Lawmaker John J. Duncan of Tennessee recalls arm-twisting, soul-searching before Iraq war vote

WASHINGTON - In a secure, windowless room in the White House basement, Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr., listened carefully as top advisers to President George W. Bush pressed their case for war with Iraq.

Congress was close to authorizing the use of military action against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but Duncan was not convinced war was justified or necessary.

Fearing he might vote against going to war, Bush's aides had summoned the conservative Tennessee Republican and three other GOP House members to a briefing with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet and Tenet's deputy director, John McLaughlin.

For the next hour, Bush's national security staffers tried to erase the lawmakers' doubts. Hussein has chemical or biological weapons, they said. As proof, they offered aerial surveillance photos of buildings and trucks hidden in the desert. Most Iraqis hate Hussein, they argued, and would love to see him deposed. War, they said, was needed to preserve national security.

But Duncan was not convinced. For him, one crucial question still had not been answered.

"Do you have any evidence of any imminent threat?" he recalls asking. "And they didn't."

A month after that Sept. 19, 2002, meeting, the House voted 296-133 to go to war. Early the next morning, the Senate approved the war resolution on a 77-23 vote. Only seven Republicans -- six in the House, one in the Senate -- voted against war.

A decade later, Duncan is the only one of those seven still in Congress. The others either lost races for re-election or retired.

For years, Duncan says, he suffered the fallout from his vote against the war. Constituents would stop him on the street and tell him he had made a mistake. A railroad lobbyist put out the word that Duncan would never chair a congressional committee. The pastor of a Baptist church where Duncan was supposed to deliver a Sunday lay sermon called him a few days before and, somewhat embarrassed, informed him that one of the deacons and top donors had threatened to leave the church if the congressman was allowed to speak. Duncan stayed home.

It would take years of war and bloodshed before public opinion would start to shift toward Duncan's point of view. But as the war dragged on, he said, people came around to his way of thinking.

"What had been a very unpopular vote slowly, slowly, slowly became, if not my most popular vote, certainly one of my most popular," he said.


Duncan had doubts about the need for war from the start. By the time he was called to the White House for the meeting with Rice, Tenet and McLaughlin, his reservations were widely known. Nothing he heard in that meeting changed his mind.

"I am not a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination," he said. "But I think you should never go to war unless there's no other reasonable alternative - and then only as a very last resort."

Yet Duncan was torn. A poll taken by his sister showed most of the people in his district supported the war. Most of the others were undecided.

"It put me in a very uncomfortable spot to possibly be voting against something that my people were in favor of," Duncan said.

Also weighing heavily on his mind was the ghost of his father, former congressman John J. Duncan Sr., who had held the same House seat for 23 years and who Duncan had succeeded in office.

"I felt sure my dad would have voted for the war - and I worshipped my dad," Duncan said.

As the vote on the war resolution approached, Duncan wrestled over what he should do. "I've never seen him so distraught over something and wondering whether he was doing the right thing," said Lynn Duncan, his wife of 35 years. Her advice: "You have to vote your convictions. You have to vote for what you think is right."

The Saturday before the vote, over breakfast at Shoney's in Knoxville, Duncan sought the advice of three longtime confidants: his chief of staff, one of his congressional field representatives, and his uncle, a retired judge whose opinion he says he has respected more than anyone else other than his father's.

"I left that meeting on Saturday morning thinking I was going to have to vote for the war," Duncan said. "But I was not happy about it."

Duncan doesn't remember the precise moment he made his decision. But he remembers exactly what he was thinking when he cast his vote.

"When I pushed that button to vote no on that war," he said, "I thought I might be ending my political career."

Of the three other House Republicans who sat through that White House briefing with Duncan, only one -- John Hostettler of Indiana -- voted against the war. The other two -- Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland and Jennifer Dunn of Washington state -- voted for the war.

Looking back, "we had people in high levels of our government that were simply too eager to go to war," Duncan said. "We had some people who wanted to be Winston Churchill."

RELATED STORY | The Pentagon scrambled to come up with better gear as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan revealed new vulnerabilities to the safety and survivability of the troops (http://bit.ly/iraqgear).


(Contact Scripps Howard News Service reporter Michael Collins at collinsm@shns.com)

 

 

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