Joe Wilson at PFAW
(Last week Joe Wilson spoke at the People For the American Way dinner. Joe has been working like crazy this election season, fundraising for people like Charlie Brown, Ned Lamont and Jay Fawcett. I thought his words were inspirational and that people might like reading them. Photo, clockwise from top left: Valerie Plame, Joe Wison, Howie Klein, Roberto Rodriguez (CA-25), me, John Amato — JH)
I stand before you this evening as a proud American. Proud to have served my country for twenty- three years as a diplomat, including such glamorous postings as Niamey, Niger and Baghdad, Iraq during the Desert Shield portion of the first Gulf War. Hardly boondoggle posts, whatever Dick Cheney might think.
I served not because I believe Americans are inherently better than others who inhabit this globe. We are not. We are all human beings with our respective virtues as well as vices. No, I served because I believed then, as I believe now, that the value system that has underpinned the contract between the governed and those who govern us for some 219 years provides the best guarantee of the commitment of our forefathers to the right of people to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Our rights, privileges and responsibilities, enshrined in the constitution, are today all too often taken for granted by a docile citizenry or worse, undermined by a cynical political class in the name of security but, in fact, for the sake of power. We should never forget the prophetic words of Benjamin Franklin, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither,” as we legalize torture and outlaw habeus corpus.
Our nation was built upon the dream of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal, with its essential freedoms of speech, press, and religion.
It is a system designed to promote ingenuity, opportunity and merit; and to encourage diversity by the exercise of the the right to say and write what one pleases, to worship according to one’s faith, or lack thereof, without worry of a heavy handed monarch impeding those freedoms, and of course, to freely elect those who would govern us.
It has served us well. Our progress has sometimes been by fits and starts, and even civil war, but over two centuries, we have seen the reduction of the discrimination that plagues other societies. We have been a beacon of hope to much of the world, that City on the Hill that Ronald Reagan, borrowing from John Winthrop, described. The legacy of our time at the top should have been remembered for our commitment to the worth of individuals, to tolerance of the uniqueness of each and every one of us, and to the responsibility of government to ensure a maximum amount of freedom to pursue our dreams unfettered by unnecessary restraint. We are now witnessing the rapid turning back of the clock turned on that progress.
The core values enshrined in our founding documents are those that I fought for as a diplomat overseas for so many years. I never envisioned that one day I might have to return home to fight for them here.
I freely admit to you that I am new to this fight that the People for the American Way has been waging for the past twenty five years. How naïve of me to believe that the gentle exposure of human failings that I watched on All in the Family so many years ago would not in and of itself wash away bigotry in our society.
How naïve to conclude that a broad consensus on constitutional rights and freedoms had been achieved and was now by and large settled.
I now understand, as have other generations of Americans, that the fight for freedom and equality, for a social order based on merit, not birth, wealth, or partisan allegiance, is never ending. Benjamin Franklin had it right when, on leaving Constitution Hall in response to the question “What kind of government have you bequeathed us,” he said, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” We must constantly fight for our Republic, for our constitution and for our freedoms against those who would subvert them.
Our personal fight, or at least the one to which our name is attached, is not, in fact a fight on behalf of Joe and Valerie Wilson. This is not about us and never has been. Indeed, whatever hardship we may have suffered in the past three years at the hands of our government is mere inconvenience compared to what this nation of ours, and in particular those brave men and women who wear the uniforms of the armed services, and their families have suffered.
The article I wrote for the New York Times challenged sixteen words in the President’s State of the Union address. The next day the White House spokesman acknowledged that those sixteen words did not quote rise to the inclusion in the State of the Union unquote. Why then, do we not know who put the lie in the President’s mouth? Why instead do we know the name of a covert CIA officer who happens to be my wife?
George Orwell once wrote, “in times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” This is a fight against universal deceit.
This is a fight against those who would use the enormous power conferred on them by public trust to exact personal revenge against citizens exercising their first amendment responsibility to “petition the government for the redress of a grievance.”
This is a fight against those who would drive citizens from the public square not by virtue of their better arguments or policy prescriptions, but by a systematic campaign of character assassination, punctuated with lies, distortions, unfounded allegations and innuendo.
It is, in short, a fight for governance “of the people, by the people and for the people” against those for whom power and privilege is paramount. This is the vigilance that is the eternal price of liberty that Americans pay to remain free.
Former President, Teddy Roosevelt said it best almost 90 years ago:
The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American Public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else. unquote
This is still a nation where a citizen can get up every morning and shout at the top of his lungs that the President, Vice President, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State are lying sons of bitches, and survive to see the sun go down. I know. I do it most days.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask Valerie.
But we will only remain that free if we remain vigilant. We cannot, we will not, we must not compromise the constitution of our great country. It is not, Mr. President, as you call it, “just a goddamn piece of paper.” The constitution is the promise of our society, of our people and of our way of life.
But People for the American Way knows all of this. You have been fighting this fight for a quarter century, as have the honorees here tonight. Valerie and I are humbled to be in your presence and to stand with you in this battle. It is one that we will not lose because we have the power of the greatest system of governance yet created behind us. It is one we cannot afford to lose. I have looked into the abyss of tyranny during a lifetime of living in authoritarian dictatorships from Franco’s Spain to Eyadema’s Togo to Saddam’s Iraq. Together we will, we must, ensure that this country that we so love, and the fundamental values that have so protected us, do not slide into that same abyss. Thank you.