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Lonely Defenders of Civil Liberties

In the first of what will be a number of critical votes on renewal of the Patriot Act, only three members of the U.S. Senate supported Russ Feingold's effort to prevent enactment of a version of the law favored by the Bush administration.

Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the sole vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, has promised to fight at every turn to prevent renewal of the Patriot Act in a form that does not respect civil libertries.

On Thursday, he sought to clarify the rights of individuals and institutions that might be subject to inquiries undder the act. But only two senators, West Viginia Democrat Robert Byrd and Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords sided with him.

Some of my colleagues have been arguing, however, that we should go along with this deal because the conference report, as amended by the Sununu bill, improves the Patriot Act that we passed four and a half years ago.

Noting that Republican and Democratic senators who demanded changes in the Patriot Act late last year are now backing a version of the act that does not include the changes they sought, Feingold said, "I oppose the sham legislative process that the Senate is facing here. And I oppose the flawed deal we are being asked to ratify. Notwithstanding the improvements achieved in the conference report, we still have not adequately addressed some of the most significant problems with the Patriot Act. So I must oppose proceeding to this bill, which will allow the deal to go forward. I cannot understand how anyone who opposed the conference report back in December can justify supporting it now. This deal was a beast two months ago and it hasn't gotten any better-looking since then."

But the beast had all the Republican and Democratic supporters it needed Thursday.

And the Constitution had just three friends in the Senate.

Green Rooms

I do a fair amount of TV.

And though I never, ever, check my integrity at the door, I have to admit that there are some shows you wish you hadn't agreed to go on. I won't name names.

A couple of weeks ago on RadioNation, host Laura FLanders asked what it's like to do battle with someone on TV and then schmooze with them in the "Green Room" before or after airtime? I replied, in all honesty, that I almost always keep my nose in my files--which I carry around like Linus's security blanket. That technique effectively precludes hanging out with guests you'd rather observe than make friendly with. (Think Ann Coulter.)

But, I have to confess that Wednesday morning was different. I did schmooze. With Rufus. Who's Rufus? Well, he's the "best in show" from the Academy Awards of dog shows--the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, to be exact, which was encamped at Madison Square Garden this past weekend. Rufus is a colored bull terrier who won because the judges loved his fabulous head, which is perfectly shaped like an egg.

He nuzzled my knee around 7:05 am, in CBS's Early Show's green room, as I waited to debate Bay Buchanan about Cheney's shooting incident. (What is there to debate-except to invoke guidance from the NRA: Think First, Shoot Second. It's advice this Veep has ignored when it comes to, well, everything.)

And I nuzzled back, breaking the schmooze rule. Then I broke the rule again. Laid back, shaggy, red-haired, gold medalist, snowboarder Shaun White arrived with his entourage. He even had his snowboard with him. I wanted to schmooze but they whisked him off to an outdoor set. Then Rufus started barking and trying to wolf down some of the spread these green rooms usually have for (people) guests.

Heading downtown to my real day job, I thought that green rooms with champion dogs and snowboarders were a little crazy but a lot more sane--and ego-free--than those stuffed with aspiring politicos and pundits.

Connecting the Dots of Cheney's Crimes

Goodness gracious! Could it be that comedians are doing a better job of connecting the dots regarding Dick Cheney's high crimes and misdemeanors than are the unintentionally ridiculous members of the White House press corps?

Huntergate is certainly worthy of coverage, especially now that the vice president has admitted to shooting while intoxicated. But the on-bended-knee "reporters" who hang around the briefing room waiting for a presidential spokesman to feed them their daily diet of spin look pretty absurd chasing after this particular story with so much gusto while they continue to ignore the big picture of Cheney's misuse of intelligence data before and after the invasion of Iraq and his role in schemes to punish critics of the administration.

If the Bush administration's court reporters are not quite up to the job of holding the vice president to account, however, the nation's fearless comedians are up to the task.

"Good news, ladies and gentlemen," announced David Letterman after news of the vice presidential shooting spree finally came out, "we have finally located weapons of mass destruction: It's Dick Cheney."

Letterman scored another direct hit when he observed: "It turns out now that Dick Cheney did not have a license to hunt, and coincidentally, turns out we didn't have a license to go into Iraq."

Jay Leno was equally on target when he explained that: "You can't blame [Cheney]. Bush says you can spy on people without warrants, you can torture people, you can hold people without a trial, so Dick Cheney thinks, 'Oh what the hell, I can shoot a few guys.'"

Ultimately, however, it was "Daily Show" correspondent Rob Corddry who hit the bullseye, when he reported that: "The Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now, according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be a 78- year-old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face. He believes the world is a better place for his spreading buckshot throughout the entire region of Mr. Wittington's face."

All seriousness aside, there is a good deal of humor to be found in the fact that members of the White House press corps have finally been roused to mount the journalistic barricades by a hunting accident. While they cannot be counted on to go after the big stories, they are unrelenting in their determination to get to the bottom of every tale of celebrity folly -- be it Britney Spears failure to place her baby in a carseat or Dick Cheney's inability to shoot straight after he's downed a cold one.

But, as in the days when Pravda and Tass could not be relied upon to go after the big stories of Soviet shenanigans, Americans now know that, for the full story about this administration, they must turn to the comedians and the satirists who understand that Cheney's abuse of beer and guns cannot compare with his abuse of the most powerful vice presidency in American history.

John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."

Failing Upwards

One of the perplexing things about the Democratic Party is how it rewards and glorifies consultants and experts who get major issues so wrong. Back in 2002, former CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack's book The Threatening Storm, convinced a wide swath of the Democratic intelligentsia that Saddam possessed WMD's and thus had to be removed. Needless to say, he was wrong.

Undeterred, Pollack returned two years later with The Persian Puzzle, a book about Iran, which met with glowing reviews. Senator Jay Rockefeller, ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, gave his House counterpart, Rep. Jane Harman, a copy with the inscription: "Jane, read this and you will know what you're talking about."

"When Ken Pollack talks, I listen," Harman said yesterday at the Brookings Institution. You see, Pollack has just authored a mammoth new report on Iraq which tells the Bush Administration and the Democrats how to make that mess right. For the last two weeks, Pollack has been selling his recommendations in meetings with Congress and the Executive Branch. Though the report contains a lot of good, detailed information and analysis, Pollack's central thesis reinforces the view of many foreign policy elites that prolonging the American occupation will benefit Iraq.

That's a stark contrast to Rep. Jack Murtha, who states boldly:

 

Our troops are the targets, and they're unifying Iraq against us...Once we get out of there, it will be more stable in Iraq.

 

Words to the wise.

Harry Whittington, Prison Reformer

This afternoon, my friend Michael Mushlin--a longtime member of the invaluable Correctional Association of New York and a venerable professor at Pace Law School--sent me a worthy article offering empirical evidence for a proposition we intuitively know: Harsh prison conditions in fact contribute to recidivism. What struck me in reading the article, just hours after skimming today's New York Times profile of Dick Cheney's hunting victim, is that Texas lawyer Harry Whittington has made the same point. "While serving on the board of the Texas Department of Corrections in the 1980s," the Times reports, "and after observing the conditions in many state prisons, Whittington once claimed, 'Prisons are to crime what greenhouses are to plants.'"

Now, as the inimitable Molly Ivins put it in her column yesterday, Whittington isn't some flaming liberal. He's a liberal, Ivins writes, "only by Texas standards, and that sets the bar about the height of a matchbook. Nevertheless, [he] is seriously civilized, particularly on the issues of crime, punishment and prisons."

Seriously civilized. Hard to think of the Texans in this Administration--or its second-in-command, for that matter--in those terms.

Accidents Will Happen

This morning the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that ABC World News Tonight co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas is pregnant--mazel tov! Before everyone piles on about what this means for working women--if her maternity leave lasts longer than a weekend can all women be fired right away?--let's not overlook the most interesting bit. It was an accident! "This was about as unplanned as it gets," Vargas told the paper.

"I was shocked." (Vargas got the news 10 days before her debut.) So, a hugely successful, smart, rich, married woman with a three-year-old, who has access to the best medical care in the world, and is moreover 43 years old, can have an accidental pregnancy! Who knew? That must mean a woman can have an unplanned pregnancy and not be a careless, stupid, immature slut, who deserves the scorn of right-thinking people. It's great that Vargas is happy with her surprise, but if it could happen to Vargas, it can happen to any woman. Next time someone starts in on abortion as something that no one would need if women were more responsible, feel free to point this out.

Feingold's Frustrating Fight to Fix Patriot Act

The Patriot Act needs to be reformed so that it can serve as a legitimate national security tool without undermining basic liberties. That's the view of legal scholars, civil libertarians on the right and the left of the political spectrum, and the seven state legislatures and 395 local governments that have passed anti-Patriot Act resolutions promoted by the Bill of Rights Defense Committee.

For a time, it also seemed to be the view of a remarkable bipartisan coalition of U.S. Senators that in December blocked the Bush-Cheney administration's scheme to reauthorize the act without significant changes.

Unfortunately, the coalition fell apart when, under pressure from the White House, Republican senators backed away from the fight and, essentially, gave the administration what it wanted. Then, in another sign that America has no opposition party, senior Democrats joined with the Republicans to accept the White House-backed plan.

But one senator refused to go along with a reauthorization proposal that satisfies the president, but that does not pass Constitutional muster.

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who cast the sole vote against the Patriot Act when it was first passed in 2001, attempted to mount a lonely filibuster against reauthorization of the Patriot Act in a form that he said contained only "fig leaf" improvements. With little or no support from his fellow Democrats, Feingold was forced to abandon the delaying tactic late Wednesday, as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, prepared to force procedural votes on the measure as early as Thursday.

But, unlike the leaders of his own Democratic caucus, Feingold refused to embrace the deal that the White House has forced on the Senate. And the Wisconsin senator promised that he would use every tool available to him to try and amend the legislation before it comes up for final approval later this month.

"The White House would agree to only a few minor changes to the same Patriot Act conference report that could not get through the Senate back in December. These changes do not address the major problems with the Patriot Act that a bipartisan coalition has been trying to fix for the past several years," the senator said. "They are, quite frankly a fig leaf to allow those who were fighting hard to improve the Act to now step down, claim victory, and move on. What a hollow victory that would be, and what a complete reversal of the strong bipartisan consensus that we saw in this body just a couple months ago."

Blunt as ever, Feingold declared that: "What we are seeing is quite simply a capitulation to the intransigent and misleading rhetoric of a White House that sees any effort to protect civil liberties as a sign of weakness. Protecting American values is not weakness. Standing on principle is not weakness. And committing to fighting terrorism aggressively without compromising the rights and freedoms this country was founded upon – that's not weakness either."

Birdshot = WMD?

For Bill Clinton it was a stain on a blue GAP dress; might Cheney's Waterloo be an errant spray of birdshot? The way the normally dormant Washington press corps has seized upon this so-called "scandal," you'd think the country's lifeblood (and this administration's credibility) flowed through Harry Whittington's 78-year-old veins. Finally succumbing to pressure from Democrats (Nancy Pelosi demanded Cheney "come clean on what happened in Texas"), the nation's editorialists, and even fellow Republicans like Ari Fleischer, Dick is going to make a rare public appearance in a few hours on FOX news. Not exactly enemy territory, but give the man a break. He shot a buddy and hasn't held a press conference in 3 1/2 years.

The folks over at HuffPo have really gone bananas over this one though. Torture proponent Alan Dershowitz hypothesizes that the VP must have been up to something really bad (like drinking and hunting). Bob Cesca repeats Sirius radio's Alex Bennett's rumor that Cheney's missing hours gave the administration time to cover up his own private Lewinsky. It's like mock trial club meets Weekly World News over there.

The only voice of reason in the lot is Harry Shearer's Eat the Press which attributes the whole brouhaha to a little "psychological theory called displacement." The lesson the Bush administration might actually learn from all this: Lie about uranium to provoke war (no big deal), don't report a minor accident for a few hours (get strung up). The next time someone stubs a toe in the White House, I'm sure they'll convene an emergency meeting of Congress. I suppose politics by proxy is better than no politics at all, but I just want to scream: It's the war, stupid.

Impeachment Is Coming?

Has Paul Weyrich, a founding father of the modern conservative movement, been reading The Nation?

Via TAPPED, I see that Weyrich is ringing alarm bells over the possibility of Democrats impeaching the President should they take over the House in 2006. Quite frankly the chances of Dems recapturing the House, despite all the recent GOP missteps, remain slim, and the prospects for impeachment even slimmer. But listen to Weyrich voice conservative frustrations, citing government spending, immigration and the war:

 

I can tell you, if the e-mail and snail-mail traffic I receive is any indication, lots and lots of people are telling me they do not intend to vote in the 2006 election. Others are saying they will vote for third-party candidates. I hear that every election. Little comes of it. But staying at home is a huge problem for Republicans. To say that the grassroots are discouraged is an understatement.

 

Having exhausted gay marriage and showed their hand on the terror card, Republicans need a new boogeyman to drive base voters to the polls. Weyrich says impeachment is it:

 

Perhaps you haven't heard it before. Well, you have now. Impeachment. Coming your way if there are changes in who controls the House eight months from now. If the President and Congress get their act together, and with the possibility of another Supreme Court appointment in the background, and impeachment on the horizon, maybe, just maybe, conservatives would not stay at home after all.

 

We need Liz Holtzman on the blog!