On Thursday night, Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sponsored a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Bill Richardson all participated. Columnist Margaret Carlson moderated the proceeding, joined by the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, HRC's Joe Solmonese and lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge. Unlike the recent contretemps at the YearlyKos convention, this affair was decidedly more civil. It had to be. The candidates showed up, one by one, to chit-chat with Carlson and friends in a rather antiseptic, faux-talk show studio. The audience was small, peppered with B-list gay celebs and mostly quiet. The candidates never crossed paths, and so, there was never any real debate.
Nonetheless, there were some interesting moments: Bill Richardson's supposed gaffe in response to the nature vs. nuture question (are you born gay or do you choose to be gay?), Etheridge's attack on Hillary Clinton's record and the general, totally gay enthusiasm of Gravel and Kucinich. I sat down to watch and discuss the forum with queer critics Lisa Duggan, Tavia Nyong'o and Alisa Solomon.
Richard Kim: So what did you folks think? The Human Rights Campaign has been promoting this event as an "historic" forum, the first of its kind. Did it feel historic to you?
Alisa Solomon: I have mixed feelings about the forum. My attitude going in was kind of cynical, yet I found myself moved at some points. But not only is it not historic, because it happened before, but it's actually worse than the last one. [HRC hosted a similar event in 2003 on CSPAN, moderated by Sam Donaldson.] This forum was on a queer cable network. It's not even on a mainstream network. It didn't involve mainstream interviewers. It's much more ghettoized. With all of these forums and debates, it's great that supposedly there's an opportunity to ask the candidates to go into depth on specific issues, whether it's labor or African American issues or gay issues. But there's something really balkanizing about it too. It's the worst kind of niche marketing. Are candidates going to discuss LGBT issues only before a queer audience, labor issues only before an audience of union members, and so on? And are union members the only people who are supposed to care about labor issues, and so on?
Tavia Nyong'o: The forum was what I expected it to be--circling back and forth on the question of marriage equality with some minor excursions to other issues like healthcare or employment. But part of what I found moving about the event was the raw political need emanating from interviewer Melissa Etheridge. Counterbalancing the insistence on marriage was this more general hunger for public recognition. It was almost a subtext of the whole forum. Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge indicated that they've had these conversations about gay issues in private, that they have this ongoing relationship with Hillary, with the Clintons, with some of the other candidates, and it was like they wanted these inside conversation acknowledged publicly.
Lisa Duggan: I felt cynical about it too. It wasn't historic, and not only was it ghettoized in terms of its circulation and broadcast, but the definitions of "gay community" and "gay issues" have become so narrow. Marriage equality has become the absolute litmus test. It's like seeing the women's movement reduced to abortion rights. It's like marriage is the only question and the other questions were raised on the side.
RK: Well, how do you think the candidates did on the question of marriage? There seemed to be two camps--Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who support full marriage equality now, and the rest of the candidates [Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson], who want some form of civil union and perhaps marriage equality later on.
AS: I absolutely agree with Lisa that gay marriage has become a litmus test issue. But, even though it's not the major issue for me, and even though I don't share the view that marriage is the way to secure health and other benefits, when I heard the candidates dancing away from it, it pissed me off. You want them to stand morally for equal rights and then make the progressive analysis that would call for a different relationship between marriage and the state in general.
RK: What would that sound like?
LD: Well, there was no question about marriage in this forum. The only question was about gay inclusion in it. It was up or down on gay inclusion. Full inclusion now or some incremental progress to full inclusion later, but the desirability of one size fits all marriage, over and above any reworking of options, was completely unquestioned. It was only about who we let in or out. Only Obama suggested some readjustment in the landscape of possibility. The really amazing thing about his answer was the idea that civil unions should include full federal benefits, and that marriage should be considered a purely religious practice. He advocated separation of church and state; religion should be over there and federal civil unions should be over here…
AS: But only for gays and lesbians. There was no follow up question that said--Do you think that's how it should be for straight people too?
LD: Obama almost went there. He more or less said that marriage is a religious institution and that civil unions should have full federal rights. It had more of a progressive edge.
AS: Well, Edwards tried to go there when he said he wouldn't impose his faith on the nation.
LD: But his answer to the marriage question was the worst in some ways, totally self-contradictory. Clinton's answer was similar in content, but it was much more polished and practiced. She had clearly thought about how to respond and how her answer would be reported in the press. But Edwards seemed nervous, unthinking. It's like no one coached him at all. I was really sorry to see that because in some ways his positions, especially on poverty, are more progressive than the other candidates. His whole speech about homeless gay youth…
AS: That was pathetic! It's 2007, and it's like the first time he's ever heard of gay kids getting kicked out of their homes. Though I do give him credit for bringing it up --along with adoption and anti-discrimination in employment and other issues that the questioners weren't bothering to raise.
RK: What did you think about the way Obama addressed the analogy between marriage equality and the civil rights movement?
TN: I appreciated that he pointed out how gays are being scapegoated as a threat to the black family. Family values rhetoric resonates strongly in black political settings, and I'm thrilled Obama is willing to take it head on in venues like the Howard University debate, and not just in front of a gay audience. I also think he's figured out where the comparison between gay rights and civil rights falls apart and becomes unproductive. The whole tagline of "separate but equal" that the questioners kept bringing up, they kept talking about it as it if were just a tagline instead of a whole institutional structure of segregation.
LD: When the questioners asked Obama to compare marriage equality and civil rights, he first balked at the question, then he said we're not talking about Jim Crow here. We're talking about inequality, but we're not talking about Jim Crow, so he did reference the structural difference. But it's like people aren't familiar with the basic history of the civil rights movement, that there's a debate and discussion over the failure of purely formal civil rights to produce substantive equality. It's like the questioners were totally unaware of that discussion.
TN: In some ways nobody seemed to have watched the Howard debate because that was the context of the whole debate--the fact that formal quality doesn't match up to substantive equality. That's why we still need the black debate now, to address all the issues of racial inequality that are still around. That wasn't the language of the Howard debate, but that was the context.
AS: What did you think about Obama saying that if he had been counseling the civil rights movement at the time his parents got married, when they wouldn't have been able to do that in some states, that he would have advised that the more important issue was voting rights laws, not anti-miscegenation laws?
TN: I feel that he came up with that just to short circuit the comparison between anti-miscegenation laws and bans on gay marriage. He's been asked that question a lot because he makes his personal story so central to his own candidacy. He can use this personal narrative to diffuse the one-to-one analogy between marriage rights and civil rights.
LD: He's the one that gets pressured the most on that analogy. So he has to come up with a response to that analogy in a way that the other candidates just don't.
RK: There were a couple times in this debate where the Howard debate and the AFL-CIO debate were referenced. This debate could be seen as just another one in the identity politics primary. What do you think about that and the way gay issues play into identity politics? It's not clear to me that, in fact, this forum is the same as the AFL-CIO one, which has a real institutional base, or the Howard debate which had a constituency the Democrats really need.
LD: Labor politics can be translated into a kind of identity politics, as if it's a special interest politics, but it's not fundamentally. Meanwhile, the kind of sexual politics that exceeds the terms of identity politics--that wasn't represented at all tonight. The Howard debate had a lot of depth about economic issues intertwined with racial inequality issues. This one did not. The people who brought those structural issues up tonight were the candidates, not the questioners. And when the candidates were advocating employment nondiscrimination or improvements in health care, the questions would just come back to marriage.
RK: What did you all think about the way Bill Richardson answered the question, posed by Melissa Etheridge, about whether you are born gay or choose to be gay?
AS: I thought Richardson's failure to grasp that question was one of the most poignant moments of the entire forum. It honestly didn't matter to him. It just wasn't computing. Why would it matter? Why would protection from discrimination be appropriate for people who were born Jewish but not for people who converted to Judaism? It makes no logical sense whatsoever, and I think that's why it wasn't computing with him, and I found that kind of endearing and also heartening.
LD: I think it was the inadvertent best moment in the whole forum because his answer was basically so good. He said it doesn't matter, that equality isn't a matter of choice or biology. It's when he said, "I don't want to characterize people according to some standards of science that I don't understand."
AS: It was his least political, most direct answer. You could really see him processing the question and trying to think it through because for once, he didn't have a prepared answer. It was very naked and honest--and right-on.
LD: They pushed him on it over and over again. Margaret Carlson followed up and explained to him that saying you are born gay is the ground on which equality can be claimed. But he was clearly, absolutely resisting the language of choice versus biology. It's not clear to me why he was, but he was.
TN: That marks a certain political shift. I thought it was a positive sign.
RK: Do you feel like the questioners treated Clinton, Edwards and Obama differently than they treated the other candidates?
AS: I think HRC felt that with Gravel and Kucinich, they [HRC] were doing those marginal candidates a favor by letting them participate. Gravel even called Joe Solmonese on his decision to exclude him at first. But with the other candidates, the vibe was more that those front-running candidates were doing HRC a favor just by showing up--sort of feeding the tacit expression of need that Tavia mentioned earlier. Melissa Etheridge kept telling candidates how honored and grateful she was that they came, as if we don't have every right simply to expect candidates to show up.
LD: Kucinich went down the list of economic issues, peace and war issues, all the big issues in this election that matter to everyone. He went down the list of gay issues too, but he also mentioned universal healthcare. He used the words "not for profit" and "Medicare for all," and he was the only one to do so.
AS: Those were the points that got no applause. His answer to the question about health benefits for same-sex partners was that there should be healthcare for all. If he had said marriage rights, everyone would have clapped. But they didn't clap for universal healthcare. It was the same thing when he said he voted against the war. Silence.
RK: What did you think about the format of the forum? What about the audience?
TN: The audience was salted with former and current Logo talent and the cast of Noah's Ark. It's like, they didn't even go outside the building to get the audience. It was a talk show format instead of a political debate or discussion.
AS: There was no idea of collectivity or movement because of the format.
RK: Who do you think won?
LD: Substantively, I think Obama won. But in terms of positioning and media savvy, I think Hillary Clinton did.
TN: I thought Hillary was a clear winner in the Howard debate, which was surprising. She did so much better than Obama and Richardson, and she really connected with the crowd, which was huge there. Here there was no crowd, a tiny studio audience, so it was harder for her to do that. I thought she did well and was very polished, but I think the performances evened out here. She did better than Edwards. The hardest question for her to deal with was when Melissa Etheridge asked her why her husband had abandoned gay people in 1996…
AS: She said, "You threw us under a bus!"
TN: Right, it was the toughest question of the night because she has a record to stand on, when her husband was in the White House and her votes in the Senate. I think there's some kind of spell that Hillary Clinton puts us under. Because if you follow the logic of her reasoning, her narration is that we've been steadily moving along a progressive path since the ‘90s in this country, and that's totally counterfactual.
AS: I think what she said was more complicated and calculated. She said we had been in a horrifying moment, and when anti-gay politics was used cynically and viciously, and it got personal. It was ugly, and we really had to fight against that and it was a big setback for us. She used that description to define a difference between Democrats and Republicans as well as to excuse some of her questionable earlier support for such legislation as DOMA, which she characterized as a bulwark against the riled up pressure for a marriage amendment.
LD: What about when she was asked why, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, why she didn't introduce legislation to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.
AS: You didn't find her answer persuasive?
AS: Why didn't you? Not that I did, necessarily. But where do you see the flaw in her being strategic as a legislator and asking--Why bother under a Republican Congress, under a completely hostile President?
LD: Because there are other reasons than winning to introduce legislation. If you accept her pragmatic terms, the kind of politician she is, then that's the answer. But if you were a different kind of politician, then there's another kind of answer.
TN: Bill Richardson tried to get domestic partnership rights in New Mexico. That's the one thing I really responded to in his attempt to say he has a progressive record. I found myself sympathizing with him when he said that he's been trying to get this done in a Western state, not Massachusetts, but spending political capital in this area. What irks me about Hillary's progress narrative is that it re-writes her own history. She could have actually taken a symbolic stand on a bill in the Senate to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But she's not prepared to do that kind of thing. Richardson was willing to call a special session and lose.
LD: Going back to the progress narrative…the problem is that it frames as inevitable something which requires political will. So rather than saying we need political will, we just say we should trust in inevitability or in the goodness of the American people. So it lets everyone off the hook in terms of the risks and efforts that are required to organize political will. One of the central tricks of American liberal discourse is to frame political progress as inevitable. So you let everyone off the hook.
AS: That's one way to read it, but another way--which the candidates at the forum also invoked--is to applaud the LGBT movement, to say what you are doing is admirable. You are on the streets. And I'm right there with you. Still another way of using the progress narrative is to stir people, to say that the train is going, and you should get on, and you should help push.
RK: Kucinich and Gravel said things similar to that…
TN: Here's where I miss Al Sharpton. Al Sharpton would have said, "I support gay marriage. I've performed gay marriage." But then he would have turned it around and made the conversation much more political. And I think, even Kucinich, he kind of resorted to a kind of "I love gays" argument.
LD: I miss Sharpton and Jesse Jackson too, because they were the kind of candidates who would turn things around and challenge the questioners and challenge the audience. They would turn around and say, "Well I'm for this, but what are you for? Are you standing up for other people too?" And none of these candidates did that tonight.
In less than three weeks Kenneth Foster, an African American man sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of Michael LaHood, is scheduled to be executed in Texas.
LaHood's actual killer, Mauriceo Brown, was executed in 2006. Foster, who was in a car about 100 yards from the crime when it was committed, was convicted under the controversial Texas state "law of parties", under which the distinction between principal actor and accomplice in a crime is abolished. The law can impose the death penalty on anybody involved in a crime where a murder occurred. In Foster's case he was driving a car with three passengers, one of whom, Brown, left the car, got into an altercation and shot LaHood dead. Texas is the only state that applies this statute in capital cases, making it the only place in the United States where a person can be factually innocent of murder and still face the death penalty.
Foster maintains that he did not know that Brown would either rob or kill LaHood. According to an Amnesty International investigation, there is evidence not heard at trial that the murder was an unplanned act committed by Brown, as the latter himself claimed before his execution.
In 2005, a federal district judge found a "fundamental constitutional defect in Foster's sentence" and ruled that Foster's jury had not been asked to determine if he had any intent to kill LaHood, and that this failure represented a misapplication of the law. However, the state of Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the decision.
The crazy thing about this case is that no one argues that Foster killed the victim. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's award-winning columnist Bob Ray Sanders wrote, the case "is further proof of how cruel, capricious, unjust and utterly insane our death penalty laws have become....Because of this tainted system, whether you believe in capital punishment or not, a man who did not plan or commit a murder will die August 30 unless somebody -- a judge, the Board of Pardons and Paroles and/or the governor-- has the heart and the guts to stop it."
You can help these folks get up the guts at freekenneth.com. Find updates on the case and urge members of the Texas legislature to stay Foster's execution and ask for a re-trial based on new evidence.
Telecommunications giant AT&T says no one should worry about their aggressive lobbying to eliminate net neutrality -- the first amendment of the internet that guarantees equality of access to all websites.
AT&T executives claim they would never interfere with web content.
When Americans hear this spin, they should hang up on AT&T.
The truth is that, within business circles, the company is already promoting its schemes for "shaping" the internet if net neutrality protections fall.
And a good sense of how the telecommunications corporation would like to "shape" the world wide web can be gleaned from reports of how AT&T managed the live webcast of last weekend's Lollapalooza concert when it came time for Pearl Jam to perform.
The Seattle-based band has a long history of highlighting smart political statements -- about war and peace, protecting the environment and promoting tolerance -- in its songs and in the on-stage comments of lead singer Eddie Vedder.
But on Sunday, when Pearl Jam was performing the song "Daughter" during the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, the band broke into a version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." Reworking the lyrics of the classic rock song, Vedder sang, "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush, find yourself another home."
The lyrics that criticized Bush were muted in the webcast.
Coincidence? Not at all.
AT&T admits that the censorship occurred. The company describes the muting of Vedder's references to a president who appoints Federal Communications Commissioners -- and, thus, has a major role in deciding whether AT&T gets what it wants -- as "a mistake by a webcast vendor."
Then, in a nice Orwellian twist, the company declares, "We have policies in place with respect to editing excessive profanity, but AT&T does not censor performances."
In fact, "editing excessive profanity" is censorship.
And, of course, Vedder's lyrics about Bush, which were not profane, did in fact get censored.
Web-savvy Pearl Jam fans noted the silencing of the message and immediately contacted the band. Pearl Jam members released a statement on the censorship incident that declared, "This, of course, troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issue of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media. AT&T's actions strike at the heart of the public's concerns over the power that corporations have when it comes to determining what the public sees and hears through communications media."
Pearl Jam's statement continued: "What happened to us this weekend was a wake-up call, and it's about something much bigger than the censorship of a rock band."
The band's right. The censorship of Pearl Jam by AT&T serves as a reminder of what will be lost if net neutrality is eliminated and telecommunications corporations are free to decide which web sites are on "the information superhighway of the future" and which are on the gravel road of slow or impossible connections.
"This event shows that companies like AT&T will risk the appearance of censorship by turning off the sound on a webcast that's being viewed by thousands of people, just because it works counter to their financial interests," says Jenny Toomey, the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, which has been working to defend net neutrality. "What do you think they will do to protect their financial interests on the web when no one is looking?"
Tim Karr, of the Save the Internet coalition, adds that, "AT&T's history of breaking trust with their customers includes: handing over private phone records to the government; promising to deliver services to underserved communities and then skipping town; and pledging never to interfere with the free flow of information online while hatching plans... to build and deploy technology that will spy on user traffic."
"The moral of this story is put Net Neutrality permanently into law and never trust AT&T at their word," says Karr. "The company acts in bad faith toward the public interest and will do whatever it can to pad it's bottom line -- including sacrificing its users freedom to choose where they go, what they watch and whom they listen to online."
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the nation's media reform network, which has helped to organize the campaign to defend net neutrality. With Robert W. McChesney, he is the co-author of Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy [The New Press].
When the levees broke in New Orleans, I wrote about the desperate need for a New Deal for the 21st Century – one which would rebuild a crumbling infrastructure, help address glaring income inequality, and repair the damage done by a Bush administration fiercely hostile to the notion that government can serve the public good.
The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis is yet another alarm, alerting us to our skewed priorities and need for a public investment agenda.
As The Nation argues in its forthcoming lead editorial, the neglect of our infrastructure is seen in collapsing bridges and exploding steam pipes, flooded subways, traffic-choked streets and clogged-up ports, electrical power brownouts, corroding drinking water systems, uneven broadband access, and an antiquated air traffic system.
The US Department of Transportation estimated that freight bottlenecks cost the economy $200 billion a year--nearly 1.6 percent of GDP. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that it would cost $151 billion and $390 billion every year over the next 20 years to repair obsolete drinking water and wastewater systems, respectively -- systems that average 50 to 100 years of age. According to the Federal Highway Administration, $131.7 billion and $9.4 billion is needed every year over the next 20 years to repair deficient roads and bridges, respectively. Moreover, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $1.6 trillion over the next five years would be required to alleviate problems with the nation's infrastructure. As John Nichols wrote, "That $1.6 trillion figure sounds like a lot of money, unless it is compared with the anticipated cost of $1 trillion or more for completing George Bush's mission in Iraq."
This is eminently doable, it's a question of political will.
Following the bridge collapse, Senators Christopher Dodd and Chuck Hagel introduced legislation to establish a National Infrastructure Bank that would enable the federal government to help finance infrastructure projects – partly through federal guarantees to state and local governments. Projects would include publicly-owned mass transit systems, roads, bridges, drinking water and wastewater systems, and housing properties. In the House, Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Steven LaTourette introduced The Rebuilding America's Infrastructure Act which would create a low-cost federal financing mechanism to administer zero-interest loans to localities. States choose which projects to fund with the loans according to their specific needs.
The problem is that the Dodd bill, as well-intentioned as it is, would still invest only $60 billion a year – which pales in comparison to the scope of the problem. Similarly, Senator Bernie Sanders good bill to foster green collar jobs – which passed in the House too – also allots only $100 million. A much bolder undertaking is needed.
In a forthcoming paper for the New America Foundation economist (and sometime Nation contributor) James K. Galbraith writes, "Contrary to considerable myth, economic development in America has never been a purely private matter." Galbraith cites the Congress of 1862 and its authorization of land grant universities, homesteading, and the transcontinental railroads. And the New Deal which "laid down much of the public architectural legacy with which we live today."
Galbraith describes attempts in the 1980's to foster higher infrastructure investment on a systematic basis – such as Representatives Lee Hamilton and James Howard's effort to create a Federal Infrastructure Bank "which would have provided funds on a revolving basis to states and cities to support local and regional infrastructure." And late in the Clinton administration similar ideas were discussed "but of course died with the arrival of the Bush government."
In order to address the infrastructure needs – and the transition to a low-carbon emissions society that is required to meet the challenge of global warming – Galbraith calls for a Federal Infrastructure Bank to assist state and local governments with financial resources; and investments in universities and research centers to develop the needed specialists in urban design, environmental engineering, energy economics, transportation systems, carbon sequestration, the management of carbon trading markets and other fields. Galbraith estimates that a new large scale public investment initiative could be undertaken that amounts to new expenditures rising to two percent of GDP over a period of a few years – approximately 290 billion dollars per year in present dollars. (Roughly one-half of the current national security budget.)
In Hometown America, a report based on two years of research by a group of progressive thinkers, the authors write that "for the past 20 to 30 years, major parts of our economy and society have been short-changed – trillions of dollars of investment needed but not made in healthcare, education, energy independence, and a broad range of other essentials. We conclude that serious reforms are needed to make up for these shortfalls and to build a new generation of growth and middle class prosperity."
The report argues that the last great American middle class – created on rising wages, a strong industrial economy, and government programs that expanded public education, increased home ownership and eliminated poverty in old age – has eroded over the last three decades due to globalization, financial liberalization at the expense of middle class prosperity, an increased tax burden on the middle class, and military adventures abroad over public investments at home. The authors call for using "government much like an earlier generation did to create a high-wage and technologically advanced economy with a broad base of middle class jobs."
The report outlines "a new federal revenue sharing and regional decision-making process…."; a National Capital Budget and Development Bank "to finance and oversee the substantial resources that federal, state, and local governments will need to accomplish major reforms in healthcare, education, energy use, and other key areas"; and "reining in an over-reliance on military projection and strengthening economic and diplomatic engagement…."
Specifically, Hometown America calls for investment in the following areas: basic infrastructure – roads, bridges, levees, water systems, electrical grids; a new energy infrastructure for biofuels, hydrogen, solar, and other renewables; the build-out of America's broadband infrastructure; an expanded and advanced air and rail transportation system, including a new Skyways and Rail system to for the American heartland to complement the Interstate Highway system; a new system of federal research centers to push the frontiers of science of technology; and a network of public health clinics, new technology extension centers, and regional art and culture centers. And, as many have pointed out, "For national security, environmental, and economic reasons, the promotion of a renewable energy industry must be the first priority of any new public investment initiative." The Apollo Alliance has provided a blueprint to do just that – with $300 billion invested over the next 10 years, creating 3.3 million jobs, leading to economic growth, more tax revenues, and energy independence.
Citizens need to make it clear to the presidential candidates – and their representatives – that they seek a bold vision to renew our shredded social contract and rebuild our public infrastructure. Otherwise we can expect continued tragedies as we saw last week, and the same path of privilege for the few and treading water for the rest.
Carl Bernstein will always be known as the journalist who brought down a president whose disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law disqualified the errant executive from completing a second term in the White House. And Bernstein still gets a round of applause when mention is made of the role he played, as part of a Washington Post investigative team that also included Bob Woodward, in exposing the high crimes and misdemeanors of a president named Nixon.
But 33 years after Nixon resigned in order to avoid an inevitable impeachment -- on August 9, 1974 -- Bernstein is more concerned about a president named Bush.
When we appeared together recently at The Aspen Institute's first symposium on the political reporting of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Bernstein recalled the old stories of when he and Thompson were busy revealing the sordid details of Nixon's presidency.
But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was under no illusions regarding the extent of Nixon's wrongdoing as compared with that of Bush and those around the current president.
Bernstein says that Bush's presidency has produced far more "disastrous consequences" for the country than did Nixon's.
Unlike the often crude and conniving but unquestionably intelligent and highly-engaged 37th president, Bernstein says of Bush: "He's lazy, arrogant and has little curiosity. He's a catastrophe..."
But that is not the worst part of the Bush era as compared to the Nixon era, explains Bernstein.
What has made this time dramatically more troubling, the 63-year-old journalist explains, is that "there is no oversight."
"The system worked in Watergate," Bernstein told the Denver Post.
Even after Nixon was reelected in a 49-state landslide in 1972, Bernstein said, the president was checked and balanced in the manner intended by the founders of the American experiment.
The news media investigated Nixon, and editorialized boldly when the president's lawless behaviors were exposed.
The Congress responded to those revelations with hearings and demands for White House tapes and documents. When the materials were not forthcoming, Congress went to court to force Nixon and his aides to meet those demands.
The courts responded by aggressively and consistently upholding the authority of Congress to call the president to account.
And when it became clear that Nixon was governing in contradiction to the Constitution, the U.S. House took appropriate action, with Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voting for three articles of impeachment. Congressional Republicans, led by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, then went to the White House to inform their party's president that he stood little chance of thwarting an impeachment vote by the full House or surviving a trial in the Senate.
Nixon resigned and so ended a constitutional crisis created by a president's disregard for the rule of law -- a crisis that was cured by an impeachment move by House members who respected their oaths of office.
Today, says Bernstein, the system that worked in the 1970s is failing as the country witnesses presidential and vice presidential misdeeds that former White House counsel John Dean has correctly characterized as "worse than Watergate."
Referring to the media, congressional and judicial oversight that is essential to maintaining a republic, Bernstein says, "That hasn't happened here."
That failure of oversight, as opposed to any wrongdoing by George Bush or Dick Cheney, is the great tragedy of our time. But, as I reminded the crowd at the symposium during a discussion of Hunter Thompson's enthusiasm for Nixon's impeachment, it is never too late for the people to lead. Approval ratings for the current president and vice president are now below those for Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. And more and more members of Congress are taking up the call for accountability -- boldly sponsoring and cosponsoring the impeachment resolutions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had tried to keep "off the table.".
Bernstein is right. The system has not worked up to now. But with 18 months to go, it is certainly not too late for Americans to demand that the medicine that cured the Constitutional crisis of 33 years ago should again be applied.
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.'"
Actor Stephen Baldwin, the youngest member of the famous Baldwin brothers, is no longer playing Pauly Shore's sidekick in comedy masterpieces like Biodome. He has a much more serious calling these days.
Baldwin became a right-wing, born-again Christian after the 9/11 attacks, and now is the star of Operation Straight Up (OSU), an evangelical entertainment troupe that actively proselytizes amongactive-duty members of the US military. As an officialarm of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, OSU plans to mail copies of the controversial apocalyptic video game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces to soldiers serving in Iraq. OSU is also scheduled to embark on a "Military Crusade in Iraq" in the near future.
"We feel the forces of heaven have encouraged us to perform multiple crusades that will sweep through this war torn region," OSU declares on its website about its planned trip to Iraq. "We'll hold the onlyreligious crusade of its size in the dangerous land of Iraq."
The Defense Department's Chaplain's Office, which oversees OSU's activities, has not responded to calls seeking comment.
"The constitution has been assaulted and brutalized," Mikey Weinstein, former Reagan Administration White House counsel, ex-Air Force judge advocate (JAG), and founder of the MilitaryReligious Freedom Foundation, told me. "Thanks to the influence of extreme Christian fundamentalism, the wall separating church and state is nothing but smoke and debris. And OSU is the IED that exploded the wall separating church and state in the Pentagon and throughout our military." Weinstein continued: "The fact that they would even consider taking their crusade to a Muslim country shows the threat to our national security and to the constitution and everyone that loves it."
On the surface, OSU appears as a traditional entertainment troupe that brings cheer to American troops around the globe. Founded by champion kickboxer Jonathan Spinks, OSU performs comedy, acrobatic stunts and strongman displays. Its roster of entertainers includes a former WNBA star, the Flying Wallendas, a ventriloquist, and former boxing champ Evander Holyfield. "We make no bones about the fact that we are speaking directly to the soldiers of the greatest fighting force of in the world," OSU proclaims. "No ‘mamsie pamsie' stuff here!"
But behind OSU's anodyne promises of wholesome fun for military families, the organization promotes an apocalyptic brand of evangelical Christianity to active duty US soldiers serving in Muslim-dominated regions of the Middle East. Displayed prominently onthe "What We Believe" section of OSU's website is a passage from the Book of Revelations (Revelation 19:20; 20:10-15) that has become the bedrock of the Christian right's End Times theology: "The devil and his angels, the beast and the false prophet, and whosoever is not found written in the Book of Life, shall be consigned to everlasting punishment in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death."
With the endorsement of the Defense Department, OSU is mailing "Freedom Packages" to soldiers serving in Iraq. These are not your grandfather's care packages, however. Besides pairs of white socks and boxes of baby wipes (included at the apparent suggestion of Iran-Contra felon OliverNorth, according to OSU) OSU's care packages contain the controversial Left Behind: Eternal Forces video game. The game is inspired by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins' bestselling pulpfiction series about a blood-soaked Battle of Armageddon pitting born-again Christians against anybody who does not adhere to their particular theology. In LaHaye's and Jenkins' books, the non-believers are ultimately condemned to "everlasting punishment" while the evangelicals are "raptured" up to heaven.
The LeftBehind videogame is a real-time strategy game that makes players commanders of a virtual evangelical army in a post-apocalyptic landscape that looks strikingly like New York City after 9/11. With tanks, helicopters and a fearsome arsenal of automatic weapons at their disposal, Left Behind players wage a violent war against United Nations-like peacekeepers who, according to LaHaye's interpretation of Revelation, represent the armies of the Antichrist. Each time aLeft Behind player kills a UN soldier, their virtual character exclaims, "Praise the Lord!" To win the game, players must kill or convert all the non-believers left behind after the rapture. They also have the option of reversing roles and commanding the forces of the Antichrist. (Videopreview here).
Producers of the Left Behind videogame were faced with a storm of controversy after Christian blogger Jonathan Hutson exposed its eliminationist overtones in a series of postson the website Talk2Action. Statements by the Anti-DefamationLeague, the Conferenceon American Islamic Relations, the ChristianAlliance for Progress, and others condemned the game and demanded that Walmart pull it from its shelves. Even Marvin Olasky, the evangelical publisher, intellectual author of "compassionate conservatism," and a force behind the George W. Bush Administration's White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives," denouncedthe Left Behind videogame. In a blog post on the website of his World Magazine, Olasky described the game's content as akin to "the way homicidal Muslims think." As a result of the fallout, Left Behind Games firedits senior VP and released three board members.
This controversy has not deterred OSU from encouraging US troops to play virtual rounds of kill or convert after a hard day of house-to-house searches and counterinsurgency warfare against Iraqi insurgents. What's more, OSU's "Freedom Packages" include a copy of evangelical pastor Jonathan McDowell's More Than A Carpenter -- a book advertised as "one of the most powerful evangelism tools worldwide" -- that is double-published in Arabic. Considering that only a handful of American troops speak Arabic, the book is ostensibly intended for proselytizing efforts among Iraqi civilians.
OSU has cultivated support from the Department of Defense for years. After a private October, 2005 meeting between OSU's Spinks and Defense Department officials, OSU was invited to perform inside the Pentagon. This week, Pentagon employees and active duty service members are expected to enjoy a breakfast with Spinks and Baldwin, followed by an OSU performance in which they will receive "spiritual encouragement via a Biblical message." The events will be held respectively in the Pentagon Executive Dining Room and the Pentagon Auditorium.
Spreading the Gospel to US troops is only one of many crusades Baldwin has waged in the name of the Lord. During 2006, Baldwin frequently stationed himself on the sidewalk outside a pornographic video store in NewYork. There, he photographed the license plates of people entering the store and threatened to publish an ad in a Nyack paper publicizing the names of those who patronized the store. "In my position, I just don't think I'm supposed to keep my faith to myself," Baldwin told a group of Texas Southern Baptists in 2004. "I'm just doing what the Lord's telling me to do."
Soon after his appearance at the Pentagon, Baldwin ships out to Iraq for OSU's "Military Crusade." With its cadre of celebrity entertainers pushing End Times theology, and the overt support of the Defense Department, OSU is hoping to transform Bush's surge into a battle of biblical proportions.
They just can't keep their faith to themselves.
The charges revolve around a state law which requires that two legally and financially uninvolved physicians sign off on any late-term abortion procedure--a law that seems to have no other purpose than to make life difficult for abortion providers.
The charges against Tiller brought by Attorney General Paul Morrison allege that in 19 procedures from July to November 2003, the Wichita doctor consulted with Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus. The attorney general has said they had a financial relationship, although he hasn't been more specific. As a result, he faces up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine for each of the nineteen charges.
As a comprehensive cross-post by Cara at Feministing.com and thecurvature.com details, Tiller has a long history of being harassed for his work and these allegations are just the latest chapter. He has faced regular protests at his clinic, other trumped-up criminal charges, physical threats, severe vandalism and constant intimidation. He has also been shot.
This new law under which he's been charged is harassment, pure and simple. That's why Tiller's attorneys are challenging the constitutionality of the statute. (A hearing was set for Aug. 10.) Moreover, as Cara rightly insists, "Requiring written approval of any late-term abortion procedure from two independent physicians is not only requiring the abortion provider to seek permission to practice medicine, it's also essentially requiring that the woman get permission to successfully request medical care. Her choice, along with the medical advice of her doctor, is not enough. Late-term abortions, contrary to what anti-abortion activists constantly profess, are not undertaken lightly. The women who receive medical care at Dr. Tiller's facility come from all over the country; Dr. Tiller is hardly going to be their first medical consultation. They seek their abortions either due to health risks to themselves or severe fetal deformity. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who likes late-term abortion, and that includes the women who need them."
Tiller has been operating bravely for years doing thankless work in the face of constant efforts to drive him away from his practice. The latest charges against him are meant to distract as much as punish and make it financially prohibitive for him to continue his services. So now he needs our help. Please send donations and words of support by mail to the address below.
Women's Health Care Services
5107 East Kellogg
Wichita, Kansas USA 67218
On Thursday at 9PM (ET), Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign are sponsoring a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack, Hillary, John, Dennis and Bill will all be there. So will some guy named Mike who was so poor loves gays so much that he originally wasn't invited. Margaret Carlson, Jonathan Capehart, Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge will pose questions. The whole queer klatch will be televised on Logo and streamed live at this website.
[Here at The Nation, we've lined up queer critics Lisa Duggan, Alisa Solomon and Tavia Nyong'o to watch the event from a safe, Melissa Etheridge-free location and comment. Their remarks will be posted after the forum.]
HRC (that stands for Human Rights Campaign in gaycronym, not Hillary Rodham Clinton) has been promoting the debate as an "historic" event, the "first time...the major presidential candidates will address a live GLBT television audience." As Chris Crain points out on his blog, this is a lie. In fact, HRC hosted exactly such an event in 2003, but this is presidential electioneering, so there goes accuracy.
Despite my qualms about HRC (again, that's the gay HRC, not the Wellesley graduate) and my general low expectations for the forum (marriage and gays in the military will likely dominate), I agreed to write up a short piece for Logo's website on what I think the most important issue in this election is for gay people. (Just to preempt sniping, I wasn't paid, and I was free to say what I wanted.) For those who've followed my take on same-sex marriage before, this will be nothing new, but it's cross-posted below.
From Visible Vote '08:
For years now, I've followed the plight of same-sex couples denied the right to marry. Many of their stories are heartrending. A lesbian couple was forced to sell their home in order to pay huge health care bills because one of them was in an accident and wasn't covered by her partner's health insurance. After his lover died, a gay man was evicted from his apartment because he wasn't on the lease, and even if he was, he couldn't pay for the place on his own. Elderly gays and lesbians have kept working long past the age of retirement, or even taken second jobs, because social security benefits and pensions aren't transferable and often don't cover basic necessities--food, housing, utilities, medication--in the first place.
The more of these stories I hear, the more they sound like the stories coming out of the "other America"--married, heterosexual America.
Take Donna and Larry Smith, featured in Michael Moore's documentary Sicko. Married for over 30 years, the Smiths worked hard and raised six children in South Dakota. They had each other, and they had health insurance, but that wasn't enough when cancer and artery disease struck. Facing massive debt from expensive medical treatments, they filed for bankruptcy, sold their home and were forced to move into a cramped storage room in their daughter's house.
Or take my grandmother. When my grandfather, her husband, died, she was entitled to his social security benefits. But still, as a single widow, her total household income shrank dramatically. For the last few years of her life, social security was the only check she got, and it wasn't enough at that. Her experience is common; women live longer than men and so often age alone. Almost a third of all unmarried elderly women rely on social security as their sole source of income, and if it weren't for social security, 54 percent of all elderly women would be living in poverty.
Whether from gay or straight, married or unmarried Americans, stories like these are powerful reminders of the human costs of growing economic inequality in this country. For the last 30 years, the incomes of the wealthiest Americans have skyrocketed while incomes for the bottom 50 percent have remained essentially static. According to 2005 IRS data, the top tenth of 1 percent of Americans (300,000) made almost as much as the bottom half (150 million). The income gap hasn't been this bad in our country since 1928.
All of this news is kind of a downer, and nowhere near as cheery as thinking about Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards or any of the other candidates presiding over festive gay weddings or civil unions. But the hard-boiled economic reality is that as long as the class gap continues to grow in America, the rights of marriage will be of little consolation to the millions of gays and lesbians who find themselves unemployed, sick, downsized, outsourced, homeless or just plain down on their luck. After all, marriage didn't protect happily betrothed folks like my grandparents or Donna and Larry Smith from feeling the economic squeeze.
This is why, for me, the increasingly stark gap between the super rich and everyone else is the most important issue in the next election. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards has talked about the "two Americas" in his 2004 campaign and now again in this election. Other candidates have piled onto the populist bandwagon, and most propose meager economic reforms (a slight increase in minimum wage, closing tax loopholes, college loan reforms). But in my opinion, none have announced a real economic agenda that would halt the widening gap between the mega-wealthy and the rest of us, much less begin to reverse the trend. It will be important to see which of them come closest.
I've argued in The Nation that gays and lesbians should think beyond the issue of same-sex marriage as a legal right and get at many of the underlying economic issues (healthcare, housing, job security) that make married and unmarried people alike vulnerable in the first place. According to recent census data, the majority of Americans now live in unmarried households. Some live this way because they are legally banned from marriage, but most people, including many gays and lesbians, do so by choice. Beyond marriage then, what are the economic policies that will help all households (including single people) live better, less deprived, less financially anxious lives?
When asked by George Stephanopoulos in the Sunday Republican debate to list his mistakes, Rudy Giuliani replied, "George, your father is a priest. I can explain it to your father, not to you."
To help the Mayor's memory for his meeting with Father Stephanopoulos, I thought we should offer up a few suggestions for his list.
1. Informing his former wife, Donna Hannover, that he was divorcing her during a press conference.
2. Alienating his children to the point where his son refuses to campaign for him and his daughter announced on Facebook that she supported Barack Obama for president.
3. Pitching scandal ridden Bernard Kerik as Homeland Security Chief, or for that matter giving Bernard Kerik a job in the first place.
4. Putting the Emergency Command Center in 7 World Trade Center building, despite the 1993 WTC bombing.
5. His handling of the Amadou Diallo shooting. In fact his handling of all race relations in the city.
I could go on and on. But I encourage you to add your thoughts on this message board and/or in the comments section below. Rudy has a way of claiming credit for everyone else's successes while shuffling off blame for his own. Let's call him out on it.
Things got a little testy at the Camp David Summit between Afghan President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and American President George Bush.
Karzai, who when he is in the U.S. is expected to act as a puppet of the Bush administration, made the mistake of actually speaking his mind. In a CNN interview broadcast Sunday, the Afghan president said terrorism in Afghanistan is getting worse, that the hunt for al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is at a standstill and, then, he described Iran as a positive player -- "a helper and a solution" -- in the region.
All of these statements are objectively true.
But George Bush does not deal in the realm of truth. And he certainly does not like his puppet presidents getting off their strings.
On the eve of the summit, Karzai told CNN that:
1. "The security situation in Afghanistan over the past two years has definitely deteriorated. The Afghan people have suffered. Terrorists have killed our schoolchildren. They have burned our schools. They have killed international helpers."
2. "We are not closer (to catching bin Laden), we are not further away from it. We are where we were a few years ago."
3. "So far, Iran has been a helper (in the fight against terrorism)."
All of those statements, made by Karzai in an interview with Wolf Blitzer on the eve of his trip to Camp David, were corrected by Bush upon the Afghan president's arrival.
On the security situation, Bush told Karzai not to believe what he was seeing on the ground in Afghanistan. "There is still work to be done, don't get me wrong," Bush said. "But progress is being made."
On the bin Laden search, Bush spoke of how the hunt is progressing and declared that, "With real actionable intelligence, we will get the job done."
On Iran's positive role in the region, Bush again told Karzai not to believe his own experience but instead to accept the neoconservative version of events. "I would be very cautious about whether or not the Iranian influence there in Afghanistan is a positive force," the American president pointedly told the Afghan president.
So there you have it, a meeting of the minds Bush-style.
A foreign leader from a region of supreme interest to the United States comes to Camp David to brief the American president on what is going on. The foreign leader speaks his mind, offering his best assessment of the experience he is living. Then the president tells the visitor from abroad that he is wrong.
As Bush famously declared at a policy session in 2005, "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."
And it is just so damned inconvenient when a puppet who is supposed to help spread the propaganda instead messes everything up by talking about what is really happening.
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.'"