"Even 'nasty old' Vardaman could see through the politics of war"

by Joe Atkins

Jackson Clarion-Ledger
May 22, 1996

Politics and war come from the same primordial soup, blood kin as natural as conjoined twins.

OXFORD - A prized possession of mine is a 1922 political poster used in race-baiting former U.S. Sen. James K. Vardaman's final, unsuccessful campaign for office.
   "Jas. K. Vardaman / Citizen, Soldier and Statesman" proclaims the yellowing poster above a photograph of Vardaman in his Spanish-American War uniform and a description of how Vardaman's father "was a Confederate Soldier" who "served full Four Years" in the War Between The States.
   It's a rather poignant document. Vardaman, the rabble-rousing, pro-lynching, anti-business populist, had seen his career destroyed in 1918 because of his opposition to the United States' entry into World War I. His 1922 race against Hubert Stephens for retiring U.S. Sen. John Sharp Williams' seat was a failed attempt to restore a reputation as well as a career.
   Politics and war come from the same primordial soup, blood kin as natural to one another as conjoined twins. Look at the current military effort in the Middle East. Whatever the justifications for U.S. moves against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the confrontation is rife with politics.
   Non-veteran Clinton, although ahead in the polls in his re-election bid against World War II veteran Robert Dole, has to see plus points in his role as commander-in-chief against the evil sultan of war in Bagdad. Republicans see it, too. That's the reason behind their nagging complaints that Clinton's policy goals are blurred, that he let the anti-Iraq coalition fracture.
   Even after an admittedly satisfactory meeting between Clinton and congressional leaders on the issue recently, Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott couldn't help grumbling that the meeting was "somewhat belated."
   But the politics of war can be a tricky business.

Former President George Bush seemed a sure-fire bet to win re-election in 1992 after leading the nation in its first military encounter with Saddam Hussein. Bush lost, however, and he's now remembered as the man who had a chance to take the Iraqi leader out for good but didn't. Bush's top military commander, Gen. Colin Powell, was a hero in that Persian Gulf War, but today he is barely tolerated in some Republican circles.
   Bush's good friend U.S. Rep. Sonny Montgomery, D-Miss., retiring after 30 years in Congress, built a career on his close association with the military.
   Still, after Vietnam, Montgomery's long-time chairmanship of the House Veterans Affairs Committee - rather than the Armed Services Committee - tended to identify him as more a man of past than current wars.
   Looking for politics in war-like situations may seem cynical, but let's face it: There's a lot of cynicism today in politics.
   My gosh, folks have watched how a top political operative like Dick Morris can shift from conservative Republican Trent Lott's adviser to liberal Democrat Clinton's strategist, how Moms worked to make Clinton a "family values" candidate at the same time the strategist himself was paying a call girl for her services.
   Maybe there wasn't as much cynicism back in 1916, when Vardaman, as quoted in William F. Holmes' book, The White Chief, risked everything by railing against Presi-

dent Woodrow Wilson and others for allowing "commercial pirates" and "power hungry politicians" to lead the nation into war.
   Vardaman, as progressive on many issues as he was vilely racist, withstood a swelling tide of nationalism in Mississippi and across the country to attack England and France, defend Germany, and become one of only six senators to vote against a declaration of war in 1917. Opponents called him a traitor, "Kaiser Vardaman," and they brought him down for good in 1918.
   Don't get me wrong. Vardaman was no hero in many ways and he may have been wrong on the war issue. But that nasty old racist was able to show at least once in his life a strength of character not often seen in politics today.

   Write Joe Atkins at the University of Mississippi, Department of Journalism, University MS 38677.

 

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