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March Madness Cinderella Story

Let the games begin! We're only to the NCAA's Sweet Sixteen and already there's a winner -- and what a Cinderella story it turns out to be. After all, the TV ratings are up 4% for the first rounds of March Madness, those days when the basketball games simply stumble and tumble on top of each other, morning to night, all weekend long and beyond, bursting the bounds of CBS TV and heading into other ad universes, streaming on-line while the advertisers (Dell, Courtyard by Marriott, AT&T, E*Trade, Microsoft, Sonic restaurants, and Pontiac, among others) stream after them. And inside the ads are even more "games" like, for example, the Sonic video ad in which "viewers can click through to a game where they can fling tator tots into a guy's mouth." Throw in your basic office or college betting pool; add in the perhaps $7 billion in March Madness wagers (more than for the Super Bowl) and all those crowds heading not for the courtside seats, but directly for Vegas; stir in oodles of frenetic rooting and there's no end to the fun until April 2 when it does all end with the last team standing and -- always -– the possibility of a ratings-trumping "Cinderella upset."

Actually, I'm not thinking about some smaller team winning the tournament -- it's already impossible -- but CBS itself. It's the real rags-to-riches (or is it riches-to-riches?), glass-slipper, Cinderella tale of this tournament, ditching its regular programming only to ride to ratings dominance. In a mere five years, it's turned the NCAA's college tournament into a corporate carnival that "generates more advertising sales than any other postseason sporting event including the Super Bowl."

This year, the network is expected to take in $500 million in ad revenue from TV alone, up a staggering 70% from 2000. Call it a slam dunk for CBS.

The Bring the Troops Home Amendment

Anti-war Democrats Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters continue to strategize about trying to get the House Rules Committee to allow consideration of an amendment by Lee to the Iraq War supplemental appropriations bill that would use the power of the purse to force the withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors from Iraq by the end of this year.

The supplemental appropriations bill, as it is currently written, provides funding requested by President Bush for the continuation of the war -- along with some soft benchmarks and timelines to which the president objects. Backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, the bill is seen as a slap at Bush but not a clear plan for ending the war.

Lee and Woolsey, California Democrats who chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Waters, another California Democrat who leads the bipartisan Out of Iraq Caucus, want more muscular langauge. And the Lee amendment provides it, requiring that funds be appropriated only for the continued protection of U.S. troops and contractors, pending and during a withdrawal process that would be required to be complete by December 31, 2007.

The Lee amendment also provides funding for diplomatic initiatives and for social and economic reconstruction initiatives within Iraq.

The supplemental appropriations bill is expected to be considered by the full House as early as tomorrow. Lee, Woolsey and Waters considered personally appearing before the Rules Committee to ask that the Lee amendment be prepared for consideration by the House prior to a final vote on the supplemnetal.

Pelosi and her allies have been cautious about allowing consideration of amendments. But some members of the Democratic caucus suggest that permitting consideration of the Lee amendment -- which would draw broad support, though perhaps not a majority vote, from Democrats and anti-war Republicans -- would make it easier for the speaker to attract support from anti-war Democrats for the supplemental.

The situation is fluid. Progressive Democrats of America, Peace Action and other groups are lobbying hard for consideration of the Lee amendment. Attention is focusing on Rules Committee chair Louise Slaughter, D-New York, a Pelosi condidante who is also a war critic.

Lee has been pressing her case, focusing on the fact that Democrats have already acknowledged the need to constrain the president's warmaking. "If we believe that the occupation should end and we reject the President's escalation scheme, which is what the House voted to do a month ago, we shouldn't be funding them," she says. "If we are not playing along with the charade that the escalation is working, there is no reason not to withdraw our troops by Christmas."

Whether Lee and others will get a chance to vote for her amendment remains to be seen.

If not, progressives will have to decide whether to make a difficult vote for Pelosi's proposal -- with an eye toward the value of challenging the Bush administration on the war. or an equally difficult vote against it -- with an understanding that, in doing so, they might be seen as handing Bush a victory in a fight with the Democratic leadership of the House.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Gonzales & Guam

Last February, The Nation published an article of mine, "Can Justice Be Trusted?" raising questions about whether the White House and the Justice Department replaced the US Attorney in Guam, Fred Black, because of an investigation he had opened into Jack Abramoff's lobbying activities on the island in 2002. This story is worth revisiting in light of the Bush Administration's firing of eight top US prosecutors.

Fred Black was the acting US Attorney in Guam between 1991 and 2003. In November 2002, Black began investigating a contract between Abramoff and Guam's highest court and asked for DOJ's assistance. Since Black's communication happened to raise serious questions about the integrity of a high-level federal official who was being renominated to his post, Justice passed the information on to then-White House counsel Alberto Gonzales.

A grand jury, convened by Black, subpoenaed the Abramoff contract on November 18, 2002. The next day the Bush Administration announced that Black would be replaced as US Attorney and demoted him to Assistant US Attorney, after twelve years on the job. His replacement, Leonardo Rapadas, had close ties to the Guam Republican Party, including the support of Abramoff and another lobbyist with access to Karl Rove.

A subsequent Justice Department Inspector General report found that none other than Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's disgraced chief of staff who resigned on March 13, handled Black's dismissal.

Potential US Attorneys were approved by a panel of Administration lawyers, who then sought approval from the Attorney General. According to the IG report, "Sampson stated that he could not recall any occasion when the Deputy Attorney General, Attorney General, and White House Counsel did not concur with the panel's recommendation for a US Attorney." After receiving approval from the White House Counsel (at that time, Gonzales), "Sampson said he would then discuss the US Attorney candidate recommendations with the President." Sampson said he replaced Black, along with other US Attorneys, because the Bush Administration wanted to "get a fresh team in." (The IG found no evidence of foul play, but leaned heavily on Administration testimony to reach its conclusions.)

Thus, it's hard to see how Sampson was acting as a rogue agent--either with regards to Guam or Attorneygate--as the White House now claims. And it's difficult to imagine that Gonzales was not intimately involved, first as White House counsel and then as Attorney General. "Did the White House interfere to stop Black's investigation?" I wrote in February 2006. "Was Gonzales involved?"

These questions about Gonzales--and the White House's uneasy relationship to the rule of law--have even greater significance today.

Kucinich: “I'm Talking About Impeachment”

Nancy Pelosi's attempt to keep impeachment off the table has already been upset outside the District of Columbia, as grassroots campaigns in states across the country have begun raising the prospect of Constitutionally sanctioning President Bush, Vice President Cheney and members of their administration. More than three dozen Vermont town meetings endorsed impeachment resolutions in early March, and legislators in Vermont, Washington state and New Mexico have mustered efforts to dispatch articles of impeachment from state Capitols to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Now, Pelosi's moves to silence this discussion in the Congress are being upset by a fellow Democrat, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich.

Last week, after meeting with pro-impeachment activists, Kucinich delivered a speech on the House floor in which he said:

This House cannot avoid its Constitutionally authorized responsibility to restrain the abuse of Executive power.

The Administration has been preparing for an aggressive war against Iran. There is no solid, direct evidence that Iran has the intention of attacking the United States or its allies.

The US is a signatory to the UN Charter, a constituent treaty among the nations of the world. Article II, Section 4 of the UN Charter states, "all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. . ." Even the threat of a war of aggression is illegal.

Article VI of the US Constitution makes such treaties the Supreme Law of the Land. This Administration, has openly threatened aggression against Iran in violation of the US Constitution and the UN Charter.

This week the House Appropriations committee removed language from the Iraq war funding bill requiring the Administration, under Article 1, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution, to seek permission before it launched an attack against Iran.

Since war with Iran is an option of this Administration and since such war is patently illegal, then impeachment may well be the only remedy which remains to stop a war of aggression against Iran.

Now, Kucinich, a contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nod, has begun contacting supporters to ask if he should embrace impeachment as a candidate and an active member of Congress.

"For four years I have been working to end this war, including leading the effort to cut off continued funding for the war. There is enough money to bring our troops home and we should do that. But the Bush administration, with the help of some in Congress, wants to pour more money into this war. Worse than that, the Bush administration now is signaling its intention to wage war with Iran. We cannot allow that to happen," writes Kucinich.

"So I'm asking you: Do you think it's time?" he adds. "I'm talking about time for impeachment."

Noting that "we are now have a condition in this country where we are told to take impeachment off the table, and keep on the table a U.S. military attack against Iran," Kucinich concludes: "This situation calls for us to reconsider very deeply the moment that we're in –- where our Constitution is being trashed, where international law is being violated, where our hopes and dreams for the education of our children, for the health of our people, for housing, for our veterans, are being set aside as we go deeper and deeper into war."

Kucinich's analysis is right. Impeachment is an appropriate tool, not only for sanctioning Bush for past wrongs, but also as a threat to prevent the president from engaging in new wrongs.

There will be those who suggest that, as a long-shot presidential contender, the former mayor of Cleveland and veteran peace activist is the wrong messenger. But the initial champions of impeachment are often political outsiders: like the abolitionist Whigs – including a young Abraham Lincoln and an old John Quincy Adams -- who sought to sanction pro-slavery Presidents John Tyler and James K. Polk in the 1840s.

"Radical" foes of the Vietnam War, such as New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Father Robert Drinan, a congressman from Massachusetts, were among the first to call for impeaching Richard Nixon. They were eventually joined by a Republican, California Congressman Pete McCloskey, who had mounted an quixotic anti-war primary challenge to Nixon in 1972.

The first members of Congress who dare raise the subject of impeaching any errant executive are invariably dismissed as premature and intemperate. But history tends to view them kindly, just as it tends to view poorly the subjects of their proposed sanctions.

The bottom line is that Kucinich is right when he says: "This House cannot avoid its Constitutionally authorized responsibility to restrain the abuse of Executive power." The congressman deserves credit for recognizing that "impeachment may well be the only remedy" for the Constitutional crisis Bush has created, and for the crises he now schemes to create. And if his fellow anti-war Democrats in Congress are honest with themselves, they will recognize that it is time for the House to start talking about impeachment.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

Halliburton's Wreckage

So Halliburton is leaving the neighborhood. If I were you, I'd start selling. It's a sign that property values are heading down in looted and Katrina-tized America. With full protestations that it really isn't going anywhere, Halliburton, with its $19 billion in Pentagon contracts, with its $2.7 billion in estimated Iraq overcharges, is moving its headquarters to Dubai, the Las Vegas of the Middle East where almost anyone is welcome to plot almost anything on the indoor ski slopes or private mini-islands. If I were the head of Halliburton, I'd be heading for Dubai, too, or at least for parts unknown while the Bush administration is still in office and I still had a roof over my head. Enron's Ken Lay could have taken a tip or two from Halliburton Chief Executive David Lesar on the subject. Far too late now, of course. And I wonder whether Al Neffgen, the ex-Halliburton exec running the privatized company, IAP Worldwide Services, that was put in charge of Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2006 as part of the privatization of the military, might be considering a holiday there as well. No mold, no rats (other than the human kind), just honest sun and sand, surf and turf, oil money and… well, everything that goes with it.

We always knew that there was a link between Iraq, hit by a purely human-made flood of catastrophe, and Katrina, which had a helping hand from nature. Halliburton had a hand in both, of course, picking up some of the earliest contracts for the "reconstruction" of each -- the results of which are now obvious to all (even undoubtedly from Dubai). The inability of either the Bush administration or its chronically cost-overrun crony corporations to genuinely reconstruct anything is now common knowledge. But it's worth remembering that, though the disaster of Iraq's "reconstruction" preceded it, Hurricane Katrina was the Brownie-heck-of-a-job moment that revealed the reality of the Bush administration to most Americans.

The various privatization-style lootings and catastrophes since then have all been clearer for that. Katrina, in fact, has become a catch-word for them. So when the Bush administration's treatment of the wounded -- though reported well beforehand -- suddenly became the headline du jour, it was also a Katrina-comparison scandal. ("Dems Call Walter Reed Scandal ‘Katrina of 2007";"The Katrina of Veteran's Care"; "Like Brownie in Katrina, Rummy did 'a heckuva job.' So has Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, Army surgeon general, who commanded Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004.")

Recently, Rebecca Solnit eloquently reminded us, however, that Katrina isn't simply some comparison point from the past, a piece of horrific history to keep in mind; it's an on-going, never-ending demonstration that we have been changed from a can-do to a can't-do society (except perhaps at the neighborhood level). Katrina, the hurricane, was then; Katrina, the New Orleans catastrophe, is right now and, given what we know about government today, that "right now" is likely to stretch into the interminable future.

Fair Elections Now

The cost of elections doubled in the past four years. The average price tag of a top tier Senate race came out to $34 million in '06. The next two years promise to shatter all campaign finance records, as Hillary and her competitors embark on a $500 million money chase.

At least two prominent Senators have had enough. Today Senators Dick Durbin and Arlen Specter introduced the "Fair Elections Now Act" to create--for the first time--a voluntary publicly financed system to cover Congressional campaigns.

Durbin is the number two Democrat in the Senate. Specter is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. Thus their views carry considerable weight. Both voted for lobbying reform legislation earlier this year, but believe it didn't go nearly far enough.

"We can pass all the lobbying and ethics reforms in the world and it's won't solve the real problem," Durbin says. "Special interest money will always find new loopholes to work its way into campaigns until we change the system fundamentally." Says Specter: "Public financing will go a long way toward restoring public confidence in our electoral system."

Their legislation is based on clean election laws already in place in Arizona and Maine, which are fueled by hundreds of $5 contributions, rather than $2,100 checks written by lobbyists, big business and rich donors. The Maryland House followed suit last year. In recent days, New Jersey passed a fair elections pilot program for a select number of state legislature and Senate districts. Reps. John Tierney and Todd Platts will introduce companion legislation to the "Fair Elections Now Act" in the House of Representatives shortly.

It took seven years to pass the McCain-Feingold soft-money ban of 2002. So don't expect Durbin-Specter to sail through overnight. But at least the conversation is shifting, from how corrupt Washington is to how to clean it up.

‘Two Blocks from the White House’

Just when it looked as if DC residents would finally gain voting representation in Congress with expected approval of the DC Voting Rights Act in the House this week, the White House – which recently promised to "look carefully" at any Congressional proposal on this issue – announced its opposition to the bill.

"The Constitution specifies that only ‘the people of the several states' elect representatives to the House," White House spokesman Alex Conant told The Washington Post. "And DC is not a state."

Wow. That's what the White House came up with after all of that careful looking? It must have had its top cherry-picking intelligence group on that mission.

Never mind the fact that such liberal ideologues as Judge Kenneth Starr and former Assistant Attorney General under John Ashcroft, Professor Viet Dinh, flat-out disagree with the White House interpretation. Starr wrote, "the Constitution's use of the term ‘State' in Article III cannot mean ‘and not of the District of Columbia.' Identical logic supports legislation to enfranchise the District's voters: the use of the word ‘State' in Article I cannot bar Congress from exercising its plenary authority to extend the franchise to the District's residents." And Dinh testified, "We conclude that Congress has ample constitutional authority to enact the District of Columbia Fairness in Representation Act. In few, if any, other areas does the Constitution grant any broader authority to Congress to legislate." Starr described Congressional authority to provide for the welfare of DC citizens as "majestic in its scope," including the right to end to the practice of taxation without representation.

In response to the White House's eleventh-hour opposition, DC Vote Executive Director Ilir Zherka told The Post , "Our supporters are disappointed in this White House where you have a president who talks so much about voting rights abroad but can't do it two blocks from the White House. The White House opposition is just going to fire up our folks." Zherka noted the irony of a Bush administration that seems to regard privacy and habeas corpus as matters of convenience but "... when it comes to trying to give voting rights, there's a concern about the Constitution."

Robert Richie, Executive Director of FairVote, suggests that opponents of this legislation let people know what their alternative is. "Either say what else you want to do, or let people know you don't care about a half million Americans being denied representation in Congress."

This is by no means a partisan issue. In addition to the bill's cosponsor, Rep. Tom Davis, Zherka notes that other Republicans – like Representatives Dan Burton and Mike Pence, and former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp – "are embracing DC voting rights as a moral issue and have the courage to fight for it."

No matter how this bill fares, 600,000 permanent residents of our nation's capital will continue to fight for full representation in Congress. On April 16, DC Emancipation Day, a Voting Rights March will gather at Freedom Plaza and head to the Capitol. Mark your calendars and help right an historic wrong.

Postscript: For previous posts on DC Voting Rights click here and here.

Who Will Replace Alberto Gonzales?

It is too bad that former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson made such a big deal last week about how he was considering a run for the Republican presidential nomination.

If Thompson, a lawyer who served as served as co-chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee and now plays a big-city prosecutor on the NBC television series Law & Order, was not so busy positioning himself for the presidency, he could have added another line to his resume: Attorney General of the United States.

In Washington, where the discussion about Alberto Gonzales' removal has moved from "if" to "when" speculation, the talk is already turning to the question of who will take over for the scandal-plagued Attorney General. Gonzales is in such deep trouble for lying to the Senate that even Republican loyalists are starting to give up on the prospect that he can survive the scrutiny that is coming his way.

According to US News & World Report, the ruminations on replacing Gonzales have centered on the appeal of: "a seasoned insider, a consummate veteran or an elder statesman who has bipartisan respect and acceptance and a squeaky-clean record."

As savvy political observer Ron Gunzberger notes, "[It] sounds like former US Senator Fred Thompson could possibly fit that description, but he seems to have other plans these days."

The serious talk about who will take over for Gonzales focuses on former Solicitor General and veteran Washington fixer Ted Olson; Larry Thompson, a former US attorney for the northern District of Georgia and led the Southeastern Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force before serving as Deputy Attorney General under John Ashcroft during President Bush's first term; and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who as a U.S. Attorney in New Jersey and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals before being named an assistant U.S. Attorney General under Ashcroft.

That's a dubious trio.

Olson played a critical role in "electing" Bush in the fall of 2000, when he argued the then-Republican nominee's brief in the Florida recount case of Bush v. Gore before a Republican-heavy US Supreme Court. As an assistant Attorney General in the 1980s, Olson defended then-President Ronald Reagan's role in the Iran-Contra affair.

Larry Thompson signed the October, 2002, order that rejected concerns about torture and ordered the removal of Canadian Maher Arar from the U.S. custody in a move that would ultimately land Arar in Syria. After the O.K. from Thompson, Arar was secretly flown to Jordan and then driven into Syria, where he was indeed tortured. After an international outcry, Arar's name was finally cleared in 2006 by a Canadian Commission of Inquiry.

Chertoff is, of course, the co-author of the USA PATRIOT Act. And, as the chief of the Justice Department's criminal division under Ashcroft, he advised the Central Intelligence Agency on how to avoid liability for torture, er, "coercive interrogation."

Come to think of it, Fred Thompson may be the only prospective replacement for Gonzales who – aside from an off night on TV -- has not been directly involved in shredding the Constitution.

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Non-withdrawal Withdrawal Proposal

Four years ago today, the United States began its shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq. It's the anniversary few want to remember; and yet, for all the disillusionment in this country, getting out of Iraq doesn't exactly seem to be on the agenda either. Not really. Here's a little tip, when you want to assess the "withdrawal" proposals now being offered by members of Congress. If what's being called for is a withdrawal of American "combat troops" or brigades, or forces, then watch out. "Combat troops" turns out to be a technical term, covering less than half of the American military personnel actually in Iraq.

Here, on the other hand, is a simple argument for withdrawal from Iraq -- and not just of those "combat troops" either. The military newspaper Stars and Stripes reports that, in January 2007, attacks on American troops surged to 180 a day, the highest rate since Baghdad fell in 2003, and double the previous year's numbers. Let's take that as our baseline figure.

Now, get out your calculator: There are 288 days left in 2007. Multiply those by 180 attacks a day -- remembering that the insurgents in Iraq are growing increasingly skilled and using ever more sophisticated weaponry -- and you get 51,840 more attacks on American troops this year. Add in another 65,700 for next year--remembering that if, for instance, Shiite militias get more involved in fighting American troops at some point, the figures could go far higher--and you know at least one grim thing likely to be in store for Americans if a withdrawal doesn't happen. And a decision to withdraw only American "combat troops," under such circumstances, is likely to be a less than halfway step to greater, not lesser, catastrophe.

Those of us who remember the Vietnam era also recall living through years of similar non-withdrawal withdrawal proposals. It won't turn out better this time around.