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Jewish World Review Oct. 21, 1999 /11 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Chris Matthews

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GOP gives Clinton
his finest hour -- I CARRY WITHIN ME the childhood memory of nuclear air raid drills, waiting under my fragile school desk for that flash of light Sister said would signal the world's end. I know, too, the present specter of a Mideast or Asian zealot lobbing a crude A-bomb across an unfriendly border -- or delivering it, somehow, to us.

Did the 51 Republicans who voted down the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty enter the Senate chamber sharing some other life experience than mine? Is their fear of invading United Nations helicopters, their hatred of Bill Clinton so severe as to deaden their human aversion to nuclear warfare?

If so, I must warn them of a danger that is both close and manifest: politics. As Mr. Clinton showed at his nationally televised press conference last Thursday, perhaps the finest hour of his presidency, he is prepared to destroy them over their vote of the day before to reject the treaty to which he had put his hand.

Clinton issued the warning loud and clear. As long as he sits in the Oval Office, countries antsy to bolster their nuclear arsenals might well show restraint. But the moment we get a commander-in-chief of a different bent -- Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush leaps to mind -- all bets would be off.

"Now, if we ever get a president that's against the test ban treaty, which we may get -- I mean there are plenty of people out there who say they are against it -- then I think you might as well get ready for it. You'll have Russia testing. You'll have China testing. You'll have India testing. You'll have Pakistan testing."

Someone, in their partisan souls, deeper even than their visceral hatred of Clinton, Republicans like Trent Lott, must know the time bomb they have set with this vote. Why else did they offer to put off the humiliating vote if the president would promise to bring the treaty vote back next year on the eve of the election?

But if they envisioned the popularity of Clinton's position come the year 2000, why did they take the position they did last week? Is there some weakness in the test ban only Republican senators can appreciate, but which cannot be shared and understood by the rest of us? For if it can be shared, why do they fear so much to duke it out in a full-fledged public debate?

By killing the treaty, they have given Clinton's party a powerful issue in the next election.

Remember how much damage Newt Gingrich inflicted on his House majority when he said the reason he'd closed down the government four years ago was because Bill Clinton made him sit in the back of Air Force One?

Imagine how voters will react to the knowledge that the Republicans killed a nuclear test ban to spite the man who signed it? To the belief that the loyal opposition has done damage to the country simply to hurt the lame duck Bill Clinton?

By their own politics, the Republicans of the U.S. Senate may have given us their worst hour of leadership, and President Clinton his finest.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews, chief of the San Francisco Examiner's Washington Bureau, is host of "Hardball" on CNBC. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


10/18/99: Clinton's last hurrah
10/13/99: Rough seas for Capt. Ventura
10/11/99: Gore targets Bradley's strength
10/06/99: Bradley's got the right Rx
10/04/99: Buchanan, Churchill and Hitler
09/30/99: Who'll spin political gold in Golden State Gore or Bradley?
09/27/99: Here's a millennial checklist for candidates
09/22/99: The biography battle
09/20/99: Buchanan's new book is a must-read
09/15/99: Don't rule out Beatty
09/13/99: The man with the sun on his face
09/08/99: W. vs. Jr. on dope and the draft
The FALN: Hillary's Willie Horton
08/26/99: Bill's guilt fuels Hill's race
08/25/99: The seemingly inexhaustible strength of America's free enterprise
08/23/99: GOP candidates are weak also-rans
08/16/99: Bubba on Bubba
08/11/99: Hillary's agonizing attempts to understand
08/09/99: With warm regards, Richard Nixon
08/04/99: Weicker: real third party is on the Left
08/02/99: Dubyah's last hangover
07/27/99: Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh; capitalism is gonna win

©1999, NEA