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)
To hear Texas populist Jim Hightower and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. tell it, one of them should be running for president in 2004. Trouble is that each one says the other guy would be the best candidate.
Hightower and Jackson have been star speakers on the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, which rolled into Chicago last weekend. The Chicago event -- the second on a national tour that began in Hightower's hometown of Austin -- drew 5,000 people for workshops of food, agriculture and democracy issues, speeches by the likes of Studs Terkel and Patch Adams, and music from artists such as Grammy Award winning singer Erykah Badu.
At this county fair of the left, where progressives played TrueMajority carnival games ("Knock-a-Nuke/Build-a-School") and downed Organic Valley toasted cheese sandwiches and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, talk of a two-years-off presidential race ranked surprisingly high on the agenda. For the most part, supporters of the 2000 campaigns of Democrat Al Gore and Green Ralph Nader put old arguments behind them and focused on the task of beating Republican George Bush in 2004. While Gore and the predictable crowd of Democratic insiders are already hustling for the next nomination, however, there was no consensus about the identity of the best standard bearer for progressives? There was talk about U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus who has won high marks for his challenges to the Bush administration on military issues.
Outgoing US Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, was furious when the Senate failed this week to enact his pet project: permanent repeal of the federal estate tax.
"This will be a campaign issue," grumbled Gramm, who decided not to seek reelection as it became clear that his ties to Enron and other crumbling energy concerns were no longer a political asset.
Despite his lame-duck status, Gramm still likes to offer political advice, especially when it comes to lowering taxes for wealthy campaign contributors. And he is not alone. White House political strategist Karl Rove -- who is paid with taxpayer dollars to run George W. Bush's continuous campaign -- told business owners after the vote: "Don't look at it as a defeat. This is a war, and we need to make an ongoing commitment to winning the effort to repeal the death tax."
Senator Russ Feingold had hoped the Senate Democratic leadership would challenge George W. Bush's decision to withdraw the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. At the least, he had expected senior Democratic senators with track records on arms control to defend the agreement between the United States and Russia that since 1972 has underpinned efforts to curb the arms race. In a Senate where Democrats are still hypercautious about questioning the Bush White House on defense issues, however, Feingold stood alone.
"I wanted the leadership to take a lead. But when we contacted [majority leader Tom] Daschle's office, they just weren't interested," said the Wisconsin Democrat. Feingold knew that meant it would be impossible to get the Senate to block withdrawal from a treaty it had approved 88 to 2 in 1972. Still, he said, "I did not want the Senate to be silent on this." Three days before the June 13 expiration of the treaty, Feingold, chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, rose on the Senate floor to remind his colleagues of the constitutional requirement that decisions regarding treaties be made by the President "with the advice and consent of the Senate" and of the Founders' intent--as explained in Thomas Jefferson's Manual of Parliamentary Practice: For the Use of the Senate of the United States--that "Treaties being declared, equally with the laws of the United States, to be the supreme law of the land, it is understood that an act of the legislature alone can declare them infringed and rescinded."
"It is clear to me, Mr. President, as it was to Thomas Jefferson, that Congress has a constitutional role to play in terminating treaties," Feingold declared. "If advice and consent of the Senate is required to enter into a treaty, this body should at a minimum be consulted on withdrawing from a treaty, and especially from a treaty of this magnitude, the termination of which could have lasting implications on the arms control and defense policy of this country."
When Feingold sought unanimous consent to debate a resolution making that point, however, Orrin Hatch, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, objected. That ended any hope for a Senate challenge to Bush. Meanwhile, GOP leaders in the House blocked an attempt by Dennis Kucinich to assert that chamber's authority to preserve the treaty.
The failure of Daschle and other Senate Democrats to stand with Feingold illustrates how, post-September 11, the loyal opposition frequently chooses loyalty to misguided Administration initiatives over necessary opposition. But if Senate Democrats are unwilling to fight the power, Feingold hopes a judge will do so. He has asked for Senate approval to accept pro bono legal assistance so he can join a lawsuit filed June 11 in the US District Court in Washington by Kucinich and thirty other House members who object to the President's unilateral decision. Peter Weiss, lead lawyer for the lawmakers, says that if it succeeds, Bush would be forced, retroactively, to seek Congressional approval of the treaty withdrawal.
Feingold's participation in the suit is important, as a judge could decide he has better standing than a House member in a legal matter involving interpretation of the requirement that a President seek the consent of the Senate. Still, the suit is a long shot. A federal judge backed a 1979 attempt by the late Senator Barry Goldwater to block termination of a defense treaty with Taiwan, but an appeals court overturned that ruling and the Supreme Court refused to take the case. That does not deter Kucinich. "The basis of this whole government is the Constitution. When an Administration comes to power in a manner that is extraconstitutional, as the Bush Administration did, it becomes all the more essential that we insist upon the legitimacy of the founding documents, on the sacredness of those documents," says Kucinich. "Washington has become a very vulgar place, but the Constitution is still sacred."
In Texas, where he managed George W. Bush's political rise, Karl Rove was often referred to as "Bush's brain."
In fact, Austin reporters used to note that crazy notions Rove expounded upon at the bar on Saturday night had a funny way of popping out of his candidate's mouth on Monday morning.
The Bush White House has gone to great pains since George W. assumed the presidency to downplay the influence that Rove has over the administration's political and policy agendas. But the Republican faithful know the real story, and they have made Rove a star of the Grand Old Party's national fund-raising circuit. Rove regularly appears at $500-a-head, closed-door "VIP receptions" around the country. Republican operatives say he rates a bit above Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, and far above House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, on the list of most desired after-dinner speakers at gatherings of the faithful.
There are those who wrongly believe that the debate over civil liberties in this country breaks along ideological grounds. It's an easy mistake to make: Especially when Attorney General John Ashcroft, a certified -- and, arguably, certifiable -- conservative is treating the Constitution like it was a threat to America.
The important thing to remember is that Ashcroft's misguided war on individual rights has been supported at key turns by top Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-SD, and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. Both Democrats backed the draconian USA PATRIOT ACT last fall, as did the overwhelming majority of their fellow Congressional Democrats. And both Daschle and Gephardt have been troublingly mild in their criticism of Ashcroft's recent attempt to interpret that legislation in a manner guaranteed to undermine Constitutional protections.
To be sure, criticism of Ashcroft's excesses has not fit into the easy stereotypes that are often used to analyze Congress. US Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who broke with Democrats to back Ashcroft's nomination for attorney general, cast the sole Senate vote against Ashcroft's anti-terrorism legislation. Georgia conservative Bob Barr and California liberal Maxine Waters, bitter foes during the Clinton impeachment fight of 1998, held a joint press conference to condemn the Bush administration's disregard for civil liberties.
When the Kansas Board of Education voted in 1999 to remove the teaching of evolution from the state's science curriculum, most thinking Americans groaned about the growing influence of the antirational religious right. But Stephen Jay Gould, the nation's most prominent evolutionary biologist, refused to write off Kansas--or reason. He hopped a plane for the Midwest and delivered a series of speeches in which he declared, "To teach biology without evolution is like teaching English without grammar."
With its decision, Gould argued, "the board transported its jurisdiction to a never-never land where a Dorothy of the new millennium might exclaim, 'They still call it Kansas, but I don't think we're in the real world anymore.'" The reference to The Wizard of Oz took Gould from behind the lectern and into the thick of the public debate. That was where Gould, who died May 20 at age 60, was at his best. A paleontologist who studied the land snails of Bermuda, and a historian of science whose last book was a 1,400-page dissection of Darwinism and the evolution of evolutionary theory, the Harvard professor was secure in his academic place. But he believed that scientists also had a place in the popular discourse of the day.
Science for the People was the name Gould, Richard Lewontin and their allies gave to the magazine and the movement they forged in a post-1960s burst of optimism about the prospects of linking scientific insights and social activism. With his unique talent for explaining complex ideas through eminently comprehensible references to baseball, choral music and the shrinking size of Hershey's chocolate bars, Gould took on the yahoos who attempted to use pseudoscience to justify race, class and gender discrimination. His 1982 book, The Mismeasure of Man, gave antiracist campaigners the tools they needed to prevail in the bitter debates over inherited intelligence and IQ testing.
In the mid-1990s, when conservatives embraced sociologist Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve, which claimed that race and class differences were largely caused by genetic factors, Gould charged into the battle anew. His review of The Bell Curve for The New Yorker savaged the book for advancing racially charged theories with "no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism." As for right-wing politicos who promoted The Bell Curve, Gould wrote, "I can only conclude that [the book's] success in gaining attention must reflect the depressing temper of our time--a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be powerfully abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be helped, owing to inborn cognitive limits expressed by low IQ scores."
"What made Steve different was that he didn't make a cartoon out of science. He didn't talk down to people," recalled Lewontin, his Harvard colleague and comrade. "He communicated about science in a way that did not try to hide the complexities of the issues and that did not shy away from the political side of these issues. Steve's great talent was his ability to make sense of an issue at precisely the point when people needed that insight."
It is no secret that grassroots Democrats around the country oppose the free-trade regimen advocated by the Bush administration and the corporate lobbyists who have shaped the debate on trade issues inside the beltway.
The Democratic party's core constituencies well understand that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the normalization of trade relations with China and other corporate free-trade initiatives have led to the shuttering of American factories, depressed prices for family farmers and the use of trade policy to assault laws protecting the environment in the U.S. and abroad. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that NAFTA has cost at least 360,000 Americans their jobs -- and that is merely the easiest measure of the impact of free-trade agreements that allow multinational corporations, as opposed to citizens and their elected officials, to write the rules for protection of workers, farmers and the environment.
Recognizing the flaws in a corporate-dictated free-trade system, groups with a history of good relations with the Democratic party have been among the loudest foes of the Bush administration's attempts to gain Fast Track authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement that critics refer to as "NAFTA on steroids."
During the long months of post-September 11 presidential invincibility, no member of Congress climbed further out on the what-did-Bush-know-when limb than Representative Cynthia McKinney. "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11," the Georgia Democrat said in March. "What did this Administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered?"
The disclosure that President Bush was warned in August that Al Qaeda was seeking to hijack domestic aircraft did not confirm all McKinney's intimations--which extended to talk about how the Bush family might have profited from the attacks. Yet she was freed to stake a claim of vindication. "It now becomes clear why the Bush Administration has been vigorously opposing Congressional hearings. The Bush Administration has been engaged in a conspiracy of silence. If committed and patriotic people had not been pushing for disclosure, today's revelations would have been hidden by the White House."
McKinney's initial calls for an investigation of what Bush knew prompted a storm of criticism. "McKinney has made herself too easy a target for mockery," Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker announced in April. "She no longer deserves serious analysis." After Bush aides condemned McKinney's "ludicrous, baseless views," National Review Online editor Jonah Goldberg diagnosed her as suffering from "paranoid, America-hating, crypto-Marxist conspiratorial delusions." Barely a month after the McKinney-bashing peaked, however, the Journal-Constitution headline read: "Bush warned by US intelligence before 9/11 of possible bin Laden plot to hijack planes," while Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, said, "I believe, and others believe, if [information on threats] had been acted on properly, we may have had a different situation on September 11."
There were no apologies to McKinney. Brushing aside complaints from Atlanta civil rights activists, Georgia Senator Zell Miller continued to characterize his fellow Democrat as "loony." McKinney's critics kept exploiting the opening she gave them with her unfounded rumination on the prospect that something other than ineptness might explain the Administration's failure to warn Americans about terrorist threats. But her willingness to go after the Administration when few Democrats dared earned her folk-hero status among dissenters from the Bush-can-do-no-wrong mantra: The popular democrats.com website now greets visitors with a We Believe Cynthia icon.
In Georgia, where McKinney faces a July primary challenge from a former judge who labels her "off-the-wall and unproductive," a recent Journal-Constitution headline read, "Revelations Give Boost to McKinney." Letters to the editor, even from former critics, hail her prescience. And Georgia Democratic Representative John Lewis, who once steered clear of McKinney's call for an investigation, says, "I hate to put it in this vein, but she may have the last laugh."
In April, U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., got in a whole heap of trouble after she called for a thorough investigation of what George W. Bush knew before September 11 about the potential for the sort of terrorist attacks that would shake the nation and the world on that fateful day.
McKinney is one of the most outspoken members of the current Congress and her statements were typically blunt. "We know there were numerous warnings of the events to come on September 11th," she told a radio interviewer. "What did this administration know and when did it know it, about the events of September 11th? Who else knew, and why did they not warn the innocent people of New York who were needlessly murdered? . . . What do they have to hide?"
McKinney's call for a real investigation of what Bush knew -- along with her parallel suggestion that it was necessary to conduct a review of possible war profiteering by members of the Bush administration and corporations with close ties to the president -- drew a firestorm from pundits and partisans.