Congratulations -- in Texas-size portions -- are due Sen. Phil Gramm. In only a few minutes of debate on "Meet the Press" on Jan. 19 and with an insertion into the Congressional Record two days later, he turned the backbone of Sen. Daniel Moynihan into jelly and his mind into oatmeal.
This Sunday brunch began on "Meet the Press" when Gramm charged that on the "national defense of the country" Moynihan was "one of the weakest" supporters. "Oh, wait," said Moynihan. "Wait. Wait." Gramm went on to repeat his charges.
Moynihan came back to protest that he was "not going to allow my voting record to be misrepresented." To Gramm he said, "You're one year in the Senate, fella. You don't do that to another senator. I have voted with one exception for every defense appropriation bill since I've come to the Senate."
The exchange illustrates why conservative mediocrities such as Gramm are having their day in military policies while liberal intellectuals such as Moynihan are reduced to camouflaging their records in fear of having right- wing bullies question their patriotism.
Votes on appropriation bills tend to be near- meaningless in providing clues on a senator's positions. Preceding votes on specific weapons -- the MX missile, for instance -- or programs -- Star Wars -- tell the story. Such groups on the left as SANE and the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy monitor the specifics. In 1984, Moynihan voted 11 of 14 times for positions favored by SANE and the coalition. In 1983, he was 9 for 11 and, in 1982, 11 for 12 with the coalition. That isn't the kind of perfection that makes Moynihan an absolute darling of the liberals, but it's enough to keep the relationship warm.
In the Congressional Record, Gramm saw Moynihan's record from the other side. He hyped the hawkish American Security Council as "the most respected pro-national-defense organization in our nation" and said that it "rates my lifetime record of defense support at 100 percent. It rates the record of the senior senator from New York at 28 percent. Our records speak for themselves."
No they don't. Moynihan silences his record. Getting nowhere on television, he used a long rambling oration on the Senate floor two days later to cry "foul" and to say that Gramm had abused him. The offended Moynihan patriotically told of enlisting in the Navy two days after he turned 17 in 1944 and donning the whites for three years of active duty. He mentioned also his 20 years in the active reserve.
Moynihan wrapped those red, white and blue ribbons around his previous statement that he had voted "with one exception for every defense-appropriation bill." Then he warned that in these "trying and testing" times about to come in the budget debates, "ame-calling, accusation and innuendo" must be left out.
Gramm trounced Moynihan because he forced the New Yorker into using the right wing's definition of national security: consistently voting more and more money for the military. A shriveling Moynihan defended himself by claiming that he too was a big military spender. The senator, who can write elegant prose and parry with wit, has little left when the style is taken away. He had a chance to put Gramm and other right-wing militarists in their place by saying that annual $300 billion military budgets are leading to national decay, not strength.
It was the weekend of the Martin Luther King celebration, a safe moment, it would seem, for plain talk about American militarism. Couldn't Moynihan have risked a reference to King and his statement that "a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death"?
Instead of confronting Gramm directly and explaining a voting record that he can be moderately proud of, Moynihan told of his teen-age years in the Navy. He cited a war record, not a voting record.
Liberal Democrats keep wondering why the public isn't listening to them. Moynihan's cowering is an example that little is worth listening to. A conservative taunts him and he goes limp. A few Senate liberals grumble about military fraud and waste, but, with Barry Goldwater joining them, where's the courage? They articulate no clear, much less visionary, idea of how to create a society that should get strength from its moral force, not military force. Instead, they behave like Moynihan: chip away at this weapons program or that one but then, when an upstart like Gramm questions them, look for a flag to salute and a story from the Navy days to spin.
Signs keep appearing that Congress and much of the nation are gripped by the military mentality. The Gramm-Moynihan to-do reveals that no meaningful debate is going on. One of the Senate's brightest minds allowed himself to be trifled with by one of its shallowest.
Moynihan did have one moment of manliness. He apologized to Gramm for calling him "fella." It was uttered, Moynihan said, in "a difficult moment." Was it a moment -- or an entire debate?