It was little over a year ago I got to share a lunch with Joe Wilson, the onetime Isla Vista party animal, much-decorated former career diplomat, and high-octane whistleblower at a sushi bar in a Goleta strip mall. At the time, I was expecting there’d be other such meals, but last weekend he died, succumbing to total organ failure. Wilson — then looking to land a teaching gig at UCSB, from which he graduated in 1972 — combined serious badass swagger with equally serious real-world diplomatic experience. He called it “sand in his shoes.”
Wilson found stupidity morally offensive and was as quick to drop F-bombs as he was back in 1990 when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had just invaded Kuwait, threatened to hang Wilson — then stationed in Bagdad — if he sheltered foreign nationals in the American embassy. In response, Wilson called a press conference to which he famously showed up wearing a noose around his neck. “If the choice is to allow American citizens to be taken hostage or to be executed,” Wilson declared, “I will bring my own fucking rope.” For this, Wilson was given a medal of commendation by then President George Bush, who launched the first war against Iraq.
Twelve years later, the CIA dispatched Wilson — who’d served in five African nations throughout his career — to investigate claims that Hussein was attempting to procure weapons-grade uranium from the West African country of Niger. George Bush’s son then occupied the White House and was itching to launch another war against Iraq in the wake of 9/11. Wilson spent eight days drinking tea with everyone he knew in Niger and concluded there was no evidence to substantiate the claim. That did not stop President Bush from saying exactly the opposite in his now infamous 2003 State of the Union address. In March, the United States declared a stupid war against the wrong enemy at the wrong time for all the wrong reasons. We are still paying the price.
Wilson responded in painfully blunt, undiplomatic language, accusing Bush of waging war “under false pretenses.” And he did so in a New York Times op-ed. The White House retaliated by leaking that Wilson’s wife — Valerie Plame — was a covert operative for the CIA. Exposing covert CIA officers is a serious crime. White House henchman Scooter Libby ultimately went to jail for it. President Donald Trump pardoned Libby. He did not know Libby, nor did he know the facts of the case. They were beside the point.
I’d suggest the facts are equally irrelevant when it comes to the case for impeachment. The only thing that matters is how the prospect of impeachment plays with voters in the key swing states of Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Nevada. I don’t care what the national polls say; after all, Trump “lost” the national election by three million votes. Presidents, we need to remember, are not elected nationally; they are elected state by state.
I was struck by how few governors attended a recent gathering of Midwestern governors to discuss impeachment. Most shied away from expressing any definite opinion. None were eager to appear on camera, instead sending out a written statement delivered by a media spokesperson.
Maybe there’s a reason.
Equally irrelevant, I would argue, is the “right thing,” whatever that is, when it comes to Trump and impeachment. Whatever the line is, clearly, he’s crossed it too many times to count. But any impeachment bill will die a thousand deaths when it gets to the Senate. So why go there? There are those who insist such crass political calculations must play second fiddle to doing “the right thing.” I get it, but only sort of.
More, I get that Trump raised $8.5 million in campaign donations in just two days after impeachment proceedings were announced. In one week, he received 50,000 small-ball donations. If you’re going to poke the bear, you’d better have a pretty big gun.
Joe Biden, the Democrats’ best chance at unseating Trump, is a glass jaw waiting to be shattered. The $850,000 Biden’s son was paid by a corrupt Ukrainian natural gas company will be just the ball-peen hammer Trump needs. In the end, the facts — which are, in fact, on Biden’s side — will not matter. What will matter are the “facts” presented in the Facebook ads that Trump is buying at a clip of $2.1 million a week. (By contrast, Biden has spent $100,000 on Facebook.) When John Kerry — a genuine, certified, and decorated war hero — challenged George Bush II in the 2004 presidential election, the dark forces backing Bush — a certified draft dodger — attacked Kerry’s military record. Eventually, the lies were exposed. But not before Bush won.
Admittedly, when I hear “the right thing,” I reach for my gun. For me, it’s what they call a trigger phrase. Back in 2000, the people backing Third Party spoiler Ralph Nader also talked about doing the “right thing.” But if not for the 97,000 votes Nader won in Florida, the Democratic candidate Al Gore would have won that election — not George W. Bush. I don’t pretend to know how Gore would have reacted to 9/11, but I’m pretty certain he wouldn’t have lied to wage war against Iraq. Joe Wilson, in that scenario, would never have had to debunk phony threats.
Do the right thing? We’re still paying the price.
Rest in peace, Joe Wilson.