Barr's Other Side

By Nat Hentoff
Washington Post, Saturday, January 9, 1999, page A17

Speaking of the politics of personal destruction, Anthony Lewis notes in the New York Times that Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), having spoken "to a virulently racist group," has done "something more deplorable than anything President Clinton has done."

In terms of this invidious comparison, shall we start with the president's cutting down the right to habeas corpus to one year and his law that denies aliens, including resident aliens, the right to see the evidence against them before they are deported?  I don't think Bob Barr quite qualifies to be in Clinton's "deplorable" league.

Along with Lewis, a horde of independent prosecutorial journalists have convicted Barr of racism because he made a speech last June to the Council of Conservative Citizens in South Carolina.  In none of the broadsides I have read or heard has there been any mention of Barr's civil liberties record.  Of course, the fact that he has been allied with the ACLU on a number of privacy issues might be confusing in an indictment of Barr.  It's like saying the devil regularly attends vespers services.

Minimal research in the National Journal, with the ACLU or on the Internet would disclose Barr's battles on behalf of civil liberties.  But most of his assailants appear to repeat only what they read, written by each other, in the newspapers.  It's called virtual reporting.

Barr was the sole voice on the floor of the House to oppose the Clinton-FBI push for roving wiretaps that - on the basis of a single warrant - would allow law enforcement agencies to tap all phones in any home or business used by, or near, a targeted person.

Barr acts on the principle that "I am not willing to sacrifice constitutional protections in order to give federal law enforcement officials more power they don't need."

Three years ago, Barr successfully limited governmental access - without court order - to commercial and private business records.

Barr and the ACLU are consistently sensitive to government abuse of omnivorous databases.  Barr strenuously opposes a national identification card.  ("I do not believe Americans are interested in giving the federal government unprecedented power to track and identify them," he said.)

As for the plan to create a "unique health identifier" for every American, Barr points out that this would give public health officials "a sweeping mandate to create a personal code to track the most intimate and private details of every American's health history."

Although such a card would indeed be valuable when someone is suddenly hospitalized, the information it contained could also find its way to employers and insurance companies.

Barr at least sends up useful warning signals concerning privacy.  He is also opposed to a government mandate that, he claims, will require, by 2002, that "anyone receiving welfare benefits will have to carry an electronic debit card which will allow the government to track their expenditures."

As for Barr's now-infamous speech before the Council of Conservative Citizens, he told that group in a Dec. 15 letter that the materials he received from it before his talk contained no references to their "repugnant racial issues ... If I had been aware white supremacists' views occupied any place in the council's philosophy, I would never have agreed to speak."

He added:  "I was not aware that your group opposed interracial marriage or argued in favor of the absurd view that Abraham Lincoln was elected by 'communists and socialists' when I accepted the invitation to speak."

Do I believe him?  I have only spoken to Barr once, on the phone, so I can't sign an affidavit as to his unalloyed veracity.  But the swarm of vigilantes who - because of his politics - attacked Barr's appearance that day reminded me of a lesson I learned long ago from a battle-scarred reporter:

"All the facts can be right - up to a point - in a story.  But if you leave out other information that casts that story in a significantly different light, you are likely to do a lot of damage."

Some of the journalists who condemn zealotry should look in the mirror.