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Democrats for McCain

It was only a matter of time before some Democrats began jumping ship to join the all-but-announced McCain for President campaign.

The first casualty is Nicco Mele, the former webmaster of the groundbreaking Dean for America campaign. According to the Hotline, Mele, whose firm Echo Ditto represents over twenty Democratic and progressive causes, has agreed to become one of McCain's key online strategists.

The move has caused a fury in the blogosphere since it was reported last night. Mele recently posted this blog in his defense:

A lot of people are asking me about John McCain. When I worked for Common Cause, I worked on the McCain-Feingold bill and worked closely with Sen. John McCain's office. After Sen. McCain lost the Republican primary in 2000, I traveled with him as part of a group of campaign finance reform staffers as we criss-crossed the country working to secure support for the McCain-Feingold bill. I have long admired Sen. McCain's work on campaign finance reform and his independent streak. If Sen. McCain runs for president, he's got my support.

But Mele and other Democrats tempted to follow his lead should realize that the straight-talking McCain of 2000 is not the Bush-coddling McCain who wants to win in 2008.

Whitewash

It is staggering. It is horrifying. But, then again, it isn't. It is what we have come to expect of this war and those who have misled our nation into it.

According to the Washington Post, the commanding officer of the battalion involved in the Haditha massacre last November told military investigators "he did not consider the deaths of 24 Iraqis, many of them women and children, unusual and did not initiate an inquiry."

And the New York Times reported last week on the felony assault conviction of David Passaro, a CIA contractor accused of beating an Afghan prisoner for two days with "a flashlight and his fists" until the man pleaded to be shot and then died the following day.

These two stories reveal – once again – the lack of accountability and prosecution up the chain of command. Those who sit on high have attempted to erase such "quaint" legal restraints as the Geneva Conventions while blaming the lowest ranking soldiers for waging the war they have created.

In June, Robert Jay Lifton, esteemed psychiatrist and author of many books including Crimes of War: Iraq, wrote in Editor and Publisher of the corrupting nature of the occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq: "To attribute the likely massacre at Haditha to ‘a few bad apples' or to ‘individual failures' is poor psychology and self-serving moralism. To be sure, individual soldiers and civilians who participated in it are accountable for their behavior, even under such pressured conditions. But the greater responsibility lies with those who planned and executed the ‘war on terrorism' of which it is a part, and who created, in policy and attitude, the accompanying denial of the rights of captives (at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) and of the humanity of civilians (at Haditha)."

This administration's barbaric tactics include undermining the Geneva Conventions, seeking to justify the use of torture, and lying its way into a war that has led to immeasurable suffering and loss of life. In word and deed, it has done unprecedented and perhaps irreparable harm to our constitution, our country--and our troops.

Lifton assigns guilt exactly where it belongs: "Psychologically and ethically, responsibility for the crimes at Haditha extends to top commanders, the secretary of defense, and the White House. Those crimes are a direct expression of the kind of war we are waging in Iraq."

There is a need for a real investigation – not a whitewash – of the real perpetrators of this catastrophic war. Such an investigation will never occur unless we vote for real change this November.

McCarthyism: From 1946 to 2006

Primary elections always matter. But some primary elections matter more than others; indeed, some primary elections define the character not just of a particular official's term, or even of a legislative or congressional session, but of the nation's politics for years to come.

Residents of the state of Wisconsin, where my family has resided for seven generations, know this better than the citizens of most states. Sixty years ago this month, Republican primary voters turned out one of the greatest senators in the history of the United States, Robert M. La Follette Jr., and replaced him with one of the lousiest excuses for an elected leader this country has ever produced, Joe McCarthy.

The Wisconsin Republican Senate primary of 1946 set the wheels in motion for the Red Scare of the 1950s, to which McCarthy lent his name and his sordid tactics. It is true that Richard Nixon and others would have ginned up some sort of anti-communist propaganda campaign, but it is doubtful that it would ever have done the damage to civil liberties and public life that McCarthy achieved with his unparalleled lies and cruelty.

That Republican primary also began the long descent of the Grand Old Party, which had once laid a far stronger claim than the Democratic Party to the progressive mantle, into the pit of petty bigotry, reaction and neoconservative fantasy that now defines it.

La Follette lost by only 5,000 votes in August, 1946, but the margin did not matter. With the defeat of the maverick senator, who had supported extension of Roosevelt's New Deal at home while wisely questioning schemes for post-World War II military adventures abroad, the era of the old-school Midwestern progressivism came to a close. And American politics entered a dramatically uglier and more irrational period from which it has yet to fully emerge.

If anyone doubts this, consider the recent editorial attack on Ned Lamont, the mainstream liberal who defeated U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman in Connecticut's Aug. 8 Democratic primary, by the conservative Waterbury Republican-American newspaper.

Entitled "Ned Lamont's True Colors," the Sunday editorial in one of Connecticut's larger daily newspapers was classic McCarthyism. "Red Ned may label himself a progressive, but when he espouses goals shared by Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Castro, et al., he gives away his true color," wrote the paper's editors of Lamont, a successful businessman who espouses views no more radical than those of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and dozens of other House and Senate members including a few anti-war Republicans.

The newspaper alleged that "(Lamont) has surrounded himself with people who may be characterized fairly as dedicated socialists and borderline communists," when in fact Lamont's primary supporters were grass-roots Democrats who were frustrated with Lieberman's allegiance to the Bush administration's failed foreign policy.

The Republican-American editorial also claimed that "liberal journalists adore (Lamont) because they share his world view on abortion, homosexual marriage, universal health care, racial quotas, loopy environmentalism and especially the war against Islamic terrorism. They are blood brothers, or more accurately, fellow travelers. Just as journalism has become a hornet's nest of socialism (communism not yet perfected), if you shake Lamont's family tree, a lot of Red apples will fall."

Spouting innuendo and inaccuracy with abandon, the newspaper sought to claim that Lamont's blue-blood family including J.P. Morgan's partner, Thomas Lamont, and civil libertarian Corliss Lamont was nothing less than Stalin's fifth column in the United States. The paper conveniently forgot to mention that Corliss Lamont, though certainly a man of the left, authored a much-noted tract titled "Why I Am Not a Communist."

While the Republican-American may be guilty of lax journalism, the real shame belongs to Lieberman's independent campaign, which has spread the Waterbury paper's fantastic claims. The senator's communications director even quoted the editorial in a widely circulated statement on the race.

With the help of the Waterbury Republican-American, Joe Lieberman is keeping alive the politics of another Joe: the one named McCarthy. And in so doing, Lieberman's proving that the shock waves from a primary election in the summer of 1946 are still being felt in this summer of another primary election that has dislodged another senior senator.

Hillary's Opportunity

The New York Times reports yesterday that some progressive Democrats are "deeply reluctant, and in some cases scared, to criticize or abandon Mrs. Clinton, who supported the invasion of Iraq" and, therefore, are unwilling to encourage a debate with antiwar Senate candidate, Jonathan Tasini (who is polling at 13% and qualified for the ballot with 40,000 signatures).

If Democrats begin to fear challenge, dissent and debate the party will be in conflict with its core democratic principles. There is a way to recognize the good work Senator Clinton is doing on such issues as the minimum wage, engaging people on health care (though she is far less aggressive on that front these days), and on child welfare…. while also noting that she is maddeningly vague in her position on the War (though she is no Joe Lieberman, who tried to muzzle his colleagues).

Good Democrats should urge Clinton to debate Tasini and speak out on the direction that she envisions for our nation. Leaders are meant to embolden us at the most critical and trying times, not leave us hanging. Engaging Tasini is an opportunity for the Senator to clarify her vision for New Yorkers, Democrats, and the American people. It is also a way for her to answer critics who say she will never win in 2008 because voters believe she is unwilling to take a strong stand.

The JonBenet Effect

It's August, a string of brilliantly blue, placid days. We might be at the beach or taking a long lunch outdoors, but instead we're glued to the TV, transfixed by the latest, sordid details regarding the alleged murder of an innocent, young girl by her creepy, older, would-be lover. Did he do it? What was she wearing when it happened? Is the wife covering-up for him? Why am I obsessed with this trash?

Welcome back August 2001. Welcome back Gary Condit. Welcome back Chandra Levy (my how blonde you've grown!). Welcome back to the halcyon days before September 11th when Maureen Dowd could say that such scandals were "the stuff of great drama and novels and journalism through the ages," a story "as legitimate as covering the patients' bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so, because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth."

And what was that truth? What ever happened to Chandra and Gary? Who cares?! We've got their replacements in JonBenet Ramsey and John Mark Karr. They're younger, weirder and wear more make-up.

In the months after September 11th, the press excoriated itself for its "self-trivialization," its obsession with "the personal, the small, and the titillating," as the Washington Post's Robert Samuelson put it. Well, here we go again, another set of lovely bones to inspect. Thanks to CNN, we know almost everything there is to know about Karr -- from what he ate on the plane (fried king prawns and roast duck) to the details of his facial hair removal at the Siam Swan Cosmetic Clinic -- except, of course, the answer to the million dollar question. Did he do it? If TV execs get their wish, we'll be kept guessing for some time. All the better so that we can keep reading the parade of tea leaves. Just yesterday MSNBC devoted hours to "breaking footage" of a 1987 home video of Karr. "He has longer hair here...and...he seems...to be trying...to hide his face!" the model-anchor emphatically concluded as a younger, hairier Karr mildly waved off the camera.

Even the NYT got in on the act. As Talking Points Memo points out, the Times assigned 13 reporters to Friday's Jon-John coverage and just two to the NSA warrantless wiretapping case. Good old Dowd has yet to weigh in, but the Gray Lady did rush to press two long pieces on the secret lives of pedophiles by Kurt Eichenwald, who aims for a kind of detached salaciousness. The NYT might not have led with "Slayer of Beauty Queen Tot Confesses," but they were no less lurid, despite the studied patina of "investigative" intelligence, than Fox News or The New York Post.

But why do we keep watching? Don't we know there's a war (or two or three) on? As James Kincaid, author of Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting, argues at Slate, the Ramsey case offers "forbidden material served up to us in ways we can both enjoy and disown." "Somebody else finds the bodies of children irresistible and we want the chance to rail against these monsters, meanwhile relishing the details of the very bodies we claim indifference to," he writes. In this sense, it makes no difference that the press will inevitably issue another round of self-flagellation for its "self-trivializing" JonBenet coverage. That's all part of the game.

And did he do it? Your guess is as good as mine. What is known is that Karr was fascinated with the notoriety of pedophilia. He wrote about Michael Jackson and Richard Allen Davis, the murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas; he moved to the same town where Klaas grew up. For the past 10 years, he tracked minute developments in the Ramsey case. It's not hard to imagine then that Karr's confession (and possibly his crime) stem from the same, mass-media fueled obsession with violated innocence that so apparently enthralls us all.

One Year Later

One year. It's been one year since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. One year since the levees broke and the city of New Orleans drowned. One year since the poor people of New Orleans stood on their roof tops with signs that screamed "Help Us," but help didn't come until, in too many cases, it was too late.

First year anniversaries are meant to commemorate the dead and ease the grief of the living. If Hurricane Katrina had only been the worst natural disaster in American history, we could do that. But it was also one of the worst failures of political leadership--before, during, and after--in American history. And so the politicians involved have spent the past year spreading the blame around to avoid answering the question crucial for any type of healing: Why did it happen?

In HBO's magisterial When the Levees Broke, Spike Lee performs a levelheaded autopsy of the disaster. And his answer is that the political leaders did not care enough to respond quickly enough to avoid the tragedy. Governor Blanco cared more about the appearance of being in control than she did about the situation in New Orleans. And President Bush cared more about fundraisers and the concept of state rights than he did about the situation in New Orleans to preempt the Governor and send in the military before the food, water, and medical supplies ran out.

As if to underline this point, Bush used this time of mourning for New Orleans to make an impassioned appeal to continue aid for a place he cared about enough to preemptively invade: Iraq. Does the President of the United States care more about the people over there than he does the people here?

At Press Conference, Bush Stays the Course

George W. Bush keeps trying to rally popular support for his war in Iraq. But he has little to offer other than stay-the course-ism. He cannot point to progress in Iraq. Nor can he point to a plan that would seem promising. Thus, he is left only with rhetoric--the same rhetoric.

That was on display during a presidential press conference at the White House on Monday. Here's a selective run-down.

One reporter asked,

More than 3,500 Iraqis were killed last month, the highest civilian monthly toll since the war began. Are you disappointed with the lack of progress by Iraq's unity government in bringing together the sectarian and ethnic groups?

Bush replied,

No, I am aware that extremists and terrorists are doing everything they can to prevent Iraq's democracy from growing stronger. That's what I'm aware of.

He could not bring himself to say he is disappointed by the government's inability to curb the sectarian violence? That was an odd way to defend his actions in Iraq. Bush did go on to say,

And, therefore, we have a plan to help them--"them," the Iraqis--achieve their objectives. Part of the plan is political; that is the help the Maliki government work on reconciliation and to work on rehabilitating the community. The other part is, of course, security. And I have given our commanders all the flexibility they need to adjust tactics to be able to help the Iraqi government defeat those who want to thwart the ambitions of the people. And that includes a very robust security plan for Baghdad.

A question: when would it be fair to judge the plan's success? The plan has supposedly already been implemented. Yet the death count is rising in Iraq. A sharp-eyed (or sharp-eared) reporter should have asked, "If the death count goes up next month, will that mean the plan is a failure? And how should Americans (and Iraqis) evaluate whether the plan is working?" Or as Donald Rumsfeld might say, what are the operative metrics?

Bush repeatedly said that it would be disastrous for the United States to disengage from Iraq. He claimed,

It will embolden those who are trying to thwart the ambitions of reformers. In this case, it would give the terrorists and extremists an additional tool besides safe haven, and that is revenues from oil sales.

Regarding the "reformers"--and Bush noted this included reformers throughout the region--the US invasion of Iraq and the recent (and partially still ongoing war between Israel and Hezbollah) has undercut the reformers of the Middle East, or so say many such reformers. These reformers report they are on thinner ice because of US policies. Bush's actions, according to the grunts of Middle East reform, have not emboldened them. As for turning Iraq into a safe haven for terrorists and extremists, Bush has already accomplished that. An American journalist who had recently returned from Baghdad told me a few weeks ago that neighborhoods within a mile or so of the Green Zone in Baghdad are totally under the control of insurgents. Whole swaths of Iraq are beyond the authority of the Iraqi government. These areas can be safe havens for all sorts of miscreants. And it's fear-mongering to suggest that if the United States were to withdraw that anti-American jihadists will control the state and be enriched by oil revenues. Last time I checked, the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds all had an interest in Iraq. These groups are unlikely to turn the nation over to the few jihadist terrorists operating within Iraq.

One exchange did not inspire confidence. A reporter asked,

Mr. President, I'd like to go back to Iraq. You've continually cited the elections, the new government, its progress in Iraq, and yet the violence has gotten worse in certain areas. You've had to go to Baghdad again. Is it not time for a new strategy? And if not, why not?

Bush responded,

You've covered the Pentagon, you know that the Pentagon is constantly adjusting tactics because they have the flexibility from the White House to do so.

The reporter--who was not asking about tactics--interrupted:

I'm talking about strategy.

Bush then said:

The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. That's the strategy.

Actually, that's not a strategy. That's a goal. A commander in chief should know the difference. A strategy is how one goes about--in a general way--accomplishing goals. Tactics are how one implements the strategy. After Bush talked about giving military commanders in Iraq the "flexibility" to "change tactics on the ground," this interesting back-and-forth occurred:

Sir, that's not really the question. The strategy --

THE PRESIDENT: Sounded like the question to me.

Q: You keep -- you keep saying that you don't want to leave. But is your strategy to win working? Even if you don't want to leave? You've gone into Baghdad before, these things have happened before.

THE PRESIDENT: If I didn't think it would work, I would change -- our commanders would recommend changing the strategy. They believe it will work.

Seems as if Bush was saying that his commanders are in charge of the strategy. But isn't that his job?

Later on came this exchange:

Q: But are you frustrated, sir?

THE PRESIDENT: Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I'm happy. This is -- but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times. These are challenging times, and they're difficult times, and they're straining the psyche of our country.

To recap: he is not "disappointed" (see above), but he is occasionally "frustrated." Yet hardly "surprised." Wait a moment. Does that mean he invaded Iraq realizing that the war there would turn into an ugly sectarian conflict that would bog down US troops for over three years? If so, why didn't he say something before the invasion about this? Or, better yet, why didn't he and the Pentagon prepare for such an eventuality? Citizens should hope he was damn surprised by what has happened in Iraq--even though that would not make him any less culpable.

Bush repeatedly acknowledged there is a legitimate debate whether the United States should disengage from Iraq. He noted,

I will never question the patriotism of somebody who disagrees with me.

This statement is--how should we put it?--not as accurate as it could be. Campaigning for congressional Republicans in 2002 Bush said that Senate Democrats were "more interested in special interests in Washington and not interested in the security of the American people." That certainly is not how one would describe a patriot. More recently, Bush's own Republican Party accused the Democrats of plotting to weaken the country. After a federal judge ruled that Bush's warrantless wiretapping program was unconstitutional, the GOP sent out an email headlined, "Liberal Judge Backs Dem Agenda To Weaken National Security." Accusing someone of having a gameplan to "weaken national security" is indeed questioning their patriotism. Has Bush decried this Republican National Committee tactic? Not in public.

The press conference allowed for a brief exploration of Bush's rationale for invading Iraq. One journalist inquired,

A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out [such as chaos in Iraq, terrorist running amok, etc.] seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn't gone in. How do you square all of that?

Bush fired back:

I square it because, imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who would -- who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East.

Well, as both Charles Duelfer and David Kay--administration-appointed WMD hunters--reported, Saddam did not have any serious capacity to produce WMDs. None. He had no weapons and no serious production capability. So, yes, one would have to "imagine" such a threat. As for Saddam's relations with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (now deceased), there is no evidence that Saddam had anything to do with him before the war. As Colin Powell noted in his disastrous UN speech, Zarqawi at the time was operating out of northern Iraq, which was territory not under Baghdad's control. Once more, a healthy dose of imagination is required to follow Bush's argument.

The president continued:

You know, I've heard this theory about everything was just fine until we arrived, and kind of "we're going to stir up the hornet's nest" theory. It just doesn't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East.

That led to this point-counterpoint:

Q: What did Iraq have to do with that?

THE PRESIDENT: What did Iraq have to do with what?

Q: The attack on the World Trade Center?

THE PRESIDENT: Nothing, except for it's part of -- and nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a -- the lesson of September the 11th is, take threats before they fully materialize....Nobody has ever suggested that the attacks of September the 11th were ordered by Iraq.

Not exactly. Dick Cheney and other hawks in the administration repeatedly said that there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11, citing an unconfirmed, single-source intelligence report that 9/11 ringleader Mohamad Atta met with an Iraqi intelligence official in Prague five months before the attack. Yet the FBI and the CIA (and later the 9/11 Commission) had concluded that there was no evidence to substantiate this report and that the meeting likely did not happen. True, Bush officials did not claim that Saddam had "ordered" the attack, but they did suggest that Baghdad had participated in the attack--even when there was no evidence to support that assertion.

So over three years after Bush ordered US troops into Iraq, he is still claiming that Saddam was something of a WMD threat and he is refusing to acknowledge that his administration did attempt to link Saddam to the 9/11 attack--all while professing he has a strategy (or is it a set of tactics?) to win in Iraq. This is not the sort of stuff that will hearten a nation. Bush remains lost in Iraq, with the rest of the country (and the world) held hostage by the mistakes and miscalculations he will not concede.

Gore vs. Clinton in '08?

The latest Time magazine poll has Al Gore at 41%, right behind Hillary Clinton at 46 percent. (The poll also shows that Clinton remains a polarizing figure--surprise!--among Republicans and a good number of Independents.)

Al Gore has warmed up, (see our cover story last June) and is speaking inconvenient truths to stir a nation to take meaningful action about the global climate crisis.

And in these last years, Gore finally found an authentic voice--one that seemed to elude him for much of his political career. His early and powerful denunciations of the Bush Administration's war planningand its deceptions, its manipulation of fear, its abuse of power, civil liberties and our constitutional design seem to shift the debate and embolden others to speak out.

But, the question remains--will Gore make a run for the presidency in '08? With each passing day, it seems less likely he will. But these latest poll numbers--and, yes, any polling this early has to be viewed skeptically--may just lead Al Gore to make the move.

In Search of Bill Clinton

I'd just finished reading a wonderful book, In Search of WillieMorris, when I got a note from Rahm Emanuel. Nothingpersonal. It was a (mass) e-mail asking me to join him in wishingPresident Bill Clinton a happy 60th birthday. (The Clinton Foundationhad organized an online birthday card.)

I sometimes wonder if Clinton knows what Karl Marx said of theeconomist David Ricardo. Bear with me--because this applies toClinton and his legacy. Ricardo, Marx is reported to have said,towers because of the barrenness of the landscape around him. Today,after six years of George W. Bush, Clinton's Presidency--with all ofits faults and squandered opportunities--sometimes seems totower because of the barrenness of our political landscape.

But back to what I'd just finished reading when I got Rahm Emanuel'snote.

In Search of Willie Morris is the biography of anotherSoutherner. Morris was a famously talented--and complex--writer andeditor who helped to remake American journalism. He wrote more thana dozen books, including the classic memoirs My Dog Skip andNorth Toward Home. His years at Harper's --he was madeeditor at age 32--were legendary. He was a friend, mentor, colleague,to a remarkable group of writers--William Styron, Norman Mailer,Truman Capote, Gay Talese, James Jones and, later in life, BarryHannah, Donna Tartt, Winston Groom and John Grisham, who wrote that"Wlllie Morris was a simple soul with enough conflicts andcomplexities to drive mad those who loved him."

When Morris died in 1999, Clinton sent a eulogy. It was read at theservice, which was held in the same Methodist Church in Yazoo Citywhich Morris attended as a kid.

Whatever one thinks of Clinton's Presidency, the former President'swords reveals a human being who shared with Morris what Grishamdescribed: a person "with enough conflicts and complexities to drivemad those who loved him."

Here's what Clinton sent to be read in Yazoo City, that summer of 1999:

"It was early in 1968 when I met Willie Morris in New York. Morriswas editor of Harper's and had been a Rhodes Scholar. I wroteto him shortly after I got my Rhodes,and to my surprise, he agreed tosee me. He was wonderfully wry and funny--the classic Southerner. Hewrote a great book about his dog. He wrote a fascinating book aboutthe role of football in the South and the racial barriers, TheCourting of Marcus Dupree. You know, most Southerners thoughtthey'd be looked down upon if they went up the Northeast. Thecultural elites would all think they were hayseeds--although that waskind of phony; The New York Times was largely run bySoutherners--but there was always this sensitivity about how youwould be seen. Willie gave us another way of thinking about the South.

You know, for most of my generation of Southerners who went north,the book that stuck in their minds was [Thomas Wolfe's] You Can'tGo Home Again. Willie's North Toward Home was abeautifully written, evocative portrait of one person's love for theSouth who had profound regret over the racial situation. It helped alot of people like me who wanted to see the world but also come homeand live in the South. He showed us how we could love a place andwant to change it at the same time. It really was an important thinghe did for me. He showed us we could go home."