When Ted Koppel steered one of the most critical debates of the Democratic presidential contest toward horserace questions about endorsements, poll positions and fund raising, the host of ABC-TV's Nightline inadvertently created an opening for a serious discussion about one of the most important issues in America today: media policy. And Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich has seized that opening with a vengeance.
Koppel, served as a moderator for last week's debate in New Hampshire between the nine Democrats seeking their party's nomination in 2004. The veteran newsman's decision to focus vast stretches of last week's debate on insider questions about endorsements and polling figures rankled Kucinich, who has for some time objected to the neglect of his candidacy by most media. But he also did something else. By badgering Kucinich, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Illinois Senator Carol Moseley Braun with questions that suggested they should drop out of the race, Koppel exposed the dirty little secret of network television journalists who are covering the 2004 contest: They prefer easily described, sound bite-driven contests between a handful of well-known candidates, not wide open contests with lots of candidates and lots of interesting ideas.
Journalists know that covering democracy is costly, and inconvenient. Covering coronations, in contrast, is relatively cheap and undemanding.
By seeming to complain about having to deal with such a large field of candidates, however, and by so clearly indicating which candidates he would like to see leave the competition, Koppel turned attention away from the contenders and toward the question of whether the self-serving calculations of America's television networks are doing damage to America's democracy.
After gently poking Koppel for starting the debate with a round of questions regarding Al Gore's endorsement of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, Kucinich suggested that it was wrong to steer the debate toward process questions when fundamental issues -- such as the war in Iraq, trade policy and national health care -- had gone unaddressed. Koppel then came back to Kucinich with a question about whether he, Sharpton and Moseley Braun weren't really "vanity" candidates who would have to drop out because they had not raised as much money as other contenders. That's when the sparks flew.
"I want the American people to see where media takes politics in this country," the Ohio congressman said. "We start talking about endorsements, now we're talking about polls and then talking about money. When you do that you don't have to talk about what's important to the American people."
The crowd at the New Hampshire debate erupted with loud and sustained applause. And Kucinich backers say the response from around the country was equally intense. Indeed, when it was revealed later in the week that ABC had made a formal decision to cut back on its already scant coverage of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley Braun, activists barraged the network with emails, letters and phone calls protesting the decision. Demonstrations were held outside ABC affiliates. The media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting used Koppel's questions and ABC's decision to cut coverage of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley Braun to focus attention on the dismal failure of the television networks when it comes to covering serious political issues.
But Kucinich was smart. He did not simply bask in the shows of support and sympathy. Rather, he used the controversy to focus attention on an issue with which he has long been associated: the fight to prevent media conglomerates from dominating the discourse in American political and cultural life. Kucinich, who has worked over the years for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Wall Street Journal newspapers, as well as a Cleveland television station, has for many years been a critic of media consolidation and commercialism. An outspoken critic of last June's moves by the Federal Communications Commission to eliminate controls on media consolidation and monopoly, he has been an ardent backer of efforts by Senator Byron Dorgan ( D-North Dakota), Congressman Bernie Sanders, (I-Vermont), and others in Congress to reverse the FCC rule changes in order to preserve media competition, diversity and local content.
Turning the controversy over Koppel into what the late Senator Paul Wellstone used to refer to as "a teaching moment," Kucinich declared, "The response of the American people to the exchange between Ted Koppel and myself demonstrates that there is great concern about the proper role of the media in a democratic society. The American people clearly do not want the media to be in a position where they're determining which candidates ought to be considered for the presidency and which ought not to be considered for the presidency. Such practice by the media represents a tampering with the political process itself. The role of the media in this process has now become a national issue central to the question of who's running our country, and I intend to keep this issue before the American people, and I look forward to engaging America's news organizations as to what they might be able to do to be more responsive to the public concerns that are reflected in the powerful response to the issues I raised in the exchange with Ted Koppel."
Campaigning in Iowa on Sunday, Kucinich issues a detailed plan for reforming the media in America that called for:
* Breaking up the major media conglomerates in order to encourage competition and quality, as well as diversity. Kucinich wants to limit the number of media outlets one corporation can own in a given medium, such as radio, print, or television. He would also prohibit cross-ownership of newspapers, radio and television in the same market by a single corporation.
* Expansion of funding for public broadcasting channels on television and radio, and expansion of support for community-controlled media, in order to ensure the existence of media outlets that are free of the influence of advertisers.
* Requiring broadcast and cable networks to provide substantial free air time for candidates and parties during election campaigns.
* Opening up the regulatory process so that citizens can more easily challenge the licenses of local broadcast outlets that fail to provide local coverage and to direct coverage at the entire community they are supposed to serve.
* Permitting not-for-profit groups to obtain low-power FM radio station licenses. Kucinich wants to encourage the development of new, community-based, noncommercial broadcasting outlets.
* Withdrawal of the U.S. from the World Trade Organization. Media companies have been lobbying the WTO for the creation of policies that would allow trade sanctions against countries that limit foreign ownership of domestic media, establish standards for local content and fund public broadcasting.
Kucinich even has an anti-sound bite sound bite: "I don't think ABC should be the first primary. The first primary should not be on a television network."
Looking for serious sweatshop alternatives? Check out NoSweatShop.com, the new virtual union mall.
Claiming to be "the first and only mall in the world where you can't find one stitch that was made in a sweatshop," the venture, created by No Sweat Apparel, received the blessings of a quirky coalition of co-sponsors, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Reverend Billy, minister of "The Church of Stop Shopping" and Musicians Against Sweatshops.
As of now, the mall has five tenants, offering everything from jeans and yoga pants to scarves and button-down oxfords. Powell's Bookstore, whose workers are represented by ILWU, sells books, posters and CDs.
"Our goal was to create a one-stop shop for progressive consumers," says mall promoter and No Sweat CEO Adam Neiman. "We wanted a meaningful standard, something that people could have absolute confidence in...We are hearing from a lot of designers looking at creating no sweat lines of handbags, children's clothing, sneakers; all wanting to know where to find acceptable sources. If we have strong holiday sales there will be a lot more outlets here in '04."
While most stores at the mall to date stock only "made in USA", Neiman's outfit, No Sweat Apparel, also carries Canadian union made goods and is working hard to market products from the handful of decent union shops in the developing world. "We think that the only viable response to globalization is to globalize the labor movement" Neiman says.
This holiday season, you can help say no to sweatshops with just a few keystrokes. As NoSweatShop says on its homepage: "When you vote with a dollar it always gets counted."
San Francisco is a dot.com city, so it should come as no surprise that the two candidates in Tuesday's runoff for mayor of America's left-coast city are pretty much summed up by their websites.
The homepage of the website backing Democrat Gavin Newsom, the wealthy businessman who was groomed for the job by outgoing Mayor Willie Brown, features a great big picture of the candidate and former Vice President Al Gore seated in outrageously overstuffed easy chairs.
The homepage of Green Matt Gonzalez, the veteran public defender who forced his way into the runoff with the help of a powerful grassroots insurgency, features an invitation to attend the pre-election Punks for Matt event featuring Me First and the Gimme Gimmes at a club called Slim's.
National political pundits are swooping into San Francisco to write articles about how the December 9 San Francisco mayoral contest is a test of the relative strength of the Democratic and Green parties. It isn't. Even in San Francisco, where Green Ralph Nader actually beat Republican George W. Bush in many precincts in the 2000 presidential election, only three percent of registered voters have declared themselves to be Greens.
While Newsom would like to make the titularly nonpartisan contest a measure of party loyalty, Gonzalez has extended his appeal far beyond the Green base. Union endorsements have split between the two candidates, with many activist locals of unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Service Employees (SEIU) and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) backing Gonzalez. The Green has also attracted endorsements from United Farm Workers union co-founder Dolores Huerta, actors Danny Glover and Martin Sheen, 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano and even some Democratic political clubs, including the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.
Perhaps most significantly, Gonzalez has attracted enthusiastic support from young people who, for the most part, eschew election booths. The election-eve punk show is not a gimmick. It's for real. Gonzalez actually appeals to punk rockers, and a lot of other people who tend to be turned off by politics.
That appeal made the contest close, even though Newsom retains significant advantages. Newsom's establishment-backed candidacy will spend close to $4 million, compared with the Gonzalez campaign's $400,000. But if Newsom wins, it will be on the "strength" of precisely the sort of politics that has cost Democrats their once-dominant position in federal, state and local politics nationally.
In San Francisco, one of the most overwhelmingly Democratic cities in the country, an uninspired Democratic campaign can still prevail. But that is no longer the case in most of the country. That's because the Democratic leaders who are pouring their money and their energy into securing a win for Newsom continue to make the same mistakes that have cost their party its focus and, possibly, its future.
Make no mistake, the Democratic Party is taking this contest between two elected city supervisors extremely seriously. Having just surrendered the California governorship to Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, worried by the losses of key big-city mayoralties around the country, and fretting about the prospect that a Green win would strengthen the hand of the left-leaning third party going into the critical 2004 presidential election, the California Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee are pulling out all the stops to elect Newsom. "Of course this is an important race for the Democratic Party," says Newsom. "All eyes are on this race in the bastion of Democratic politics."
Unfortunately for Newsom, San Francisco is not merely a bastion of Democratic politics. It is a bastion of progressive politics -- particularly the sort of antiwar, anti-corporate politics that is most likely to appeal to disenfranchised young people. And Gonzalez--who quotes Sartre and Camus, helped start a small press that publishes poetry, rents a room in an apartment, does not drive a car, hangs out in the city's music clubs and the Beat Generation's City Lights bookstore, and regularly opens his City Hall office for art installations--the cool candidate in this year's race. Beneath the bohemian image, of course, beats the heart of a sound politician; indeed, Newsom backers suggest that Gonzalez, who is backed by some of the developers he has criticized, is a more of a typical politician than he lets on.
But that criticism hasn't really resonated in San Francisco, at least in part because Newsom has come across as so much more politically predictable than Gonzalez.
Newsom's by-the-book campaign, which has been defined by its ideological emptiness, its coziness with business interests and it reliance on support from party icons like US Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Gore, is anything but cool. And even as some polls suggest that Gonzalez has caught up with Newsom in the closing days of the campaign, the Newsom camp shows no sign of getting it. Indeed, the man the party establishment still sees as its iconic leader, former President Bill Clinton, was scheduled to jet in today for a last-minute rev-up-the-troops rally at Newsom's headquarters.
Clinton, who was last seen campaigning in California for ousted Governor Gray Davis, is a genuine star among core Democrats, in much the same way that former President Ronald Reagan is a hero to core Republicans. But in this year of appropriately impassioned anti-incumbency, turning to a former president -- even one with something of a bad-boy image -- is precisely the wrong approach.
In a city that demands at least a measure of style from its political leaders, Newsom's campaign has been so stylistically inept as to appear almost Republican in character. Of course, Newsom is not a Republican. He's got reasonably solid roots in the same San Francisco liberal tradition that produced former U.S. Rep. Phil Burton, current U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and outgoing Mayor Willie Brown. Newsom may not be as fiery as Burton or as smooth as Brown. But he is, by any measure, a mainstream Democrat. In fact, that may be the biggest burden the Newsom campaign carries.
Gonzalez backers have sought to make a big deal of the fact that Newsom has received campaign contributions from some prominent Republicans and from executives of corporations such as Bechtel, the defense contractor that was the target of last spring's raucous antiwar protests in San Francisco. But Newsom is hardly the first Democrat to gather backing from the corporate sector and to try and appeal to the not-entirely-frenzied wing of the Grand Old Party. Wasn't that the operating principle of the party as it lost first the House and the Senate in the 1990s and then the White House in 2000?
The problem for Democrats is that, if there is any place where their party ought to be edgier, more challenging of the status quo and more appealing to disenchanted voters -- especially the young -- it's San Francisco. As pollster David Binder says, "If you're living in the heartland of America and you want to be a movie star, you move to Los Angeles. If you're living in the heartland of America and you are a progressive activist and you want to change the world to the left, you come to San Francisco." If there is a candidate who captures that "change the world" sentiment, and who could teach the Democratic leadership a great deal about expanding the party's appeal, it's Matt Gonzalez. Polling shows that Gonzalez has done something most Democrats only dream of achieving: He has gotten people in their 20s and 30s interested in politics --- or, at the least, in his brand of politics.
It is not merely a matter of issues.
Like Gonzalez, Newsom is a social liberal. To the view of the Newsom camp, which continues to view the contest through a very conventional political prism, that ought to equalize the appeal of the candidates. Indeed, Newsom told the New York Times, "Only in San Francisco can you be a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-death penalty, pro-gun control, pro-rent control and be considered conservative or moderate. I would be left on any national scale."
But, of course, Gonzalez is further left. Where Newsom personally takes liberal stands on social issues, Gonzalez quit the Democratic Party in 2000 because he was angry that the party's national candidates and platforms steered clear of the progressive agenda on social and economic issues. Like other Greens, and like a great many grassroots Democrats, he recognizes that progressives need to distinguish themselves not just on social issues but on the economic issues that define whether cities such as San Francisco will remain diverse and vibrant or simple become bastions of the rich. Gonzalez is far more willing to step on corporate toes. He supports expanded tenant protections, he wants to ban new chain stores in order to protect locally-owned businesses. He wants to use development fees to pay for child care. And, in perhaps his greatest distinction from Newsom, he supports setting the city's minimum wage at $8.50 an hour.
Gonzalez's determination to limit the ability of retail giants to impose their big-box stores on San Francisco's neighborhoods, like his promise to tax developers and big businesses, marks him as someone who is willing to challenge the status quo. And his maverick style, along with his renter status and his penchant for public transportation and, yes, his Green Party affiliation makes it it easier for those who have grown skeptical about politics to believe that he might actually remain true to his principles if elected.
The San Francisco mayoral contest ought to be seen in perspective. Gavin Newsom is not the devil in disguise. He is not a Republican dressed up as a Democrat. In fact, he is a relatively typical Democrat. Unfortunately for the Democrats, their typical standard bearers have had a hard time expanding the party's base of support in recent years. That's why, even as he has attained frontrunner status in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean has continued to eschew the centrist message and style favored by Clinton, Gore and so many prominent Democrats. Dean may be an imperfect progressive messenger, but his blunt and aggressive style has helped him reach out to a base of young and disenfranchised voters that Democrats are going to need in 2004.
The same can be said of Matt Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a proud Green, and if he is elected he will surely emerge as a national leader for that party. But, if Democrats are smart, they will drop the petty partisanship and ask themselves why Gonzalez has done so well. Only if they take that question -- and its answer -- seriously will Democrats be able to significantly improve their party's fortunes.
It's no secret that progressives need to build a stronger political infrastructure if we're going to achieve an enduring majority for positive change in this country. After all, the Right's success in defining politics in the US over the past generation comes in no small measure from its independent institution-building and operational capacities.
As the late Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, if our whole is going to equal the sum of our parts, we need to build a powerful progressive force that recruits and supports the next generation of leaders, at both the grassroots and national level. He had an abiding belief in the importance of building a permanent infrastructure which could identify and train people to run for local, state and national office; apply effective grassroots organizing to electoral politics; provide support for candidates; run ballot initiatives (campaign finance, living wage, the right to organize); offer a vehicle for coordinated issue campaigns; and galvanize a network of media-savvy groups with a broad-based message.
Progressive Majority, and its program, PROPAC, are just what Wellstone had in mind. Led by veteran organizer Gloria Totten, Progressive Majority was launched in 2001 with the sole purpose of electing progressive champions. In their first cycle, they built a nationwide network of tens of thousands of small donors for targeted races. Now, with PROPAC, they are adding a sophisticated plan to recruit, train and support the next generation of Paul Wellstones.
"The time is right for all of the new organizing that is happening on the Left," Totten argues. "George W. Bush and his wrong-headed policies have galvanized us." But, more importantly, she continues, "there is an emerging leadership on the Left that is not willing to continue to be right on the issues and lose elections."
That's where her group's work comes in. Progressive Majority is working closely with many other "Beat Bush" efforts underway and plans to increase those efforts. But, as the only national organization dedicated exclusively to supporting the next generation of candidates who champion a broad progressive economic and social agenda, Progressive Majority is uniquely positioned. And through PROPAC, its newest political program--the name and idea are conscious echoes of Newt Gingrich's GOPAC, the vehicle by which he rose from Congressional backbencher to House Speaker in 14 carefully plotted years leading up to 1994--Totten hopes to raise some $2.6 million over the next year to recruit and train the next generation of progressive candidates at the grassroots level.
"For too long," Totten believes, "progressives have allowed the Party to dominate candidate recruitment. As a result, the Party has drifted to the political right due to the influence of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)." Totten's ambition is nothing less than to design a bold new strategy to redefine progressive electoral politics by transforming Democratic Party candidate recruitment programs.
As Totten sees it, "It's the first step in a long-range project to fill the pipeline with the next generation of progressive elected leaders." PROPAC will also lend critical fundraising support, tapping candidates into a growing network of more than 20,000 small donors and helping them develop their own donor bases. What we won't be, Totten insists,"is another group from Washington that swoops into a community, tells people what to do and then leaves. We are working at the grassroots to develop lasting relationships to continually identify and recruit good progressives to run for office." (PROPAC'S coalition partners include USAction and their local affiliates, Wellstone Action, the Congressional Black Caucus PAC and the PAC for the Hispanic Caucus; they will also work with the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and other labor organizations.)
In the 2004 cycle, PROPAC will be active in five "battleground" states--They have begun work in Pennsylvania, Washington and Wisconsin, and they will add Arizona, Michigan or Florida as funding allows, all of which could swing either way in the Presidential race. The group plans to add five additional target states in 2006 and five more in 2008 until they have a permanent recruitment operation in the most competetive states in the nation. Ultimately, Progressive Majority hopes to elect enough local and statewide candidates--a "farm team"-- to have an impact on the redistricting battles of 2011. "I want candidate recruitment and development to be a permanent part of our politics--not just an election-year priority," Totten says.
With Progressive Majority and PROPAC emerging as savvy players at this crucial time, there's hope that sometime soon a new generation of passionate and principled leaders will drive progressive values into the political debate and the electoral arena.
Click here for more information about Progressive Majority and PROPAC.
Capitol Hill observers say that media ownership has been the second most discussed issue by constituents in 2003, trailing only the war on Iraq. This is a remarkable turnaround for an issue--media consolidation--that until recently was of interest only to a select group of watchdogs, theorists and corporate titans.
Next week will see the fourth in a series of free public debates between The Nation and The Economist, two of the world's leading political publications--this one on the question of media regulation and consolidation. Taking place at Columbia University in New York City on Monday, December 15, the event will feature The Nation's John Nichols and the Future of Music Coalition's Jenny Toomey teaming up to debate The Economist's Ben Edwards and the FCC's "Media Bureau" chief W. Kenneth Ferree. The debate will be moderated by WNYC Radio's Brian Lehrer, the very able New York City public radio host and the moderator of two of the first three Nation/Economist debates.
Here are the details:
Monday, December 15, 7:00--9:00pm; Roone Arledge Auditorium, Alfred Lerner Hall; Columbia University--Entrance bet. 114th & 115th Streets on Broadway; New York City.
FREE Admission. No reservations.Please arrive early. Doors open at 6:30pm.
CSPAN has indicated interest in broadcasting the event nationally and WNYC, which is sponsoring the debate, will air the proceedings shortly after it takes place over both its New York airwaves and its website. Watch this space for further info. And check out the Free Press's website for the latest info on the grassroots movement for media democracy.
Co-founded by Nichols and Robert McChesney, Free Press is a national nonpartisan organization working to increase informed public participation in media policy debates. The site is a gold-mine of media resources for activists, researchers and educators. Audio clips of remarks by Bill Moyers, Al Franken, Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein, Lori Wallach and Toomey from Free Press's recent national conference are also available. You can also find Nation-compiled links to numerous groups working for a more democratic media including Toomey's Future of Music Coalition--along with a collection of relevant Nation articles--by clicking here.
In the summer of 1951, Senator Joe McCarthy's burgeoning red scare had intimidated not just official Washington but the nation's media. Free speech was taking a hit everywhere, but especially in McCarthy's home state of Wisconsin, where the senator had been peddling his politics of fear for years. It was in this context that John Patrick Hunter, a new reporter for The Capital Times, a newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin that had frequently tangled with McCarthy, was assigned to write a Fourth of July feature story. Stuck for an idea, Hunter grabbed a copy of the Declaration of Independence from the office wall, and said to himself, "This is real revolutionary. I wonder if I could get people to sign it now."
Hunter typed the preamble of the Declaration, six amendments from the Constitution's Bill of Rights and the 15th amendment into the form of a petition. Then, he headed to a park where families were celebrating the Fourth. Of the 112 people he approached, 20 accused Hunter of being a communist. Many more said they approved of sentiments expressed in the petition but feared signing a document that might be used by McCarthy, who frequently charged that signers of petitions for civil rights, civil liberties or economic justice were either active Communists or fellow travelers. Only one man recognized the historic words and signed his name to the petition.
Hunter's petition drive became a national sensation. Time magazine, The Washington Post and, of course, The Nation cited it as evidence of the damage done by McCarthy and his 'ism to the discourse. President Harry Truman called The Capital Times to praise the paper and cited Hunter's article in a speech. Hunter and his colleagues on The Capital Times would battle McCarthy for the next six years, gathering evidence of wrongdoing and deception that would eventually embolden other journalists and help shift the political climate sufficiently to permit the Senate's censure of the red-baiting senator.
After McCarthy died in 1957, Hunter continued to champion the free speech rights of civil rights activists, antiwar protesters and anti-apartheid campaigners. Until his death this past November 26 at age 87, he maintained that it was the job of journalists -- especially those working on small-town and regional dailies far from Washington and New York -- not merely to report the news, but also to defend democracy and the liberties that underpin it. In his last years, Hunter fretted that the consolidation and homogenization of media was robbing the nation of maverick journalistic voices. And he worried a lot about the state of our civil liberties.
Even as his health failed him, Hunter could be stirred to high passion by the mention of Attorney General John Ashcroft's name. He despised the Patriot Act, the internment of immigrants and other assaults on individual liberty crafted by Ashcroft and his ilk in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. He even talked about dusting off his 1951 petition and taking it out on another July 4. "The thing is to remind people that when these bastards take away anyone's freedom, we're all threatened," Hunter told me a few months before he died. "In the 1950s it was McCarthy. Now it's Ashcroft. Same fight."
"Ann's latest is called 'Treason,' in which she denounces all liberals as traitors, right Ann?" asks the strip's mock radio interviewer.
"Well, it's not just liberals," Ann screeches. "Lots of moderates are traitors, too--as are conservatives who disagree with me. Treason has just gotten completely out of hand lately!"
"Well, as I'm sure you know, Ann, under the US code, treason is a federal crime carrying the death penalty....So I take it you would argue that over half the country should be put to death?"
"Um....wow...That's a tough one," says Ann. "I'm not sure."
"Perhaps you could ask a passing orderly...," suggests the interviewer.
"Good idea. Hold on..."
Hang it up, Ann.
Palm Beach in Baghdad?
"It would be a disaster to have an election whose legitimacy was contested. Nobody wants Palm Beach County in Baghdad," Noah Feldman, a law professor at New York University, who served as a constitutional law adviser to Paul Bremer, recently told the New York Times.
I blamed it on my bleary eyes. After all, it was Friday 8:00am at the tail end of another long week. Was the New York Times's story actually reporting that, "Mr Bush's campaign says it is raising so much money just to remain competitive with what it says is a well-financed liberal political machine."
Whoa! This is the same President who's going to bust all fundraising records--raising over $200 million, even with an uncontested primary race? It's certainly true that unions, wealthy liberals, and others are pouring what resources they have into election 2004. They've correctly anticipated Bush's enormous financial advantage will require an expensive response and that the stakes are extraordinarily high. And Bush's own fundraising is a fraction of the money that will be spent on his behalf--his party will raise far more money than the Democrats and corporate-friendly investment in Bush, Inc. will make its voice heard loudly as well.
Bush as financial underdog? The only question is whether the press corps covering the presidential race will challenge this remarkable spin.
Ted Turner, Feminist?
Bush and Kim Jong Il Tie for Second Place
In a recent poll of 7,500 Europeans, on the eve of his state visit to Britain, George Bush tied with Kim Jong Il of North Korea as the second most dangerous threat to world peace. (Prime Minister http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/middle_east/2001/israel_and_the_pale... ns/profiles/1154622.stm">Ariel Sharon of Israel ranked No. 1)
Fox News Channel is considered by many to be pro-Bush, pro-war, and pro-occupation. Yet one of the harsher critics in the media of the Bush administration's postwar actions has been retired Major Bob Bevelacqua, a Fox News military analyst. "Major Bob," as he is called on air, served thirteen years in the Army Special Forces, which included a nation-building stint in Haiti. He also put in three years at the Pentagon. Fox enlisted him as a commentator eight days after 9/11. When not deconstructing developments in Iraq for Fox viewers, he works with William Cowan, another former military officer who is a Fox analyst, in a company trying to provide security assistance to the U.S. occupation authority and private enterprises in Iraq. Bevelacqua, who supported going to war on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant and a threat to stability in the region but not a direct threat to the United States, is clearly unhappy with the whole contracting process under way in Iraq--which certainly colors his opinions, as does his time in the Special Forces. After hearing him challenge the administration's handling of the occupation on the air and in the corridors of the Fox News Washington bureau--I, too, am a Fox News contributor--I asked Bevelacqua to spell out his objections and talk about what he saw in Iraq during a recent month-long visit there.
What's going wrong in Iraq?
We didn't make the transition from a conventional war to an unconventional war. That occurred when President Bush said the major combat is over and now we focus on the rebuilding. We were still fighting in a conventional mindset--war done, move on to the postwar--when we needed to be fighting in an unconventional mindset against what was now an unconventional enemy.
Was it unforeseen that the invasion of Iraq would lead to a vicious insurgency? Was there no plan for that?
It was unforeseen by the politicos, but it was foreseen by the guys who had worked in and around the military. Some were looking down the road and thinkin [bad text] tion Provisional Authority (CPA) would look like and who some of the key players would be. They took questions, and I asked two questions. First, what are you going to do with the military? Then what are you going to do with the police? There was no answer. I got a shoulder shrug: "We don't know." So I got on my soap box for 30 seconds and went over what happened in Haiti and the lessons learned. We got the military to become police there. We changed their uniforms and changed their appearances. We gave them classes on human rights. We did not collapse them. The reaction was silence, "Thank you very much, next question." A few of us looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. After the meeting some of us huddled up in the hallway and said, "We don't have a plan." In the small circle that I run within, the Special. Forces, this way of doing business is known as a "guided discovery."
What does that mean?
Go over there and make it up as you go along. If it works, great. If it doesn't, we'll try something else. That's fine if you're making chocolate bars. In this context in the Middle East, it is a recipe for failure--which is what we have at the moment, though that can be changed.
It really was avoidable. Every administration does the exact same thing. You bring in your connected friends and allies, and you give them jobs, appoint them as Cabinet secretaries and other officials. Some do a good job. Some have no skills to do the job. As a prime example I would use [national security adviser] Condoleezza Rice. What does she have in her past experience to allow her to advise the president on all this? She's a Soviet Union expert.
There are a lot of smart guys in the Pentagon, and the ones with the ability to come up with a realistic plan are not going to be heard--especially if they challenge the ideology of the guys in charge. Now I think what we see in Iraq is a classic mission for the Army Special Forces--a mission heavy with civil affairs and psychological operations. It is all about working with the indigenous population of Iraq, period. The Army has doctrine on how to conduct these types of affairs. And it has flat-out been ignored.
If the military--particularly Special Forces--has the experience to do nation-building in conjunction with counterinsurgency, why haven't things gone better?
We put civilians in charge--the CAP--and that was because the Pentagon and White House wanted to control the war without having to go through the military. Now that we are in the phase when large amounts of money are being let out in contracts and private industry has to be brought in, that all has to be controlled by the White House. Is it a coincidence that one of the largest companies that was awarded a contract in Iraq is aligned with Dick Cheney?
I recently spent a month in Iraq, and I did a lot of listening and not much talking, which is not characteristic for me. The way the Iraqis see it--and they call it very accurately--is that there is a lot of corruption in how the CPA has been handling contracts with Halliburton, Bechtel, and the subcontractors. It upsets Iraqis to see subcontractors brought in from South Africa, Germany, England, India and elsewhere to do simple contracts that are not high-tech. They feel those opportunities for work should go to the Iraqi people. It is their nation; they should probably be involved in rebuilding it.
As you know, there's been some debate here about the media coverage of security in Iraq, with the White House and its supporters claiming that the media has played up stories about the security problems in Iraq. What did you see there?
The security situation as a whole is nonexistent. In certain areas and sectors, it is pretty good. But the first day I got there in October somebody parked a car bomb outside the gates of the compound where our offices are in Baghdad. That first night, mortar attacks were fired from the area I lived in, which is only a kilometer or so from where the 82nd Airborne is based. If they could get that close to the Americans and fire mortars, I don't know how anyone can argue that security is good.
The enemy has the ability to fire when and where they like. That's because the civilian population is allowing them to do that. And that's because we have not embraced that civilian population. We have isolated ourselves in Saddam castle behind concrete barriers. Think of the irony of this. We put ourselves in the castles from where he dominated and repressed that country. Who do we look like? The members of the interim council had to be searched before they would be allowed to enter their offices. It was a slap in the face, and they could see foreign subcontractors coming and going into the CAP offices just by flashing an ID card. This is totally unacceptable.
Three days before I left, an explosive charge was placed underneath the generator for our office. The blast took out the generator and blew out a portion of the glass in the office. We feel we were attacked because we were advertising what we were trying to do--that is, use Iraqis to develop information and intelligence that can be used to provide security. None of our guys were hurt. But when the attack came, the security guards we had at our offices disappeared right before the explosion. And the Iraqi who was providing us these security guards--a prominent sheik from Mosul--is working for the U.S. military, too.
Does the Bush administration have a good bead on who--and what--it is fighting in Iraq?
I've seen lists of insurgent forces they have developed, and they're missing one category: disenfranchised and disillusioned Iraqis. They don't recognize that as a potential group these people can create havoc. They think they're onlookers. But these people don't have any jobs. So when they are approached by people in the insurgency with a handful of money and asked to shoot at Americans or plant a bomb, they say, sure, we'll do it. They think there is still a chance that Saddam Hussein will come back to power and then it will have been a smart move to have helped the insurgency.
How angry should the American public be, if at all?
The public deserves to know the truth. There is so much cheerleading on TV. They're not getting the truth. Most pundits care about getting Bush in or out of office. Its politics at its worst. The White House is doing what all White Houses do--spinning. They give their take, which most of the time I find to be inaccurate. I'm an advocate for the soldier. I love my country, not necessarily the government.
A lot of the Democratic presidential candidates talk about turning over the occupation to the U.N. and bringing in troops from other nations. Do you think that's a feasible military option? It looks as if few other countries are eager to dispatch their troops into a counterinsurgency situation, which, as you know, is much different than a peacekeeping mission.
The Iraqis don't want to see anyone else send in troops. We have to use the Iraqi people, use their police force, win hearts and minds. It has to be peace through prosperity. We have to give them jobs. The large contracts may have to go to places like Halliburton and Bechtel, but there should be a law that they only can subcontract to an Iraqi company. Let these Iraqi firms team up with foreign companies if they have to, but Iraqi companies should be making the biggest gains from rebuilding their countries. I spoke to a German who got the contract to restring power lines from Baghdad to Jordan. He said he was going to use Indians, not Iraqis, to restring the lines. He was then told by a prominent Iraqi that the Iraqi people would not stand for this, that Iraqis would be shooting the Indians down from the towers. He had to reconsider. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what is needed. We need to use cross-cultural communication skills to understand the environment and create peace through prosperity. We need the Iraqis to do their own intelligence network, their own security, their own rebuilding.
Why don't they share your view at the White House and the Pentagon?
Ignorance--they just don't know how unconventional war is fought. And arrogance--an inability to listen to the suggestions from others. And there is some professional jealousy. The civilians in the Pentagon don't want to see the Special Forces guys handed another mission.
I thought going to war in Iraq was a good thing. But we are screwing it up. If we change our policies and truly work with the Iraqi people, things can change. If they do not change, we will have another Beirut, another Somalia. We will end up leaving, and it will implode. And that will give us negative PR in the eyes of 1.6 billion Muslims. This is the Super Bowl. Look, we trained and advised the Afghanistan mujaheddin [who battled the Soviet Union in the 1980s] and some of them managed to fight against us later. Our ability to screw things up is immense.
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America is better for Tony Kushner. A self-described "God-believing Jew and a historical materialist socialist humanist agnostic," Kushner--a member of The Nation's editorial board--is a playful partisan, whose sense of humor and a generous, joyful and truthful voice fills his work, including his Pulitzer prize-winning epic play, Angels in America, which premieres this Sunday on HBO.
And The Nation is better for Kushner's contributions over the years, including his award-winning 1994 essay A Socialism of the Skin, his rabble-rousing commencement address to Vassar's 2002 class, A Word to Graduates: Organize! and a scene from his forthcoming play about Laura Bush reading Dostoevsky to dead Iraqi children. (Click here to read past Nation articles from Kushner.)
What has always moved me about Kushner is his sense of humanity and humility. "I am a person of the left," he said in a recent New York Times profile. "But I am uncertain about a great many things; what to do next; where change is coming from; what is the meaning of being left in a world like this?"
And although his writing often describes the outrages of our time ("There is not enough anger for everything that makes me angry," he once said, quoting novelist Sarah Schulman), Kushner retains his joyful and incendiary spirit--refusing to get preachy or earnest. "I believe that the playwright should be a kind of public intellectual, even if only a crackpot intellectual." Kushner once wrote. "Someone who asks her or his thoughts to get up before crowds, on platforms, and entertain, challenge, instruct, annoy, provoke, appall. I'm amused and horrified when I realize that, on occasion, I've been taken seriously. But, of course being taken seriously is my ambition, semi-secretly-and-very-ambivalently held. I enjoy the tension between responsibility and frivolity; it's where my best work comes from."
That abiding belief in personal responsibility (Or, as he puts it, "when you don't act, you act") may explain Kushner's extraordinary outpouring of work in these last years--from poems, criticism, personal essays, political investigations, public addresses, opera librettos, song lyrics and a children's book.
In the last two months alone, he has published two books, with a third on the way: Brundibar, a picture book filled with melodramatic menace and comedy and real-world politial overtones (with illustrations by Maurice Sendak), Wrestling With Zion, an anthology of progressive Jewish-American responses to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (with his friend the Village Voice writer Alisa Solomon), and Save Your Democratic Citizen Soul!: Rants, Screeds and Other Public Utterances for Midnight in the Republic, a collection of essays due "out before the next election" Kushner promises.
His new play, Caroline or Change, a semi-autobiographical musical about growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has just opened at the Public Theater in New York City to widespread praise. And while working on Brundibar, he wrote the text for The Art of Maurice Sendak, a book-length essay that the award-winning children's book author considers the best appreciation of his work ever written. And check out this slew of other forthcoming collaborations and projects:
*Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy. (The Laura Bush play, in which the First Lady reads the Grand Inquisitor chapter of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov to the ghosts of dead Iraqi children.)
*The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism, with a Key to the Scriptures, to open at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 2005.
*A play about Marx and the Jewish Question.
*An adaptation of The Golem.
*Working as an adviser on HBO's version of his play Homebody/Kabul.
*An original screenplay about Eugene O'Neill.
It's hard to feel too bad about the possibilities of the human spirit with Kushner around.