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The Libby Trial: Cheney's Office Takes the Stand

On Thursday, the Vice President's office was on the stand in the Scooter Libby trial-sort of. The fourth witness to be called by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was Cathie Martin, who during the CIA leak scandal, was Dick Cheney's senior public affairs aide. Currently deputy director of communications and planning at the White House, Martin was a poised and confident witness; she was hardly looking to help the prosecution nail her former colleague. Yet she testified that she had told Libby that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA weeks before that information was leaked--reinforcing Fitzgerald's accusation that Libby lied to the FBI and a grand jury when he claimed that he possessed no direct knowledge of Valerie Wilson and her CIA employment at the time of the leak.

Martin described a conversation she had with William Harlow, the CIA public affairs chief, and though she had no direct recollection of when this phone call happened, she noted it likely occurred around June 11, 2003. At that time, Walter Pincus of The Washington Post was asking Vice President Cheney's office whether it had been involved in former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger (which had been cited in a May 6 New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that did not name Wilson). Martin testified that as the result of a call between Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, and a CIA official (probably Robert Grenier, an earlier witness in the trial), she had been put in contact with Harlow.

During her conversation with Harlow, Martin testified, she asked him what the CIA knew about the trip to Niger taken by the then-unnamed ambassador. Harlow told her the former diplomat was Joseph Wilson and revealed that his wife worked at the CIA. Later that same day, in the vice president's office, she shared with Cheney and Libby what Harlow had told her, including the information that Wilson's wife was employed at the CIA. How did Cheney or Libby respond to this? Fitzgerald asked Martin. "I don't remember any other specific response," she answered.

The significance of this? Fitzgerald had shown once again that Libby was making efforts to gather information on the Wilson trip when little was publicly known about it. As a result of this effort, he was told by Martin that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA. Ted Wells, a Libby lawyer, tried to depict Martin's report to Cheney and Libby as nothing but an easy-to-forget ten-second snippet. But Martin also testified that Libby was intensely engaged in a campaign to rebut Joseph Wilson's charge that the Bush administration had rigged the case for war by misrepresenting the prewar intelligence--and that Libby had even requested to see transcripts of cable news shows covering the controversy (particularly Chris Matthews' Hardball program). Consequently, a juror could well conclude that information regarding Valerie Wilson's CIA employment was important to Libby and registered with him.

Under cross-examination from Wells, Martin did say that in her many conversations with Libby and Cheney in June and July 2003 about the Wilson imbroglio, only once was Valerie Wilson mentioned--when she shared the information from Harlow with the vice president and his chief of staff.

Wells--and Martin--helped Libby on a different front. During her initial testimony, Fitzgerald asked her about a phone conversation between Libby and Matt Cooper of Time on July 12, 2003. Cooper has said that during this call Libby confirmed for him that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA. (That would be leaking classified information.) Libby has told investigators that all he said to Cooper was that he (Libby) had heard that other reporters were saying this about Valerie Wilson. Martin was a witness to Libby's side of the call. Did she, Fitzgerald asked, hear Libby tell Cooper that other journalists were talking about Valerie Wilson and her CIA connection? No, said Martin. That seemed a blow for the defense. But then Wells asked if she had received a phone call while Libby had been talking to Cooper. Yes, she replied. And that meant Martin had not overheard the entire Libby-Cooper conversation. Fitzgerald's blow was undone.

Earlier in the day, Wells explicitly previewed a defense attack that he had only previously hinted at. It came during an attempt to impeach the credibility of Craig Schmall, Libby's onetime CIA briefer, who testified on Wednesday that Libby had mentioned Joseph and Valerie Wilson during a June 14, 2003 briefing. Wells tried to persuade Judge Reggie Walton to allow him to read from a classified document the various matters that Schmall had briefed Libby about that day. Schmall (who briefed Libby and/or Cheney several times a week) had testified he could not recall any of the specifics of that particular briefing, and Wells wanted to suggest that this assertion was not believable. He then could argue that nothing Schmall had told the jury should be accepted--including Schmall's statement that he had written down a reference to Libby's remark about the Wilsons on that morning's briefing. (The page with the handwritten note was entered into evidence.)

Wells told the judge--with the jury out of the room--that he wanted to "paint a picture that [Schmall] should not be believed." But he was not out to discredit just one witness. He claimed that in this case "there is tension between the CIA and the White House and that there "are biases and motivations so that these witnesses from the CIA cannot be believed." In other words, the CIA was--and is--out to get Libby. The judge turned down his request to disclose the contents of the briefing.

Cathie Martin will be back on the stand on Monday. (For the duration of the trial, Fridays are days off.) After she is done, Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary, is scheduled to take the stand. According to Fitzgerald's opening argument, Fleischer leaked Valerie Wilson's CIA identity to NBC News' David Gregory--and did so after obtaining information on Valerie Wilson from both Libby and White House communications director Dan Bartlett. (Gregory did not report that information.) Neither Fleischer, Bartlett, nor Gregory have commented on this new disclosure. Fleischer--who demanded and received immunity from Fitzgerald--could be trouble for Libby and also the White House.

*****

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.

Edging Impeachment Back Onto the Table

The news from former vice presidential chief of staff "Scooter" Libby's trial on charges of obstructing a federal investigation -- particularly the revelation that Vice President Dick Cheney wrote a memo that effectively confirms his intimate involvement in strategizing about how to counter the inquiry into the Bush administration's politically-motivated outing of CIA operative Valarie Plame -- should slowly but surely edge the prospect of impeachment back onto the table from which Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi removed it.

Cheney is expected to testify in the Libby trial and, if a federal jury rejects his testimony as less than credible, that would seem to create an appropriate opening for members of the House who take seriously their oaths to protect and defend the Constitution to entertain a discussion of impeaching the vice president.

Intriguingly, Cheney almost found himself in the middle of the discussion this week.

Prior to CNN personality Wolf Blitzer's testy-if-not-particularly substantive interview with the vice president on Wednesday, the network's resident rabble rouser, commentator Jack Cafferty, presented a reasonably favorable feature on a move by New Mexico state Senators Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, and John Grubesic, D-Santa Fe, to get that state's legislature to petition Congress to impeach both Cheney and Bush.

The New Mexico impeachment initiative, one of several currently moving forward in state legislatures around the country, is designed to force members of Congress to take seriously the increasingly-popular demand that the president and vice president be held to account for misleading Congress over the Iraq war, supporting torture, engaging in illegal spying on U.S. citizens and using their offices to punish critics. "I am an American citizen that believes that the Constitution is a sacred document and that the Bush administration clearly does not share this sentiment," explains Grubesic, while Ortiz y Pino says, "We're simply doing what all elected officials should be doing. That is, listening to the voice of the people and trying to carry it out as best we can."

The New Mexico legislators have taken their cue from Thomas Jefferson, who in a manual of congressional procedures written more than two centuries ago affirmed that state legislatures could petition the House to impeach federal officials. The third president explained in Section 603 of his Manual on Parliamentary Practice and Rules of the House of Representatives, a volume that is still referred to by House leaders for precedents and guidance, that: "there are various methods of setting an impeachment in motion": 1) By charges made on the floor by a member of the House; 2) By charges preferred by a memorial filed by a House member; 3) By charges contained in a Resolution introduced by a House member; 4) By a message from the President; 5) By charges transmitted by a State legislature, or a grand jury; 5) By facts developed and reported by an investigating committee of the House."

Most of the media and the political class has been inclined to neglect -- or in some cases ridicule -- efforts by state legislators to move the impeachment process along. But U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat who represents much of New Mexico, expressed respect for the initiative. "These legislators speak for many of my constituents," explains Udall, who says he plans to talk with supporters of the impeachment resolution and closely monitor its progress.

Cafferty was similarly respectful. "[Although] House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said impeachment is quote, 'off the table' not everybody is so sure about that," explained Cafferty. "Two New Mexico state senators have introduced a resolution calling on Congress to impeach President Bush and Vice President Cheney. The measure accuses Mr. Bush and Cheney of misleading Congress about the war in Iraq, torturing prisoners and violating Americans' civil liberties through the domestic spy program. One of the sponsors told a crowd of supporters 'We created a ripple. Your voice is going to turn it into a tidal wave hopefully.' Well the way it works is that a state of course, cannot mandate impeachment of a president but the impeachment charges can be forwarded to the House of Representatives. The newspaper in Santa Fe, 'The New Mexican' reports the measure already is running into trouble even though Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature, and that's because no Republicans support it. Senate leaders have assigned it to three different committee hearings, meaning that there are more chances to kill the measure before it ever makes it to a vote. But the fact that the issue of impeaching a sitting president is being discussed seriously in a state legislature like New Mexico's speaks volumes."

Cafferty deserves a lot of credit for breaking the silence on impeachment. Unfortunately, Blitzer failed to take the next step.How fascinating it would have been if, finally, a broadcast interviewer had asked Cheney: "Why do you think so many Americans believe you should be impeached?"

It's likely that Cheney would have dismissed that particular question.But would it not have been illuminating to watch his reaction if Blitzer had followed up with another query: "Do you think it might have something to do with the mounting evidence that you were involved in a conspiracy to thwart a federal investigation into efforts by your office to punish a critic of the administration -- the sort of action that, if I'm not mistaken, formed the basis for one of the articles of impeachment against your old boss Richard Nixon?"

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal,Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into theintentions of the founders and embraced by activists for itsgroundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability.After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone politicalwriter Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "JohnNichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, TheGenius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less withthe particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and insteadcombines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and atwww.amazon.com

Libby Trial Continues With Memory Attacks

For an account of the opening arguments of the Libby trial, click here.

On the second day of the Scooter Libby trial, Ted Wells, the defendant's attorney, continued with his double strategy of challenging the memories of the prosecution's witnesses and of creating a series of narratives that could end up confusing jurors.

The first witness called to stand by special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald was Marc Grossman, who was the No. 3 at the State Department in the summer of 2003. His testimony was clear-cut. On May 29, 2003, he was contacted by Libby, who was seeking information on former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's trip to Niger. Three weeks earlier, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had written a piece--without mentioning Wilson by name--citing Wilson's mission as evidence that the Bush administration had hyped the prewar intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Few in the media had paid any attention to Kristof's column, but Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus was looking into Vice President Dick Cheney's connection to the Wilson affair. (Wilson had been sent by the CIA on this trip in 2002 after Cheney had asked an intelligence briefer for more information on the allegation that Iraq had sought uranium in Niger.)

It was while Pincus was sniffing around that Libby, according to Grossman, called him and asked for information on Wilson's mission. Grossman testified that he had known nothing about the trip, then learned the basic details from others at the State Department, and shared this information with Libby. He also testified that he had asked the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research to prepare a memo on the trip. The memo noted that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA division that had dispatched Wilson. Grossman testified that he shared this fact with Libby during a face-to-face meeting on June 11 or June 12, 2003.

This is important because after the CIA leak criminal investigation was launched, Libby told the FBI and a grand jury that when he heard from Meet the Press host Tim Russert on July 10 or 11 that Valerie Wilson worked at the CIA, he believed he was learning this fact anew. (Russert denies saying anything to Libby about Valerie Wilson.) Fitzgerald's plan is to demonstrate that Libby aggressively gathered information on Joseph and Valerie Wilson before the leak to prove that his story to the grand jury and the FBI--that he had forgotten he knew anything about Valerie Wilson and had merely passed along to reporters rumors about her he had heard from other reporters--was an intentional lie.

If Libby was pressing Grossman for official information on Wilson and receiving information on Wilson and his wife (which was classified), it means he possessed far more than scuttlebutt. And Grossman was only the first of several witnesses Fitzgerald expected to call to make this point.

What could Wells do? Go after Grossman's memory. He noted that the written report of his first interview with the FBI--which occurred on October 17, 2003-says that Grossman told the bureau that he conveyed information on the Wilson trip to Libby during two or three telephone calls. Yet now, Wells said, Grossman was testifying that there had been a face-to-face conversation. "I don't know how to explain this," Grossman said. Wells continued: An FBI memo regarding Grossman's second interview with the bureau also said that Grossman had told the FBI he had informed Libby about Wilson's wife in a phone call. "Again," Grossman said, "I recall that as a face-to-face meeting." Wells cited another discrepancy between the FBI reports of Grossman's interviews and his jury testimony.

It was not devastating. But it was a shot across the bow of Fitzgerald's case. Part of Libby's defense is that he did not lie, he merely falsely remembered matters that were not so relevant at the time. If Wells can show the main witnesses against Libby have memory problems of their own, he will be quite pleased.

With Grossman on the stand, Wells also took a stab at bolstering one of the narratives he intends to throw at the jury: that Libby did not engage in any illegitimate effort to harm Joseph Wilson. Wells has signaled he will present the jury a complicated story--part of which will claim that Libby had been tasked by Bush and Cheney to address Wilson's accusations on the merits. Referring to the memo and attachments pulled together for Grossman (in response to Libby's request), Wells asked Grossman if one of the attachments showed that Iraq had indeed tried to purchase yellowcake uranium--which can be enriched for a nuclear bomb--from Niger. That's not what the document said. It noted merely that a former Nigerien prime minister had told Wilson that in June 1999 a businessman had asked that he meet with an Iraqi delegation to discuss "expanding commercial relations" and that he (the former prime minister) had interpreted this request to mean the Iraqis were interested in uranium purchases. But the former prime minister said he let the matter drop because he was not interested in dealing with Iraq (which was subject to United Nations sanctions) and angering the United States.

Wells was clearly looking for material to support the argument that Wilson was wrong in assessing the Niger charge as improbable and that Libby and the White House were right (perhaps even obligated) to challenge his accusation. But Wells did not go too far down this road. "Now, are we arguing this again?" exclaimed a reporter in the press room.

With his second witness--Robert Grenier, a former Iraq mission manager at the CIA--Fitzgerald developed his narrow narrative. Grenier testified that on June 11, 2003, he received a phone message from Libby at 1:15 in the afternoon. Previously, he had been in interagency meetings with Libby, but this was the first time the vice president's chief of staff had ever called him. Grenier immediately phoned him back. Libby, according to Grenier, told Grenier that a former ambassador named Joseph Wilson was "going around town" claiming he had been sent to Niger by the CIA to determine if there was any truth to the Niger charge and that this trip had occurred because the office of the vice president had expressed an interest in the allegation. Was this true? Libby asked. He sounded, Grenier said, "a little bit aggrieved," and Grenier worried that Cheney's office suspected the CIA of leaking information harmful for Cheney and the White House.

Grenier testified that he had heard nothing about Wilson's trip prior to this conversation. He called a unit within the CIA's Counterproliferation Division and obtained information about the Wilson matter--and he learned that Wilson's wife worked at that particular unit. (He was not told her name or position.) But before he could call Libby back, Libby phoned again, and Grenier was pulled out of a meeting with CIA Director George Tenet. He conveyed to Libby what he had learned from CPD, including the information about Wilson's wife. A few days later, when Grenier saw Libby, Grenier testified, Libby thanked him for the information and said that it was useful.

By Fitzgerald's count, there were now two former government officials who maintained they had told Libby about Wilson's wife in response to questions from Libby. Then Bill Jeffers got hold of Grenier. On the cross-examination, he dug into a problem with Grenier's testimony. Grenier had conceded that when he first talked to FBI agents investigating the leak and when he first appeared before the grand jury he had said that he did not recall having told Libby about Wilson's wife. He explained that he had recalled that he had done so only after thinking about the matter in response to stories in the media about the leak case. "I was going over it again and again in mind," he testified. Then in the spring of 2005--more than a year after his initial grand jury appearance--he spoke to CIA lawyers and arranged to reappear before the grand jury to say he now realized he had spoken to Libby about Wilson's wife.

Jeffers poked at Grenier's claim that his recollection of his discussion with Libby had grown. He asked why he could not recall this phone call during his FBI interview and first grand jury appearance. And Grenier conceded that his recollection of his conversation with Libby "has a fair amount of vagueness attached to it." Jeffers also pointed out that during Grenier's first grand jury appearance Grenier had said that he did not even recall that a Counterproliferation Division staffer had told him about Wilson's wife. But, Jeffers added, Grenier only had a clear recollection of this at his second grand jury appearance. Grenier could not explain the disparity. And he asked Grenier a series of questions that raised the notion that the CIA and the White House at the time of the leak were feuding over responsibility for the faulty prewar intelligence, perhaps in preparation for suggesting to the jury that Grenier and/or other CIA officers might have an interest going after Libby and Cheney.

Next up was Craig Schmall, who in 2003 was a CIA briefer for both Libby and Cheney. He testified that during his June 14, 2003 morning briefing of Libby, the vice president's chief of staff had raised a few matters that were not part of the official briefing. One was a visit Libby had just had with actors Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz. "He was a little excited about it," Schmall said, explaining that Cruise had come to talk to Libby about Germany's treatment of Scientologists. (Cruise had met with Richard Armitage, the deputy secretary of state on June 13.) Another issue was the Wilson mission and Valerie Wilson. Schmall's handwritten notes on the table of contents of Libby's briefing that day indicated that Libby had mentioned both Wilsons to him. Here was more evidence suggesting that Libby was on top of the Wilson business (before it became public) and knew about Valerie Wilson.

Schmall also testified that after the leak had occurred, while he was briefing both Cheney and Libby, they asked him what he thought about the leak scandal. Noting that some commentators had dismissed the leak as "no big deal," Schmall explained that he considered it a "grave danger." He explained to Libby and Cheney that foreign intelligence services could now investigate everyone who had come into contact with Valerie Wilson when she had served overseas. "Those people," he said, "innocent or otherwise, could be harassed...tortured or killed." With such testimony in hand, Fitzgerald will be able to argue that Libby had motive to lie about his connection to the leak: he would not want to be implicated in a chain of events that could lead to the torture and death of innocent people.

There was not much Libby attorney John Cline could do to challenge Schmall. The CIA briefer had admitted that he had a "poor memory" of the specific briefings. But his notes said what they said. So Cline mainly asked Schmall about the other subjects on Libby's plate during those briefings: bombings overseas, an arrest of a suspected terrorist, a proposed Middle East security plan, assorted possible terrorist attacks against the United States. This will be useful ammo if Libby's lawyers later claim he was too damn busy with protecting America to have recalled accurately what he knew about Valerie Wilson. Yet he wasn't too preoccupied to talk to Cruise about Scientology.

There were no bombshells today. It was hours of tough legal slogging. Fitzgerald is trying to create a chronology using witnesses who have--as most witnesses do--imperfect memories. Put enough of them together--and he's not done yet--and he could have a case. Libby's lawyers are doing what all defense attorneys do: raise doubts about the memories and motives of the prosecution witnesses. They landed a few blows. But Fitzgerald has more witnesses coming. After Schmall, the next scheduled witness is Cathie Martin, who was a spokesperson for Cheney. She was, in a way, a witness to the Grenier-Libby conversation and also spoke with Libby and Cheney several times about the Wilson affair. She was involved in the damage-control operation mounted in response to Joseph Wilson's revelations. Might she have a better memory than the initial witnesses?

*****

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.

Not a Single Word

On the day before the State of the Union address, Senator James Webb said, "If we're putting all of this money into Iraq and ignoring New Orleans, then we're doing something wrong." He suggested that the city had "kind of fallen off the national radar screen over the last year."

Yesterday, as if to prove the Senator's point, President Bush delivered a 5,600-word speech without a single mention of the Gulf Coast recovery. In his last State of the Union address, just five months after what Senator Edward Kennedy described as "a disaster of biblical proportions," Bush devoted all of 156 words to the unprecedented devastation and tragic non-response.

The President's disconnect from the Gulf Coast plight brings to mind the words of one Congressman who said in the days following the disaster, "Indifference is a weapon of mass destruction." It's also consistent with a Bush administration that columnist Paul Krugman described as having "an ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good." In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Krugman wrote, "I don't think this is a simple tale of incompetence…. At a fundamental level, I'd argue, our current leaders just aren't serious about some of the essential functions of government. They like waging war, but they don't like providing security, rescuing those in need or spending on preventive measures. And they never, ever ask for shared sacrifice."

Imagine how different things might be if – at this moment – our president were sending 20,000 civilian workers into New Orleans instead of 20,000 more soldiers into Iraq. A Reconstruction Surge instead of a War Escalation Surge.

But the reality is that we are now spending $8.4 billion per month in Iraq, while in Louisiana, as Senator Mary Landrieu noted, "We still have over a quarter a million people not back in permanent housing. We have major infrastructure projects that will have to be complete. We have a school system to rebuild, a health care system to rebuild and still more work to do on securing the energy infrastructure for the Gulf Coast."

What this nation needed when the hurricanes hit – and needs today even more – is a President who doesn't avoid facing our greatest challenges and tragedies, but leads our government to address them head-on.

Kerry Bows to Reality and Skips 2008 Run

After a month that has seen more than a half-dozen of the Democratic Party's most prominent players announce plans to seek its presidential nomination--creating concern that coming debates would be too crowded to be contained on conventional television screens--the man the party actually ran for the presidency in 2004 has decided not to try again.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who since conceding the last race has seemed at many turns to be preparing for another run, will announce later today that he does not plan to try to elbow his way into the 2008 competition with frontrunners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

This is a smart move by Kerry.

The mention of a second run by the wooden war vet provoked groans from Democrats around the country, who for the most part have come to embrace the view that Kerry lost in 2004 in large part because of a penchant for pulling punches rather than throwing them.

Never a favorite of grassroots activists, Kerry was nominated in 2004 as a resume candidate--soldier, state official, senator--rather than as a populist champion. As he battled for the nomination before the Iowa caucuses, the Senator had seemed to have some fight in him. That inspired a measure of confidence among Democrats who were casting about for a candidate who, while he might not excite their passions, could dispatch President Bush.

As the nominee, however, Kerry struggled to define himself. Brooding and inclined toward diplomatic rhetoric, he responded too slowly and ineffectually to attacks on his war record by Karl Rove's "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." And he ended up playing defense in a year when Democrats should have been on the attack.

Kerry was never really as bad as his more negative reviews.

But he was never as good as Democratic strategists thought he could, and should, have been.

Much like Al Gore after the 2000 race, Kerry has done a far better job of opposing the Bush Administration since the 2004 race finished. He has frequently dissented not only from the Republican President's proposals but from the tepid responses of his fellow Democrats. Last summer, Kerry worked with Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold to advance what at the time was an edgy proposal to establish a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. And the Massachusetts senator has emerged as one of the steadiest critics of controversial presidential appointments and domestic policies.

Unlike Gore, however, Kerry has not yet been forgiven by the base. Rhetorical stumbles during the 2006 congressional campaign season reminded Democrats of everything that troubled them about Kerry. So it was no surprise when polls from early primary and caucus states found the former presidential nominee trailing Edwards, Obama, Clinton and others in the 2OO8 field. Indeed, there was so little support for a Kerry run that his decision to take a pass on the race is unlikely to have a major impact on the current competition, except in Massachusetts where officials and donors who were loyal to the senator will now be free to join other campaigns.

Kerry's decision to skip the fast-starting presidential contest will allow him to focus on what should be an easy Senate reelection bid next year. The Vietnam War hero also plans, according to former aides, to devote his energies to organizing grassroots opposition to the war in Iraq.

If Gore's example is instructive, Kerry's decision to take himself out of the running--and to focus on the task of stirring up antiwar sentiment--may finally make the Massachusetts senator something he never was as a candidate for the presidency: genuinely popular with the party faithful.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal,Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into theintentions of the founders and embraced by activists for itsgroundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability.After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone politicalwriter Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "JohnNichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, TheGenius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less withthe particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and insteadcombines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and atwww.amazon.com

Webb for President?

Jim Webb's Democratic response to President Bush last night is drawing rave reviews--on the blogs, from television pundits and in the world of talk radio. "That response could do for Webb something akin to what Barack Obama's 2004 convention speech did for the Illinois senator," wrote The New Republic's Michael Crowley. Andrew Sullivan called Webb's speech "the most effective Democratic response in the Bush years. He managed to bridge economic populism with military service and pride: a very potent combination."

Some are even suggesting he run for President--or Veep. "I say he put himself in the veepstakes with his response," blogged former American Prospect editor Mike Tomasky. "Why Can't Our 2008 Contenders Talk Like Webb?" asked MYDD blogger Matt Stoller.

Since he arrived in DC, Webb has been a rock star. But it's not because he tried to cultivate the Washington press corps or held glitzy fundraisers with lobbyists. It's because he is the antithesis of the blow-dried, poll-tested, inherently cautious politicians who dominate so much of Washington. Certainly Webb has a number of shortcomings, which Bob Moser detailed in a Nation profile of him last October. Yet his popularity proves just how much the American people are yearning for authenticity, honesty and a healthy heaping of common sense, even if it comes in unconventional packaging.

Webb just became a Senator, so it's highly unlikely he'll run for higher office any time soon. But that doesn't mean that the ever-expanding field of '08 contenders shouldn't pay attention to the lessons from his speech on Tuesday night.

The President's Healthcare Deform Plan

It is no secret that, in this era of spin uber alles, State of the Union addresses are nothing more than public-relations events. At best, they offer presidents a chance to rally the troops. But, with George Bush's approval ratings falling beneath those of Richard Nixon in the thick of the Watergate scandal, he has very few troops left to rally. Even Republicans are fleeing the president's camp, and nothing he said Tuesday night will bring them back.

That does not mean, however, that this State of Union address was completely irrelevant.

In fact, it will be remembered for having produced what could well be the worst domestic policy proposal of an administration that is not without accomplishment when it comes to turning the wheels of government to make the bad into something truly awful.

What is being referred to by the White House as the President's State of the Union Health Care Initiative is, even by the standards of this administration, a truly nightmarish proposal.

Employing the administration's Orwellian flair for language, the President is pitching his plan as "health care reform."

The accurate term would actually be health care deform.

The President wants the federal government to begin treating contributions from major corporations to help cover the health insurance costs of their employees -- most of which were won through decades of organizing, struggle and bargaining by the unions that represent those employees -- as taxable income. In effect, workers who have quality coverage would be punished, as would the firms that provide that coverage.

The Bush plan's race-to-the-bottom approach to health care policy is being pitched as a way to encourage Americans who currently lack insurance coverage to go out and buy it -- and then to take advantage of an expanded tax deduction for individuals and families that purchase plans.

The problem, of course, while the Bush plan penalizes those who are insured, it does not begin to provide enough support for those who lack it.

Thus, if the Bush initiative were implemented, it would lower the quality of health-care coverage for those who have it while failing to provide it to all of those who lack it. "The President's so-called health care proposal won't help the uninsured, most of whom have limited incomes and are already in low tax brackets," explains the key player in Congress on health care issues, Congressman Pete Stark, the California Democrat who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee's powerful health subcommittee. "But it will hurt middle-income Americans, whose employers will shift even more cost and risk to their employees.''

Stark fears that the proposal highlighted in his State of the Union address would actually encourage employers to stop providing insurance to workers who are now reasonably well covered. "Under the guise of tax breaks, the president is pursuing a policy designed to destroy the employer-based health care system through which 160 million people receive coverage," says the congressman, who is viewed by Democrats and Republicans as Washington's most zealous advocate for expanding access to health care.

Stark is not crying wolf.

Paul Fronstin, director of the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute's Health Research and Education Program, says of the Bush plan: "I think [the President is] giving employers the incentive to get out of the business of providing health benefits."

Say what you will about all the domestic-policy damage that Bush has done -- to civil liberties, to education, to health and safety regulation, to race relations, to basic principles of fairness. You will still be hard pressed to come up with a worse idea than helping the few corporations that still provide quality health-care benefits to offload that responsibility.

And just be glad, be very glad, that Pete Stark is in charge of the committee that Bush's "reforms" would have to go through.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal,Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into theintentions of the founders and embraced by activists for itsgroundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability.After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone politicalwriter Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "JohnNichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, TheGenius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less withthe particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and insteadcombines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and atwww.amazon.com

Bush's Iraq Plea Fails

The most pained look of the night on which George Bush delivered the most difficult State of the Union address of his presidency swept across the face of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice midway through the speech.

The President had just delivered the key lines from the foreign-policy section of a speech that -- despite much emphasis on domestic issues such as health care, education and immigration and -- would be judged primarily on the effectiveness of his remarks regarding the Iraq War.

This was the point at which Bush needed to convince a skeptical Congress. And he gave it his all -- or, at the very least, all that his speechwriters could muster.

"If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides. We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by al Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country -- and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict," said Bush, who was making the case for his surge of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq. "For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective. Chaos is their greatest ally in this struggle. And out of chaos in Iraq, would emerge an emboldened enemy with new safe havens... new recruits ... new resources ... and an even greater determination to harm America."

Then, again seeking to forge the clumsy link between the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and his war of whim in Iraq, Bush declared: "To allow this to happen would be to ignore the lessons of September 11 and invite tragedy. And ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East ... to succeed in Iraq ... and to spare the American people from this danger."

The carefully crafted applause line brought Rice to her feet, and she scanned the House chamber to see if it had connected with a Congress that has in recent weeks heard bipartisan expressions of opposition to the president's scheming to expand the war. There was little question that she was hoping for a signal that members of the House and Senate were prepared to give Bush the time he was pleading for in a speech that featured the line: "Our country is pursuing a new strategy in Iraq--and I ask you to give it a chance to work."

The response to the "nothing is more important" line on Iraq was anything but enthusiastic, as many -- perhaps most -- members remained seated. The Congress was not convinced by a repetition of tired rhetoric from a president who has repeatedly misjudged and misguided the war on terror.

Senator Barack Obama, D-Illinois, explained after the speech was done that, "The pall over the room was Iraq."

Rice did not need Obama's analysis. She knew exactly how heavily that pall hung over the chamber as she settled back into her seat Tuesday night.

The Secretary of State was seen grimacing almost as agonizingly as when she was tried to make the case earlier this month for Bush's surge in an excruciating appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- during which she was grilled not just by Democrats but by Republicans.

Rice recognized that the job of selling the surge had not been made any easier by this State of the Union address.

Indeed, if there was an expression of the sentiments of the Congressional majority -- made up of Democrats and a growing number of dissenting Republicans -- it came in the response to the president's speech by Senator Jim Webb, D-Virginia.

"The President took us into this war recklessly. He disregarded warnings from the national security adviser during the first Gulf War, the Chief of Staff of the Army, two former commanding generals of the Central Command, whose jurisdiction includes Iraq, the director of operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many, many others with great integrity and long experience in national security affairs. We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable--and predicted--disarray that has followed," the Reagan Republican turned Democratic Senator explained.

"The war's costs to our nation have been staggering. Financially. The damage to our reputation around the world. The lost opportunities to defeat the forces of international terrorism. And especially the precious blood of our citizens who have stepped forward to serve.

"The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought; nor does the majority of our military. We need a new direction. Not one step back from the war against international terrorism. Not a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos. But an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities, and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."

Those are the words that, had they been spoken before the Congress Tuesday night, would have brought the chamber to its feet and earned the response Rice had hoped Bush would receive. They are, more significantly, the words that polls suggest the great mass of Americans long to hear not merely from one senator from Virginia but from a Congress that is prepared, finally, to restore the system of checks and balances and force this president to change course.

----------------------------------------------------------------------

John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal,Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into theintentions of the founders and embraced by activists for itsgroundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability.After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone politicalwriter Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "JohnNichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, TheGenius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less withthe particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and insteadcombines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and atwww.amazon.com

Webb to Bush: "We Will Be Showing Him the Way."

Last year, Democrats chose newly elected Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to deliver the Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union address. Kaine barely mentioned the war in Iraq and mostly spoke about domestic issues, just as President Bush did tonight. He was a red state Governor who won with a smile on his face.

This year Democrats--perhaps reflecting their newfound confidence--chose another Virginian to rebut Bush, but one who's not afraid to go toe to toe with the President, both on domestic policy and matters of war and peace. Unlike Kaine, Webb is more likely to scowl than smile. His implicit message is that serious times deserve serious men.

Webb's upset of George Allen and now infamous exchange with President Bush at the White House in November set the tone for the new Congress. When asked by Bush "How's your boy?" a reference to Webb's 24-year-old son serving as a Marine in Iraq, Webb responded: "I'd like to get them out of Iraq, Mr. President."

"That's not what I asked you," Bush said. "How's your boy?"

"That's between me and my boy, Mr. President," Webb said, ending the conversation.

The moment was a deeply symbolic one, proving that President Bush's days of ruling like a king had come to an end. Democrats could be blunt, uncompromising and outspoken. During his campaign, the former Republican Secretary of the Navy "transformed into one of the unlikeliest protest candidates ever," Bob Moser wrote of Webb last October. Now he's becoming a similarly unlikely spokesman for his party.

In his speech tonight, Webb emphasized two issues that brought him and so many other new Democrats to Congress: the rising inequality between rich and poor and the toll the war in Iraq has taken on this nation.

Webb is a keen student of history and the strongest part of his speech came when he invoked the leadership of presidents past.

"Regarding the economic imbalance in our country, I am reminded of the situation President Theodore Roosevelt faced in the early days of the 20th century. America was then, as now, drifting apart along class lines. The so-called robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth. The dispossessed workers at the bottom were threatening revolt.

Roosevelt spoke strongly against these divisions. He told his fellow Republicans that they must set themselves ‘as resolutely against improper corporate influence on the one hand as against demagogy and mob rule on the other.' And he did something about it.

As I look at Iraq, I recall the words of former general and soon-to-be President Dwight Eisenhower during the dark days of the Korean War, which had fallen into a bloody stalemate. 'When comes the end?' asked the General who had commanded our forces in Europe during World War Two. And as soon as he became President, he brought the Korean War to an end.

These Presidents took the right kind of action, for the benefit of the American people and for the health of our relations around the world. Tonight we are calling on this President to take similar action, in both areas. If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

Take just one instance that often gets forgotten these days: New Orleans. At the beginning of his speech Webb said that he hoped the President was "serious about…restoring the vitality of New Orleans." In fact, tonight Bush conveniently failed to mention Hurricane Katrina. "I do not see myself voting for any more money for these reconstruction and economic projects inside Iraq when we have places like New Orleans that haven't gotten help," Webb said recently. Leadership--both foreign and domestic--Webb realizes, begins at home.