No one has made life on the campaign trail more difficult for several of the frontrunning candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination than US Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
Last October, Harkin joined Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman and Missouri Representative Richard Gephardt in voting for the resolution that authorized President Bush to take military action against Iraq. But, last week, Harkin admitted that he has been wrong to believe the Bush Administration was serious about exploring diplomatic alternatives to war.
If Congress were to vote again, Harkin said, he would oppose the resolution. "I'm not going to be fooled twice," the Iowan told hometown media in Des Moines. "As I look back it sure looks like the administration was never serious about resolving the situation peacefully," said Harkin, who complained that Bush has acted "like the cowboy who rode out of Texas, all guns blazing."
One of a growing number of Congressional Democrats who voted for the October resolution but who now are critical of the president's failure to respect language that instructed the Administration to pursue diplomatic solutions, Harkin said, "In my adult life, with the exception of Vietnam, this has been the biggest failure of diplomacy I've seen."
Harkin's vote in favor of the October resolution deeply disappointed many Democrats in Iowa, where antiwar sentiment always runs high. And Harkin never suggested that he was overly happy with his vote; indeed, when he delivered the eulogy at Paul Wellstone's memorial service last fall, Harkin praised the late Minnesota senator for having the courage to vote against the resolution.
But, even if Harkin was there uncomfortably, having Iowa's most prominent national Democrat in the pro-resolution camp provided cover for Democratic presidential contenders such as Kerry, Edwards, Lieberman and, above all, Gephardt, who helped organize support for the use-of-force resolution when he served as House Minority Leader. For presidential candidates who backed the resolution, it was a relief to be able to respond to questions about a possible war by saying, "Like Tom Harkin..."
Now, they are no longer "like Harkin." The Iowan says he did not mean to stir up trouble for the contenders for his party's 2004 nomination. But Harkin, himself a former presidential candidate, is too sly a political player not to have known that his statement would stir the political pot. And so it did. In fact, when several of the Democratic candidates arrived in Iowa after Harkin had revealed his new stance, the candidates found that the pot was boiling. In a state where even Republicans -- like Iowa City-area Congressman Jim Leach -- have taken antiwar stances, the sentiments among Democratic activists tend to echo those of Polk County party leader Barbara Boatwright, who says, "I'd like to hear something stronger from Congress. I wish we'd have an outcry and protest from Democratic members of Congress."
That was certainly the message Gephardt got when he arrived in Sioux City over the weekend to talk with Democratic activists whose support he will need in next January's first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. The man who won the state's Democratic presidential caucuses in 1988 took a battering from people like Western Iowa Tech Community College job training director Chris Hansen. "Congress has completely addicated its duty," Hansen told Gephardt at a gathering of Woodbury County Truman Club members. "You've given up the final check and balance on this thing."
Gephardt made a determined effort to steer the conversation toward domestic issues -- such as education and health care -- chosen to illustrate areas of agreement with the roughly 40 Democrats who had gathered to hear him. But it was to no avail. "If we're going to go to war, shouldn't Congress fulfill its constitutional duty and declare that war?" inquired Tom Whitmore, a veteran Democratic activist in the Sioux City area.
Gephardt, who said he would "stand behind my vote" on the October resolution, rejected talk about the need for a new vote by Congress. "If you're saying you want to pass a resolution that says (the US) can't do anything if we can't get the whole UN wound up behind us, then you're really turning decision-making on a very important security matter over to the United Nations. I don't want to do that."
Gephardt's unwavering stance puts him in the camp of Lieberman, who pretty much parrots the Bush line on Iraq, and Edwards, who apologetically tells Iowa Democrats that his position is a matter of "conscience" and then struggles to shift the discussion to domestic issues. On the other side are two candidates who voted against the October resolution, House Progressive Caucus chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and former Senate Intelligence Committee chair Bob Graham, D-Florida, and three candidates sharpyl critical of war, civil rights activist Al Sharpton, former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean.
In the middle, and thus in the most difficult position following Harkin's shift, is Kerry. When the Massachusetts senator arrived in Iowa Sunday for a series of campaign appearances, he was grilled on his views on Bush's rush to war. Asked directly by the Des Moines Register, Kerry was reported to have "stopped short" of saying that he too regretted his vote last October. "What I do regret is that this Administration has not lived up to the standards of diplomacy set forth in the resolution," said the man who is seen by many Democrats as the frontrunner for the party's presidential nod. "The president's diplomacy has been completely lacking."
Aside from his murky stance on the question of whether his vote for the "use of force" resolution was a good one, Kerry's comments on Bush sound similar to those of the candidate who most frequently criticizes Kerry for backing the resolution: Dean. In Des Moines, Kerry was particularly aggressive, arguing that, "The greatest position of strength is by exercising the best judgement in the pursuit of diplomacy, not in some trumped-up, so-called coalition of the bribed, the coerced, the bought and the extorted, but in a genuine coalition."
That also sounds a lot like Harkin, save for the Iowa senator's acknowledgement that Congress was wrong to give up so much authority to Bush. Harkin is a smart politician, who knows his state well. Indeed, as Woodbury County Democratic Party chair Al Sturgeon explained after the Sioux City session with Gephardt, "If I had a nickel for every time someone told me Congress wrote Bush a blank check, the Woodbury County Democrats would be in good shape."
President George W. Bush has a case for going to war. It's a slim case, but a case. And he keeps undermining it with dishonest remarks. During his Thursday night press conference--only the eighth news conference of his presidency (Bill Clinton had logged 30 by this point in his first term)--Bush once again tried to argue for war. He offered nothing new. And, to be fair, at this stage of the game--after months of prep work--no one should expect to hear much in the way of fresh argument. But Bush took one more shot at explaining his thinking.
He asserted that "Saddam Hussein and his weapons are a direct threat to this country, to our people, and to all free people. If the world fails to confront the threat posed by the Iraqi regime...free nations would assume immense and unacceptable risk....We will not wait to see what terrorists or terrorist states could do with weapons of mass destruction. We are determined to confront threats wherever they arise."
In the post-9/11 world, any possibility of a brutal dictator with anti-American sentiments acquiring nuclear, biological and chemical weapons has to be considered worrisome and worthy of a vigorous response. Bush and his crew are right: one cannot assume that absence of evidence (of weapons of mass destruction) is the same thing as evidence of absence (of WMD). The US government ought to identify potential foes and potential attacks and develop the means to neutralize them early. Perhaps it might even be prudent in some circumstances to move against such threats before undeniable proof can be assembled, more so if the targets are known murderers, torturers, and thugs who do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. Even if questions remain about a preemptive course of action, it may still be warranted, particularly if the potential threat were sufficiently dire. (If Washington had sketchy indications that Kim Jong Il was poised to sell a nuclear bomb to a terrorist outfit, how long should it wait--how much evidence should it amass--before deciding to intervene and forcibly stop the transfer?)
One could argue that while the actual danger posed by Saddam Hussein (and whatever weapons he might possess or might develop) is difficult to assess, the United States cannot risk guessing wrongly. At the news conference, Bush declared, "My job is to protect the American people." Clearly, his expansive view of that mandate includes going to war against a tyrant whose actions may end up threatening the United States.
Bush's problem has been that a case for war based on the potential threat from Iraq is, obviously, not as compelling as a case predicated on an actual and immediate threat. If a nation faces a potential threat, it has the luxury of weighing--and debating--various aspects of going to war: the moral legitimacy of the action, the possible consequences and costs, how other governments and populations will react, the alternatives to an invade-and-occupy response. Many of these concerns, though, could be shoved aside, if the United States were confronting a clear-and-present danger.
Consequently, Bush has had to hype the case--to present it in black-and-white terms in order to turn a judgment call into an imperative. So there he was on Thursday night, again talking up the supposed connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. He claimed that Saddam "has trained and financed" al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. He referred to "a poison plant in northeast Iraq" and "a man named Zarqawi who is in charge of the poison network." And he said, "To assume that Saddam Hussein knew none of this was going on is not to really understand the nature of the Iraqi society."
Bush was referencing statements Secretary of State Colin Powell had made to the UN in early February, when he claimed, "Iraq today harbors a deadly terrorist network headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an associate and collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda lieutenants." But after Powell's speech, The Washington Post reported, "A senior administration official with knowledge of the intelligence information said that evidence had not yet established that Baghdad had any operational control over Zarqawi's network, or over any transfer of funds or materiel to it." And reporters who visited the so-called "poison plant"--which was set up in an area of Iraq not under the control of Saddam Hussein--found only a primitive base for a local fundamentalist outfit. Even at the eleventh hour, Bush still cannot persuasively tie Baghdad to al Qaeda. (Would he say that Pakistan was "harboring" Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the top al Qaeda official recently arrested there?)
Since Bush cannot make the threat-end of his case more convincing--he seems to have stretched the available evidence as far as it can go--he has attempted to strengthen his argument by dissembling on other fronts. During the press conference, he said he was willing to stick with "diplomacy" for a little while longer. That is not so. What he is willing to do is to spend a few more days trying to wring out of the UN Security Council a resolution that would directly or indirectly approve a US-led attack against Iraq. But diplomacy entails more than winning approval for war. In most instances, it would mean resolving a conflict without resorting to the use of force. But Bush has offered no alternatives to all-out war. Sure, if Saddam fled the country, Bush might accept that as a reason to call off the invasion.
But Bush and his top advisers have scoffed at inspections, which are one form of diplomacy. If Saddam Hussein is not to be trusted--and he is not--then no matter what steps Iraq takes, Washington can never have 100-percent confidence Saddam has fully complied with the Security Council resolutions and disarmed. And if 100-percent confidence is the working standard, as the Bushies seem to insist, then all talk from the administration of disarming Saddam is bunk. The only disarmament they can accept is de-Saddamization. And that, in all likelihood, can only come through war. Bush and his officials have refused to entertain the possibility of coercive inspections--that is, inspections backed by military force. (Imagine a no-fly zone across almost all of the country, or military raids against suspected WMD sites.) Not only is diplomacy not an option for Bush; neither is force short of war.
In this vein, at the press conference, Bush said--as he has repeatedly--"the risk of doing nothing, the risk of hoping that Saddam Hussein changes his mind and becomes a gentle soul, the risk that somehow that inaction will make the world safer is a risk I'm not willing to take for the American people." With this statement, Bush was presenting a false dichotomy: war or nothing. If that's the choice, war may seem less avoidable. Yet the nations opposing his push for war--France, Germany, Canada--have indeed proposed other courses of action involving more aggressive and intrusive inspections. Bush is free to argue that such means cannot succeed and are not worth even attempting. Instead, he dismisses his opposition by suggesting it is naively and foolishly counting on Saddam's transformation into a saint. This has been one of the critical distortions he has used to promote his war.
Bush repeated his claim that war is necessary to preserve the relevance of the United Nations. This was the type of arrogant remark that has been fueling anti-American sentiment overseas since Bush assumed office. UN Security Council Resolution 1441 promised there would be "serious consequences" if Saddam Hussein did not comply with its disarmament orders. It did not define these consequences. What Bush has been saying is that unless the Security Council embraces his definition of "serious consequences"--war right now--it is a pointless body. "The credibility of the Security Council is at stake," he maintained. But what if the Security Council were to decide to toughen up the inspections and conduct them for another five months? Why would that be evidence of its meaninglessness? Indeed, it is Bush who is placing the Security Council in a position of irrelevance. Should he ignore the deeply-felt sentiments of its member-nations (and the populations they represent) and launch a war unsupported by the Security Council, it will be he who is declaring--and proving--that the United Nations does not really matter.
At the press conference, Bush said once more that his war against Iraq would be a war of liberation for the Iraqi people. That may well be--unintentionally. Bush's war-for-democracy pitch is essentially window-dressing. This administration would have no interest in sacrificing American lives and assuming political risks if the goal were primarily to help out people ruled by a brute. If war does occur, let's hope a free and democratic Iraq is an outcome. But it's hard not to wonder what the Bush administration will do if an Iranian-backed demagogue who wants to nationalize the oil industry and supports the Palestinian uprising is freely and fairly elected in the "new" Iraq.
At the moment, what Bush has to say matters little. He has no new evidence to reveal. He has no better case to make. He's got what he's got. Moreover, there's no jury or judge he has to convince. It's his decision, and it appears it has already been rendered. The only answer to this threat (real or potential) is a disarmed Saddam. The only disarmed Saddam is a dethroned Saddam. That requires war. What happens in the UN over the next days seems to have no bearing on what will transpire in Iraq. The question is merely whether Bush has to run a red-light on his way to Baghdad. His foot is already heavy on the gas. Emboldened by his own half-truths and lies, he is heading off to war.
The Observer newspaper (London) reported recently that the United States is conducting a secret surveillance campaign against UN Security Council delegations as part of its battle to win votes in favor of war against Iraq. Details of the operation, which involves the interception of the telephone calls and emails of UN delegates, were revealed in a National Security Agency memo leaked to the newspaper.
Now, more than ever, it's critical to show support for those countries trying to resist US bullying, bribing and now, wiretapping. There are a number of concrete gestures you can take that may really help these nations stiffen their opposition to the proposed US/UK/Spanish UN war resolution.
If you're part of a civic, business, non-profit or community group, try to set up meetings this week with the UN missions, embassies and consulates of these non-permanent members of the UN Security Council: Chile, Mexico, Pakistan, Guinea, Cameroon and Angola. Let them know that you think that both the US's and their own country's interests will be much better served by peace than war. Remind them that the world is on their side as are many Americans as well. Check out our list of consultate offices coast to coast. There may be one much closer than you'd think.
If you can't get a quick meeting scheduled, send flowers, cards, emails and other tokens of appreciation to these nation's reps imploring them to hold firm and continue resisting the US's coercive tactics.
Click here for full contact info for consulates and missions as well as email addresses for each member of the UN Security Council. And see Coalition of the Coerced, a new report issued by the Institute for Policy Studies, for advice on drafting the most effective letters possible.
Time appears short, but after a weekend of setbacks, the US seems increasingly isolated in its efforts to rally international diplomatic and military support for war in Iraq. Bush and Co. seem poised to thwart world opinion and go at it alone, but the more we do to oppose unilateral war, the harder it'll be for them to proceed.
Upcoming Antiwar Events:
On March 22, United for Peace and Justice is planning another march in New York City, this time, hopefully, with a city permit.
In the first significant setback for the Bush Administration in the 108th Congress, Senate Democrats blocked a move Thursday by Republicans to force a vote on controversial judicial nominee Miguel Estrada.
After weeks of on-and-off debate regarding Estrada's nomination to the powerful US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, attempted to break what has evolved into a filibuster against the man who many legal observers believe the Bush Administration is grooming for an eventual Supreme Court nomination. To break the filibuster, Frist needed 60 votes. But he could only muster 55 -- from 51 Republicans and 4 Democrats -- as 44 Democratic senators held firm despite intense pressure from the Administration and its conservative allies.
"This vote was tremendously important for the future of thefederal judiciary and for the rights and freedoms Americans count on the courts to protect, argued People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas, whose group has been a key player in the campaign to block Estrada's nomination as part of a broader effort to prevent the Administration from packing the federal courts with rightwing judicial activists. "It is a major loss for the Bush Administration and its political allies, who have tried to bully senators into submission with outrageous threats and accusations."
When Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, announced in February that his caucus had the votes to block a vote on the Estrada nomination unless the nominee and the White House responded to unanswered questions from Senate Judiciary Committee members, Congressional observers were skeptical. The last time a Senate filibuster succeeded in preventing a president from advancing a judicial nominee was in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson was forced to withdraw the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas to be chief justice.
Thursday's vote was a clear win for Daschle, and for legal, civil rights, labor and women's groups that have campaigned for months to convince Democrats that Estrada has not met the basic standards for confirmation. Only four Senate Democrats -- Georgia's Zell Miller, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Florida's Bill Nelson of Florida and Louisiana's John Breaux -- voted to break the filibuster. (Florida Democrat Bob Graham, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who is recovering from surgery, did not vote.)
Conservative groups worked hard to break Democratic senators loose prior to Thursday's vote, ramping up a campaign that suggested Democrats who voted to block Estrada were thwarting the aspirations of the nation's burgeoning Hispanic population. Estrada, a Honduran immigrant, would be the first Latino to sit on the DC Circuit bench and, if confirmed, could eventually become the first Latino on the Supreme Court.
In the days before the vote, Neas said, he was troubled by "intimidation tactics employed by the Bush White House and Senate Republican leaders. Especially disturbing were the repugnant efforts of a number of Republicans to characterize opponents of Mr. Estrada's confirmation as anti-Hispanic.Groups such as People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice countered fierce lobbying -- which even involved radio ads in the states of key senators -- by noting that the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project had joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in urging rejection of Estrada's nomination.
Ultimately, however, Daschle has been successful in holding the majority of Democrats together in large part because of concerns about Estrada's failure to answer questions posed by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the refusal of the White House to release working papers that Estrada produced while working in the Solicitor General's office.
The White House has stonewalled the request for the papers, and has refused to allow Estrada to participate in a public hearing where he could be asked further questions. Those hardball tactics have upset enough Democratic senators, say Hill aides, that even moderate and conservative members who might be inclined to support Estrada are sticking with the strategy initiated by Daschle, Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy and Vermont's Pat Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.
While Frist says he will keep pushing for a vote on the nomination, Daschle says, "The vote will not change regardless of how many votes are cast. We feel strongly as a caucus and will continue to hold our position as a caucus."
The growing antiwar movement is building on the considerable momentum of the historic February 15 protests with a series of marches, petition drives, lobbying efforts and teach-ins planned for the weeks ahead.
The next major day of coordinated national actions is March 5 when a day of student strikes is planned by the National Youth and Student coalition; on International Women's Day, March 8 , thousands of people will converge on Washington, DC for a women-led rally and march to encircle the White House; on March 15 , a number of groups, led by International Answer, are organizing an emergency convergence at the White House, and the Win Without War coalitionis sponsoring innovative cyber-activism and creative antiwar advertising. Information on upcoming US events can be best be found at United for Peace and Justice and paxprotest.net. The best place to find out about European protests, in English, is the Stop the War coalition's website.
Join the Cities for Peace campaign, which has already persuaded one hundred and twenty-one cities and counties nationwide, including Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Des Moines to issue antiwar resolutions. Local resolutions have no role, of course, in shaping federal policy, but they underscore the widespread opposition to US military action against Iraq and highlight the impact that war will have on city and state budgets. Click here for a full list of the citieswhich have passed resolutions to date and here for the Resolution Tool Kit.
Sign an online call or petition opposing US empire-building in the Middle East: MoveOn.org calls for letting the inspections work, the Campaign for Peace and Democracy asks for a sane foreign policy that opposes both Saddam Hussein and an invasion of Iraq, the Pledge of Resistance vows to conduct militant civil disobedience in the face of an unprovoked US attack and Code Pink asks the world to finally "Listen to the Women."
Looking for speakers? A project of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center, the Iraq Speakers Bureau provides access to policy experts, diplomats, NGO officials, human rights activists and public health researchers for events or classes.
The antiwar movement is also proving clever and creative on the cultural front. Dissident artwork, literature, street theatre, poetry, painting, music and postering are all flourishing coast to coast. Check out Poets Against the War , the No War sign project , Peace-Not-War.org and FucktheWar.com , which offers free in-your-face email addressess.
As if there was need for more evidence that major media is neglecting to cover Federal Communications Commission deliberations on whether to fundamentally alter media ownership rules, a new survey shows that 72 percent of Americans know "nothing at all" about the debate in which FCC Commissioner Michael Copps says "fundamental values and democratic virtues are at stake."
Only four percent of 1,254 adults surveyed by the Project For Excellence in Journalism in collaboration with the Pew Research Center for the People and The Press said they had heard "a lot" about the FCC's deliberations regarding rule changes that could redefine the shape and scope of American media.
Echoing concerns voiced by consumer, public interest and labor groups, as well as a growing number of members of Congress, Copps has argued that the FCC should schedule more official hearings on the proposed rule changes. The commissioner also says that major media outlets -- especially the nation's television networks -- have a responsibility to cover the debate over whether to allow greater consolidation of media ownership at the national level and the removal of barriers to control by individual corporations of most of the television, radio and newspaper communications in particular communities.
"I'm frankly concerned about consolidation in the media, and particularly concerned that we are on the verge of dramatically altering our nation's media landscape without the kind of debate and analysis that these issues clearly merit," Copps said as the commission's sole scheduled official hearing opened Thursday in Richmond, Virginia.
FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who has long been the commission's most ardent advocate for rule changes favored by media corporation lobbyists, has resisted efforts to open up the debate. Thursday's hearing in Richmond offered some explanation for why Powell has sought to constrain the dialogue.
Despite rough winter weather, hundreds of critics of the proposed relaxation of controls on consolidation packed the hall where the commissioners heard testimony. While representatives of television networks and newspaper chains argued for the rule changes, the clear signal from the crowd was expressed by David Croteau, a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, who told commissioners: "Less regulation will be a windfall for a few giant media corporations. It is likely to be a huge mistake for the rest of us."
Consolidation has already changed the face of media for the worse, argued Rain Burroughs, a Richmond daycare center worker. Burroughs told the commission that "the best programs don't get to air because of the obsession to maximize profits. Today, we are bombarded with sensationalist, mindless, violent shows."
During the public comment period, speaker after speaker rose to express opposition to rules changes that would lead to more consolidation and commercialization. As the day came to a close, speakers suggested to the commissioners that the public had spoken -- loudly -- against the proposed changes.
"What we are seeing is that, as the public becomes more aware that these issues are on the table before the FCC, people are chomping at the bit to say, 'No, don't do this,'" said Michael Bracy, director of government relations for the Future of Music Coalition, which recently produced a report that exposed the damage done to diversity and content by the consolidation of radio ownership made possible by rule changes in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
The new poll from the Project For Excellence in Journalism confirms Bracy's assessment. Among Americans who said they thought that allowing companies to own more TV, radio and newspaper outlets would make a difference, the survey found that by a 3-1 margin they believe the impact will be a negative one. The proportion of those surveyed who said that the impact of the changes would be negative rose significantly among those Americans who said they knew "a little" or "a lot" about the current debate.
Copps argued in his statement at the opening of Thursday's hearing that the dialogue needs to be dramatically expanded before the FCC makes any decisions on the proposed rules changes. "While the participation of business representatives is essential, so is the input of consumers, labor, educational and religious, minority organizations, and Americans who have never heard of the FCC," Copps said. "We can pretend that these folks read the Federal Register and can afford lawyers to fully participate in our inside-the-beltway decision making. But we'd be kidding ourselves. This decision is too important to make in a business-as-usual way. We need America's buy-in..."
Despite the good dialogue in Richmond, however, that buy-in has yet to occur. Scant major media coverage has created a situation where, as the Project For Excellence in Journalism survey illustrates, most Americans still do not know that the future of media -- and the democracy and culture it influences -- is up for grabs.
The day before MSNBC announced that it was pulling the plug on Phil Donahue's nightly show, the man who pretty much invented talk TV was interviewing actress and author Rosie O'Donnell. But this was not the standard celebrity interview. Rather, Donahue led O'Donnell through a serious discussion of her feelings about whether the U.S. should go to war with Iraq. "Well, I think like every mother, every mother that I've spoken to, every day when I go to pick up my kids from school, every person I've spoken to has said they're against this war, for basic reasons," said O'Donnell. "I don't want to kill innocent mothers and children and fathers in another country when there are alternate mean available, at least at this point." And when Donahue asked why anyone should take what celebrities say about war seriously, O'Donnell came back, "Nobody wants to interview the mother of the two kids in my daughter's class who feels the same way. I stand with 36 women every day outside the elementary school. And if any newscaster wanted to speak to any member of the PTA across America, I have a feeling they would say the same thing I'm saying. I'm not speaking as a celebrity. I'm speaking as a mother and I'm speaking for the mothers who don‘t have the option of an hour on the Phil Donahue show."
As of Friday, no one will have the option of an hour on the Phil Donahue show. The show has been cancelled, and with it will be lost one of the few consistent forums for progressive voices on cable television. Just this month, Donahue's guest list has included U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Institute for Policy Studies foreign policy analyst Phyllis Bennis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Global Exchange director and "Code Pink" anti-war activist Medea Benjamin. And it is a pretty good bet that, now that Donahue is going off the air, we will not soon see another show like the one where he featured Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins in front of a crowd of laid-off Enron employees. And we certainly are not likely to see such a show on MSNBC, which appears to be veering hard to the right in its programming -- adding former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, and former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Florida, as regular contributors, and conservative talk radio personality Michael "Savage Nation" Savage as a regular host. MSNBC will temporarily replace Donahue starting next week with "Countdown: Iraq," hosted by Lester Holt. Talk about adding insult to injury. Getting cancelled is bad enough; getting cancelled to make way for a program devoted to anticipating an unnecessary war is just plain awful.
Media analyst Rick Ellis, who writes for the excellent www.allyourtv.com website, makes a strong case that Donahue is being elbowed off the air at this point -- when his ratings have actually been ticking upward -- precisely because it appears that a war is coming. According to Ellis, Donahue's "fate was sealed a number of weeks ago after NBC News executives received the results of a study commissioned to provide guidance on the future of the news channel." According to Ellis, the study suggested "that Donahue presented a ‘difficult public face for NBC in a time of war" and expressed that, in a time of war, Donahue's show might become "a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity."
NBC executives aren't commenting on the report. But no one is seriously questioning the validity of Ellis' report.
That said, Donahue's disappearance is about more than politics.
Donahue's show was never as successful as it could have been. Coming off a strong supporting role in the Ralph Nader campaign of 2000, and a series of television appearances that saw him challenge the conventional (Republican AND Democratic) wisdom about September 11 and its aftermath, Donahue was to enter the cable wars as a pox-on-all-their-houses lefty who would open his show up to a freewheeling dialogue about war and peace, corruption and cronyism, Republican wrongheadedness and Democratic disappointments. In theory, the show sounded like it might actually allow MSNBC to credibly argue that it was "fiercely independent." In reality, Donahue was sent into to battle Fox's Bill O'Reilly and CNN's Connie Chung with one lobe tied behind his brain. Pressured by desperate MSNBC executives to fit into the contemporary talk-TV mold ("Be like O'Reilly, only nicer -- but not too nice"), Donahue was never allowed to be Donahue. For every program that featured Ralph Nader and Molly Ivins, there were ten where Donahue was forced to ask polite questions of second-string conservative pundits.
Where his conservative competitors never worry about fairness or balance, Donahue was under constant pressured to clog his show's arteries with deadly dull apologists for all things Bush. And when that got too boring, he was pressured to steer the show away from politics and toward the glitzy and the maudlin. The show got worse and worse, the ratings dipped, and Donahue often seemed physically pained by the absurd demands that were being placed on him. Finally, when every dumb idea known to cable television had been tried, someone got the bright idea of allowing Donahue to do what he used to do best -- interview interesting guests and then take questions from a live audience. The guests were better -- Tutu was great, and so was Pat Buchanan. The crowds were enthusiastic. And the ratings were rising.
In its final, more substantive incarnation, "Donahue" was actually beating the much more aggressively promoted MSNBC program, "Hardball With Chris Matthews." By the same token, with an average nightly viewership of 446,000, Donahue was still trailing far behind CNN's Connie Chung and Fox's O'Reilly.
Now that Donahue has been ditched, conservative commentators and network executives will tell themselves that there is no audience for progressive voices on television. They will, of course, be wrong on the broad premise -- some of O'Reilly's best shows feature feisty progressives like U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Bernie Sanders. And they will be wrong more specifically about Donahue. We will never know for sure whether Phil Donahue could have seriously competed with conservative hosts like Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. What we do know, for sure, is that MSNBC executives were never willing to trust Phil Donahue -- or the American television viewing audience.
When hundreds of labor, academic and community activists gathered in a City University of New York's graduate school auditorium this week to honor the memory of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, the speaker list was itself a tribute to the late Minnesota senator and his partner in marriage and politics. Author Barbara Ehrenreich, scholar Frances Fox Piven, Institute for Policy Studies director John Cavanagh, Wellstone campaign manager Jeff Blodgett and veteran labor leader Bob Muehlenkamp called on the memory of the Wellstones to energize the struggles for econnomic and social justice, and peace, that lost two of their greatest champions when the couple died in a plane crash last fall.
But the standout address of the night came from the member of Congress who may well be the truest heir to the Wellstone mantle. US Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, drew cheer after cheer for a speech that echoed the hope, courage, passion and political timeliness that characterized the career of the unabashedly progressive senator who died less than two weeks before Minnesota voters were expected to reelect him last fall.
"Paul Wellstone taught us that a politics of conviction is a winning politics," said Schakowsky, who like Wellstone was a grassroots organizer long before she ever thought of running for public office.
Like many in the multigenerational crowd that attended the Wellstone tribute, Schakowsky wore her convictions on her sleeve -- or, more precisely, her jacket -- in the form of a large antiwar pin.
Along with Wellstone, whose last major vote was cast in opposition to President Bush's request for blank-check authorization to wage war against Iraq, Schakowsky established herself early as a courageous and consistent foe of the administration's efforts to launch an unwise and unnecessary attack on Iraq. But Schakowsky did not hold herself up as a hero. Rather, she gave credit to the raucously antiwar crowd, and the rest of the movement that has filled the streets of cities around the world with shouts of "Not In Our Name!", for slowing the rush to war.
"For the fact that we are not at war today, Paul Wellstone would thank you," said the member of Congress from Chicago. "Had it not been for this outpouring of opposition, I think we would already be at war." Recalling last fall's Congressional vote on authorizing Bush to pursue war with Iraq, Schakowsky noted, "Members of Congress did hear you. Sixty percent of the Democrats voted against that resolution... and this was against our own (party) leadership."
It is that fact, Schakowsky said, that ought to inspire activists to reject the cynicism that says a war cannot be stopped and to keep struggling to block Bush's military adventurism. "I'm asking you tonight not to accept the inevitability of war," Schakowsky told the crowd. "If Paul Wellstone would have accepted the conventional wisdom, if he had accepted the supposed inevitability, he never would have won."
Then Schakowsky "pulled a Wellstone." She detailed the Bush Administration's assaults on individual liberty, workers rights, education and the environment, as well as the administration's wrongminded approach to foreign policy, and then Schakowsky said, "If you feel overwhelmed by that list, if it makes you feel tired... Get over it!"
Borrowing a line from the trademark calls to action that made Paul Wellstone a touchstone for so many progressives, Schakowsky finished by urging the crowd into the voting booths and the streets. "We need you!" she shouted over a rising tide of applause. "We need you!"
As with marching, the objective is to bring an antiwar message to the attention of political leaders in Washington. But instead of taking to the streets, activists tomorrow will try to overwhelm government switchboards and email accounts with antiwar missives and calls.
The Win Without War coalition is asking supporters to call, fax and email the White House and Congress Wednesday in a "virtual march" to demonstrate the breadth and depth of antiwar sentiment nationwide. The goal is to hit each and every Senate office with one antiwar call each minute, at the same time as countless antiwar email messages pour into government servers across Washington.
You can have a fax sent on your behalf free of charge by True Majority , you can register to make calls where needed, or you can contact your reps on your own. (Click here for Congressional contact info.) This should all help serve notice to our legislators that there could be electoral hell to pay for a quick rush to war. And MoveOn has made it very easy to tell your friends about the virtual march. Activism has never been easier.
As was evident during the most recent episode of the Democratic Party's Star Search--a meeting in Washington of the Democratic National Committee, where most of the presidential contenders spoke--here's what each of the party's 2004 candidates need at this early point in the race:
Former Vermont Governor Howard Dean: More time as a second-tier candidate so he can continue to make progress under the radar.
Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut: A reason why Democrats should give a damn about his future.
Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts: The war to come and go quickly.
Representative Richard Gephardt of St. Louis: Reconsideration.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina: An agent in Hollywood.
Former Senator Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois: A rationale for running other than becoming another first.
Representative Dennis Kucinich of Cleveland: A function button on his laptop to remove references to FDR.
Provocateur-turned-activist Al Sharpton: His own television show.
Dean, as the buzz-watchers agree, generated the most positive vibes at the gathering. He hit the podium with a sharp declaration: "What I want to know is why in the world the Democratic Party leadership is supporting the president's unilateral attack on Iraq?" He then blasted the party's leaders for not challenging President Bush on whether there should be any new tax cuts; for obsessing over a patients' bill of rights rather than "standing up" for providing health care insurance for all; and for going along with Bush's "Leave No Child Behind" education legislation, which he claimed would leave behind "every student, every teacher and every school board." After this machine-gun opening, he paused and said, "I'm Howard Dean and I'm here to represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." Cue the applause? Actually, applause lights were not needed. Many in the crowd jumped up and cheered.
Using that old Paul Wellstone line, Dean--who is the first to say that as a balanced-budget fanatic he is not a "Wellstone liberal"--provoked one of the strongest reactions of the two-day candidate-tasting. He went on to extoll his record (balancing budgets in Vermont, expanding a state health program so that essentially every child up to the age of 18 receives health coverage, conserving hundreds of thousands of acres of public land, signing legislation that established legal civil unions for gay and lesbian couples) and whacked Bush and the Republicans for cynically and falsely using the word "quotas" to attack affirmative action. ("White folks in the South driving with Confederate decals on the back of pickup trucks ought to be voting with us, not them, because their kids don't have health insurance either.") Dean finished up by proclaiming that the task for Democrats is not merely succeeding in 2004: "Is this party about the next election, or is it about changing America?..Only by changing America will we win back the White House." More applause. Much more.
Many Democratic activists and officials had come to the DNC meeting looking to fall in love with a candidate. And Dean's expression of passion tugged at heartstrings. One top DNC fundraiser told me, "Maybe because he was speaking to my youth, I felt jazzed by him. Now I want to know more about Dean. And I'm about as cynical and jaded as it gets." Dean had managed to come across as both idealistic and pragmatic in the same speech. And forceful. Prior to this meeting, he had already earned the title of sleeper-candidate-to-watch--a dubious distinction, since in the past this mantle has been bestowed upon such nonstarters as Bruce Babbitt and Paul Tsongas. Dean, until the recent entries of Kucinich and Moseley Braun, had the antiwar position largely to himself. (Lieberman, Edwards, Gephardt--for; Kerry--critical of Bush's approach, supportive of Secretary of State Colin Powell's last UN presentation, and willing to vote to grant Bush the authority to launch war on his own.) But Dean's speech showed he might be able to woo Democrats with a pitch wider than just antiwar. "What happens after the war?" I asked a Dean adviser. "What will his campaign be based on then?" He smiled and said, "People are still going to need health insurance." And while most of the candidates make sure to talk up their yearning for universal coverage, Dean, a former doctor (and before that a stockbroker), has a convincing manner when he discusses his plan to expand Medicaid and Medicare and provide business and individuals health insurance subsidies to achieve bare-bones universal coverage. Sure, he has a touch of Dukakis in him (un-Lincolnesque), but he's tougher. Dean is no great liberal hope (he has an A rating from the NRA, and he wouldn't sign the Kyoto Treaty without changing it). But he speechifies like a great liberal hope. And in the party, there are folks looking for such a candidate.
With his speech at the DNC meeting, Lieberman showed he has little to offer to Democratic voters. Memories of 2000? Well, that's not enough. And they are bittersweet. He kept going on about The Dream: The Dream this, The Dream that. Of course, he meant the American Dream of which he--the Jewish son of a baker who rose to become nearly the vice president--is one embodiment. "To restore that Dream is my dream and my purpose in this campaign," he told the crowd. It was not rip-roaring stuff. And his defense of his pro-war stance was not in synch with what seemed to be the assembled's skepticism toward war and its fundamental distrust of Bush. Lieberman made sure to point out his more progressive side: bashing Bush for pulling out of Kyoto, attacking the Bush tax cuts. But the other Dems offer the same--without being outright hawks, and without being cultural conservatives (a side of himself that Lieberman kept in check in front of these hardcore Democrats). And the new ideas Lieberman offered--a payroll tax credit to encourage companies to create jobs, a zero capital gains rate for long-term investments in entrepreneurial firms, a National Homeland Security Academy, and a Frontline Initiative that would provide funding, training and information to firefighters and police--didn't cause anyone in the audience to separate his or her derriere from his or her chair.
Worse for Lieberman, in the hallways, the chatterers all seemed agreed on a crucial point: Lieberman has no obvious breakout state. It appears he will be barely campaigning in Iowa, where dovish Democrats are strong among the voting pool. New Hampshire, even though it allows independents to vote in party primaries, will be tough; Kerry and Dean hail from neighboring states. Florida? If home-state Senator Bob Graham joins the fray, as is expected, that could freeze out Lieberman. South Carolina? If Lieberman is going to be embraced by any Democrats, it probably would be Southern ones. But Edwards was born in South Carolina and now represents the state's northern neighbor. Of all the better-known candidates, Lieberman faces the most severe strategic obstacles--and his speech to the DNC crowd didn't reveal too many clues as to how he believes he can surmount them.
Kerry was a no-show, due to his recent prostate cancer surgery. But it was clear that Dean intends to keep pressing Kerry on the war. In interviews, Dean scoffs at Democrats who criticize Bush's handling of Iraq but who voted for the Iraq resolution. He won't name names, but there's only one fellow who fits that description. Kerry has been quasi-straddling for months. Once the war comes--and that does seem likely--he will have to say yea or nay. (Not that Congress will vote on the question; it has already punted. But in our republic Kerry still has to answer to Tim Russert.) As the prewar season continues, Dean has more opportunity to entice antiwar Dems and argue that Kerry is being politically cautious. With Dean clearly on one side, and Lieberman, Edwards and Gephardt clearly on the other, the longer the war remains an issue in the race (it could fade quickly as an issue depending on what happens in Iraq), the longer Kerry will be placed on the spot. Many DNCers are looking at Kerry as the wannabe most likely to become a frontrunner. And--no small matter--he seems to have the lead in money and organization. But as that senior DNC fundraiser said, "this time around money and organization may not be enough, message may tumble money." Dean is positioning himself as a message candidate, and he is gunning for Kerry.
As the fellow who led the Democrats in the House to four consecutive losses, Gephardt might warrant an automatic disqualification. When he announced he was running once more for president--he took a stab in 1988--doubters said he would have trouble escaping the view that he's yesterday's news. He responded by noting that sometimes a person just wants to slip into an old pair of sneakers. But at the DNC meeting he did not present himself as the comfort candidate. And his address demonstrated why a Gephardt bid is not a completely delusional exercise. He, too, had to defend his embrace of Bush's war in Iraq. But he, no fool, didn't dwell on this matter. His remarks centered on showing how Dick Gephardt--son of a milkman, son of a "labor household"--and his family have needed outside assistance to succeed in life. Government loans got him through college and law school. Health insurance paid for the experimental therapies that saved his two-year-old son from cancer. His mother worked at four jobs but not long enough at any to qualify for a pension. (Gephardt pays her bills now.) His daughter followed her dream of becoming a teacher. (Now, because the pay is so lousy, she lives with her parents.) So Gephardt proposes a law requiring every employer to provide health insurance (with the help of tax credits), establishing a pension plan that follows workers, and a Teacher Corps that will pay for the college education of people who commit to teach for five years. There's more: he calls for an international minimum wage, a living wage in he United States, and "an Apollo Project to develop environmentally smart, renewable energy solutions."
Gephardt took The Dream shtick and married it to specific--and, yes, somewhat bold--policy proposals. And he did it an effective style, revealing his personal history, proving his smarts. (Gephardt has a long history of being an inconsistent speaker. He can wow labor crowds; he can also induce ZZZZs.) Several DNCers I spoke to said they were pleasantly surprised by Gephardt's presentation and believed it might resonate with voters--particularly in Iowa. (The no-shit conventional wisdom: if Gephardt doesn't clean up in Iowa, he can pack up his sneakers and call it a day.) If voters and the party pros and activists judge Gephardt on his ideas and intentions--and are not put off by his record as minority leader, the haven't-we-seen-this-before feel of his candidacy, and his partnership with Bush on the war (all decent-sized ifs)--he might not be as discardable as an old Nike.
Edwards spoke as if he had already wrapped up the nomination. He dared Bush to come after him for having been a trial attorney. "Mr. President, if you want to talk about the insiders you've fought for versus the kids and families I've fought for, this is the message I have for you: Mr. President, bring it on." A standing ovation followed, and Edwards went on to recount the time he had defended a little boy named Ethan Bedrick who had cerebral palsy and needed daily physical therapy in order to have freedom of movement later in life. An insurance company bureaucrat--who had never seen this boy--had said no to the treatment. "I will stand with Ethan Bedrick--and so will every person in this room," Edwards declared. (Edwards never told the crowd what happened in the case; presumably, he won. And when one reporter asked an Edwards press person how much Edwards had made while working for the boy, the Edwards aide said she did not know and would not even bother to find out.)
Edwards is the smoothest of the bunch. He does the populist routine. Noting his dad was a mill worker, he vows "to be a champion for the regular people." That is, folks who have lost retirement security, seniors who cannot afford prescription drugs, kids suffering from asthma due to air pollution. He called for putting off Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy and proposed a $500 tax credit to help every American family meet its energy needs. He made damn sure to come across as a fighter, but also--to show he's not a fuzzy-headed liberal--as a politician who wants to impose "fiscal discipline, which, let's be honest, is a challenge for both parties." He quickly referred to his support for war against Saddam Hussein. ("He has chemical and biological weapons now, and has used them in the past.") But in a savvy move, he noted "the real test for America will come after Saddam is gone." In other words, he laid down a marker, ahead of the other candidates, for the coming debate on postwar Iraq--which could come to shape the primary election, if not the general election, more than the war itself.
Edwards has a central-casting air. He looks not so much like a president as like a casting director's idea of a president. His moves are as mannered and (seemingly) as rehearsed as those of, well, a trial lawyer. (He's only been a senator four years.) The crowd response was encouraging for the Edwards backers. My out-on-a-limb hunch is that people will fall for him or they will not. They either will be entranced by the act (and not all acts are insincere), or they will feel put off by someone who appears to have one. There is an Edwards spell. But will it get thin as he spreads it further?
Moseley Braun came off flat. She read a well-written speech in which she explained she wants to be president "because now is the time for inclusion, and equality, and real democracy." The first African-American woman elected to the Senate, she now pitches herself as being ready to become another pioneer. "My campaign began," she said, "when citizens from across this country challenged me to bring my experience in the laws and in local, state, national and international government to bear on substantive issues facing our country, and to help develop the voice of the Democratic Party in a national dialogue about future directions." (I missed that popular uprising.) Many DNCers believe her campaign began when DNC strategist/operative Donna Brazile egged her on, mainly to dilute the African-American vote that Sharpton might attract. Moseley Braun's stint in the Senate was marked by several ugly ethics problems, including one episode in which she cozied up to a Nigerian dictator. Her speech--full of all the right progressive touchstones but delivered in less-than-inspiring fashion--did little to convince a listener that she was indeed responding to a call from the citizenry or that she deserves another opportunity to handle the public's trust.
Kucinich mentioned FDR at least four times in his speech--which may be four times too many. Not to slight the Great One, but Roosevelt references are not very forward-oriented. As someone preaching the old-time gospel of progressivism, Kucinich might increase his effectiveness by avoiding throwback metaphors. One of the lesser-known speakers, he started out with self-deprecating humor: "Two days before I filed at the FEC, I had 2 percent in the polls. Since no one knows who I am, I can only go up. And money? With me, money is no object, because it has never been the subject." He then quickly moved into a severe critique of the war--outpacing Dean in intensity and stridency. ("The administration battle plan calls for a two-day missile attack on Iraq; a total of 800 missiles are to be aimed at Baghdad, a city of five million. An invasion will follow, with house-to-house fighting. This will put America's moral standing in the world at risk.") This was red meat for committed progressives, for the most antiwar of Democrats. But the audience, which appeared mostly antiwar, did not react warmly.
Though the war was his motivation number one, Kucinich criticized Bush's tax cuts for the rich and decried the state of the economy. He urged creating a "single-payer system" of universal health insurance and dumping Nafta. In true progressive fashion, he referred to a good education, decent housing, clean water, and food fit to eat as rights. "We have," he declared, "stepped into the world of George Orwell where peace is war, where security is control, where bombing innocent people is liberation....Someone must step forward. Someone must say stop. Someone must say America must take a new direction....We have a right to a job....We have a right to be free of the fear. We have a right to be free of war. We have a right to be human." Kucinich didn't fully connect with this (mostly) well-dressed crowd. One question for him is whether more ideologically-driven Democratic voters or just plain folks (say, union voters) will respond favorably to his unadulterated and stark message.
As for Sharpton, the Democrats should get one of their multimillionaire backers (who can no longer cut a seven-figure soft-money check to the national party) to finance a television show for him. He is obviously looking for a platform, and a presidential campaign is awfully convenient. He even deserves a venue of his own. But must it be a public office? Sharpton is funnier than Chris Rock. On Reaganomics: "we never got the trickle; we got the down." On US intelligence: "I don't understand why our intelligence can tape conversations in Baghdad but can't find a man hiding in a cave in Afghanistan. A man who comes out every two months with a new video." On the Bush move to appoint "diverse" federal judges: "During the abolition movement, we didn't fight to have more diversified slave masters, we fought to get free." On Bush and affirmative action: "He's the ultimate recipient of a set-aside program. The Supreme Court set aside a whole election." On himself: "Everybody in politics has baggage, some folks have enough money...to get others to carry their bags."
This is good stuff. And the crowd laughed heartily. (HBO? After Bill Maher?) When it comes to rhetoric, Sharpton also can do poignant and touching. "How is it an honor for...men and women to risk their lives in Iraq," he wondered, "when it's a burden for the rich to pay their share of taxes." He called for a $250 billion program to rebuild the infrastructure, outlawing the death penalty, and enhancing workers' rights to organize. Sharpton, with his charlatan's past, is a showman. The DNCers enjoyed the show, but they are fretting about him. He's a nightmare. What happens in South Carolina? Could he win enough African-American votes to prevail in a crowded field? Would the media then portray him as one of the leading Democrats? How would that help the party in the general election? It's possible that in a race with a large and divided field, no candidate will end up with a majority of the delegates. So might Sharpton--if he collects any delegates along the way--be a powerbroker at the convention?
The party wants him to go away, but it's afraid to push him. After his speech, I and a few reporters asked Donald Fowler, a former party chairman who hails from South Carolina, to compare Sharpton to Jesse Jackson. "There are big differences between them," he said. Such as? He refused to say. "You really don't think I'm a fool?" he explained. As we were pressing him to provide examples, Brazile sauntered past, heard what was going on, and said to Fowler, "You better not answer that question."
Sharpton took on the "nightmare" charge directly. He told a story about falling asleep on an airplane. He was far gone when a flight attendant nudged him to see if he wanted to eat. At first, he thought he was having a nightmare, then he realized that was not the case. "It made me think," he told the Democrats. "Sometimes when you're asleep what you think is a nightmare may be a wake-up call." The crowd tittered but did not cheer this line.
The dynamics of the Democratic contest are likely to change in the weeks ahead, especially if other candidates parachute in. Besides Bob Graham, former Senator Gary Hart, former NATO commando Wesley Clark, Senator Christopher Dodd and Senator Joseph Biden are still mulling. Imagine a debate or future beauty contest with thirteen candidates. It's enough to make a Democrat's head spin. What will cause Democrats to swoon, though, is not apparent. What the candidates need is far more obvious than what Democratic voters want.