The truly tragic thing about George W. Bush's fifth State of the Union address was the president's refusal to acknowledge that anyone might remember what was said in his previous speeches to Congress and the nation.
Three years ago, Bush laid out a vision for developing democracy in the Middle East that at least sounded relatively realistic. Echoing statements he had made during the 2000 presidential debate with Al Gore -- when he decried the doomed work of "nation building" -- the president admitted that elections in developing democracies might not turn out the way that his neoconservative "brain trust" had promised they would. And he seemed to be O.K. with that.
"Time after time," Bush warned, "observers have questioned whether this country, or the people, or this group, are 'ready' for democracy -- as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress."
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that the president did not begin to understand, let alone appreciate, the consequences and responsibilities inherent in those words.
Bush, a man whose awareness of the world and its complex politics was scant at the time of his election and who has learned little in the ensuing years, appears to have genuinely believed that if polling stations were set up, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians and others would elect the local equivalents of Bill Frist, Denny Hastert, George Allen and Jim Sensenbrenner. Maybe, in his worst nightmares, Bush imagined the prospect that a Palestinian Russ Feingold or an Iranian Howard Dean might prevail. But that would be as scary as his cloistered consciousness allowed things to get.
Then the voting began. And Bush found himself confronted with an Iranian government that seems to be interested in developing a nuclear deterrent to U.S. meddling in its affairs, an Iraqi government that has yet to embrace pluralism, an Egyptian government that maintains its hold on power by denying the most viable opposition party its place on the ballot and a Palestinian government led by a party with a campaign strategy that includes armed struggle.
Speaking last night after a series of elections where voters in fledgling democracies placed their faith in extremist parties that are unenthusiastic about "western standards of progress," Bush had a responsibility to at least attempt to reconcile the new realities created by the results of recent voting. He ranted against "radical Islam" but would not acknowledge its popular appeal. He said Middle East democracies must be allowed to reflect the values and ideals of Middle Easterners, but then proceeded to tell newly elected governments what they must do to meet his -- decidedly western -- standards.
The address raised more questions than it answered.
Does the president still believe that the United States should not act "as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress." If so, should he not take the appropriate, if politically and personally difficult step of accepting the choices of the Iranian and Palestinian peoples? And should he not decry moves in Iraq, Egypt and other countries to control and constrain the democratic experiment in a manner that denies the majority of citizens an opportunity to select the extremist government of their choice?
Or has the president's commitment to democracy been shaken by election results that were not to his liking?
Bush needed to resolve those contradictions last night with an honest discussion of recent developments.
Instead, he delivered an irrational address that maintained an almost childlike certainly in the prospect that, someday soon, voters in Gaza City, Tehran, Baghdad and Cairo will begin casting ballots according to the same "western standards of progress" as voters in Grand Rapids, Toledo, Baltimore and Carson City.
Everyone knows that Bush has trouble admitting his own mistakes. But how can he fail to recognize that his ungrounded idealism of the past -- as evidenced by last year's State of the Union address, in which the president declared that, "The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure" -- has crashed into the harsh reality of a Hamas win at the Palestinian polls?
Bush introduced the term "faith-based solutions" to American politics. Faith is appropriate at times. But when the unwelcome developments challenge assumptions, faith must be tempered with realism -- and perhaps even a measure of humility. Last night was the point at which Bush needed to get real. Instead, the president asked the American people to embrace his unresolved contradictions and to cling with him to increasingly dangerous delusions.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.
ExxonMobil announced on January 30 that it reaped $36 billion in profits in 2005--the largest annual profit ever by any American corporation. And, as Grist reported in its excellent online newsletter, in related news, the company is still shirking paying the money it owes fishermen and other Alaskans hurt by the Exxon Valdez spill 16 years ago.
Last week, Exxon lawyers asked a federal court to effectively waive $5 billion in punitive damages related to the massive 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, meant to compensate thousands of Alaskans who lost their livelihoods. The company argued that it has already done enough by spending $3 billion on cleanups and settling other lawsuits. Some in the packed courtroom openly laughed as an Exxon lawyer argued that "harm was largely avoided" by what the company has paid so far.
Fortunately, the good folks at ExxposeExxon have given us the opportunity to do much more than laugh at the outrageous behavior of America's largest oil company. Watch EE's new Flash cartoon, a one-minute video showing Exxon toasting the earth in celebration of its record-breaking profits. If you like it, click here to send it around. Then click here to write to Exxon's new CEO, Rex Tillerson, and tell him to put some of his company's enormous profits to good use developing clean, renewable energy, as George W. Bush proposed in his SOTU address.
You can also help get the word out about ExxonMobil's bad deeds by distributing flyers in front of your neighborhood Exxon or Mobil stations. Click here to view the full selection of materials available and download the ones of your choice to print out and distribute. Finally, the campaign is asking sympathetic readers to speed past Exxon and Mobil gas stations! This one is simple--don't buy the company's gas.
Not convinced that Exxon is behaving reprehensibly? (Exxon has also funded pseudo-scientists to obscure the facts about global warming and worked to derail international negotiations to reduce global warming pollution.) Or just want to get more informed? Read this backgrounder, put together by EE's researchers. The conclusion: "ExxonMobil is padding its ever-growing bottom-line at the expense of the world's environment and America's national security and economy."
Coretta Scott King, the widow of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who has died at the age of 78, should be remembered for many brave and selfless deeds. Chief among those deeds, to be sure, was her steady opposition to capital punishment. The widow of one of America's most famous murder victims gave voice across four decades to the most credible argument with regard to the death penalty.
"As one whose husband and mother-in-law have died the victims of murder and assassination, I stand firmly and unequivocally opposed to the death penalty for those convicted of capital offenses," she said. "An evil deed is not redeemed by an evil deed of retaliation. Justice is never advanced in the taking of a human life. Morality is never upheld by a legalized murder."
State of the Union addresses rarely add anything of value to the national discourse. Rather, they are campaign speeches dressed up as major statements of public policy.
Until the arrival of the current administration, however, State of the Union addresses usually did no harm.
That can no longer be said to be the case. Indeed, during the Bush years, these annual exercises in presidential pontification have actually detracted from the debate -- sometimes devastatingly so.
This president has used his yearly speeches to misstate intelligence data in order to deceive the Congress and the American people about supposed threats to national security, as Bush did in his 2003 address. And he has repeatedly used State of the Union addresses to foster the false impression that misnamed programs -- such as the so-called "Patriot" and "No Child Left Behind" acts -- are actually designed to protect and serve the American people.
Tonight, the president will deliver the second State of the Union address of a second term gone awry. His approval ratings are dismal. The majority of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. And there is a growing movement to censure Bush and Vice President Cheney for abusing their authority, disregarding the laws of the land and undermining Constitutional protections that were designed to preserve basic liberties.
It is the concern about the Bush administration's assaults on freedoms that are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights that ought to weigh heaviest on the president tonight.
Indeed, if there is any one statement that should to be featured in the president's address, it is a response to the demand of U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Middleton, for an explanation of the thinking behind the administration's decision to illegally initiate a program of spying on U.S. citizens -- and to maintain that program even after it was exposed by the media and condemned by many in Congress.
"No Administration official who has publicly defended the NSA program in the last week, including the President, has explained why it is necessary to violate the law and the Constitution to effectively fight terrorism," notes Feingold, the steadiest defender of the Constitution in the current Congress. "Instead, the Administration has resorted to a public relations campaign, perhaps because it knows its legal arguments don't stand up. The American people deserve an explanation of why this Administration decided to violate the law and insists on continuing to do so."
Feingold's right. If the president fails to address the issue of warrantless wiretaps tonight, then he will be guilty of delivering another State of the Union address that hinders rather than encourages the honest dialogue that is essential to democracy.
Check out the spirited dispatch about the last days of the Sundance Film Festival in today's New York Times.
I think our electoral system might take a lesson from how the Festival handled two new documentaries on presidential elections. "An Unreasonable Man," about Ralph Nader, and "An Inconvenient Truth,"which features Al Gore "delivering an alarming presentation on global warming," were both entered. Fortunately, as the Times correspondent observes: "The Gore film was in a different category, so the Nader film, which was in competition, could not steal votes from it."
I'm surprised the shrews at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation haven't come out with a press release denouncing the Screen Actors Guild as anti-gay since at last night's SAG Awards the great gay hope Brokeback Mountain was shut out in all four categories in which it was nominated. Rarely has a film been burdened with such undue political significance. The gay media elite have been beating the drums since the film was in pre-production. The Human Rights Campaign took brown-nosing to new lows when it bestowed an "Equality Award" on Jake Gyllenhaal and Ang Lee for changing "the cultural fabric of our country." Larry King staged a truly idiotic debate between Chad Allen and right-wing radio bimbo Janet Parshall over the merits of Brokeback and, of course, gay marriage. Yes folks, in the Year of the Gays, the little dude from Our House is the only openly gay actor CNN could dredge out of West Hollywood.
Perhaps the only one to demur from commenting on Brokeback is our own cowboy-in-chief who told a Kansas State University audience that he hasn't seen the movie, but he's heard about it and would be "glad to talk about ranching." Maybe Laura will drag him to it one day, but I'm not sure it would do much to change Bush's mind.
I saw the movie at the recommendation of smart, onetime Nation film critic B. Ruby Rich who called it the "most important" American film in years in the London Guardian. While I normally trust Ruby's judgment, what was she thinking on this one? The film is far too pretty, too hygienic, too trite and slender to have the kind of cultural or political impact that's being demanded of it. Sure there's a powerful moment or two, but the whole thing reminded me of a Merchant Ivory chick flick -- so much impossible love, so many precious costumes. In the end, it scarcely seemed to matter that the tortured lovers were both men. Perhaps that's the point: to disappear the particularities of gay sexuality into the Western landscape. But as I looked over at the row of 40-something women weeping next to me, it seemed unlikely that they'd get up tomorrow and urge a filibuster of Alito or campaign against Defense of Marriage Amendments.
As for the gay cinephile in me, I'm not above paying $10.25 to see two cute, straight boys make out. But next time, there's got to be a lot more exposure.
For those not tuning out the president's State of the Union speech this Tuesday night in favor of, say, the Knicks/Lakers game, there are myriad protests, panels and parties planned nationwide to mark Bush's address to the nation.
The World Can't Wait coalition is planning to bring the noise nationwide with a cacophony of sound at 9:00pm EST--when the president is scheduled to start speaking. Click here to see what events are planned near you. Meanwhile, the antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice is encouraging people to throw houseparties and turn the SOTU into an organizing opportunity. Check out UFPJ's "Parties for Peace Toolkit" for more info.
CodePink will sponsor "People's State of the Union" events across the country. The centerpiece rally, featuring Cindy Sheehan, Ann Wright, Malik Rahim, and many others, will take place at 3:00pm in Washington, DC, at the Mott House, 122 Maryland Avenue, NE.
If you're in Washington, DC on the morning of Tuesday, January 31, you can also see Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in a series of discussions laying out an alternative state of the union featuring innovative progressive policy proposals published in a recent special issue of The Nation. The panels will take place on Tuesday from 9:00 to 11:30am at Democratic National Committee Headquarters, Wasserman Conference Room, 430 S. Capitol Street, SE, Washington, DC. Click here for directions and more information.
And that night in DC, join the Center for American Progress Action Fund and Air America's The Majority Report to celebrate the book release of Get This Party Started: How Progressives Can Fight Back and Win. AA's Majority Report will broadcast a live panel before Bush's SOTU and there'll be running riffs during the speech, Mystery Science Theater style. Free food comes out at 7:30! It's happening at the Center for American Progress Action Fund at 1333 H Street NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC. Click here to RSVP or call 202-741-6246.
In New York City, people will gather at Times Square at 7:45 for a rally and march being MCed by the Rev. Al Sharpton. In Los Angeles, Bianca Jagger and Gore Vidal will lead the noise making at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland, starting at 6:00pm pacific time.
Whatever you do on Tuesday night, remember that friends don't let friends watch George Bush alone.
Why are so many liberal bloggers up in arms about Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine being picked to give the Democrat's reply to Bush's State of the Union? There's been fury in the blogosphere about everything from Kaine's looks, style, obscurity, his open talk about his faith and his inexperience in national security. Liberal writer Ezra Klein (no Brad Pitt, last time I checked him out) vented that Kaine is "a squat, squinty, pug-nosed fellow."
Even the invariably smart and strategic Arianna (Huffington) weighed in: "What the hell are they thinking?" She accused Democrats of picking "someone whose only claim to fame is that he carried a red state" when they need to make the case that "the GOP is not the party that can best keep us safe."
But, let's get real here.
1. It doesn't really matter who gives the reply, since no one listens and it's an impossible task.
2. This is slightly less important than whether House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi chooses to wear blue or red to listen to the speech.
3. He's a Governor. With most of us fixed on the chances of taking back the House and/or Senate, don't forget this is an election year when thirty-six statehouses are up for grabs. And smart progressives understand that the gridlock in DC means many policies which will improve peoples' lives and security--increasing the minimum wage, expanding affordable healthcare, strengthening environmental protection, Apollo Alliance projects for energy independence--are likely to come from states led by Governors who understand the need for affirmative government.
4. And, hell, Kaine is pretty liberal for a Virginian. During the campaign, he was derided relentlessly by the GOP, in an expensive and vicious campaign, as "the most liberal candidate who's ever run for governor in the Commonwealth of Virginia's history." Kaine is a guy who made a name for himself working with the American Civil Liberties Union, who connected his faith to his politics in authentic ways (he was a thoughtful opponent of the death penalty), who was an honest and forthright advocate of government's affirmative role--supporting moves to increase taxes to fund education, transportation and environmental programs.
And as The Nation's Washington correspondent John Nichols observed, Kaine was "a consistent proponent of racial justice in a state that is barely a generation away from the days of 'massive resistance' to integration." And in a state which hasn't backed a Democrat for President since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Kaine connected with retired coal miners and laid-off textile workers who are critical swing voters in Appalachian Virginia.
For liberal bloggers who want to get exercised about something really important: Where are the Democrats or liberals talking about Ford laying off some 30,000 workers, the end of middle class benefits for working Americans, IBM's gutting of pension security, and the collapse of American manufacturing?
These are chilling events, and both parties (especially the divide-and-distract Republicans) treat them as natural disasters about which nothing can be done and for which no one is at fault.
If you want to know why Dems don't win elections, it won't be because Kaine is talking this Tuesday night. It's because the mainstream leadership of the Democratic Party doesn't think, feel, or viscerally respond to the increasing insecurities of working Americans.
No one runs for the U.S. Senate on the slogan: "Elect me and I will maintain the status quo."
No one runs for the U.S. Senate promising to go along to get along.
Yet, when push comes to shove, most senators end up as cautious players who choose the easy route of partisanship, ideological predictability and personal political advantage over the more dangerous path of adherence to the Constitution. Americans have grown so accustomed to the compromised nature of the chamber that they often forget that the founders of the American experiment intended the Senate, in particular, to serve as a check and a balance on the excesses of the executive branch.
Unfortunately, major media outlets that now serve as little more than a stenography service for the D.C. consensus regularly reinforce this misinterpretation of senatorial duty by painting members of the body who choose to embrace their Constitutionally-mandated responsibilities as, at best, eccentric or ambitious and, at worst, vindictive or dangerous to the healthy functioning of the body politic.
The move, led by Massachusetts Senators John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, to block the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court with a filibuster is already being dismissed by White House aides, Republican operatives and their echo chamber in the media as a mad misadventure that exposes the Democrats as legislative anarchists bent on wrecking the smooth-functioning processes of the Senate. The Republican National Committee's Tracey Schmitt summed up the sentiment when she peddled the official line of the man who would be monarch, arguing that in George W. Bush's America the Senate's advice and consent responsibilities are no longer required.
"The judicial confirmation process, particularly one for the nation's highest court, should be insulated from such thoughtless bomb throwing..." Schmitt growled.
Samuel Alito has established himself, through his record as an appellate court judge and his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the consumate judicial activist. He seeks a place on the Supreme Court in order to advance his vision of an imperial presidency that does not obey the laws of the land or answer to the Congress. Alito is, by his own admission, intellectually and politically at odds with the intents of the founders, and with the Constitutional system of checks and balances that they established. He has gone so far as to advise past presidents on strategies for expanding executive power and, as a judge, he has erred on the side of even the most reckless abuses of executive authority.
As Jonathan Turley, the George Washington University law professor and Constitutional scholar, explained: "In my years as an academic and a litigator, I have rarely seen the equal of Alito's bias in favor of the government. To put it bluntly, when it comes to reviewing government abuse, Samuel Alito is an empty robe."
Turley put the Senate consideration of this nomination in context when he wrote that: "The Alito vote might prove to be the single most important decision on the future of our constitutional system for decades to come. While I generally defer to presidents in their choices for the court, Samuel Alito is the wrong nominee at the wrong time for this country."
Seen in the context of the threat that Alito poses, the use of the filibuster -- an entirely legitimate legislative tool -- to block Alito's nomination is not "bomb throwing." It is an appropriate and necessary embrace of duty by senators who recognize the entirety of their advice-and-consent mandate. Of course there will be political risks for those who back the filibuster. But senators do not swear allegiance to their political security; they swear it to a Constitution that requires them to hold the executive branch to account. In this moment, and in this circumstance, senators can only provide the necessary checks and balances by backing the filibuster.
Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen.
In the past few months, there's been a flurry of progressive activism on America'scollege campuses. The following victories reflect a mix of broad-basedidealism and pragmatic strategies--small but critical steps towards amore just society.
- Kicking Coke Off Campus: The University of Michigan became the 10thcollege to remove Coca-Cola products from campus. After months of pressure from student activists who opposed the company's abusive (and allegedly murderous) treatment of workers in bottling plants in Colombia, U of M, with it's 50,000 students, joined New YorkUniversity, Rutgers, and Santa Clara University, among others, in the boycott. Activists are demanding an independent investigation of Coke's labor practices in Colombia.
- The Anti-Sweatshop Movement is Back: As Richard Applebaum and PeterDreier wrote recently in The Nation, "A new wave of campus activism against sweatshops is sweeping colleges across the country." Students on more than 50 campuses are putting the pressure on administrators to sign university apparel contracts with factoriesapproved by the sweatshop watchdog, the Worker's Rights Consortium. Click here for information on how to start a campaign on your campus.
- Guilt-Free Caffeine: In a movement spearheaded by the Brandeis FairTrade Brigade, the school's studentunion voted to bring Fair Trade coffee to campus dining halls.Brandeis is the latest in a growing movement of campuses across the country that are making the switch. To help bring Fair Trade coffee to your school, check out this action guide from Oxfam.
- Financial Aid Fairness: At Yale, the Undergraduate OrganizingCommittee (UOC) successfully persuaded President RichardLevin to eliminate tuition for families earning under $45,000 ayear--something he had previously said he would never do. The UOC wageda tireless, bold, yet disciplined campaign, which culminated in a sit-in in the university's admissions office and which may now go a long way to bringing class diversity to the Yale.
- Students Unite for New Energy Policy: The Apollo Alliance and Energy Action have teamed up in an effort to reform campus energy policy. The campaign calls for colleges to upgrade inefficient buildings, move to clean power, create alternatives to fuel-dependent campus transportation, and promote a "culture of conservation" on campuses.
Watch this space and TheNation.com for continuing coverage of the progressive student movement.
Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker,contributes to The Nation's new blog, The Notion, and co-writes SweetVictories with Katrina vanden Heuvel.