The Nation

Equal Pay and Freda K.

Today is Equal Pay Day, and on Capitol Hill the American Association of University Women (AAUW) is testifying about its groundbreaking research on the pay gap between men and women.

In its report, Behind the Pay Gap, AAUW reveals that just one year after college graduation women earn only 80 percent of what their male counterparts earn – despite the fact that women outperform men with slightly higher GPA's in every college major, including science and mathematics.

"By looking at earnings just one year out of college, you have as level a playing field as possible," said AAUW Director of Research Catherine Hill. "These employees don't have a lot of experience and, for the most part, don't have care-giving obligations, so you'd expect there to be very little difference in the wages of men and women. But surprisingly, and unfortunately, we find that women already earn less – even when they have the same major and occupation as their male counterparts."

The study also found that women who attended highly selective colleges earn less than men from moderately selective colleges and about the same as their contemporaries from minimally selective colleges. Ten years after graduation, the pay gap widens with women earning 69 percent of what men earn and having far less authority in the workplace.

AAUW is supporting the Fair Pay Act and Paycheck Fairness Act in Congress to address wage discrimination.

The organization celebrated its 125th anniversary this past November and has over 100,000 members, 1,300 branches, and 500 college and university partners. It has fought for decades for pay equity, a woman's right to vote, and legislation that protects women at home, in schools, and in the workplace. It has also conducted high-quality research about women in higher education, sexual harassment, and workplace equity.

On a personal note, The Nation shares a special connection with AAUW. Freda Kirchwey was the editor here for 22 years, from 1933 to1955 – the first woman editor at a national weekly newsmagazine. (She shook the place up as an assistant editor, editing a series called These Modern Women, 17 anonymous essays by distinguished women that examined new feminist views in 1926 and 1927. It was so ahead of its time that The Feminist Press republished the series in 1989, revealing that its authors included Crystal Eastman, Mary Austin, and Genevieve Taggard.)

In 1945, Kirchwey was the keynote speaker at the AAUW convention. Due to travel bans during World War II, the event was held as a "Meeting of the Minds and Not Persons" and broadcast on the radio nationwide to its 75,000 members. Kirchwey had led the call for America's entrance into World War II – no easy feat as Warner Oliver of The Saturday Evening Post wrote: "The historic role of The Nation had been that, since wars had never resulted in good, this country should attend strictly to its own business and insulate herself from foreign affairs."

But Kirchwey was a fierce opponent of fascism. And the AAUW, too, renounced a strictly pacifist position, advocating aid to "those countries fighting for human rights, even at the risk of war," according to Susan Levine, author of Degrees of Equality. The organization felt that women should play an equal role in national defense and advocated for military service for women.

"Women cannot afford to let democracy go down," Kirchwey urged AAUW members, adding, "… a peculiarly heavy responsibility rests on the shoulders of American women."

The same holds true today. Good to see AAUW doing this important work on Pay Equity Day. And, here at The Nation – where I serve as one of too few women editors at a political magazine – we continue to champion the pioneering work Freda Kirchwey did well before her time.

Rove's Newest Investigator Is Under Investigation

Karl Rove is under investigation by the executive branch. So, too, is his investigator.

On Tuesday, The Los Angeles Times reported that the Office of Special Counsel, an obscure federal investigative and prosecutorial agency that is supposed to protect federal employees from prohibited personnel practices, is

preparing to jump into one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive issues in Washington, launching a broad investigation into key elements of the White House political operations that for more than six years have been headed by chief strategist Karl Rove.

The new investigation, which will examine the firing of at least one U.S. attorney, missing White House emails, and White House efforts to keep presidential appointees attuned to Republican political priorities, could create a substantial new problem for the Bush White House.

Rove is tied to all three elements of the OSC investigation. "We will take the evidence where it leads us," Scott Bloch, head of the Office of Special Counsel, told The Los Angeles Times. "We will not leave any stone unturned."

But who is Scott Bloch, and should his vow be taken at face value? The Times story did not provide background on the fellow who will be examining whether Rove and other administration officials may have violated the law by using political email accounts for White House business, by explicitly encouraging government actions for direct partisan gains, and by dismissing David Iglesias, a US attorney in New Mexico. Bloch is a George W. Bush appointee, and his recent record is not one of a relentless pursuer of government corruption and wrongdoing. Here's an overview:

* In February, The Washington Post reported Bloch himself was under investigation:

The Office of Personnel Management's inspector general has been investigating allegations by current and former OSC employees that Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch retaliated against underlings who disagreed with his policies--by, among other means, transferring them out of state--and tossed out legitimate whistle-blower cases to reduce the office backlog. Bloch denies the accusations, saying that under his leadership the agency has grown more efficient and receptive to whistle-blowers.

The 16-month investigation has been beset by delays, accusations and counter-accusations. The latest problem began two weeks ago, when Bloch's deputy sent staffers a memo asking them to inform OSC higher-ups when investigators contact them. Further, the memo read, employees should meet with investigators in the office, in a special conference room. Some employees cried foul, saying the recommendations made them afraid to be interviewed in the probe.

The OSC's memo, the group said, "was only the latest in a series of actions by Bloch to obstruct" the investigation. "Other actions have included suggestions that all witnesses interviewed...provide Bloch with affidavits describing what they had been asked and how they responded."

* Two years earlier, the paper reported that Bloch had declined to enforce a discrimination ban:

Since taking office in January 2004, the Bush appointee has been accused of failing to enforce a long-standing policy against bias in the federal workplace based on sexual orientation, unnecessarily reorganizing the OSC to try to run off internal critics, and arbitrarily dismissing some personnel complaints and whistle-blower disclosures in an effort to claim reductions in backlogs.

He has denied such allegations and argued that he has made the agency more efficient at processing cases and, at the same time, more receptive to whistle-blowers and federal workers who have suffered unfair treatment.

* That same year, public interest groups and employees at the OSC accused Bloch of running an overly partisan shop. As Govexec.com reported:

Amendments to a complaint filed against Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch in early March allege that OSC took no action on a complaint regarding then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's use of government funds to travel in the weeks before the 2004 presidential election, but vigorously pursued allegations against Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry's visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Three nonprofit whistleblower protection groups--the Government Accountability Project, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Project on Government Oversight--and anonymous career OSC employees filed the initial complaint March 3, listing a series of prohibited personnel practices and violations of civil service laws by Bloch.

The politicization allegations stem from Bloch's decision to have a group of lawyers report to a political deputy rather than a career senior executive. The complaint states that OSC has pursued trivial matters without regard to political affiliation...but has not evenly handled higher profile cases.

At the OSC, Bloch is supposed to protect whistleblowers. But he's been charged with reprising against those who challenge his agency and others. Before Bloch was appointed by Bush to take over the OSC, he was a deputy director and counsel at the Justice Department's Task Force for Faith-based and Community Initiatives.

"By most measures, his tenure has been an absolute failure," says Adam Miles, legislative representative at the Government Accountability Project. "He's been under pressure to start doing something." Miles notes that GAP did not initially expect the complaint it filed against Bloch in 2005 to go anywhere. "It was referred to a federal entity called the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency," Miles recalls, "and we thought it would just rot there." But the case was handed to Pat McFarland, the inspector general for the Office of Personnel Management. McFarland is a former St. Louis detective who spent 22 years as a Secret Service agent before becoming IG at OPM in 1990.

McFarland's investigation of Bloch, Miles says, "hasn't been a totally transparent process but we're hearing it's reaching a conclusion--which could be motivation for Bloch to start this investigation into the White House. If OPM does turn up any adverse information on Bloch, it would be more difficult for the White House to get rid of him while he was actively investigating them." But this could cut the other way. If Bloch is the subject of an investigation, he might be inclined to treat the White House favorably to protect his own position. In either case, there seems to be a conflict of interest. Bloch, Miles says, "may not be the appropriate person to be conducting the investigation" of Rove and the White House.

It is a dizzying situation. The investigator investigating officials who oversee the agency that is investigating the investigator. Forget firewalls. This looks more like a basement flooded with backed-up sewage--with the water rising.

With reporting by Stephanie Condon.


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.

David Halberstam's Media Critique

Pultizer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has died in an automobile accident at age 73, was one of America's most thoughtful critics of media excess and abuse. The Powers That Be, his 1979 account of the rise of big media in the United States -- with its profound profiles of CBS's William Paley, Time's Henry Luce and other broadcast and print titans -- remains required reading.

But whatever his topic -- the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era -- Halberstam always kept a sharp eye on the role played, for better or worse, by media. He was one of the greatest reporters of his time, and a man who loved the journalist's craft. But Halberstam was no apologist for the missteps or the misdeeds of those who owned major newspapers and broadcast networks.

In 2003, shortly after the Federal Communications Commission moved to loosen controls on media consolidation, Dave Weich of www.powells.com asked Halberstam about the way in which big media shapes American society:

Dave Weich: Broadcasting is one of the most significant factors, obviously. Earlier this week, the FCC ruled that large broadcasting corporations will be allowed to become even bigger.

David Halberstam: Not exactly what we needed in this society.

Weich: In The Next Century, you wrote: "As the network news format trivializes political debate, the political system adapts to it. Serious discussion of serious issues is too complicated." That statement could be applied any number of recent events, including the most recent presidential election.

Halberstam: And very much to our political system now. It's really very trivialized.

Weich: Where does that leave us?

Halberstam: We're an entertainment society. We want to be entertained more than we want to think. It's a serious problem. We're the most powerful nation in the world, but our network broadcast is increasingly about celebrity, sex, and scandal. It's less about substance than it used to be. It's not as good as it should be. And it makes us a more volatile society.

We pay very little attention to the rest of the world, then when the rest of the world doesn't act in concert with us and salute us, we're very angry. We think, How could this happen? Why don't they like us more? We're not paying very much attention.

There are so many reasons to mourn the death of David Halberstam, the great chronicler of America's woes and wars -- not to mention its sports teams. But his cutting critique of contemporary media will be especially missed, as will his understanding of the threat that consolidated and dumbed-down media poses to democracy.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines 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.'"

Legislative Watch: Women’s Rights

There is an attempt in Congress to undo the damage done by a rightwing-trending Supreme Court (and the lower courts ain't too pretty either) intent on eviscerating a woman's right to privacy and control of her own body.  

The Freedom of Choice Act was reintroduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer and Representative Jerrold Nadler just one day after the Supreme Court's paternalistic and frightening decision to uphold an abortion-procedure ban (intact dilation and extraction--all too often referred to by the media as "partial birth abortion," a phrase coined by the right decades ago) that makes no exception to protect the health of the mother.  The new legislation "would codify in federal law the rights established in Roe v. Wade," Allison Stevens of Women's eNews reports.

The bill's chances for passage are gloomy. But since the courts can no longer be relied upon to protect a woman's right to choose, new strategies are needed.  And what's critical is that Democrats stand strong--not only in championing legislation that will help prevent pregnancies (and here), promote affordable childcare, and provide real family values funding--but also support the right of a woman to control her own body and health choices.

As Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America said, "For the first time, the court told women that, when their health is at risk during pregnancy, deciding what to do is no longer up to them and their doctors, it is instead up to politicians.  The future of legal access to abortion in this country is grim.  It's time for Congress to stand up for women's health, women's safety, and a woman's right to make her own medical decisions."

Impeaching Cheney: Step One

That Vice President Dick Cheney is the ripest target for impeachment in the Bush White House is beyond debate.

Cheney was far more aggressive that President Bush in peddling manipulated -- or, to use a more precise term, "fantastical" -- intelligence before the US invaded Iraq. And, once the war began, Cheney promoted the illusion that a connection had been found between Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network so recklessly that Bush, himself, was finally forced to correct his errant vice president. That puts Cheney at odds with the checks and balances requirements of the Constitution, and with the oath he swore to obey that document's demands.

Cheney personally coordinated efforts to attack former Ambassador Joe Wilson, and Wilson's wife Valerie Plame, after the veteran diplomat revealed that the administration had cooked up a "case" for attacking Iraq that was in conflict with information that had been made available to the White House. That is an abuse of Cheney position similar to the ones that the House Judiciary Committee cited when voted overwhelmingly for the third article of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon.

Cheney has been the administration's primary defender of torture, so much so that the consistently cautious Washington Post referred to him in an editorial as the "Vice President for Torture." That creates a conflict not just with the Geneva Conventions but with the 8th amendment to the Constitution's bar on cruel and unusual punishment.

Cheney has for decades argued for an expansion of presidential powers that far exceeds anything intended by the founders of the Republic, and with his calculated moves to disempower Congress, to keep official meetings and documents secret, and to get the president to operate by executive orders and signing statements, he has dramatically and intentionally undermined the rule of law and the Constitution.

The list goes on, but the point is clear: Never in the history of the Republic has a member of the executive branch been so ripe for removal from office as Richard B. Cheney.

And Congress will soon have an opportunity to begin the process of holding the most powerful -- and the most powerfully abusive -- vice president in American history to account.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, plans to introduce articles of impeachment against Cheney.

Kucinich's decision to go after Cheney is not just Constitutionally appropriate, it is politically smart.

Many Americans who are open impeachment -- the total number has surpassed 50 percent according to the October, 2006, Newsweek poll -- shy away from going after President Bush because of their fear that Cheney would then assume the presidency. The fear is foolish, as the Constitution makes clear that both the president and vice president can be the subjects of articles of impeachment at the same time -- as Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew were in the 1970s. Unfortunately, consciousness of the Constitution, particularly in matters of impeachment, is scant these days.

So Kucinich has picked the right target, for now.

Americans who understand that the threat of impeachment is the only tool of the Constitution strong enough to bring this administration back in line with the rule of law -- and, in so doing, to make possible the rapid end of the Iraq occupation and other worthy goals -- have their work cut out for them. House Democratic leaders remain resistant to the very mention of the "i" word.

Kucinich's decision to introduce articles of impeachment is an important first step. But to get the hearings and the votes that will be needed, the congressman and presidential candidate from Ohio will need co-sponsors. What Kucinich has done is to give impeachment activists a place to focus their conversations with members of the House, but those conversations still must be held. And their message must be blunt: If you want to fix what's wrong in Washington, you must consponsor the articles of impeachment against Cheney.

There is an accountability moment coming. House and Senate committees are investigating, questioning, subpoenaing and challenging the Bush-Cheney administration. But accountability is about more than assembling a record of wrongdoing. It demands action upon that wrongdoing. And the founders left no doubt that the appropriate action when dealing with the likes of Dick Cheney is an application of the "heroic medicine" of impeachment.


John Nichols, the best-selling biographer of Vice President Dick Cheney, is the author of a new book: THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines 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.'"

Bush Gets Something Right

President Bush finally got something right.

On Saturday night, he was--as usual--at the annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. This is official Washington's version of a prom. Be-tuxed and be-gowned journalists and government officials wine, dine, and schmooze--and stargaze at real and faux Hollywood celebs who are imported for the evening. One ritual of the night is for the president to deliver a self-deprecating comedy routine before the glammed-out crowd of 3000. At a similar event, three years ago, Bush joked about the missing WMDs in Iraq. Two years ago at the correspondents' bash, Laura Bush ribbed her husband, cracking jokes that (by presidential standards) were off-color. Last year, Bush appeared with a Bush impersonator and performed a masterful bit before Stephen Colbert took the stage and hilariously but harshly spoofed the administration and the Washington press corps.

This year the pre-event buzz was about Rich Little, the has-been (but still appearing 30 weeks a year in Vegas) comic impersonator. He had been selected as the evening's funny-man--and widely perceived as a white-flag choice by the correspondents' association. (Knowing a little about the internal process that led to the Little pick, I do not share that perception. Several edgier comics were approached first and said no.) In the run-up to the dinner, there was not much talk about what Bush would do.

When the president took his turn at the podium, he surprised. Referring to the tragic shooting spree at Virginia Tech, he said, "I've decided not to be funny." He spoke for a few brief moments about the massacre and sat down. That certainly did not tee up the crowd for Little, who immediately followed Bush and essentially bombed with a routine based on his 70s-style impersonations of presidents and Johnny Carson. (Far funnier was a short film showing a Top Ten list of "George W. Bush moments" that David Letterman created for the dinner.)

By invoking the Virginia Tech massacre to opt out of the usual yuks, Bush was able to dodge a task that he supposedly does not enjoy. But he did send a message: reality sometimes trumps frivolity. Of course, he should have followed such advice in past years when he kidded about the absent WMDs he had used as the primary justification for his invasion of Iraq and when he and Laura laughed it up without saying a word about the US soldiers stationed (and dying) in Iraq. Well, better late than never.

I attend these events and have fun, but I also feel uneasy at them, as journalists and officials laugh away political and policy differences that have tremendous life-and-death consequences outside the Washington Hilton ballroom. (Thankfully, there's plenty of free booze.) This year it was odd to see big-name reporters and government officials drool over losers from American Idol, such as Sanjaya Malakar. (No one at Washington black-tie parties ever pushes through a crowd to have a picture taken with Michael Dukakis.) And when Dan Glickman, the former Democratic congressman who now heads the Motion Picture Association of America, reminded the crowd of the line from Inherit the Wind that "it is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," I nearly choked on my dinner roll. There were few people in the grand room who adhere to this principle. In fact, a key mission of the night for many news organizations was to fete the brand-name administration officials they had managed to snag as guests--that is, to make sure the comfortable were comfortable.

With such a contradiction swirling about, Bush's downbeat message (even if it saved him from an assignment he does not relish) was appropriate. And it did--via gentle implication--call into question the fundamental dynamics of the evening, though probably unintentionally. If only he had shown such sensitivity earlier in his presidency.

With my sermon thus concluded, here are a few tidbits from the evening:

* I overheard a not-for-attribution conversation between a big-name journalist and a senior administration official, in which the official noted that a problem with the nuclear negotiations between North Korea and Washington is that neocon diehard John Bolton still has his hands in the soup. The ex-UN ambassador is no longer part of the administration. But Bolton allies within the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House, this official explained, are trying to undermine the deal struck by the administration with North Korea to freeze its nuclear weapons program. These aides, this official said, do not fancy any nonproliferation negotiations with North Korea, believing such talks only legitimize the North Korean regime. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the official reported, is holding back the neocons. But, the official added, Bolton is in there fighting.

* World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz, besieged due to the revelation he hooked up his girlfriend, a World Bank official, with a hefty raise, looked downcast at the dinner. But he managed to make it to Vanity Fair's post-dinner party at Christopher Hitchens' apartment. Also there was Justice Antonin Scalia, who was challenged by Ana Marie Cox (a.k.a. the original Wonkette) on the Supreme Court's recent decision upholding the ban on a late-term abortion procedure. States' rights, the justice argued, overlooking the point that his court had okayed a national ban on this procedure.

* Senator Fred Thompson told Republican/conservative analyst David Bass that he has to "keep Corn in check." This was a reference to a weekly video I do on the presidential race for PajamasMedia.com. Usually my partner is conservative writer Richard Miniter. But Bass has been filling in for Miniter these past few weeks, while Miniter has been in Iraq. So Thompson is paying attention to what's being said about him on the Internet. Does this indicate he will run for president? Maybe he has too much time on his hands. Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain were also at the dinner. But the leading Democratic presidential candidates were not. "Obama's in a Super 8 in Iowa tonight," one of his aides said, with a laugh. And when Romney had a chance to say hello to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, he took a pass. The entry into the Republican presidential contest of another rich GOPer who could self-finance a campaign would certainly not be good for Romney.

* Actress Morgan Fairchild knows more about terrorism than 99.9 percent Americans--and most members of Congress. At a pre-dinner party, she engaged in a detailed conversation with Mark Hosenball, one of Newsweek's terrorism experts (who writes a column with Michael Isikoff, who co-authored Hubris with me). Fairchild and Hosenball discussed specific terrorist suspects by name. Not many people can keep up with Hosenball on the specifics of global terrorism. Fairchild did.

* Attorney General Alberto Gonzales left the dinner as soon as it finished.


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.

Running with Issues

The irrepressibly witty Maureen Dowd had a field day with John Edwards' haircuts in a recent column. First she dropped enough expensive brand names (Zegna, Christophe, Marc Jacobs), tabloid gossip (about Brad and Jen), dismal facts (the GDP of Burundi, working class energy costs) and her own working class background (Dad was a cop, and got cheap haircuts) to show that she's no fool. Then she lectured Edwards that "You can't sell earnestness while indulging in decadence" and reminded readers that "All the haircuts in the world may not save John Edwards from a blowout."

No kidding. Excellent point. Your hair doesn't make you president. Edwards should certainly pay for his own cuts, and shave the head of the idiot (maybe himself) who let these first be covered by the campaign. He might want to lose that little mirror too. But what else to do? Mostly just stay on message -- Iraq, health insurance, fair taxes and trade, education and good jobs -- and ignore all this. If reporters continue to hound him about haircuts, he should just say that he's going to keep talking about the issues. If they want to know about his haircuts, he'd be glad to give them his barber's number, but he wants to talk about issues. So it'll go for a couple of more days. Haircuts, issues. Haircuts, issues. It'll get tedious, but this too shall pass. Maybe it already has.            But enough about Edwards. How about the press? It's true that character is important to choosing a president and character is revealed in details. And getting expensive haircuts isn't a particularly inspiring one. But it's also not very important. Edwards has already shown his character in ways that matter more. He's pretty clearly a decent guy who loves his family, works hard, cares about the poor, and wants to improve his country. Nobody seriously doubts that, do they?

So that leaves these things called "issues" -- what he'd do if President. Compared to his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Edwards has been the clearest, and most clearly progressive, in answering that question. He was first out with a national health plan, and this week he'll be the first to lay down a post-Rubinomics marker on trade. This Saturday he'll demand jettisoning the proposed trade deal with South Korea short of major revisions to protect workers on both sides of that deal. This is not the language we're hearing from other Democrats, and might be interesting to their fellow American. I wish I could look forward to Dowd saying anything serious about that. But, based on the coverage of the Edwards health care plan, I'm not holding my breath.

It's pathetic, really. Here we're at war, with an $800 billion current account deficit, falling wages and rising inequality, a shredded social contract, nearly 50 million people without health coverage, a collapsing housing bubble, and most middle class Americans scared to death of what comes next. You've got a serious guy talking about all these issues. And the press wants to talk about his haircut? 

French election: Le Pen contained

I'm still in northern France. Today, French voters particiapted in record high numbers in the first round of the presidential elections. The Gaullist Party's Nicolas Sarkozy got around 30% and the Socialists' Segolene Royal got 25.2%. The voters also delivered a sharp rebuff to the far-right, anti-immigrant candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, giving him only 11.5%.

That means that Sarko and Sego will go to the second round run-off on May 6. Five years ago, Le Pen shocked much of the French intelligentsia by beating the Socialist candidate (Lionel Jospin) into second place, and thus got into the run-off ballot against Chirac a couple of weeks later.

Lille is in a traditionally leftwing part of the country; and many leftists here were shocked in 2002 that even this district had put Le Pen top of the ballot. This time, in the "département" of which Lille is a part, Le Pen got some 14.7%, Sarko got 29.7%, and Sego got 23.0%.

There were twelve candidates on yesterday's ballot. Apart from those three, the other "big" one was the centrist Francois Bayrou, who got 18.3% of the national vote.

In the run-off, the outcome will depend to some extent which way Bayrou's supporters will turn. The other eight candidates are nearly all from the left. On the French TF-1 television this evening, I saw a Communist Party Senator saying clearly that their party will call for its supporters to come behind Segolene; and I imagine most other leftists will do that. Many of Le Pen's people can be expected to support Sarkozy.

Sarkozy has made quite a break with some of the stiff nationalism the Gaullists have traditionally held to; and he's been seen as far more pro-US than most Gaullists have been in the part. To a certain extent he's had to run away from his pro-US sentiments during the election so far. But he is definitely seen as eager to start dismantling some key aspects of the French "social contract" and shifting the country to what is described here as "the Anglo-Saxon model" of social-service dismantlement.

In the last few days of the campaign, Sarko also started talking quite openly about the importance of his Christian beliefs and the fact that France should be less militantly secularist than it has been for the past 125 years.

Is this a "George Allen" dodge? Like Allen, Sarko is someone with immigrant (and Jewish) heritage who may perhaps be waving all this Christian business around in order to assuage suspicions he might be too "Jewish" for some of the Gaullist base?

If Sarko needs some pork chitlins to start handing out on campaign stops I'm sure George A. would be happy to send some along. Heck, the guy is even without a job. Maybe he could bring 'em over to France for you himself?

Yesterday I was riding Lille's fabulous metro system, which extends around 20 miles or so north to some other old industrial towns with long leftwing traditions. We went to the former municipal swimming baths in Roubaix, which has been turned into a really beautiful art museum. ("La Piscine.") But they've kept in place many of the finely wrought art deco furnishings of the public baths: a monument to the longheld ideals of the common good...

On the way there I overheard some Afro-French women seated in front of me talking about whether they would bother to go and vote. From the way they were talking, it seemed the main issue for them was whether they would go to vote against Sarko, rather than voting for Sego or anyone else. I gather that's been quite a common phenomenon.

Anyway, the next round will be a hard fight. Sego hasn't really projected herself yet as having distinctive ideas. But she's run a competent campaign. And at least the outcome so far indicates that (1) the left is not dead in France, as was feared immediately after 2002, and (2) Le Pen-ism can be countered and put back in its box.

A Race Worth Watching for France's Presidency

French voters have set up a race worth watching for one of the highest-profile presidencies on the planet. A pair of relatively young and dynamic candidates, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal, led Sunday's first-round voting and will face one another in a May 6 run-off vote that is expected to draw an extremely high turnout.

Sarkozy goes into the run-off race ahead. But serious observers of the French political landscape caution against counting Royal, whose slow-starting campaign surged in the final days before Sunday's vote, out in a clash of ideological and personal contrasts.

Though Sarkozy is a good deal more liberal than many American Democrats, he is by European standards a man of the right. And Royal, the first woman to make it into a second-round race for the French presidency, is anything but a radical.

But their contest will be a classic fight between the right and left in a country that remains the counterpoint to the United States on a host of foreign-policy issues -- not least the future of the Middle East, where the French government of outgoing conservative President Jacques Chirac has led international opposition to the military adventurism of the Bush's administration.

While he has the grudging support of Chirac, Sarkozy is far more rhetorically friendly to the U.S. than most prominent French politicians. Speaking last year at the French Embassy in Washington, he offered the reassurance that, "You Americans were struck in the heart on September 11, 2001, and never understood our opposition to the intervention in Iraq. Some of you, to call a spade a spade, even felt it as a form of betrayal."

Royal, while hardly anti-American, does call "a spade a spade" when speaking of the world's least popular leader.

Addressing 15,000 supporters in Toulouse last week, Royal declared, "We will not go down on our knees before George Bush."

Ultimately, however, the French race will be decided on domestic issues -- with Sarkozy and Royal battling for the votes of centrists torn between the conservative's promise of corporation-friendly free-market economic reforms and the Socialist's promise that "human values will triumph."

There is no question that U.S. media owes Americans serious coverage of a critical contest for the presidency of this country's oldest international ally -- indeed, the country that has a history of caring enough about the U.S. to tell its leaders when they are wrong.

But that attention ought not be limited to the specifics of the Sarkozy-Royal competition.

In America, where turnout even for intense presidential elections is exceptionally low by international standards, and where there is a growing restlessness about the claustrophobic impact of archaic state election systems and the Electoral College on our democracy, there is something to be learned from the French process.

By holding elections on a two-stage schedule, France avoids many of the pitfalls of the American system. France has its Ross Perots, Ralph Naders and Pat Buchanans, and they run for the presidency. Indeed, they are given a far fairer share of attention by the media than they get in the United States. As such, the boundaries of French politics are broader, the messages of campaigns more adventurous and exciting. Perhaps that is why turnout Sunday was 85 percent.

Rarely do ideologically or personally extreme candidates make it through the first round. And, when they do, they are obliterated in the second round, as was nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002. That creates a politics that, at its best, emphasizes both the power of ideas and the importance of coalition building.

The French system, with its two candidate run-off, assures that presidents are elected with a majority of the vote -- unlike Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, when Perot's independent candidacies pulled enough votes to prevent anyone from gaining a majority, and George Bush in 2000, when Nader's Green candidacy secured enough support in key states to be portrayed as warping the Electoral College result against the winner of the popular vote, Al Gore. [In fairness, the Supreme Court did more to warp the result, when it stopped the Florida recount. But in France, the fight never would have gotten to the Bush-friendly court.]

The point here is not to suggest that the French system is necessarily better in every sense than the American system. Rather, the point is that there are other ways to elect presidents -- and that Americans, as ponder reforms at home, might learn a little from the country that, with its support of our revolution against British colonialism, midwifed the United States into being.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines 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.'"