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McDermott becomes lightning rod in Iraq fight
By Katherine Pfleger
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — Rep. Jim McDermott has positioned himself squarely against the White House by saying — on Saddam Hussein's turf — that he doesn't trust President Bush to be completely honest as he makes the case for invading Iraq.
In a series of live interviews from his peace mission to Baghdad, the Seattle Democrat's choice words have made him the loudest and most critical voice against going into Iraq before all diplomatic efforts are exhausted.
"I think the president would mislead the American people," McDermott said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "It would not surprise me if they came with some information that is not provable."
Republicans have been grumbling about McDermott since he first criticized the Bush administration on the House floor last month. But for an American congressman to attack the president on television from Baghdad was something different.
On the talk-show circuit, congressional Republicans seized the opportunity to question his judgment.
Yesterday, the White House coolly denied McDermott's statements. Said spokesman Ari Fleischer: "It's his right to say anything he wants, no matter how foolish, and he exercised that right."
McDermott's views are in line with his often liberal Seattle constituency, which has elected him seven times, and the Washington State Democratic Central Committee. At a weekend meeting in Yakima, the group voted unanimously to oppose any unilateral attack of Iraq without congressional approval.
"There is a deep feeling that, left unchecked, the president is going to go too far," chairman Paul Berendt said yesterday. "This is not something that has been focus-group tested. It is something that comes from the hearts of Democrats, and something we feel passionate about."
State Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance welcomed the Democrats' resolution, which he said will alienate moderate suburban voters with an election just five weeks away.
"Berendt has thrown gasoline on the fire," he said.
And on the congressman he calls "Baghdad Jim," Vance said, "We expect this sort of silliness."
Yesterday, McDermott's phones were ringing off the hook. It got so bad that one staffer started giving out the phone number for his direct line because the calls he needed couldn't get through the main switchboard.
McDermott spokesman John Larmett said calls are about 50-50 for and against his anti-war position. While some have called McDermott a "moron" and a "traitor," at least a couple callers have suggested he run for national office.
Larmett said he hasn't heard the congressman say anything about a new job.
A Navy psychiatrist during the Vietnam War, McDermott, 65, is an unapologetic dove, preferring to negotiate rather than go to war. In recent weeks, he was one of the first Democrats to question invading Iraq — a position consistent with his vote against the Gulf War resolution in 1991 and his reluctance to bomb Afghanistan without a long-term plan.
A member of the House's Progressive Caucus, which advocates global nonviolence, McDermott joined its members last month in meetings to craft an Iraq message. Since then, McDermott and Rep. David Bonior, D-Mich., have emerged as the group's spokesmen.
The pair, joined by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., left for Iraq last week on a 3½-day tour of hospitals and water-treatment plants, as well as meetings with Iraqi officials.
The trip was sponsored, in part, by Seattle's Interfaith Network of Concern for the People of Iraq. The three congressmen checked out of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad and were to return to the U.S. this evening.
McDermott managed to consistently steal the spotlight by going just a bit further than his colleagues.
For instance, he said the White House and some members of Congress are creating self-fulfilling prophecies by insisting from the beginning that weapons inspections will fail.
"They're setting it up not to work," he told CNN yesterday.
As the White House and congressional leaders continued work on a compromise resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, Republicans lined up to take aim at McDermott.
Said Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.: "To be questioning the veracity of our own American president is the height of irresponsible. He needs to come home and keep his mouth shut."
Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla.: "Basically, he's taking Saddam Hussein's lines. They both sound somewhat like spokespersons for the Iraqi government."
And Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.: "Don't go to Baghdad and do it. You are helping the Iraqi government sell to the Iraqi people their hatred of the United States of America, and it is wrong. And I honestly do not understand it."
At home, though, the state Democratic Party has been grateful. Berendt, the chairman, said McDermott has become the "man of the moment."
"Jim McDermott has stepped up to the issue at a critical point in time," he said. "Certainly his constituents want him to take this leadership role. And he has stepped up to the challenge."
Katherine Pfleger: 206-464-2772 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company
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