John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.
Nichols writes about politics for The Nation magazine as its Washington correspondent. He is a contributing writer for The Progressive and In These Times and the associate editor of the Capital Times, the daily newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers.
Nichols is a frequent guest on radio and television programs as a commentator on politics and media issues. He was featured in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “Outfoxed,” and in the documentaries Joan Sekler’s “Unprecedented,” Matt Kohn’s “Call It Democracy” and Robert Pappas’s “Orwell Rolls in his Grave.” The keynote speaker at the 2004 Congress of the International Federation of Journalists in Athens, Nichols has been a featured presenter at conventions, conferences and public forums on media issues sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Consumers International, the Future of Music Coalition, the AFL-CIO, the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the Newspaper Guild [CWA] and dozens of other organizations.
Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment (The New Press); a critically acclaimed analysis of the Florida recount fight of 2000, Jews for Buchanan (The New Press); and a best-selling biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, Dick: The Man Who is President (The New Press), which has recently been published in French and Arabic. He edited Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), of which historian Howard Zinn said: “At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift–a collection of writings, speeches, poems, and songs from throughout American history–that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country.”
With Robert W. McChesney, Nichols has co-authored the books It’s the Media, Stupid! (Seven Stories), Our Media, Not Theirs (Seven Stories), Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy (The New Press), The Death and Life of American Journalism (Nation Books) and, most recently, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (Nation Books). McChesney and Nichols are the co-founders of Free Press, the nation’s media-reform network, which organized the 2003 and 2005 National Conferences on Media Reform.
Of Nichols, author Gore Vidal says: “Of all the giant slayers now afoot in the great American desert, John Nichols’s sword is the sharpest.” (Photo by Robin Holland / Bill Moyers Journal)
US Rep. Nick Rahall's policy pronouncements tend toward announcements about extending water and sewer service in southern West Virginia, or the erection of safety barriers on dangerous stretches of Interstate 64. So much of official Washington was caught by surprise when the West Virginia Democrat appeared before the Iraqi Assembly Sunday "as a member of Congress concerned with peace" and declared, "Basically, I want America and Iraq to give peace a chance."
"Instead of assuming that war must come, let us find ways to discover how to prove that war is unnecessary," Rahall told the Iraqis. "It is time and, in my opinion, far past time that American andIraqi officials talk to each other without threats."
Rahall's trip to Baghdad, which followed President Bush's saber-rattling address to the United Nations General Assembly, drew international attention to a congressman who has spent most of his quarter century on Capitol Hill securing funding for road projects and mine safety initiatives. Unlike Bush, however, Rahall is no newcomer to Middle East affairs.
The biggest story of the biggest primary election night of 2002 echoed the biggest story of the 2000 election: Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the gang that couldn't design a ballot straight blew it again. Just as the fierce indifference--and in some cases outright hostility--of Florida officials to the practical demands of democracy warped the Sunshine State's 2000 presidential vote, so the "fixes" initiated by Bush, Harris and their legislative allies have resulted in another election without a result. As The Nation went to press, the contest between former Attorney General Janet Reno and wealthy lawyer Bill McBride for the Democratic nomination against Jeb Bush was too close to call and both campaigns were readying legal teams.
When Floridians went to the polls September 10 to nominate a Democratic challenger to Jeb Bush, they were supposed to encounter voter-friendly ballots, machinery and procedures. Never again would Florida voters be victimized as they were in 2000 by election systems that even the US Supreme Court, which awarded the presidency to George W. Bush, acknowledges violated the Constitution's equal protection clause. That was the promise of Jeb Bush in May 2001, when he signed reform legislation and declared, "[We] have resolved the problem. Other states ought to look at this as a model...."
Bush boasted too soon. Instead of a fix, he and Harris--who quit her job to run for Congress--cut corners, failed to recognize potential technical problems and provided inadequate resources and information to local election officials. The byproduct was such chaos in at least fourteen counties on Primary Day 2002 that it sometimes made the 2000 presidential vote look like a smooth operation. Poll workers failed to show up in Broward County and didn't know how to turn on vote-counting machines in Duval County. An optical scan machine in Union County registered votes only for Republican candidates. When new, ATM-style voting machines couldn't be activated in Palm Beach County--home of the butterfly ballot--frustrated voters walked away. A polling place in Miami opened five hours late, after more than 500 voters were turned away. Across the state, voting machinery in dozens--perhaps hundreds--of precincts failed to operate properly. Problems were so widespread that Bush finally ordered voting sites to remain open for an additional two hours, but some precincts failed to get the message and shut their doors.
As in 2000, problems were reported most frequently in heavily Democratic districts and communities with large minority populations, like Miami's Liberty City district. And, just as flawed voting systems and procedures made it virtually impossible to get a precise read on the results of the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida, so chaos in the 2002 primary voting muddled the result of the Reno-McBride contest. Reno had to wait for more than an hour for the computerized voting machine at her Miami-area precinct to function. "What is it with Democrats having a hard time voting?" Jeb Bush mused, displaying the same quickness to blame the victims of the state's incompetence as did Republicans in 2000.
The better question is: What is it with Jeb Bush and the Republicans who control the Florida legislature that they have such a hard time reforming a flawed election system that Cuban officials have offered to send democracy educators to the state? Florida isn't about to accept that offer anytime soon, so it falls to Congress to intervene. Bush, Harris and many Congressional Republicans have argued that states are best prepared to set election standards. But Florida's primary chaos makes it clear that it's time for Congress to pass uniform national standards--as proposed by Congressman John Conyers, among others--to guarantee that all states treat voters equally and that resources are allocated fairly to low-income and minority precincts.
Congressional Democrats, who have been negotiating compromises on election reform legislation in a House-Senate conference committee, should recognize that soft standards will be abused by the likes of Jeb Bush. And Florida Democrats, who have struggled to mount a coherent gubernatorial challenge to Bush, ought finally to recognize that repairing the state's damaged democracy can be a winning issue for their candidate--if they ever figure out his or her identity.
In January, when George W. Bush's pollster warned that "Enron is a much bigger story than anyone in Washington realizes," White House political director Karl Rove informed the Republican National Committee that this fall's election would have to be about national security rather than the economy. Rove wasn't practicing political rocket science; he was merely echoing the common-sense calculations of veteran Republican strategists like Jack Pitney, who says, "If voters go to the polls with corporate scandals at the top of their list, they're probably going to vote Democratic. If they go [thinking about] the war on terrorism and taxes," Republicans have the advantage. Now, with the election that will set the course for the second half of Bush's term less than two months away, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Rice and every other Republican with a talking-head permit is busy making the improbable case for war with Iraq.
Rove's sly strategy appears to be working. On September 4, the day Congress returned from its summer break, the Dow Jones average plunged 355 points. Yet the next morning's headlines talked about how Bush would "put the case for action in Iraq to key lawmakers." Whether Bush actually believes that the war he's promoting is necessary--or even marketable--there's no question that Republican prospects are aided by the fact that he's talking about Saddam Hussein rather than Enron, WorldCom, Harken, Halliburton, deficits, layoffs and 401(k)atastrophes. There is, however, some question as to why Democrats are allowing Rove's scenario to play out so smoothly. Along with those questions comes the fear that unless the supposed party of opposition finds its voice soon, Democrats could squander opportunities not only to stop a senseless and unnecessary war but also to hold the Senate and wrest control of the House from the right in November.
So far, however, most of the coherent Congressional challenges to the Bush strategy have been initiated by Republicans worried about the threat a war would pose to the domestic economy (House majority leader Dick Armey) or who actually listen to the State Department (Jim Leach, a key player on the House International Relations Committee). While Bush and Rove have had trouble keeping their GOP comrades in line, they've had more luck with Democrats. Only a handful of Democrats, like Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, have echoed Armey's blunt criticisms of the rush to war. A few more have chimed in with practical arguments against the Administration line, a view perhaps best expressed by Martin Sabo of Minnesota, who says that "to move into a country and say we're going to topple the government and take over the government--and I think inherent in that is also 'run it'--is not something we have ever proved very capable of doing."
But House Democratic opposition has been muddled by the fact that minority leader Dick Gephardt has positioned himself as an enthusiastic backer of "regime change" in Iraq. One senior member of his caucus says, "You can pin most of the blame on Gephardt. If he hadn't been so enthusiastic about going to war when the Bush people brought this up in the first place, I think they would have backed off." Acknowledging that Gephardt's position could make it difficult to hold off a House vote in October, Kucinich says, "I think it could all come down to how Daschle handles the issue."
Senate majority leader Tom Daschle is not doing Bush as many favors as Gephardt--Daschle at least says Congress needs more information. But the Senate's leader has yet to echo likely 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry's suggestion that a policy of containment would be sufficient to manage any threat posed by Iraq, let alone to express the steady skepticism of Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin, who left a meeting at which Rumsfeld tried to make the case for war and said, "I don't think [the Administration] added anything."
Daschle's caution is rooted in his concern that a misstep on issues of war and patriotism could jeopardize his continued leadership of the Senate. It's a legitimate worry; his one-seat majority could well be endangered if flag-waving appeals take hold--as they have before--in Senate battleground states like Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Daschle's own South Dakota. But Daschle's caution is not making things easier for Democrats in those states. It has simply left him playing Karl Rove's game when he should be saying what most Americans know: that in the absence of any credible evidence of an immediate and quantifiable threat from Iraq, Congress should not get bogged down in this issue. Moving aggressively to shift the focus from Iraq to corporate wrongdoing and economic instability would be smart politics for Daschle and the Democrats. More important, calling the President's bluff on Iraq would slow the rush toward a senseless war while freeing Congress to debate genuine threats to America.
Every year Greensboro, North Carolina, holds a Fourth of July parade in which local organizations form the units. This year members of the Greensboro Peace Coalition decided--"after some hesitation," admits chairman Ed Whitfield--to join the line of march. They bought an ad in the local paper, printed leaflets and developed their own variation on this year's theme of "American Heroes": large posters of Americans, including Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who have spoken out against the folly of war.
Though members had been participating in vigils since last October, when the bombing of Afghanistan began, many expressed qualms about marching into the thick of their hometown's annual patriotic celebration. But fifty activists showed up on the Fourth and got the surprise of their political lives. Along the mile-and-a-half parade route through downtown Greensboro, they were greeted mostly with applause, and, at the end of their march, they were honored by parade organizers for "Best Interpretation of the Theme."
Says Whitfield, "There is a real lesson in this. If you scratch the surface of the poll numbers about Bush and Ashcroft's overwhelming support, you get down to a lot of people with a lot of questions. Some of them are afraid that they are alone in what they are thinking. What it takes to get them excited and to get them involved is for them to see someone standing up so that they will know they are not alone."
The post-September 11 experiences of the Greensboro Peace Coalition, Berea College's Patriots for Peace, the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice, and dozens of other grassroots groups serve as a reminder that while dissenters have not always spoken in a single voice, they have had in common not just their unease with the bipartisan Washington consensus but the often inspiring experience that there are many Americans who share their discomfort. Take Jennifer Ellis of Peace Action Maine, who recalls how overwhelmed Down East activists felt after September 11. "But then we started to get calls from people saying, 'I don't know what your organization is, but it has the word "peace" in the title. What can I do?'" Some callers were already holding vigils, and her group started sending out weekly e-mails listing them. "We linked people up with local efforts to fight discrimination against Muslims, and we told people how to write members of Congress about civil liberties issues," she says. "Before long, all these people, in all these towns across Maine, were working together."
As with anti-World War I activists who looked to Wisconsin Senator Bob La Follette, critics of McCarthyism who celebrated Maine's Margaret Chase Smith's statement of conscience or foes of the Vietnam War who were inspired by the anti-Gulf of Tonkin resolution votes of Oregon's Wayne Morse and Alaska's Ernest Gruening, post-September 11 dissenters found solace in the fact that at least a few members of Congress shared their qualms. Three days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, cast the only vote against the resolution authorizing the use of force to respond. Lee's vote earned her death threats and pundit predictions that she was finished politically, but she won her March Democratic primary race with 85 percent of the vote. And the "Barbara Lee Speaks for Me" movement that started in her Oakland-based district has spread; in July several thousand people packed a Santa Cruz, California, movie theater to celebrate "Barbara Lee Day." Said Santa Cruz Mayor Christopher Krohn: "She's become a national moral leader in awakening the movement for justice, peace and a thorough re-examination of US foreign policy." Responded Lee: "It must not be unpatriotic to question a course of action. It must not be unpatriotic to raise doubts. I suggest to you it is just the opposite."
Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the only Senate vote against the USA Patriot Act's assault on civil liberties, still marvels at the standing ovations he receives when his vote is mentioned. "I thought this would be a difficult vote," says Feingold, who recently earned the best home-state approval ratings of his career. "What I didn't realize was that a lot of people are concerned about free speech and repression of liberties, even in a time of war. I didn't realize until I cast my vote that there was so much concern about whether it was appropriate, whether it was allowed, to dissent after September 11. I think that for a lot of people, my vote told them it was still appropriate to dissent."
Some members who have challenged the Bush Administration have suffered politically--notably Georgia Representative Cynthia McKinney, who lost an August Democratic primary. But most are secure in their seats, and one is even being boomed as a potential Democratic presidential contender. Representative Dennis Kucinich's February speech condemning the bombing of Afghan civilians and the repression of American civil liberties drew an overwhelmingly positive response that Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat, says is evidence of broad uncertainty about militarism abroad and economic and constitutional costs at home.
Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin led several House members in writing a letter in December questioning White House policies that emphasize bullets and badgering as opposed to diplomacy and development; and John Conyers of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has kept the heat on the Justice Department regarding civil liberties--often with the support of Judiciary Committee chair James Sensenbrenner, a conservative Republican. Still, says Kucinich, "our constituents are perhaps more prepared than Congress for the debate that should be going on."
Bill Keys, a school board member in Madison, Wisconsin, shares that view. Keys's October 2001 refusal to require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in city schools earned three days of broadcast rebukes from radio personality Rush Limbaugh, physical threats and a movement to recall him from office. The recall drive fizzled before winter and, this spring, Keys was elected president of the board. "The strange thing is that once I became identified as this awful radical, people started coming up to me and saying, 'Don't you let them shut you up,'" recalls Keys. "If the last year taught us anything, it's this: Yes, of course, if you step out of the mainstream you will get called names and threatened. But you will also discover that a lot of Americans still recognize that dissenters are the real defenders of freedom."
There was a huge outcry in France this summer over a move by allies of French President Jacques Chirac to narrow the character and quality of that country's political competition. Stung by recent shows of electoral strength by the nationalist right and the Green and Trotskyist left, France's political establishment is preparing to rewrite election rules in order to essentially assure that only traditional major parties of the center-right and center-left can prevail in elections for the domestic and European parliaments. Objections from across the political spectrum echo a similar theme: The changes proposed by the insiders in Paris would "Americanize" that country's politics.
Casual observers in the United States might object to the notion that there is something wrong with Americanizing the politics of France or any other country. But they should understand that the complaint is grounded in our own experience in the US. For all the frenzy and hype of the cable television commentators and the vast political industry that now operates inside the Washington beltway, our country's political processes have become so leaden and disengaged that they no longer are deemed worthy of attention by the majority of voters. Almost two-thirds of America's eligible voters (64 percent in 1994, 66 percent in 1998) no longer participate in Congressional elections, and the most hotly contested presidential election in a generation (the unsettling and unsettled 2000 contest between Democratic Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush) could barely draw half the electorate to the polls.
The range of opinion expressed at the upper levels of American political discourse have been narrowing for more than a decade, as marketing men and women have taken over the levels of power in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Even a misguided war and the threat of its expansion to dramatic new levels of folly, corporate scandals of epic economic consequence and the clear corruption of executive branch decision making musters little in the way of straight talk in a Congress where the calculation of campaign contributions takes precedence at every turn over Constitutional responsibilities and the public interest.
In barely 18 months, the identity of the Democratic challenger to President George W. Bush's 2004 re-election will have been determined. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe's front-loading of the nominating process all but assures that the fight will be over before activists within the party and on its fringes have a chance to consider the candidates.
Thus, Americans who believe that the Democratic Party ought to offer a choice rather than an echo of the Bush administration's voodoo economics are already beginning to examine their options. Fortunately, the recent congressional votes on granting the Bush administration "fast track" authority to enter into secret negotiations toward the development of a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas offer a good place to begin the analysis.
This summer's fast track votes in the House and Senate presented congressional Democrats - a staggering number of whom are pondering presidential candidacies - with some stark choices. They could side with the Bush administration, multinational business interests and the Washington "think tanks" that are willing to go to war to defend American democracy and values - unless, of course, that democracy and those values pose a hindrance to nation-hopping corporations. Or they could side with the trade unions, environmental groups, farm organizations, consumer groups, churches and international human rights campaigners that represent the activist base not just of the Democratic Party but of the nation as a whole.
After an often bitter, intensely ideological Michigan primary contest that pitted two of the most politically and personally distinct Democrats in Congress, U.S. Rep. John Dingell defeated U.S. Rep. Lynn Rivers Tuesday.
The result was a heartbreaker for women's groups, which poured time and money into the Rivers' campaign in an effort to maintain representation for women in the House. Rivers is one of just 60 women in a 435-member chamber.
The support from women's organizations such as Emily's List was not nearly enough, however, to overcome Dingell's fund-raising clout and powerful connections.
If there is a point to having a Congress in a time of war, it has been made this week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on whether the United States could, should or would want to launch a military attack on Iraq with the purpose of deposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Though this Congress has done a miserable job of overseeing the ill-defined "war on terrorism" that continues to cost an unconscionable number of Afghan lives and an unconscionable portion of US tax dollars, the hearings on Iraq actually saw senators approaching the prospect of an all-out assault on Iraq with at least a measure of respect for their constitutionally mandated responsibility to offer the executive branch advice and consent with regard to war-making.
Organized by Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joseph Biden, D-Del., a cautious player when it comes to challenging presidential war-making, the hearings were not nearly so revealing as the moment demanded. (Biden did not, for instance, demand that squabbling members of the Bush foreign policy, military and political teams appear to explain themselves. Nor did he call Scott Ritter, the former UN weapons inspector in Iraq who, as a self-proclaimed "card-carrying Republican," says of Bush administration sabre rattling regarding Iraq: "This is not about the security of the United States. This is about domestic American politics. The national security of the United States of America has been hijacked by a handful of neo-conservatives who are using their position of authority to pursue their own ideologically-driven political ambitions.The day we go to war for that reason is the day we have failed collectively as a nation.")