March 17, 2005,
At times during MoveOn.org's "Rally for Fair Judges," held yesterday at the Washington Court Hotel near the Capitol, it was hard to tell if the left-wing organizing group had planned a political rally or a revival meeting.
The purpose of the gathering, attended by several hundred MoveOn supporters, was to denounce Republicans who are considering the "nuclear option" to end the Democratic filibusters of several of President Bush's nominees to the federal courts of appeals. Several Democratic hardliners, including Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, addressed the crowd. But the star of the show was the 87-year-old senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd, who had been an advocate of the "nuclear option" back in the 1970s, when his party was in the majority. Now, he opposes it with every fiber in his body, and he portrayed stopping the GOP as a religious crusade.
"Praise God!" Byrd yelled as he waved the copy of the Constitution he famously keeps in his coat pocket. "Hallelujah!"
The crowd erupted into hearty cheers. Byrd denounced what he called a Republican plan to "pack the courts" and said that "our Constitution is under attack." He exhorted everyone to take action.
"Tell the people!"
"We can't let them do it!"
When other speakers came to the podium, Byrd sat in a front-row seat, thrusting a shaking fist in the air and engaging in a church-style call-and-response. As Durbin spoke, for example, Byrd called out during nearly every sentence.
"You started a movement," Durbin told the crowd.
"Yes!" shouted Byrd.
"When I look at the people assembled here, I'm looking at democracy."
"Tell it!" shouted Byrd.
"It's about freedom," Durbin said.
"Yes!" shouted Byrd.
When Byrd began his performance, some in the audience didn't quite know what was going on they were far back in the crowd and couldn't see who was calling out up front. The speakers didn't seem to get it, either. When MoveOn organizer Ben Brandzel warmed up the crowd by vowing that he would not surrender to a president trying to "sell out our democracy for right-wing corporate hack judges," Byrd yelled out, "No!"
"That's right, Senator Byrd," Brandzel said, looking a bit surprised.
Other speakers Byrd's fellow senators seemed comfortable with the interruptions of their colleague, but still managed to occasionally mangle the message.
Kennedy, for example, referred to Barbara Boxer as Barbara Mikulski. He referred to William Myers, the Bush judicial nominee, as William Morris. And he kept telling the crowd to "speak truth to justice," apparently confusing that with the more common liberal exhortation to "speak truth to power."
Schumer, normally one of the more forceful advocates against the president's judicial nominees, suffered a terrible case of mixed metaphors when he brought up the Founders' hope that the Senate would be the "cooling saucer" for political passions. Not anymore, Schumer said, now that Republicans want to turn the saucer into "the rubber stamp of dictatorship" and the country into a "banana republic."
Even Mrs. Clinton seemed slightly off balance, managing to commingle Marx, the filibuster, and Jimmy Stewart when she charged that Republicans planned "to consign 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' to the dustbin of history."
The most substantive comments of the rally came from Boxer, who made a number of notable statements in her brief time at the microphone. First, she appeared to endorse the idea of the Senate creating a super-majority of 60 votes for judicial confirmations. Since federal judges enjoy a lifetime appointment, Boxer told the crowd, their confirmation is simply too important to be decided by a mere majority vote. "For such a super-important position, there ought to be a super vote," Boxer said.
Next, Boxer expressed a certain fundamental lack of respect for the Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter. Referring to Leahy, who is the ranking Democrat on the committee, Boxer said, "I call him my chairman of the Judiciary Committee, because I don't recognize anyone else" a remark that seemed to speak volumes about the effectiveness of Specter's efforts to reach out to Democrats.
Finally, Boxer made a strong effort to address the uncomfortable fact that she once, in 1994, opposed the filibuster, back when Democrats controlled the Senate and were less concerned about minority power. Now, like Byrd whom she called "the love of my life" she has had a change of heart and believes the filibuster is vitally important. "I thought I knew everything," Boxer confessed. "I didn't get it."
"I'm here to say I was wrong," she continued. "I'm here to say I was totally wrong."
"We forgive you!" someone yelled from the crowd.
The rally might not have presented an entirely coherent message, but it did send the signal that MoveOn has achieved a new level of prominence and influence in Washington, and that the group intends to be closely involved in the battle over judicial nominations. MoveOn officials say the gathering came about after Byrd's office contacted MoveOn with a proposal to hold a rally; a lunch meeting was held, plans made, and the idea turned into action. And now, it has brought MoveOn new recognition on Capitol Hill.
During the rally, a number of senators paid tribute to MoveOn, none more enthusiastically then Durbin, who began and ended his remarks with a spirited "Right on, MoveOn!" The message coming after some Democratic moderates had urged the party to separate itself from MoveOn was clear: from now on, Senate Democrats and MoveOn are a team, no matter what anyone says.