The Nation

Refusing to Swallow the Spin

No one is going to suggest that the mainstream media that spent much of the last week of a critical national election campaign focusing on a non-candidate's failed attempt to tell a joke distinguished itself by offering citizens the information they need to cast informed votes. The absurd amount of attention that was devoted to a flap surrounding U.S. Senator John Kerry's attempt to poke fun at George Bush's ignorance of international affairs served as a reminder of how easily most broadcast journalists and talk-show hosts can be spun. It is much easier to note the exceptions to the rule -- such as CNN's "Broken Government" series and Jack Cafferty's commendable "throw-them-all-out" commentaries, and syndicated radio host Stephanie Miller's daily dissection of Republican talking points and the right-wing media's repetition of them -- than it is to count all the examples of tangled truths and mangled realities.

But the campaign season did close with one remarkable example of a prominent television personality using his program to challenge a particular politician's penchant for peddling sleaze. The politician in question is U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, the Ohio Republican who, like several other members of the GOP caucus, has fallen behind in his bid for a new term.

Ohio political observers know that DeWine has a long history of engaging in dirty and deceptive tactics in the final stages of his campaigns -- especially when the Republican is trailing. DeWine once accused former Senator John Glenn of being soft on communism, as part of a campaign that led the Dayton Daily News newspaper to accuse "mud-loving Mike DeWine" of running "a thoroughly negative campaign." That was a rare example of the media calling the Republican to account.

For the most part, however, DeWine has gotten away with smearing his opponents because fewin the media have challenged him on his tactics. In fact, as the media has become increasing lax in recent years, the senator has come to count on journalists to swallow his spin without challenge or complaint.

So when DeWine went on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews" a few days before this year's election, the senator expected to be able to use the national "free-media" exposure to attack his Democratic challenger, U.S. Representative Sherrod Brown, without any facing any consequences.

DeWine appeared on "Hardball" to amplify charges made in a campaign commercial that was airing on television stations around Ohio. The ad dredged up a discredited claim that, when Brown served in the 198Os as Ohio Secretary of State, the Democrat failed to address charges that a low-level employee of the office sold marijuana. The DeWine ad failed to note that, when Republicans first raised this "issue" in 199O, the Akron Beacon Journal newspaper reported that that there was "no evidence of impropriety" by Brown, while the Dayton Daily News described the Republican attacks on the Democrat as "trumped-up charges" that had been "officially discredited."

DeWine wasn't betting on Matthews to question the validity of the attack ad?

He bet wrong.

After the senator repeated allegations from the ad, Matthews asked, "What was the person's name? What's the person's name who was selling drugs, you say, illegally? Who was that person?"

DeWine mumbled, "I don't know the person's name..."

"Well, did this person ever get arrested?" asked Matthews. "Was this person ever arrested or convicted?"

"There was no charges filed," admitted DeWine.

Matthews pressed the senator: "O.K., what year was this?"

DeWine: "We're talking now, uh, er, the buy itself was made in 1986..."

Matthews: "You're talking about what your opponent's office did twenty years ago. You can't give me the name of the person involved. You've admitted that the person was never charged or convicted..."

DeWine tried to interrupt Matthews with another recitation of Brown's supposed sins. But Matthews was not going to let the senator get away with it.

"Isn't it kind of embarrassing having been a good Senator from Ohio without a mark on you to have to go back and dig up this scum?" Matthews asked. "Don't you feel embarrassed you're doing this, Senator? You wouldn't be talking about this if you weren't well behind in this race."

Truth may be a precious commodity in contemporary politics. But, sometimes, a ray of light shines through the spin. And Chris Matthews deserves credit for using that light to expose the scum on Mike DeWine's reelection campaign.


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

Voter Protection Resources

With the need for democracy promotion at home all to clear – particularly voter protection in the face of new Jim Crow-like suppression tactics – many groups are responding to the call to make the elections clean and fair. Here is a short list of Election Day resources available to voters – print it, copy it, forward it, use it. Let's make sure every vote is counted and the results reflect the will of the people.

National Voter Assistance Hotline: 1-866-Our-Vote

The nonpartisan Election Protection (EP) coalition – led by People For the American Way Foundation, the NAACP, and the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights Under Law – offers this national voter assistance hotline staffed by live call center operators trained to provide state specific assistance to all voters. The services will include bilingual assistance for areas with a heavy concentration of Spanish-speaking voters. Call center operators will inform voters and solve problems on issues such as voter identification requirements, voting machine malfunctions, problems at the polling place, and voter intimidation. EP's database records such problems, allowing the lawyers to track them in real time and take appropriate action to protect the vote on Election Day – not after the fact when it's too late. EP also offers a poll location website, www.MyPollingPlace.com

DNC Voter Hotline: 1-888-Dem-Vote

Voters can call this hotline with any Election Day problems that might arise and either leave a message, or be transferred to a local voter protection team in the state where the caller is registered. The hotline can also be used to find polling locations. Finally, all of the calls will be logged so that there will be a central record of voting problems as a resource for any post-election disputes. The DNC is also making Incident Report forms available beginning today at www.democrats.org/voterprotection.


The mission of ProtectOurVotes.org is to highlight the most serious violations as soon as they are discovered so that they are immediately available to journalists (along with reliable documentation). This is a vital resource to help shed light on Election Day injustices and take action before the election's verdict has been decided. The website also provides useful links to other partners in the Election Protection effort such as Video the Vote.

Other Hotlines

If you are having difficulties reaching any of the above resources, here are some other places you can turn to for help as well as to record a record of your voting experience:

SEIU Voter Hotline: 1-877-SEIU-VOTE
Common Cause Voter Hotline: 1-866-MY-VOTE
Velvet Revolution Voter Hotline: 1-888-VOTE-TIP

GOP’s Desperation Tactics

A volunteer was handing out campaign literature for John Hall at a local grocery store in New York's 19th District yesterday. He received a conspicuous response from several voters along the lines of: "I was going to vote for John Hall, until I got all those phone calls. I got seven or eight robo calls, right at dinner time."

In Eastern Washington, Peter Goldmark's campaign hadn't used robocalls in two weeks when suddenly people began complaining that they received as many as five or six calls in a row. Again, instant call backs every time the voter hung-up on the recorded caller.

Nancy Boyda, the Democratic challenger in the 2nd District of Kansas, received so many complaints along the same lines that she posted a response on her website.

And the Philadelphia Daily News reports of calls to voters on the Do Not Call list – seemingly from Democratic challenger, Lois Murphy. "The calls, which begin by offering ‘important information about Lois Murphy,' are designed to mislead voters into thinking the message is from her. Most recipients slam down the phone before finding out otherwise - and then call to complain."

In each case, the calls appear to be from the local Democratic candidate. If the recipient hangs up, the number is redialed. If the caller listens to the entire message the source is eventually identified. But most voters are so annoyed that they don't stick around for the duration – and they are turned-off by harassment they mistakenly attribute to a Democratic source.

At the center of many of these calls seems to be the work of Conquest Communications Group. Its list of lovable clients includes: Tom DeLay; the Louisiana Gambling Alert, run by Jack Abramoff; the right wing Family Research Council; Gun Owners of America; and Sen. George Allen.

All of this underscores a lesson we've learned too well: the necessity of being vigilant in sharing information regarding any underhanded tactics. We need to protect our votes from those who would undermine our rights in this election. On that score, later tonight I'm going to post a voter protection resource guide.

South Dakota Surprise

The most surprising story in this year's round of marriage amendments undoubtedly belongs to South Dakota (click here for other dispatches). Home to just 750,000 folks (89% white, 9% Native American; 91% Christian) -- the Mount Rushmore State isn't exactly known for being queer or blue. Bush carried the state in 2004 with 60% of the vote -- the same year that voters ignominiously dumped Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in favor of John Thune (who neither believes in gay marriage or evolution). According to the LA Times, South Dakota has the smallest percentage of LGBT folks in the country -- 10,000 queers or less than 1.5% of the population. (One activist joked to me, "we got 10,001 if you count Lincoln up there on the mountain").

So how is it that the straightest state in the nation is poised to defeat "Amendment C," a constitutional ban on gay marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other "quasi-marital relationships"? (The latest poll shows the measure in a dead heat with 47% against and 46% in favor). The answer lies partly in another right-wing ballot initiative, "Referred Law 6," or simply THE Abortion Ban, which the right-wing hopes to use to overturn Roe v. Wade. When all is said and done, over $4 million will have been spent campaigning for or against the ban. In a sparsely populated state with notoriously cheap radio and TV markets -- that's a whole lot of ads and door-knocking.

One side-effect of this enormous attention is that the marriage amendment has, if not exactly sailed under the radar, been spared a full frontal assault from the Christian right. According to Jon Hoadley, a native South Dakotan, former NGLTF staffer and campaign manager of South Dakotans Against Discrimination, the right has spent most of its time and resources on the abortion ban. When Hoadley scans the state for propaganda in favor of Amendment C, he mostly sees a bunch of lawn signs.

Hoadley also credits the "thoughtful voters of South Dakota" who have a "libertarian streak inside us." "A lot of voters think that something like this is just unfair, that it's not nice. Combine that with a hesitation to change our constitution." Indeed, South Dakotans Against Discrimination have run a savvy campaign, appealing to local, good neighbor values ("Good neighbors don't discriminate" reads one ad) and reaching out to religious leaders, business professionals and labor. The Dakotas Conference of the United Methodist Church and the South Dakota Diocese of the Episcopal Church have both spoken out against Amendment C. According to Hoadley, their stance has given South Dakotans Against Discrimination "a lot of leverage." "It's allowed us to approach religious voters and say that you have permission to vote against this," he said.

South Dakota has 11 ballot initiatives this year. In addition to the marriage and abortion bans, South Dakotans will vote on Amendment E, which would hold jurors and judges personally liable for their verdicts. Hoadley says that these measures are "some of the most extreme, most untested ballot initiatives in the country." "When you link all these things together, voters feel that this is all too far, too extreme."

Looking Like Losers

Is it possible the White House doesn't want Republicans to win the congressional elections? I know this sounds crazy. But consider the evidence.

1. Last week, George W. Bush vowed to retain Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense until the end of his presidency. (He said the same about Dick Cheney.) The debacle in Iraq is responsible for Bush's political decline and the GOP's poor electoral prospects. And Rumsfeld is the poster boy for that debacle. (Days ago, the Army Times called for his resignation.) Bush had no obligation to say whether Rumsfeld would remain at the Pentagon for another two years. He went out of his way in the homestretch of an election to tether himself to the fellow who symbolizes the mess in Iraq. Why do that--unless he has a political death wish?

2. On Friday, Dick Cheney said that the administration would indeed stay with its current course in Iraq and move "full speed ahead." He said, "We've got the basic strategy right." He added, "It may not be popular with the public--it doesn't matter in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're not running for office. We're doing what we think is right." Perhaps. But the previous week, his boss held a press conference and tried to convey the impression (though false) that the administration was going to rejigger its Iraq policy by introducing and aiming for "benchmarks." Bush's benchmark comments were not sufficient to win the confidence of the electorate. Days later, a New York Times/CBS News poll noted that only 29 percent of Americans approve of how Bush is handling the war in Iraq. So if 71 percent do not have faith in the White House's Iraq policy, why would Cheney make a point of declaring--defiantly--that he and Bush are committed to racing down that unpopular road? It was as if he were shooting the bird at the American public.

3. Speaking of which, on the weekend before the election, Cheney's office had an announcement: Cheney would spend Election Day on his first hunting trip since he shot a friend while trying to kill quail on a private ranch last February. Was this the right time for the White House to remind voters of Cheney's hapless moment? Couldn't Cheney wait until after the election before picking up a gun again? Why won't he be in a toss-up state stumping for a Republican candidate on Election Day? Or knocking on doors? And why does he get the day off? Election Day is not a federal holiday.

All of the above is quite puzzling behavior for a president and vice president facing the possibility their agenda, their war, and their party are about to be soundly refuted by American voters. Do they already know all is lost? On Sunday, I spoke with a former senior Bush administration official who has publicly predicted the Republicans will retain a one- or two-seat majority in the House and keep control of the Senate. But his manner indicated he didn't believe it. "This is what I have to say," he told me. "This is my public position." I asked what his private view was. He rolled his eyes.

Of course, the Republican Party is doing all its can to beat back what appears to be an anti-GOP wave--and that includes airing far-below-the-belt negative ads. Bush and Cheney have been campaigning in conservative areas--in spots where they won't do harm to Republicans. (On Monday, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida elected not to campaign with Bush in the Sunshine State.) And GOPers are talking up the vaunted get-out-the-vote machine created by Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman that is now in motion. So it is bizarre that in the closing days of this critical election Bush and Cheney would so dramatically remind voters of what they don't like about the Bush-Cheney administration. If these episodes are not indicators of a secret desire to lose, they are additional signs that Bush and Cheney are woefully out of sync with the public. This prompts a question: if the electorate does rise up against Bush, his party and their war, will Bush and Cheney be able to process that? If not, the republic may be in for a rather bumpy ride.


DON"T FORGET ABOUT HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, the best-selling book by David Corn and Michael Isikoff. Click here for information on the book. The New York Times calls Hubris "the most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations" and "fascinating reading." The Washington Post says, "There have been many books about the Iraq war....This one, however, pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." Tom Brokaw notes Hubris "is a bold and provocative book that will quickly become an explosive part of the national debate on how we got involved in Iraq." Hendrik Hertzberg, senior editor of The New Yorker notes, "The selling of Bush's Iraq debacle is one of the most important--and appalling--stories of the last half-century, and Michael Isikoff and David Corn have reported the hell out of it." For highlights from Hubris, click here.

Don't Get Lost

Where to Vote
Nation reader Keith Kritselis wrote in about a new website he's trying to publicize. The goal is simple and straightforward: to help voters find their polling place. Kritselis' site makes it very easy to do. His database currently encompasses 72 percent of the polling places in the US, which is no easy feat, considering that many of them change year to year. For the other 28 percent the site provides local phone numbers where people should be able to obtain the information they need.

As Kritselis wrote, the site "has no political affiliation or agenda, and collects no personal information" Rather it's a "small one man operation with no marketing dollars." You would think there'd be some general goverment site where this info was available but it can actually be quite difficult to find, which makes Kritselis' efforts even more impressive. His work shows what one person with a good idea can do these days, especially with the power of the new media. Click here to check it out.

Poll Watching
Looking for a way to protect the integrity of the votes this election? Visit Pollworkers for Democracy to find out how you can become a poll watcher in your area. There's still time to sign up before Tuesday.

November Surprise, the Sequel

Are we really surprised? The Saddam Hussein verdict, scheduled for October 16 and then suddenly delayed last month (supposedly because the Iraqi special tribunal needed more time) to November 5, the last news cycle before the US midterm election, has now come in and the former dictator (and monster) has been found guilty. The Bush administration, struggling desperately for face time in the media these last weeks, has one day of Iraqi front-page headlines and lead TV news stories of its dreams in an election season in which the Iraq War has more or less shoved every other issue off center stage.

The possibility that this particularly convenient verdict postponement might have been the result of Bush administration planning and pressure to create a November surprise for the midterm elections was first raised here at the Nation magazine's "The Notion" blog on October 17. Since then the mainstream American media has failed to explore the subject.

Just to review for a second: Saddam's trial, as the Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer reported last January, was a key priority of the Bush administration, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars exhuming evidence for it, refurbished the courtroom for it, trained judges for it, provided security for it, and even drafted many of the statutes under which Saddam was to be tried. The trial has been significantly stage-managed and run on a daily basis by the US Regime Crimes Liaison Office, working out of the US embassy in Baghdad.

As the Media Matters website has ably reported, the Bush administration (think: Karl Rove) has a penchant for and a "history of timing national security-related actions to the political calendar," thereby causing presidential approval ratings to providentially bump up at just the right moments; and White House Press Spokesman Tony Snow, when asked last week by CNBC's Larry Kudlow whether the verdict would be a "November surprise," even welcomed the question, as well as the prospective verdict, this way:

"[Y]ou are absolutely right, it will be a factor. But you know what, it may fit into a larger narrative about an Iraqi government that has been doing what the president has said all along which is developing the capacity to sustain itself, defend itself and govern itself and to help us out on the war on terror."

You would think that all this might have inspired the odd editor at the odd major (or even minor) newspaper to assign a story, however speculative, on the possibility of a Bush-manipulated Saddam-execution special, or that a major columnist somewhere might have commented, or that the odd reporter might have called someone other than the usual suspects. But no such luck, it seems.

Instead, where reporters did anything on the subject, they took the charge of possibly tampering with the verdict date for political advantage on the "home front" directly to administration figures -- last week, Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad (""The United States had nothing to do with the selection of the date and we don't know whether the judges have come to a judgment or not."); this Sunday, Tony Snow ("absolutely crazy"; "‘The idea is preposterous,' he said in an interview on CNN's ‘Late Edition,' that ‘somehow we've been scheming and plotting with the Iraqis.'") -- who naturally denied that it was faintly conceivable. In fact, in such articles, all you could read were denials of the charge. There was never a sense that the charge came from anywhere.

In the meantime, the idea was mocked on CNN; while NBC's Tim Russert fluffed it off, based on administration denials, evidently without (like every other reporter around) even bothering to explore the all too plausible possibility, or calling anyone on Earth who might have another opinion. How about, for instance, the articulate and knowledgeable human rights lawyer Scott Horton, whose private e-newsletter, "No Comment," first tipped off "The Notion" to the providential postponement? (Leading Democrats, of course, just ducked as always.) For our "balanced" press, this was little short of dereliction of duty.

When the tampering possibility slipped into stories at all, it was as a formulaic paragraph or two deep inside pieces deep inside the paper. Typical was this from the Post's usually able reporter Knickmeyer (who knows too much about the nature of Saddam's trial to have covered this issue so poorly):

"In Baghdad, US officials close to the trial deny that the announcement of the verdict, set for two days before US congressional elections, was timed to give a boost to the Republican Party. ‘If we had that kind of power to set dates like that, the trial would have been concluded in about five months,' said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition they not be identified further. ‘The fact of the matter is: No way.'"

So here we are, just a news cycle before election day, and both George W. Bush ("a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law") and Ambassador Khalilzad ("an important milestone in the building of a free society") are once again able to use one of those classic administration Iraq words -- "milestone" (think Saddam's capture, the purple finger election) -- that otherwise had disappeared from our news. This won't last more than a day or two, of course, before the Iraqi bad news begins to pour in again; but right now those few crucial hours are manna from heaven for an administration whose vice president has already declared that it will be "full speed ahead" in Iraq after the midterm elections, no matter what.

I have little doubt that, weeks, months, or years from now, we'll learn just who carried off this particular administration political ploy--and just how. In the meantime, this is but another small, pathetic tale of how the mainstream media has failed its readers and viewers, blindly and blandly spreading yet another administration fiction about the increasingly fictional land of, and "government" of, Iraq.

Look for a blunt account of this fiasco in the normal outlets. You'll do so in vain. If you're curious, take a look instead at what Riverbend, the "girl blogger of Baghdad," has to say today about the verdict, about what it's like--in an Iraq "at its very worst since the invasion"--to experience firsthand "the frustration of feeling like the whole country and every single Iraqi inside and outside of Iraq is at the mercy of American politics." So are we, unfortunately; and, on this election eve, you can offer some part of the thanks for that to the major paper or TV network of your choice.

Early Obituary

Call me traditional, but I think it is still a little early to write a death notice for Republican prospects in Tuesday's elections. The polls and trends favor the Democrats, but surveys of many of the key races find candidates of both parties stuck within margins of error. So it seems to me that a measure of caution is appropriate before nailing shut the GOP's coffin.

Not so the editors of National Review Online, the usually savvy website of the conservative National Review magazine. Their featured article this afternoon is teased with a photo of former President Ronald Reagan and the supposedly soothing reminder that: "He Took Losses Too."

The article, by reliably Republican columnist Charles Krauthammer, anticipates significant Republican losses -- with the House going Democratic and possibly the Senate -- but tells Grand Old Partiers not to take it too hard.

"In his sixth year, the now-sainted Ronald Reagan lost eight Senate seats that gave the chamber back to Democratic control," chirps Krauthammer. "That election was swayed by no wars, no weekly casualty figures, no major scandals. The first inkling of the Iran-Contra scandal broke on the morning after the election."

So, you see, Republican losses this year were inevitable.

If only Krauthammer could have gotten the message to the Republican National Committee and the party's House and Senate campaign committees, not to mention GOP candidates around the country. They could have saved a fortune by simply accepting their destiny.

Instead, they have fought the 2OO6 campaign to win, and predicted all along that they would do just that. Even now, with the voting just hours away, Republican operatives are all over the airwaves talking about a GOP "surge" coming -- and in some battleground states, such as Tennessee and Rhode Island, they could be right.

The National Review's ready-for-the-worst commentary may well offer the best confirmation that the obituary writers should be sharpening their pencils. But those who would bury the Republicans would be well advised to avoid taking any notes from Mr. Krauthammer, whose primary purpose appears to be to suggest that no one should be surprised or impressed by Democratic advances.

In fact, the history of this year's campaign points to an entirely different assessment. After blowing every previous opportunity to hold the Bush White House to account, and after mounting a predictably tepid campaign, the Democrats went into the fall campaign as nothing more than cautiously-hopeful contenders, while the Republicans went in with pretty much the same bravado they displayed in 2OO2 and 2OO4. The story of this campaign has been written this fall -- with the mishandling of the Mark Foley scandal by the Republican leadership, the collapse of home values, the record casualty figures from Iraq and the willingness of a growing number of Democratic challengers to scrap their party's playbooks and run genuinely aggressive campaigns -- and it is unique to this year.

How it plays out has yet to be seen, although the willingness of the National Review's editors to slap an "RIP" tag on the Republicans offers one more indication that an opera singer may be clearing her pipes.

The Pombo Ugly Last Campaign of Laura Bush

PLEASANTON, CA. -- Pity Laura Lane Welch Bush. A solid Democrat who placed her ideological values in a blind trust when she married into the Republican royal family, she now has been forced by the collapse of her husband's political fortunes into the most sordid of circumstances. The bookish Bush, who has devoted her tenure as First Lady to the gentle pursuits of promoting literacy and trying to smooth the jagged edges of her beau's administration, has now been put to the task of retaining Republican control of the House of Representatives. As the sole person closely associated with the Bush presidency who is still approved by a majority of Americans, she alone can be dispatched to states like California by the most political White House in American history. She alone can try to execute the most serious electoral repair job a presidential administration has had to engage in since newly-minted President Gerald Ford ventured onto the campaign trail in the Watergate year of 1974.

These cannot be happy days for the First Lady, who spent the day before her 60th birthday on Saturday in the political purgatory that had to make her wonder about the compromises she has made in her life.

If the First Lady's campaigning merely required her to attend literary lunches with the more genteel members of the Grand Old Party's congressional caucus -- Iowa's Jim Leach, Wisconsin's Tom Petri and the like -- the First Lady could swallow hard and comfort herself with the thought that after Tuesday she will never again have to pretend to like Republicans.

But the genteel Republicans aren't the ones who are in deep trouble this year. It's the thugs who are being dragged down by frustration with the failure of Congress to check and balance the Bush administration's war making, by the revelations of the pay-to-play politics of disgraced House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff and their minions, and by their own particularly wretched records.

Watching Laura Bush go through the motions of supporting some of the most disreputable political bagmen of the age has been this election year's least attractive experience, and on Friday things turned downright ugly -- Pombo ugly.

In this northern California suburb, the First Lady gripped a podium and squeezing out a pained smile as she discussed the dubious merits of seven-term U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, a Republican congressman who is so wrong on the issues and so ethically-compromised that, even in a district tailor-made to reelect Republicans, he is having trouble closing the deal. If Pombo loses, it will be exceptionally bad news for the Grand Old Party, as his defeat would signal that even the hard work of the partisan map drawers who have corrupted the redistricting process to assure the reelection of even the most malignant incumbents has been swept away by a wave of anger over Republican misrule and misdeeds.

Pombo is the face of what's wrong with the current Congress. A faux cowboy who tries to hide the fact that he has "gone Washington" by wearing a new ten-gallon hat and shiny boots whenever he returns to an increasingly suburban district that is still home to many farmers and ranchers, Pombo is the House's most militant opponent of environmental protection. He chairs the House Resources Committee, and his campaign to gut the Endangered Species Act has allowed him to collect a great deal of money from corporate polluters, developers and others who would make billions if Congress would just let them kill off a few more rare species.

Pombo has in recent years associated himself so closely with scandal-plagued lobbyists and cast so many indefensible votes that he finally faced a difficult Republican primary this year -- when retired U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, angered over Pombo's attempts to dismantle conservation laws that McCloskey had helped pass decades earlier -- came out of retirement to make the run. McCloskey lost the June primary, but he exposed the vulnerabilities that have allowed Democrat Jerry McNerney to mount a fall challenge that pollsters now say threatens Pombo -- despite the fact that registered Republicans outnumber Democrats 46-39 in the 11th Congressional District that includes portions of California's Contra Costa, Santa Clara and San Joaquin counties.

It was Laura Bush's job -- as the only prominent member of the Bush administration who is welcome in California this year -- to try and stop the bleeding from the base. So she came to Pleasanton to try and lure traditional Republican voters back in the fold. To do so, she had to praise Pombo as a good man and a great congressman -- statements that the First Lady is smart enough to recognize as, well, lies.

The poor woman actually claimed with a straight face that, "U.S. Rep. Pombo is an enthusiastic steward of our country's natural resources. Because of his leadership, wildlife, property and people will be protected from dangerous flooding." As lies go, that's a pretty big one, since Pombo, a supporter of selling public lands to mining interests and a passionate advocate for opening up federal wildlife reserves for oil drilling is running for reelection with the support of oil, gas and timber companies and with the opposition of every major environmental, conservation and wildlife protection group in the country.

But the biggest lie was the suggestion didn't involve Pombo personally. Rather, it was the suggestion that Mrs. Bush -- a woman who has quietly but firmly distanced herself from the GOP's social agenda and whose oft-stated sympathies for public education and public libraries put her very much at odds with the policies and spending priorities of men like Richard Pombo -- really thinks America would be better off with a Republican Congress.

It is a nasty spot that Laura Bush finds herself in during the last days of a rescue-mission campaign to save the political hides of some of the saddest excuses this country has ever seen for legislators. But when you marry into royalty, as Prince Diana and so many others have warned us over the years, you must surrender a big part of yourself. For her part, Laura Bush has chosen this week to give up her ideals, her conscience and her hard-won reputation as the last decent occupant of the Bush White House.


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com