A Portrait of a Progressive Congressman

By David Swanson

Congressman Jim McDermott became involved in politics through his opposition to the Vietnam war. He came to Washington 17 years ago hoping to create national health coverage. Instead he’s spent much of his time opposing new wars and war crimes. McDermott’s record on matters of peace and war is unsurpassed in the Congress. On the matter of impeachment, however, he has lost all interest – as has every incumbent Democrat since Leader Nancy Pelosi decreed that impeachment should be “off the table.”

I sat down with Congressman McDermott on Monday to discuss the Iraq War and the possibilities for peace. He offered insights and lessons from history that we would all do well to bear in mind.


McDermott sponsored a bill to create a study of the effects of depleted uranium (HR 2410). The bill recently passed the House, but has yet to become law. McDermott explained:

“If we can get it through and get it passed, we will establish a study in the Department of Defense to look at depleted uranium…and not done by the Department of Defense but done by an independent source. The Department of Defense has been rather categorical in their denial that there is any problem. But depending on how you look for something you may never find it….And what I want is for them to look at the long-term effects, not the short-term effects. Because if you look at depleted uranium in the urine, for instance, you may not find any. May be in and out. But those particles that have lodged themselves either in the lymph glands or in the gonads may ultimately turn out to be cancerous and lead to all kinds of problems that appear to be pretty obvious in Iraq.

“When I was in Iraq in September of 2001, I went down to southern Iraq, to Basra, where we dumped 300 tons of this depleted uranium in the original Road of Death and I was taken to a hospital where I was shown children with leukemia where they had, I mean, the pediatrician had tried to do some rather rudimentary epidemiological work and showed that there was about a 600 percent increase from 1990 to 2001 when I got there from 1991 when the bombing occurred. A ten year period. There was also an epidemic of children born with serious malformations, no eyes, no ears, really gross kinds of malformations. Not little things like, you know, that, obviously malformations, but these are major ones. It got to be to the point where mothers at the time of birth would say, ‘Is the child normal?’ rather than, ‘Is it a boy or girl?’

“So, having seen that I thought, these people have been living and walking around in this dust for the last ten years, and we’ve got soldiers who are walking around inhaling this stuff, and to me it is the worst form of disrespect for our troops to not care what happens to them after the war. You know, it’s easy to, you can make a lot of noise about armament, you know, Humvees under-armored and body armor and stuff like that, but these long-term effects are the ones that are really going to be the problems. And was really from my experience in the Vietnam thing where I saw the guys who had been sprayed with Agent Orange but didn’t have the effects until much later that made me say, ‘This is not something we should play around with.’ But the military likes the weapon so much that they are very reluctant to look hard at it as to what its ultimate effect might be.

“So this was a study, this was a study that we hope will at least lay the groundwork so we know where these people are today and as time goes on if problems develop we’ll have a basis for making a judgment. One of the things about Agent Orange was they denied it and denied it and denied it and denied it. I don’t actually remember when they finally began to take seriously that they were having effects from this spray. And unfortunately they lost 15 or 20 years of good data. So, I’m a doctor, a scientist at heart and when I look at something like that I’m not sure what I’m seeing, but I’ve got a suspicion and it’s worth observing and doing a careful study and making sure we have the basic evidence.

Swanson Is there a Senate bill and a sponsor in the Senate and timing on that?

McDermott: Yes. There was a bill put in by Sen. Cantwell, and Joe Lieberman has agreed to sign on, and it passed over there. So we, we have . . .

Swanson: It has passed both houses?

McDermott: It was not a bill. It was actually an amendment that was put on a bill. So it’s, it’s, yes, the concept has passed both houses. Now the questions is does it make it through a conference committee and up to the President’s desk.


Swanson: We saw recently what happened with the language on no permanent bases in the emergency supplemental bill. Is that not blatantly against the rules of Congress to take something out in a conference committee that has passed in both houses?

McDermott: It used to be.

Swanson: It used to be.

McDermott: That was one of the rules, the understood rules of the conference committee. If an issue had passed in both houses, that was the end of it. It stayed in the bill.


Swanson: I was telling your staff earlier that United for Peace and Justice has a chart on the website of all anti-war votes and co-sponsorships of bills and a list of all members of Congress. And it’s a checkerboard. Almost nobody is on everything. They are on half of the bills but not the other half. You are on every single one. You have all the right votes; all the right co-sponsorships. Why is that such a rarity when majority opinion is where it is, much less Democratic party base opinion is where it is? And you are in a state with, you would think, heavy influence from the military-industrial complex, Boeing, among others. How are you able to support anti-war positions, and why are so many not able to?

McDermott: Well, I can only speak for myself. I really can’t speak for other people. But I would say I got into politics. I was a physician. Had no interest in politics. I didn’t want to do this. But I got turned on by the Vietnam war. And like many, I mean, you know, there – David Bonior, John Kerry, and others – we got hooked up with politics as a way of trying to prevent that kind of stuff. So when I came to Congress I didn’t come as a kid. I came as somebody with a long history. I had been in the state legislature for 17 years. People knew who I was. And when I came here, of course, the last thing I thought I’d ever be doing was spending my time dealing with Iraq and Kuwait and El Salvador and all the stuff I’ve been involved in. I mean, I came here in 1989 to get, to be involved in developing a national health plan. That’s what I wanted to do. But when this war stuff started, I didn’t, to me it was just, you know, if this is what’s going to, if I’m going to lose, then I thank you and go home. But I’m not going to stand here and participate in allowing this to happen in a way that is so reminiscent of the Vietnam thing and how we got etched into it deeper and deeper and deeper until we were in up over our necks. And I, I just, for me it was never much of a question. And my district, I’m fortunate in that I have a district that has been supportive by and large. And, uh, but in this instance I am reflecting my own views as much as the views of my district. Because I, there are, there are things obviously you think about, well what does my district think, what’s good for the state, what’s good for the country and all that. There are some things you think and these are, this, the war thing is an issue I believe that is wrong and immoral and is going to come to no good end. And so for me it was a personal thing.


Swanson: How do you think it will come to an end? There is, there is this plan proposed now by the prime minister in Iraq that I for one expected to include a date for withdrawal. It apparently does not. From what I read in the press I have the distinct impression that the Republicans have been advised that this is a good plan to support. It won’t include any date for withdrawal. But I’m hearing a lot of strong opposition from Democrats around the question of amnesty. What is this plan, where did it come from, and what is your position?

McDermott: Done a lot of thinking about that. In fact I’m going to go over and do that on the floor tonight. I um, I remember the election of 1968 when Richard Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war, and all the hoopla and all the hype leading up to the election. Secret plan to end the war. He got in office and we went on for four more years. Everything you hear on Capitol Hill today is related to the 2006 election. The Republicans are absolutely apoplectic that they might lose power. And they will say one thing to one group and another thing to another group and they are going to be all over the map. And the reason a list-, an attentive, thoughtful human being in America today can’t figure out what is going on is because they are intending to confuse and get us through this election. They want to give some people the impression that we’re going to pull out the troops, and they want to give other people the impression that we are going to stay the course. And they’ve got the country so divided on this, and so confused on what’s the best way to go. I mean, you’ve got Casey talking about it on one TV station when you’ve got Cheney on another one saying it would be the absolute worst thing to be doing this. I mean at the very same hour, practically speaking. Plus you’ve got Maliki out there giving – the new Prime Minister of Iraq – saying here’s our 24 points of amnesty. Now you know he didn’t come out there, he didn’t come out there with that all by himself.

Swanson: No.

McDermott: He’s been negotiating, and the ambassador, the American ambassador’s been involved in that. I mean, we’re up to our armpits in that thing. And so, then we come out – and the President says nothing. So, you know. What are we supposed to believe? The president is saying, “When they stand up, we’ll stand down.

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