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."
Even as Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone announced his opposition to
Shannon O'Brien had advantages going into the campaign for the
Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Massachusetts. As the state
treasurer, she'd won a statewide race.
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
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
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.
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
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."
The former Labor Secretary is a top gubernatorial contender in Massachusetts.
John Dingell and Lynn Rivers are locked in a battle caused by
Packing the judiciary with right-wingers like Priscilla Owen.
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
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
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
"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."