It came so unexpectedly. Congress had been debating for three days. Now it was almost time for the final vote in the United States Senate.
Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was one of the last speakers. A camera poised high above Inouye picked him up as he strode wearily to the speaker's rostrum and peered upward.
Many years ago, Inouye's right arm was amputated as a result of a wound suffered in combat during World War II.
He wore a dark-gray suit with a white shirt and a silk tie. As he walked, one could see that the right arm of his suit was empty.
Inouye stepped forward to urge a halt to the rush to war.
"It is a tragic illusion," Inouye said, "to believe that the United States will not suffer casualties. We are playing the numbers game; but please remember, behind each number is a human being with his loved ones." There was utter silence in the sprawling high-ceilinged Senate chamber. Inouye spoke deliberately so that each senator could hear his every word.
"Mr. President," Inouye concluded, "in years to come Americans may be singing songs of glory about this war in the desert. But let it be forever remembered that many of those who participate in this war may just remember pain, brutality and ugliness." Inouye gathered his notes from the rostrum and walked slowly to his seat. The senators sat there in silence.
Senator Robert Dole of Kansas was the final speaker to step to the rostrum. Dole also suffered a serious wound in World War II. It is for this reason that Dole perpetually carries a sharpened pencil in his mangled right hand.
Dole and Inouye spent time in a veterans hospital together in Battle Creek, Michigan, while both were recovering.
Dole began by mentioning those hospital days. He pointed out that Inouye had turned out to be an outstanding poker player in the time they spent in the hospital.
Their paths led to the United States Senate. But their political philosophies differ greatly. Dole was leading the fight to give President George Bush a blank check to start the attack on Iraq anytime after midnight on January 15. But now even Dole urged caution upon President Bush.
"I've implored the president," Dole said, "that what we are attempting to do in the Congress of the United States is to strengthen his hand for peace, not to give him the license to see how fast we can become engaged in armed conflict." Much of the debate in the Senate and House of Representatives was impressive. Every minute of the three days was televised live on C-SPAN, the cable network that monitors events in both chambers. The nationwide audience was estimated to be in the millions.
Some of it was riveting. Politicians love to posture for the voters back home. But this was much more than that. Each member of the House and the Senate knew when he took the rostrum that this single vote was one his constituents would remember.
For many, it was the single-most important vote of their political careers.
Some careers were made during this debate. Some careers just as surely were headed to an early conclusion by the speeches the members of Congress made and the stand they took. We won't know who will prosper until the matter of Saddam Hussein and Kuwait has been settled.
With a quick war and a decisive victory, those who voted for aggression will be home free. But a protracted war in the desert and massive casualties will haunt those who voted to give George Bush, former head of the Central Intelligence Agency and oil man, his blank check.
By the time you read this account, the bombing of Iraq may have started already. But that won't mean that what took place during this debate is no longer worth remembering.
It was a debate of historic importance.
Who could ever forget the sight of Thomas Foley, speaker of the House, stepping down into the well to give a rare exhortation against the war?
Foley explained that he was stepping to the microphone to let the people in his home state of Washington know that he was voting against the rush to war.
He spoke of an earlier time when then-Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts asked that everyone vote to keep a peace-keeping team of U.S. Marines in Lebanon.
"I regret it today," Foley said, "not just because 300 Marines lost their lives, but because I took that vote feeling doubtful, uncertain, unwilling to commit myself fully to its consequence." Foley warned his fellow members of Congress what a serious vote they were casting in allowing President Bush to use all his powers in the days ahead.
"Do not do it under the notion that you merely hand him another diplomatic tool," Foley said. " . . . it is unquestionably a virtual declaration of war." When Foley walked back to take his seat at the head of the House, the applause for him began. It lasted almost a full minute and did not stop until he pounded his gavel repeatedly for silence.
Speeches were made during those three days that will be talked about for a long time.
The old Democrat, Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, now in his mid-seventies, arose in anger with shaking hands to deliver a thirty-minute speech against going to war with Iraq.
"I have cast 18,000 votes, but this one . . . " Byrd began, "but this is the most important I shall cast in my 33-year career in this body. It troubles me more than the vote on the Panama Canal or civil rights."
Byrd castigated Germany and Japan for not sending more troops to the coming battle.
"The two economic giants of Germany and Japan," he said, "have hardly spoken eloquently with their pocketbooks. They have only opted to hold our coats while we take on Hussein. Mr. President, I think this is a shame and a disgrace." There were surprising speeches given by obscure political figures.
Representative Romano Mazzoli, a Democrat from Kentucky, said as he cast his no vote:
"Is Saddam Hussein sailing up the Hudson River and about to lay siege to the World Trade Towers? Is he poised over in Clarksville, Indiana, about to come into Louisville, which is my district? No, he's not. . . . Let's give sanctions a chance." Here's how Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia looked at it.
"We should ask ourselves a fundamental question," Nunn said. "Will I be able to look the parents and the wives in the eye and say that their loved ones sacrificed their lives for a cause vital to the United States and that there was no other reasonable alternative?
"Mr. President, at this time, I cannot." Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware delivered an angry speech that was sharply critical of previous speakers and concluded by urging President Bush:
"But, for God's sake, don't start a war. Don't start it." There is a report of an exchange that took place last week between President Bush and Senator J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana during a Congressional briefing.
Senator Johnston asked President Bush if there was a way to withdraw any of the American troops from the Persian Gulf.
"No," President Bush said.
"If you cannot withdraw the troops," Senator Johnston said, "you have already made the decision to go to war." A protracted war and massive casualties will haunt those who voted to give George Bush his blank check.
"Will I be able to look the parents and the wives in the eye and say that their loved ones sacrificed their lives for a cause vital to the United States?"
"For God's sake, don't start a war. Don't start it.