to do something about our expensive, hodgepodge health care system, making him an ally of public figures like former Gov. John Kitzhaber and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden.

It is very likely Oregon’s 2008 U.S. Senate race will pit an affable figurehead against an aggressive “doer.” For many of Oregon’s crossover voters, that won’t be a hard choice.

  • Aubrey Russell (unverified)

    Winston Churchill, of course, was famous for his "double reverse" long before Wayne Morse came onto the scene. He defended his change of party by pointing out that it showed more honesty to change his party than to change his positions to fit those of the changing party.

    The opportunity that Smith missed was to side with the middle (or at least not move right) when his party's approach to foreign policy changed.

    But who knows what may happen if Smith continues to read Churchill: maybe he and Westlund will both pull a Chuchill/Morse and be competing against eachother in the Democratic primary!

  • jne4klpk (unverified)


  • pat malach (unverified)

    I don't see much of an apology in Smith's Senate speech. And I sure don't see much resposibility-taking either. What I see is a guy trying to distance himself from the policies he's supported without question, now that those policies are clearly unpopular.

    Take no responsibility, make no apology, and you've earned no forgiveness.

    If I'm not mistaken, Gordon Smith's first donor event for the 2008 campaign -- a "Fast Tracks" ski trip and fundraiser in Deer Valley, Utah, ($2,500 per lobbyist, accomodations not included) -- took place Saturday, Dec. 2, the weekend before his "change of heart" about Iraq.


    Maybe he got some good advice from his lobbyist and donor pals about how he needs to reposition for the 2008 election. Or maybe, while swishing down the Utah slopes, he had a realization about the role he played in enabling a negligently handled war that was built on deception. Crisp mountain air and adrenaline have that kind of mind-clearing affect, although the "advice" of donors who are bankrolling your senate seat is probably even more clarifying.

  • 17yearoldwithanopinon (unverified)

    Any one realize that maybe Gordon Smith really does regret his vote on the Iraq war and feels bad about it? I have had the chance to meet some of his staffers and was very impressed. They are very smart people who really care about oregon and I imagine that they helped Senator Smith realize how bad this war is. When the President whos of your party goes up and has CIA evidence (which we later learned was a bunch of BS) that implicates Iraq with having WMD's then voting to go to war is logical. We must also realize that we are looking at this with 20/20 hindsight. Knowing how the war has turned out and that the evidence presented for going to war was fabriaticed makes it easy for us to blast anyone who supported the war at first even though they mightve had good reasons to support the war at first. Lets give credit to senator smith for his decision to start opposing the war and work with him to find ways to try to fix the problem that america caused in Iraq.

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    It's wonderful that Gordon Smith is getting around to reading some historical material on Iraq. It would have been far more impressive if he'd done his reading when it counted: prior to 2003.

    I think he still wants to be Senator Smith and is smart enough to realize he needs to distance himself from GWB in order to have a chance to stay Senator Smith.

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    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why Smith came out against the war within 3 weeks after the R's lost control of House/Senate nationally, and the House here in Oregon. The way I see it, the ONLY folks on board with the President in Iraq right now are the folks who cannot back down--for one reason or another. Cheney, Rice....others like that. The issue is this--the vast majority of folks on this blog never have and never would vote for Gordon Smith--I never would. We shall see how it plays out with the independant and real moderate voters in the state in '08.

  • DAN GRADY (unverified)

    That quote is not cynical political opportunism. It is a very public admission of poor judgment in voting for the war. If we had a president with the Smith’s courage to admit bad judgment, our situation would not be this dire.// Russell Sadler

    Mr. Sadler may call the Shamed Senator Smith’s anything he likes and it will not change the history, the consequence of our Senator’s cowardice in 2004 will not be revised as long as I and the millions of others remember the truth!!

    Before the election the writing was on the wall, and he was in enough committee meetings, intelligence briefings, and confidential military assessments while rubbing elbows with enough military experts on Capital Hill thus he had enormous bodies of evidence that the policy of the Iraqi War was a re-election strategy as well as a way to reward political allies, and now cannot rationalize that a U.S Senator would have not known!!

    If Senator Smith is re-elected, if Senators like Smith are re-elected we will as American citizens have accepted the full responsibility for their crimes in our name as we would have sent them back to continue their criminal behavior!

    Happy Thoughts;

    Dan Grady

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    Any one realize that maybe Gordon Smith really does regret his vote on the Iraq war and feels bad about it?

    Then he should say so.

    Its apparent that he's not regretful enough to articulate that message to his constituents.

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    It is generous of Russell to credit Senator Smith with, if not the sincere recognition of a moral and strategic failure, at least the acumen to recognize that being a Bush toady in a blue state is dangerous business. But, this being Oregon, perhaps his generosity isn't misplaced. Maybe Smith feels the call to rise to the standard of his predecessor.

    If he is, he'll have to do more than issue a mea culpa following a bruising election. We can judge him not when making politically canny decisions that benefit him without endangering his caucus, but rather by how well he follows the Democratic lead now that they are in power. Will he work with the Dems to reduce the deficit and make the necessary tax hikes to the very rich who have feasted on federal largesse during this misguided war? Will he join Democrats in their investigations of the many illegal acts the White House is charged with in its execution of the war?

    Throughout his career, Smith has been a Zen master of casting votes against his caucus at exactly the moment when it would not hurt them and would burnish his cred as a moderate in a blue state. But now it's time to own up--more of the same, or real change? Only then will we know how to read his recent criticism of the White House.

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    The Eugene Register-Guard asked Smith last week if he had any remorse or regrets about his four-year support for the war. Smith's response: "That's all history." I, too, used to think that Smith was an affable figurehead. It is Smith's outright refusal to accept any responsibility or offer any apology on this issue that has infuriated me. Smith wants people to applaud him for criticizing Smith, without accepting any blame himself. Russ should apologize to Smith for falesly accusing him of acknowledging bad judgment.

  • LT (unverified)

    The proof of the pudding, as the saying goes, will be Gordon Smith's rhetoric and behavior from this point forward.

    Last night I stumbled on something about Sen. Hatfield which never got much attention (esp. compared to investigations of current candidates). Here's the link and a quote.

    http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Winter_Soldier_Investigation#Senator_Hatfield_urges_Congress.2C_State_Department_and_Defense_Department_to_act Senator Hatfield urges Congress, State Department and Defense Department to act On Monday, April 5, 1971, Senator Mark Hatfield http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Hatfield of Oregon made the following address on the Senate Floor: Mr. President, the moral sensitivity of the Nation has been aroused by the conviction of Lt. William Calley. More clearly than before, this incident has focused the fundamental moral questions that our Nation must confront regarding our conduct in Indochina. The Department of Defense said in its recent statement relating to the Calley conviction: The Department of the Army has had a moral and legal obligation to adopt a continuing policy of investigating fully all substantive allegations or violations of the laws of war involving American personnel. Every allegation of misconduct on the battlefield -- regardless of the rank or position of the person purportedly responsible -- must be thoroughly explored. There has recently been brought to my attention testimony relating to the policy and conduct of American forces in Indochina which has grave and very serious implications. The testimony is given by honorably discharged veterans who had served in Vietnam, and was conducted by Vietnam Veterans Against the War http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Against_the_War.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Gordon Smith has long said he wanted to be a worthy successor to Mark Hatfield. Seems to me he has a way to start up that ladder. It could start by saying all the Republicans who attacked Kerry for being part of Winter Soldier hearings were off base. Or it could start by his voting record on what will surely be some interesting and controversial matters relating to Iraq in the next several months.

    Google "Hatfield McGovern" and see what you find--not what Gordon Smith probably thinks of when he thinks of Hatfield, but worthy of reading about.

    Republicans for decades have trashed Democrats who spoke out against war policy while leaving Republicans who did the same (Hagel, Hatfield, etc.) pretty much unscathed. If Gordon Smith would move to redress that situation while talking about Hatfield's real record, that could move to redress the situation.

    And Neel Pender needs to decide if the Democratic goal should be ending the war and winning in 2008 or if the goal is simply to insult Gordon. An AP story out today quotes Pender making the sort of harsh remark which turns people off both parties except in the situation of those like Barak Obama who offer hope rather than insults.

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    Given the easy reelection of pro-war senators Hillary Clinton and Maria Cantwell, it seems unlikely that Oregon voters will be in a mood to punish Gordon Smith in 2008 for his support of Bush and the war. At least Smith can hide behind the excuse of "party loyalty", whereas Clinton and Cantwell are apparently just good old fashioned warmongers.

    Stop the war NOW!

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    Would you mind (or anyone else for that matter) putting a link to the story with the Neal Pender quote?

    I agree, out right insulting someone is uncalled for. The better course is one of strategic statements and actions that lay the groundwork for a candidate (or candidates) to make a solid run against Smith.


    I disagree with your anaylsis. I don't think Clinton or Cantwell's easy re-election means that Smith unbeatable. I think that combined with other issues that he's voted for (and against the consitutants) of his own state will do him in eventually.

    While I again, would rather do without the name calling, someone should call him on his flip flop (as everyone has called Kerry on) first for and then against the war. This is going to be especially true if Smith continues to vote along the lines of what Bush wants and fails to listen to other people. My point is people need to pay closer attention to what he does during the next 12 months.


  • BOHICA (unverified)

    Why Mark Hatfield is a man of peace

    As a young naval officer, I walked through the rubble of Hiroshima- a month after the bomb was dropped. I saw the death- the slow, agonizing pain- and the charred bodies. As we stand here playing on the margins, Mr. President, as we stand here voting 98 to 1 for the development of more lethal weapons, the stench of death haunts me still.

    I knew Mark Hatfield and Senator Smith you are no Mark Hatfield.

  • LT (unverified)

    Over a decade ago, a friend who taught math and computers at the high school level used to joke that anything printed on paper was "the analog version" (for instance, a paperback dictionary of the sort some students carry around is the analog version of spell check).

    I read Pender's quote in the analog version of our local newspaper--a Brad Cain wire service report. Thanks to Google, I just found it online. Here's the URL and the quote.


    This is a crass, opportunistic flip-flop to save his political hide," says Neel Pender, executive director of the Oregon Democratic Party. ~~~~~~~ I submit that however angry people are about Smith's voting record, and however often they express that anger to friends in private conversation, any comment to the press should be more like "Very interesting speech by Sen. Smith. Now let's see how his actions match his words".

  • Fred Brown (unverified)

    Senator Gordon "Too Late" Smith, changes his position on Iraq.

    This "Road to Damascus" conversion seems similiar to his sudden interest in the emotional health of our young people after his son destroyed himself due to depression.

  • Russell from Ashland (unverified)

    The only question that holds relevance:

    If the Dems didn't win in 2006, would Smith have made the speech?

  • Neel Pender (unverified)

    LT et al -

    My quote may seem a bit strident as a stand alone comment, but please keep in mind that it was taken from about a 15 minute conversation with the reporter. I gave Smith credit for belatedly joining the ranks of those demanding accountability in Iraq, but I do not consider it in any way an act of courage.

    If Smith had taken such a stand in 2004 or even one day before the last election, he would have earned distinction as a courageous leader on this issue.

    Instead, he remained silent. To me that's an act of cowardice, not courage. The question is how many American troops and innocent Iraqi's have lost their lives since Smith began harboring his doubts but failed to speak?

    Frankly, it's hard not to conclude that until the election forced Smith to reassess the political winds, he was more than content toeing the party line. This is the same guy who had the audacity to suggest that decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry was too "French" to keep America safe.

    And I can't disagree more that we should just sit back and judge his actions. And what, just wait for the media to connect the dots for everyone?? You can't even get tv news hardly to cover politics, much less do any type of regular analysis of his record. Smith has been a huge cheerleader and consistent vote for George Bush. His votes and policies are far out of step with mainstream Oregon voters, but he has very effective in fabricating a moderate facade the closer he gets to re-election and he's willing to spend millions to shape that image. He's just not going to get away with it this time.

    The choice for Gordon Smith in 2008 is simple - either retire or be prepared for defend the entirety of your record - not just the issues that you want the public to see.

  • pat malach (unverified)

    If the Dems didn't win in 2006, would Smith have made the speech?

    I guess we'll never reeeeaaaallly know, because Gordon didn't possess the personal or political courage to make the speech before the Dems won.

    But the fact remains, Smith DIDN'T make that speech until his party lost power. That seems like a pretty clear indicator. Why make this so complicated? The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

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    i am just dumbfounded by how so many people seem to think we should make nice with Smith. he swallowed the lies that Bush/Rummy/Condi gave as evidence -- lies that were indefensible before the war and demanded the kind of incredulity that Smith now, years too late, professes -- and he voted to send Americans to an unjustifiable death. he voted with no remorse yet spoken to support the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. what has he done in all this that anyone should pat him on the back, say "Good speech, Senator" and then pretend he's not culpable for so much death and mayhem?

    if Smith wants to prove he's changed, it's up to him, not us. he has stated clearly, since the speech, that he'd support ramping up the war as McCain suggests. this is not remorse for war, only for a badly fought war. if you oppose the war, and have always opposed it, the only good thing about Smith's words is that allow the public to think that even Republicans are against it. and if that keeps pressure on Reid and Pelosi to force an immediate withdrawal (which in their books is early 2008, way too late for me), then some good will come from this. but Smith will still be the same awful person he was when he voted for the war. and i see no reason to be polite about that.

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    After reading the story on Oregon Live (yep, the website still sucks) I have to conclude that Pender, Blumenauer, and Kulongoski were each doing their jobs.

    Pender's comments were spot on as the public face of the state Dems and didn't much diverge from the majority opinion on this blog (or I suspect, that of the statewide party).

    Blumenauer and Kulongoski were a bit more nuanced as is appropriate for officials who answer to the entire state electorate.

  • Kevin (unverified)

    When the President whos of your party goes up and has CIA evidence (which we later learned was a bunch of BS) that implicates Iraq with having WMD's then voting to go to war is logical.

    I don't buy that explanation for Smith or for any of the others who voted to give Bush a blank check. Senator Bob Graham got up before the Senate and pleaded with his fellow Senators to read the classified documents which differed "sharply" and "wildly" from the public pronouncements and data they were hearing on WMD.

    As far as I'm concerned neither Smith nor anyone else who ignored contrary information deserves to be let off the hook.

    One of the main things that's different about Smith, at least in this context, is that he's a Republican. Most Dems have given the many Democratic legislators who voted similarly a free pass.

  • Zak J. (unverified)

    Smith--and the other 99 senators--have had more than one opportunity to "walk the walk" since this fiasco in Iraq began:

    1) Voting to give the Prez a blank check. First mistake, and the main one Smith seems to regret. But no one would be worried about this blunder if we were actually winning the wars.

    2) Allowing the Prez, Rummy & Alberto "Abu Ghraib" Gonzales to throw out the Geneva Conventions, the U.S. Constitution, and the 1996 War Crimes Act and thus shame us all with systematic torture, murder, and secret detentions. This turned allies, Iraqis and the rest of the world against us and our efforts and played right into the hands of Al-Qaeda.Does Smith regret THAT?

    3) Allowing the governing authority in Iraq to be staffed by inexperienced, unqualified Republican party hacks instead of qualified regional and subject-matter experts. Writing an "Iraqi" constitution that gave all its oil to U.S. companies didn't help. Despite clear indications that W. thinks so, Iraqis aren't stupid, and trying to install our children to run their country was patronizing and lethal to our soldiers and objectives. Does Smith regret THAT?

    4) Negligence in oversight that has led to rampant war-profiteering and poor quality work from contractors including Vice's "former" employer. "Hillbilly armour," anyone? Does Smith regret THAT?

    5) Wasting lives and treasure for 3 long years by ignoring the unanimous advice of every military expert who didn't report to Donald Rumsfeld and who were saying loud and clear: You don't have enough troops in the field to do this job. Does Smith regret THAT?

    There is a long long list that you're all too familiar with that includes alienating key allies, lying to the public, subversion of domestic civil liberties, and on and on that can be laid on the doorstep of every Republican and many Democrats who have done nothing to ensure that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were being competently run in the best interests of the whole country.

    Until Smith and his cronies start walking the walk by standing up to those bunglers at 1600 Penn and actually FIXING SOMETHING, his speeches don't count for much, no matter how sincere they may be.

  • lin qiao (unverified)

    The Mother Jones Iraq War Timeline: lie by lie, is useful reading right here .

  • LT (unverified)

    Pat, about Pender's comments were spot on as the public face of the state Dems, do you really know that everyone who is either a registered Dem. or a NAV considering registering Dem agrees with what Pender said?

    Neel has been in politics long enough that in a 15 min. conversation with a reporter, any one sentence could be quoted in an article, context or not.

    I know someone who is in the latter (currently NAV, wanting to vote for a Dem. president in 2008) category who wondered why anyone quoted in an article under a headline "Top Democrat" would say such a thing---what does it accomplish?

    If Neel is playing "base politics" and only giving voice to people who were never going to vote for Gordon anyway, that's one thing.

    But winning elections requires the support of people who have not always voted straight ticket, and people who prefer positive statements (saying someone who has always opposed the war is more admirable, or Smith is no Hatfield, for instance) are not likely to think more highly of Democrats because an employee of the party made such a remark.

    Decision must be made: is this about "base politics" or about winning over people who have mixed feelings about Gordon but definite feelings about what is right and wrong about political behavior?

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    LT Writes:

    Pat, about Pender's comments were spot on as the public face of the state Dems, do you really know that everyone who is either a registered Dem. or a NAV considering registering Dem agrees with what Pender said?

    Of course I don't know. That's why I said:

    didn't much diverge from the majority opinion on this blog (or I suspect, that of the statewide party).



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