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)
Singer Michelle Shocked strapped on her guitar and took the stage for the performance that would finish the first stop on the Rolling Thunder Down-Home Democracy Tour. Looking out at the faces of several thousand cheering Texans, the woman who has penned hits such as "Anchorage" broke into a huge grin and told the crowd, "We just didn't know what we were going to find when we showed up this morning. We didn't know if you all were going to show up. But I think it's been an unqualified success."
Shocked got no argument from the crowd, or from organizers of what may well be the most unlikely scheme to stir the nation's populist sentiment since someone suggested pulling together a protest outside the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle.
Texas populist Jim Hightower's plan to "put the party back into politics" with a rollicking national tour of speechifying, entertaining, organizing and coalition-building along the lines of the 19th-century Chautauqua gatherings had always been greeted with a measure of skepticism. Hightower's friends and allies mumbled that the Lollapalooza of the Left idea might be a hair too ambitious. Would it really be possible, at a time when conservative President George W. Bush is supposed to be enjoying 80 percent approval ratings, to pack a fairgrounds east of Austin for a day of Bush-bashing, corporation-crunching, plutocrat-poking politics with a punch? Hightower admitted that he worried about whether he would prove right one of the best lines of Oklahoma populist Fred Harris: "You can't have a mass movement without the masses."
Dennis Vegas is an unlikely campaigner against corporate excess.
Even decked out in casual Friday attire, he still looks like what he used to be -- a vice president for marketing of the seventh largest company in the United States.
But here he is in the parking lot of the Texas AFL-CIO headquarters, echoing the call of his new friend Jim Hightower for a grassroots movement to take on the corporate plutocrats.
Last summer, former Illinois state Treasurer Pat Quinn took a 167-mile stroll across the state of Illinois to promote an amendment to the state Constitution that would establish the right of every individual in the state to quality health care.
Quinn, a lawyer by training and rabblerouser by inclination, was accompanied by Dr. Quentin Young, a Chicago physician who has for many years been one of the nation's leading advocates for single-payer health care. Along the route, they were joined by Granny D, the 92-year-old who walked across the U.S. to promote campaign finance reform.
The walk got some publicity for a great cause and helped Quinn and Young shed a few pounds. But it did not attract many Illinois politicians - not even leading liberal Democrats - to the "health care for all" movement Quinn and Young sought to jump-start.
With "Irish on the Inside: The Search for the Soul of Irish America" (Verso), Tom Hayden has penned a book on the Irish-American experience that has as much to do with Independence Day as St. Patrick's Day.
Hayden, the '60s student activist who came in from the cold to serve with distinction as a California legislator in the 1990s, offers a radical variation on the history of Ireland and the Irish-American experience that, in itself, makes for engaging reading. But in the book's broader discussion of a "colonization of the mind," which causes peoples to abandon their own true history to gain acceptance by the elites they once battled, the author unwittingly succeeds in unlocking a piece of the puzzle of why the America of today is far less radical than Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin intended it to be.
Trust Hayden, whose own radicalism has always been a rich mix of Irish republicanism and Midwest progressive populism, to write a book on Irish-American history that is actually an argument for a re-identification of "white" Americans with the liberation struggles of immigrants, people of color and other victims of class and race discrimination. Hayden does this by returning to his roots - in Ireland and in rural Wisconsin - where he unearths the seeds of his own radicalism.
After months of struggle, first by Mississippi activists, then by national civil rights groups and finally by a handful of determined Democratic members of the U.S. Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday blocked the nomination of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering to serve on the powerful 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The defeat of the nomination came as a vindication for groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the Alliance for Justice and People for the American Way, which were viciously attacked by rightwing organizations, publications and senators when they first suggested that Pickering should be rejected because of his ties to Mississippi segregationists of the 1960s, his hostility as a federal judge to the application of civil rights laws, and concerns about his ethics.
The committee's rejection of the Pickering selection marks the first time that one of President Bush's judicial nominees has been rejected by Senate Democrats, who may soon be called upon to weigh the merits of a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court. To the delight of activists concerned by the caution of Congressional Democrats when it comes to challenging the president, the hearing that preceded the Pickering vote saw Democrats flex legislative muscles rarely used in recent months.
Referring to the Constitutional provision that empowers the Senate to offer advice and consent as regards presidential nominations, Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, declared, "It's advise and consent, it is not advise and rubber stamp."
Supporters of Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering's nomination to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- which is expected to be blocked this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- claim that he is the victim of a "liberal lynching." The spin says Pickering is a supporter of racial reconciliation who is supported by southern blacks but opposed by northern liberals. The truth is that Pickering has drawn more oppositionÂ from his home state and region than any judicial nominee in recent history.
To hear supporters of Pickering tell it, the only barrier to the judge's confirmation to serve on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals is a "smear campaign" conducted by a bunch on "damn yankees." In fact, the claim goes, southern blacks are backing Pickering's nomination because they know him to be a consistent supporter of "racial reconciliation."
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is widespread opposition in Mississippi's African-American community and across the south to the nomination of a man who worked closely with segregationists throughout the 1960s and whose judicial tenure has been characterized by a deeply disturbing antipathy towards the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights protections. But in a Capitol where spin wins more frequently than not, the claim that liberal northerners are at odds with southern blacks when it comes to Pickering -- and the parallel claim that Pickering has been unfairly attacked by liberal activists who do not know his real record on race issues -- has become a central theme of right-wing commentators, Republican senators and Bush White House aides who still hope to salvage the nomination.
There aren't many Democratic Congressional candidates who can claim that they personally thwarted the agenda of organized labor in the most critical legislative battles of the past decade, but former Clinton White House aide Rahm Emanuel can--and does. Northwestern University, where Emanuel has served as an adjunct professor of communications studies, identifies him as the man who "coordinated the passage of NAFTA." In addition to getting the North American Free Trade Agreement "ball across the goal line," as Emanuel likes to put it, Clinton's former senior adviser for policy and strategy was also a point man for the Administration in fights with unions over granting China most-favored-nation trading status and over fast-track negotiation of a hemispheric free-trade-area agreement that union leaders call "NAFTA on steroids."
That résumé might not sound like one that would be a magnet for labor support. Yet, as the millionaire investment banker seeks the Democratic nomination for an open Congressional seat representing blue-collar Chicago neighborhoods hard hit by the loss of industrial jobs, Emanuel is running with the endorsement of the Illinois AFL-CIO. Weirder still is the fact that Emanuel's opponent in the close struggle to win the March 19 primary, former State Representative Nancy Kaszak, is a lifelong backer of union causes who speaks with passion about the devastation wreaked on Illinois by more than 37,000 lost jobs directly linked to the passage of NAFTA.
What gives? The national AFL-CIO defers to state federations on local endorsements. And Illinois AFL-CIO spokesman Bill Looby offers a realpolitik explanation of his federation's stance in the Kaszak-Emanuel race: "She had the good labor record, but he had the record of knowing his way around Washington. The feeling was, he could be more effective in Washington." Illinois politicos argue, however, that the federation's endorsement resulted more from the machinations of the Daley political machine, for which Emanuel has been a fundraiser, strategist and well-connected ally.
Emanuel is just one of a number of Democrats who, despite playing premiere roles in pushing a trade agenda that AFL-CIO president John Sweeney has referred to as "an assault on American workers, their families and their communities," enjoy AFL-CIO support in tight primary contests with Democrats who oppose unrestricted free trade. As in the 2000 presidential race, when the national federation went all out for Al Gore--who had consistently opposed it on trade issues--several state and local federations this year have made endorsements that are causing a lot of head-scratching among union members who embrace the "fair trade, not free trade" line.
In Texas, for instance, Representative Ken Bentsen, a Houston Democrat who helped the Bush White House secure its one-vote victory in December for fast track, won a dual endorsement just weeks later for an open US Senate seat--even though the man he shares the endorsement with, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, clearly positioned himself on the opposite side of the issue. And divided labor loyalties in a freshly drawn Ohio Congressional district may well allow Representative Tom Sawyer, a frequent supporter of free-trade initiatives, to prevail over Ohio legislators with strong pro-labor records in a race to represent Youngstown and other steel-mill communities ravaged by the opening of US borders to cheap foreign steel.
When it's losing key Congressional battles over trade by a single vote, can labor really afford to send more Wall Street, not Main Street, Democrats to Congress? Paul Waterhouse, a top official with Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, doesn't think so. "Unions begin to lose faith with their members when you tell them year after year after year that trade is the central issue and then at election time say never mind," says Waterhouse, whose 21,000-member local is backing Kaszak over Emanuel. Trade was a critical issue in convincing the Teamsters, the Machinists and a number of other blue-collar unions to break ranks with the state labor federation and endorse Kaszak. Indeed, to the extent that there is union "street heat" working the district, it appears mostly to be for Kaszak, who is described by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal as having a record as "a genuine populist and community activist" that contrasts with Emanuel's "dubious claim that he has spent his life fighting for working families."
Intriguingly, the group that has placed an estimated $400,000 in advertisements on Chicago television complaining about Emanuel's support of NAFTA is not the labor federation that led opposition to the trade deal. It is EMILY's List, the national donors' network that backs pro-choice women candidates. EMILY's List was looking for an issue that would allow it to clearly distinguish Kaszak's Chicago roots from Emanuel's Washington-insider status. The Teamsters' Waterhouse says the group was wise to focus on trade policy. "Trade is an important election issue for working people in places where jobs are disappearing," says Waterhouse, who argues that unions need to recognize the power of the issue, as well as the importance of remaining consistent on it. "It really is a matter of credibility. We need to be the ones standing strong on these issues. If we say that trade is a central issue and then back people at election time who are on exactly the wrong side of the issue, we might as well say to politicians, Go ahead, screw us again."
At 1700 Birmingham Ave., in Jasper, Ala., sits the little white bungalow where Carl Elliott lived for more than 50 years. It is about as unassuming a house on about as unassuming a street in about as unassuming a town as you will find in America. Elliott died in Jasper three years ago with little money to his name. He had spent his last working years as a small-town lawyer representing the same farmers and working people whose cause he took up after graduating from the University of Alabama Law School in 1936. Had he been just a bit less honorable, Elliott might well have earned nomination to a United States Circuit Court of Appeals judgeship in the south -- not unlike the one to which President Bush has nominated a man who in the 1960s stood on the opposite side of Southern politics from Elliott, Mississippi Federal Judge Charles Pickering Sr.Unlike Mississippi's Pickering, Alabama's Elliott took a politically and personally dangerous stand against racial segregation at a time when such stances mattered. Unlike Pickering, Elliott surrendered his opportunity to live in a bigger house, to collect a big salary and to serve on one of the nation's highest courts. He did so because, even though he was a good-old-boy Southerner, he believed that African-Americans had a right to equal treatment under the law. Elliott is all but forgotten today, while Pickering is grasping for one of the greatest honors available to an American lawyer.With a Senate Judiciary Committee vote on whether to endorse Pickering's nomination scheduled for this Thursday, the battle over his selection has developed into one of the most intense political struggles of the Bush presidency. After stumbling badly in a pair of appearances before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he faced withering questioning about his segregationist past and his more recent ethical missteps, it appeared that Pickering would become the first Bush judicial nominee to be rejected. But the president has fought back, working to revive the Mississippian's chances along with the nominee's Senate sponsor, Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and anti-abortion groups that have championed Pickering's cause since he led the fight to get the 1976 Republican National Convention to condemn the Supreme Court's Roe-v-Wade decision."This is a good, good honorable citizen," Bush said of Pickering, after appearing with the judge last week. The judge's son, Rep. Charles Pickering Jr., made the remarkable declaration that his father had "always" spoken for racial reconciliation in the south. Of references to Pickering's pro-segregation activities in the past and his present opposition to basic principles of equal justice under the law -- such as one-person, one-vote -- the judge's son said, "Everything said about him is taken out of context. These are distortions and stereotypes to smear a good man."So let's talk context. Let's talk about the choices made by two politically active southern lawyers in the civil rights era.In those last days of the old south, Elliott was the rising star of Alabama and national politics. Elected to Congress in 1948, he authored landmark legislation such as the National Defense Education Act, which since 1958 has provided 30 million low-interest loans for needy students to study science, foreign language and technology. When the civil rights movement of the 1960s forced Southerners to take sides, however, Elliott risked his career to stand with those who favored racial tolerance. Elliott was not a perfect advocate for integration, nor was he a firebrand. But, when the time to speak up came, he condemned Alabama Gov. George Wallace and other Southern politicians for stirring segregationist passions, and he sided with national Democrats such as John F. Kennedy against his own state party. As a result, Wallace and his segregationist allies restructured congressional voting in the state in order to force Elliott from his seat. Elliott turned around and ran for governor in 1966, seeking to forge a coalition of newly enfranchised African-American voters and working-class whites to break the hold of the Wallace family and its wealthy segregationist backers over the politics of the state. He even cashed in his Congressional pension to make the fight. Elliott failed - narrowly - and was finished politically. As the New York Times would note: "(Elliott) sacrificed his political career to the principles of social justice." Charles Pickering Sr. walked a radically different road than Carl Elliott. In 1959, as a law student, Pickering wrote an article that served as the basis for a move by Mississippi legislators to strengthen the state's ban on interracial marriage. In the early 1960s, as a young lawyer, he set up a law practice with one of Mississippi's leading segregationists, a fiery foe of civil rights who ran for lieutenant governor on a "segregation forever" platform." After Fannie Lou Hamer and other Mississippi civil rights activists sought to be seated at the 1964 Democratic National Convention, Pickering was so angered that he announced he was quitting a Democratic party that southerners believed had grown too sympathetic to integration. As a state legislator, Pickering voted to fund the Mississippi's Sovereignty Commission, which was set up to fight desegregation. And, though he once told the Senate he never had dealings with the Commission, the recent opening of its files reveals that Pickering contacted it with concerns about an effort to form a multiracial union in his hometown.These days, the judge's defenders suggest that he should be forgiven his past missteps. Even as records of Pickering rulings from the federal bench reveal a penchant for opposing application of the Voting Rights Act and anti-employment discrimination rules to address lingering southern racism, and even as Senate hearings have detailed Judge Pickering's 1994 intervention with the US Justice Department to reduce the sentence of a convicted cross-burner, Bush, Lott and their allies in the Senate continue to claim that the judge's history must be seen in the context of the times. They point to the judge's rare deviations from hard-line stances and suggest that Pickering was on the side of the angels even as he practiced law with one of Mississippi's most outspoken segregationists.Perhaps Lott's spin could be excused if no Southern whites had ever stood up to the segregationists when it was difficult. Perhaps if the best that could be expected of any true son of the South in those days was the "respectable" support for segregation practiced by the likes of Charles Pickering it would be appropriate to dismiss the public record. But that was never the case. There was no mystery as to the right or wrong way in the 1960s, as lawyers like Carl Elliott recognized. When members of the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on the Pickering nomination, they face a choice. They can honor the memory of Carl Elliott and the other Southerners who took the risk of opposing segregation in the 1960s, or they can send a signal that in the eyes of the Senate it is never really necessary to do the right thing.
Dennis Kucinich never doubted that millions of Americans had deep concerns about George W. Bush's ever-expanding war on ill-defined foes abroad and on civil liberties at home. But the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair admits he underestimated the depth of the discomfort until February 17, when he delivered a speech to the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action, in which he declared, "Let us pray that our country will stop this war."
Recalling the Congressional vote authorizing the President's response to the September 11 terrorist attacks--a resolution supported by Kucinich and all but one member of Congress, California Democrat Barbara Lee--the Ohioan thundered, "We did not authorize an eye for an eye. Nor did we ask that the blood of innocent people, who perished on September 11, be avenged with the blood of innocent villagers in Afghanistan. We did not authorize the Administration to wage war anytime, anywhere, anyhow it pleases. We did not authorize war without end. We did not authorize a permanent war economy. Yet we are upon the threshold of a permanent war economy."
Kucinich's "Prayer for America" speech was interrupted by repeated standing ovations. But the real measure of the message's resonance came as the text of the speech circulated on the Internet--where a genuine worldwide web of opposition to the Administration's actions led to the posting of Kucinich's words on websites (including www.thenation.com) and dispatched them via e-mail. Within days, Kucinich received 10,000-plus e-mails. Many echoed New Jerseyan Thomas Minet's sentiments: "Since the 'Axis of Evil' State of the Union Address, I have been searching like Diogenes with his lantern for one honest person in Congress who would have the guts to speak out about the attack on Democracy being mounted by the Bush Administration. It has been a frustrating search indeed, and I was just about ready to give up hope when I ran across 'A Prayer for America.' Thank God for this man's courage." Others simply read, "Kucinich for President."
For Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor who led Democratic opposition to the US bombing of Yugoslavia and proposed establishing a Cabinet-level Department of Peace, speaking out against military adventuring is not new. But he says he's never experienced so immediate and enthusiastic a response. "We can't print out the messages as fast as we are receiving them," he says. "But I've read through a lot of them now, and they touch on the same themes: The Administration's actions are no longer appropriate, and it is time for Congress to start asking questions. The people understand something most of Congress does not: There is nothing unpatriotic about challenging this Administration's policies."
Kucinich was not the first Congressmember to express concern about Bush's plans. Lee cast her cautionary vote in September. In October, responding to reports of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Representative Jim McDermott criticized the speed with which the Administration had taken military action and the failure of the White House to adequately consult Congress. In December, Kucinich, McDermott and Lee joined five other House Democrats in signing a letter to Bush, written by Representative Tammy Baldwin, which noted, "We are concerned by those in your Administration and among our own ranks in the Congress who appear to be making the case for broad expansion of this military campaign beyond Afghanistan. Without presenting clear and compelling evidence that other nations were involved in the September 11 attacks, it is inappropriate to expand the conflict." Another letter, by Representative Peter DeFazio, called on the White House to comply with the War Powers Resolution before expanding the war. In February Senator Robert Byrd said that Congress should no longer hand the President a "blank check." Senate majority leader Tom Daschle suggested the war "will have failed" without the capture of Osama bin Laden--a statement rebuked by Republicans, who want no measure of success or failure applied to this war.
But Kucinich's speech was a clarion call. "For most people, Kucinich's speech represents the clearest Congressional criticism they have heard about the conduct of the war, and of the Administration's plans to expand it. That's enormously significant," said Midge Miller, who helped launch Senator Eugene McCarthy's antiwar challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967. "Citizens look for Congressional opposition to organize around--they look for leaders to say something. When I read Kucinich's speech, I thought, This could be a turning point."
It has certainly been a turning point for Kucinich. Overwhelmed by invitations to speak, he says his top priority will be to work with Baldwin and others to encourage a broader Congressional debate over international priorities, Pentagon spending and the stifling of dissent. Expect battles in the House Democratic Caucus, where minority leader Dick Gephardt has been more cautious than Daschle about criticizing Bush. But Kucinich thinks more Democrats will begin to echo Senator Byrd's challenge to blank-check military spending in a time of tight budgets. Kucinich plans to encourage grassroots activists to tell members of Congress it is not merely necessary but politically safe to challenge "the Patriot Games, the Mind Games, the War Games of an unelected President and his unelected Vice President."
Kucinich, whose working-class district elected a conservative Republican before him, is confident Democrats from even the most competitive districts can safely join him in questioning the war. "The key," he says, "is to recognize that there is a great deal of unity in America around some basic values: peace and security, protection of the planet, a good quality of life for themselves and for others. When people express their patriotism, they are not saying--as some would suggest--that they no longer believe in these things. There's nothing unpatriotic about asserting human values and defending democratic principles. A lot of Americans are telling me this is the highest form of patriotism."