05/20/2008 05:02 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Karl Rove's Time Machine

Addressing Israeli lawmakers last week from the wussy pulpit of his shrinking presidency, George W. Bush slandered a giant of the U.S. Senate. He owes the man an apology.

I don't mean Senator Obama, who's shown he can smack down asinine GOP charges that the mere act of talking to Iran would embolden extremists, doom Israel, and endanger all civilization.

No, I'm talking about Senator William E. Borah. Unlike Obama, the six-term Republican senator from Idaho has proved, so far, to be incapable of hitting back against Bush's smear. Borah has an excuse. He's been dead since 1940.

Dead or alive, though, Borah said something indefensible. Right?

A "foolish delusion," as Bush put it in Israel: "As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.'"

Here, retrieved from obscurity by our history-buff president, is an honest-to-goodness appeaser, a homegrown Neville Chamberlain. So it's something of a shock to search the New York Times archive and find a March 26, 1939 story that quotes Senator Borah trashing Chamberlain in a nationwide radio address for trusting Hitler and trying to tame the Nazis by giving them Austria and part of Czechosolvakia: "No better friend since Hitler became the master of Germany has Hitler had than the British democracy. Apparently regarding arbitrary, centralized government in Europe as the best guarantee of stability, it has built up Hitler's strength and favored his cause in every crucial situation."

No, Bush didn't use that quote in Israel. The Karl Rove Time Machine only reaches into the past to harvest embarrassing, out-of-context quotes.

An April 12, 1936 book review of a new biography of Borah suggests the veteran senator makes an especially easy target for Bush/Rove tactics. Borah's "righteousness in public affairs" and deep reverence for the Constitution add up to a lifetime of acts "that considered separately might seem to be cantankerous or pedantic or freakish," the Times reviewer writes.

But Borah's contemporaries, including political foes such as FDR, understood him in context. So, when he died about four months after the German invasion of Poland and his supposedly "foolish delusion," a Times editorial noted the "high respect in which Senator Borah was held by literally millions who did not always agree with him."

The U.S. government saw fit to honor Borah with a state funeral. FDR came. So did FDR's cabinet. The Supreme Court came, too. Twenty members of Congress accompanied his body back to Idaho.

Seventeen years later, the Times carried a piece by someone named John F. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts. The future president was heading a committee tasked with selecting the five greatest senators in American history. He tells New York Times readers that Senator Borah is among the distinguished finalists.

Such was the stature of the man our discredited president smeared so cavalierly before the Knesset last week.

(For me to knock Bush over this may distract attentive readers. Yes, my last post denounced an equally distinguished, dead, and defenseless senator as "kind of a schmuck" because he used his cabinet job to try to deny Lincoln a second term and replace him as president. Some might see this as hypocrisy on my part. So for the sake of keeping the focus on the legitimate target of the stones I'm throwing here, I'll just stipulate that the shattered ruins of my lovely glass house lie scattered all around me as I type.)

Why would Bush do this to Borah?

With Bush, ignorance must always top the list of the usual suspects. So maybe the president just didn't know -- and didn't want to know -- who Borah was and what he stood for.

Borah, in any event, turns out to be exactly the sort of person Bush would need to smear if he were alive today. It's dangerous to speak for the dead. But it seems clear, beyond any doubt, that Borah would have been a strong Republican voice against the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002." He would have made a roadblock of himself during Bush's rush to war.

On September 12, 1939, just eleven days after the blitzkrieg stole Poland, the Times quotes Borah: "There is no time when fair and open and courageous consideration and discussion of public questions are more essential for the protection of the public interests than when we are under the sway of emergency sentiments."

Borah's brand of isolationism is something strange to us today. Raised on notions of "The Good War" and "The Greatest Generation," we can't quite fathom a world without D-Day, without Iwo Jima, without Hiroshima. But Borah, and the many Americans who shared his views in those days before Pearl Harbor, looked at Europe and saw the same hopeless mess that many now see in a Sunni-Shiite civil war or a Hutu-Tutsi genocide. An April 14, 1939 article in the Times quoted Borah summing up Europe's colonial powers and the catastrophic legacy of the punishing treaty they devised to end World War I: "all alike violate treaties, disregard the most fundamental principles of right, pursue methods which invariably lead to war, and then call upon the United States, Canada, and other nations to save them from their own intolerable and vicious methods."

Borah's September 14, 1939 radio address, as reported in the Times, rejects any action that forces America to "sacrifice the savings of our people and the sons of our mothers in this endless imperialistic strife."

But Borah's is not a mere scolding, selfish isolationism, deeming a single drop of American blood too precious to spill while rescuing foreigners from genocide. It's not a frightened isolationism. Nor is it ashamed, dwelling on the few aberrant troops whose crimes sully America's name.

Borah's is a proud, almost messianic isolationism that envisions a unique role for America. In that same September 14 radio address, he put it this way:

If we can succeed as a people, especially in the midst of conditions such as they are now, in establishing here upon this Western Continent a great neutral power, a power standing not for force, not for cruelty and injustice, but for peace, for fair dealing among nations, we will not only have added honor to our own nation, happiness to our own people, but we will have rendered to all nations and all peoples a service far greater than it will ever be possible for us to render by joining any nation, or nations, in carrying on war.

As the grandson of a World War II vet and a child of the world that war made, I can barely manage to imagine where Borah's vision would have led.

The costs are obvious, steep, and unacceptable. The Holocaust -- then unfathomable to Borah and his contemporaries - would have run its ghastly, genocidal course without interference.

But Borah's America would have been spared Vietnam and Iraq. And since Borah's America would never have had military bases in Saudi Arabia, it's worth asking whether al Qaeda would even exist.

Borah's eccentric career, in short, is a reminder that all questions are worth asking. Even that perennial neoconservative question: "Is (insert dictator's name here) the next Hitler?"

What bewilders me is that the neocons never seem to flip the question around. They never properly ask, "Could Hitler have been Saddam? Could a determined, vigilant, unified world have boxed the Nazis in and contained them before they really got started?"

But the casual smearing of Senator Borah is a reminder of how unwilling this president is to learn from history -- even the history of the anti-Saddam coalition his own father so ably assembled.

Borah and Bush would have found endless differences to argue about. Printed under the headline "Borah Bars Wire-Tapping," a July 5, 1938 item in the Times suggests the Idaho senator would have abhorred the Patriot Act: "Mr. Borah said the proposal to legalize the search and seizure of telegrams and the tapping of telephone wires by Federal agents should have much more consideration. ... The Supreme Court previously ruled out such evidence."

Think of all the al Qaeda telegrams that got through because of Senator Borah's constitutional quibbles!

We can easily imagine President Bush's exasperation: How, in the summer of 1938, could William Borah already have forgotten the lessons of September 11th, 2001?