Thursday, May 15, 2008

Borah, Borah, Borah!

Big news:

"We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history," Bush added.

Democrats are fuming. This quote set them off at least once before, in 2006, when Rumsfeld used it in a speech.

The curious thing, to me, is that neither he nor Bush named the Senator. The quote comes from a Progressive, isolationist Republican, William E. Borah of Idaho. Who may well have said it, conversationally, but not on the record. As far as I can tell it is attributed to him first in a biography published 20 years after his death.

I should add that it is curious that so many media outlets reporting the story (such as the AP, linked above, Reuters, or CNN) don't bother to track down the source of the quote. But the uncuriosity of the media is universal now and no longer seems curious to me.

Borah is an interesting fellow to look at in the light of modern red-blue America. Here, from his Wikipedia entry:

As a senator Borah was dedicated to principles rather than party loyalty, a trait which earned him the nickname "the Great Opposer." He disliked entangling alliances in foreign policy and became a prominent anti-imperialist and nationalist, favoring a continued separation of American liberal and European Great Power politics. He encouraged the formation of a series of world economic conferences and favored a low tariff.

A maverick Republican, in other words. The best quip about him comes from the underrated early 20th century humorist Calvin Coolidge. Told Borah was fond of horseback riding, Coolidge replied, "It's hard to imagine Senator Borah going in the same direction as his horse."

A "Progressive" Republican, in one of the now-unrecognizable historical meanings of that word. Isolationist, anti-imperialist -- like the paleo-cons of today. But an early champion of globalization and open markets, and a partial backer of the expanded federal powers of the New Deal. He sponsored bills that created the Department of Labor and the Children's Bureau and supported Roosevelt's efforts on old-age pensions.

And, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1925 to 1933, a supporter of American engagement with the pariah regime in the Soviet Union.

As Chairman, he became known for his pro-Soviet views, favoring recognition of the Communist regime, and sometimes interceded with that government in an unofficial capacity during the period when Moscow had no official relations with the United States. Purportedly, Kremlin officials held Borah in such high esteem that American citizens could gain permission to travel throughout the Soviet Union with nothing more than a letter from the Senator.

Which might make a more interesting path than the one Bush used in invoking him as a warning against engagement with Ahmedinejad's Iran.

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