The Nation

Karl Rove Should Stay

Karl Rove should stay.

The White House confirmed on Monday morning that George W. Bush's master strategist will be leaving Bush's side at the end of August. "I just think it's time," Rove told The Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot. His reason for bailing on Bush: "There's always something that can keep you here, as much as I'd like to be here, I've got to do this for the sake of my family." At a White House ceremony, Bush issued a brief farewell to Rove, saying little about the man who made Bush president and whom Bush reportedly nicknamed "Turd Blossom" (for Rove's ability to grow flowers in dung). Rove, visibly holding back tears, praised Bush for his "integrity, character and decency." He vowed to be a "fierce and committed advocate [for Bush] on the outside." Neither said anything explicitly about the Iraq war.

Certainly, a White House aide who has engaged in the sort of political and policy chicanery that Rove has perpetuated ought to lose the right to collect a paycheck from U.S. taxpayers. Take your pick: the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. attorney scandal, the Valerie Plame leak, inaction on global warming, injecting politics into federal agencies to a new degree, suppressing government science, the stem cell veto, tax cuts for the wealthy, politicizing the war on terror. But leaving is too good for Rove. He was Bush's partner in the Iraq war, yet he (like other Bush aides, including, most recently, Dan Bartlett) are abandoning ship before the fight is done. Rove has argued that the Iraq war is essential for the survival of the United States (that is, for all of our families). So how can he walk away with the war not won?

In June 2006, Rove gave a speech to New Hampshire Republicans and blasted Democrats for advocating "cutting and running" in Iraq. He said of the Democrats, "They may be with you for the first shots. But they're not going...to be with you for the tough battles." But isn't Rove now doing the same on a personal scale? He is departing the White House when the going in Iraq is as tough as it ever was.

In an earlier 2006 speech, Rove exclaimed, "America is at war....To retreat before victory has been won would be a reckless act." He was, of course, talking about a military retreat. But look at it this way: Rove helped Bush start a war, and now hundreds of thousands of American GIs (and millions of Iraqi civilians) have no choice but to live with the consequences of that decision. Why should Rove--and not they--be allowed to say, Sorry, now I have to bug out to spend more time with my family? How nice for the Roves that he can walk away from the war.

When Bush campaigned for president in 2000, he and Rove dubbed their campaign plane Accountability One. The point: we're the responsible ones. But a fundamental principle of accountability is that you clean up the messes you create. Rove is not doing that. He will cash in. Maybe with speeches. Perhaps with a book or some private sector spot. Instead, he ought to volunteer for service with one of the few functioning provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq. Or perhaps he could conduct seminars on basic electoral skills for tribal leaders in southeastern Afghanistan. (Lesson No. 2: How To Demonize Your Enemy.) If overseas travel would place too much of a burden on his family, he could help clean up a neighborhood in New Orleans.

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Tom and Daisy, "They were careless people...they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made." Rove is certainly more careful than Fitzgerald's characters--careful when it comes to politics and doing whatever is necessary to win. But with Bush, he recklessly steered this country into a debacle in Iraq that has caused the death of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians and that has ruined the United States' reputation abroad. Bush, Rove, Dick Cheney and the rest did so with little understanding and with insufficient planning, and they sold the war to the public with bad information and blatant misrepresentations. (Rove was part of the White House Iraq Group that devised the prewar messaging.) Rove deserves not reward but punishment. A fitting sentence would be for Rove to stay to the bitter end so he can sweep up the turds he is now leaving behind.


JUST OUT IN PAPERBACK: HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR by Michael Isikoff and David Corn. The paperback edition of this New York Times bestseller contains a new afterword on George W. Bush's so-called surge in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. The Washington Post said of Hubris: "Indispensable....This [book] pulls together with unusually shocking clarity the multiple failures of process and statecraft." The New York Times called it, "The most comprehensive account of the White House's political machinations...fascinating reading." Tom Brokaw praised it as "a bold and provocative book." 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.

Follow-Up Thoughts on the LGBT Debate

Just a short blog entry to follow up on what I wrote on Friday about the LOGO presidential debate.

I've heard from a few people that Barack Obama was asking smart insider questions about whether marriage is the right focus now for the LGBT movement, or whether it shouldn't be left for later--the way interracial marriage wasn't first on the black civil rights movement's agenda.

No. Obama was missing two things: the different significance of marriage to those two very different movements, and the community history on this issue.

First, he's wrong to compare same-sex marriage to interracial marriage. Obama said, if I recall correctly, that the civil rights movement left marriage for last, putting votes and employment first. But no lesbian or gay man is barred from voting; in fact, according to recent news reports, apparently self-identified lesbians and gay men vote in higher percentages than most people. (Hard to know if that's a statistic that holds up across all lesbians and gay men, since it's impossible to find a random sample of us; not everyone will identify themselves as gay on a survey.) And while some LGBT people are fired for being gay--yes, that's still legal in most states, and why we need passage of ENDA, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act--it's not the widespread or devastating problem it was for most African Americans in 1960. The ability to care for those we love is really central for lesbian & gay folks; for us it's a life or death question, very literally (for more on this see Evan Wolfson's book Why Marriage Matters or Freedom to Marry's website. Most black folks then had the ability to marry someone they loved; those who wanted to marry across racial lines were a minority. Interracial marriage was to the civil rights movement as foreign-American same-sex pairings for L/G folks; important and life-wrenching to those who fall in love with a non-citizen but not something that affects most of us, and therefore--although important--less strategically central. Obama had the importance of these issues to the LGBT movement inside out.

Second, and more important, is the community history on the issue. There was an enormous internal debate through the 90s about whether or not to go for marriage. The "leaders" and activists and academics mostly hated it and thought it was the wrong focus. The issue was catapulted to prominence by the grassroots, who initiated the first lawsuits against the leadership's active attempts to stop them. The community pressure was overwhelmingly in favor and forced the leadership into being pro-marriage. That's a simplification, but not too much so. (I have to admit to being proud that I was one of the early lesbians or feminists in favor; see my book What Is Marriage For?, my first marriage article for The Nation in 1993, and most of my writing during the 1990s.)

People want to get married. The word means an enormous amount emotionally. Separate but equal really does capture the distinction: it leaves a nasty taste to be told that your love for your wife isn't as real as your brother's love for his wife. Many people see this as very either/or: Am I not as good as you are? Cut my beloved, do I not bleed? As I've written elsewhere, attending the first legally recognized same-sex marriages here in Massachusetts was astonishingly powerful, far more powerful than many of us expected, since we'd been working for it for so long. Being declared openly equal is life-changing.

In questioning the focus on marriage, Obama revealed his lack of knowledge on the issue and his lack of well-informed LGBT advisors. This discussion is over, except among academics, where it is--excuse the pun--academic. Marriage is a major goal. It's not the only thing worth talking about, but it cannot be dismissed.

Dr. King's Candidate

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. did not make many political endorsements. As the most recognized leader of a civil rights movement that enjoyed support from both Democrats and Republicans at the national level, and as a key player in the often life-and-death struggle to end American apartheid, he tended to stand above the political fray.

But in the spring of 1966, King traveled to Alabama with the explicit purpose of making an endorsement in the Democratic primary for governor. The man whose candidacy King supported was Richmond McDavid Flowers, one of the first "Deep South" politicians to embrace the promise of the civil rights movement.

Flowers died last Thursday at age 88. At the time of his passing, Flowers was an all-but-forgotten figure.

While others who lacked his courage or his prescience are now regarded as elder statesmen of the South, Flowers lived his last years in the obscurity reserved for those white southerners who came "too quickly" to the conclusion that Jim Crow had to go.

In a more just circumstance, Richmond Flowers would be a iconic figure -- not just in Alabama but in a nation where those who rejected racism in dangerous times and places ought to be seen as the greatest Americans.

In a period when so many around him failed and faltered, Flowers stood tall.

He was not merely a gubernatorial candidate in 1966. He was the elected Attorney General of Alabama, the chief law enforcement officer in a state that in the mid-1960s was wracked by Ku Klux Klan-inspired violence.

But, despite the fact that he had crosses burned in the lawn of his family home, Flowers refused to back down.

On the same day that Governor George Wallace has promised in his 1963 inaugural address to "stand in the schoolhouse door" to prevent integration of the University of Alabama, Flowers had refused to stand with Wallace. The governor declared that day, "I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." The Attorney General responded, "Alabama's soul will soon be laid bare before the world. God grant that we may not be ashamed of it."

Alabama would be shamed, by Wallace and by the murderous Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Councils that fought integration with the gun, the boycott and the ballot box.

Flowers, a one-time segregationist who chose the rule of law over the rule of the mob, would stand against them.

When local prosecutors failed to seriously pursue cases against the murderers of civil rights workers such as Viola Gregg Liuzzo and Jonathan M. Daniels, Flowers exercised his authority as Attorney General to supersede the local lawyers. Then he marched into county courtrooms across Alabama and, as Time magazine reported in 1965, "Relentlessly, Flowers and an assistant questioned each prospective juror, asking him whether he thought the white race superior to the Negro, whether he felt that any person like Mrs. Liuzzo who associated with Negroes thereby made herself inferior to other whites. Over vehement defense objections, Judge [T. Werth] Thagard let Flowers get his answers. In short order, Flowers established that of 30 veniremen available for the jury, eleven felt that white civil rights workers were indeed inferior. Then Flowers dropped his bombshell. He demanded the right to challenge all eleven 'for cause.' 'How can the State of Alabama expect a fair and just verdict in this case from men who have already sat in judgment on the victim and pronounced her inferior to themselves?' he asked."

In challenging racism prosecutors and judges, Flowers put his own life at risk. But he did not hesitate to tell judges and juries that they had a moral responsibility to deliver justice, telling those who sat in judgment of one of the murderers that, if they do not vote for conviction, "the blood of this man's sin will stain your county for eternity."

It was a "profile in courage" performance. And the leader of the civil rights movement noticed.

In 1966, when Flowers announced his candidacy for governor against Wallace's wife, Lurleen, who was running because her husband was limited to serving just one term, King delivered his endorsement. He campaigned across Alabama, urging African Americans newly enfranchised by the federal Voting Rights Act to cast their first votes for Flowers.

Unlike many southern "liberals" of the time, Flowers did not run a "wink-and-nod" campaign. "I do not believe that the Negro is inferior," he bluntly declared at some of the first integrated campaign rallies the state had seen. "I am a man of the law and, like it or not, I am going to follow the law. Every individual is entitled to, and shall gain, equal opportunities."

Flowers promised to haul down the flag of the Confederacy, which flew over George Wallace's state Capitol, and to replace it with the American flag. Clinging to the symbols of the losing side in the Civil War, he told Alabamans, was "a gesture of defiance that must be put behind us."

That did not go over well with white voters. They cast their ballots as a bloc for Lurleen Wallace, who easily won the Democratic nomination and the governorship. But Flowers came in second in the primary, securing more than 142,000 votes, with his strongest finishes coming in Alabama's "black belt" counties.

King declared Mrs. Wallace's victory "a protest vote against the tide of inevitable progress."

That was true. But it was also true that the Flowers campaign had helped to encourage a massive turnout in Alabama's predominantly African-American counties. That turnout made it possible for two dozen African-American candidates for local posts and the state legislature survive the 1966 primary that marked the end of Richmond Flowers' political career.

Flowers was not just ruined politically. After he was defeated, Flowers suddenly found himself targeted for prosecution on charges of extorting funds from insurance companies, a gambit that he always suggested was hatched by segregationists who wanted to thwart his hopes of drawing white working-class voters into an eventual economic populist coalition. Jailed briefly, he was finally pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

Flowers returned to his native Dothan, Alabama, and lived his life out there -- teaching American history at a local community college. By any measure, it was an ironic posting.

The revisionist history of the civil rights era would have Americans believe that every southern political leader of time was part of the "massive resistance" to civil rights. This convenient distortion would have us believe that the racism expressed in the late sixties and early seventies by a George Wallace, a Strom Thurmond, a Trent Lott or even a Jimmy Carter -- whose 1970 gubernatorial campaign tapped into lingering segregationist sentiment in Georgia -- must be seen "in the context of the times."

But the story of Richmond Flowers reminds us that the "context of the times" argument is a lie.

There were men and women who stood up to the racism of the moment. A few of them risked their careers and livelihoods to do what was right. Few did so as courageously and as consequentially as the man the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned to elect governor of Alabama.


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.'"

Dear Cindy: Please Don't Run

On July 25, Cindy Sheehan announced that since Nancy Pelosi failed tomove to impeach Bush and Cheney by Sheehan's deadline two days earlier,she will run as an independent for Pelosi's seat in Congress. I havea lot of respect for Sheehan, but I hope she'll reconsider.

First of all, should impeachment really be a litmus test? Sure, itwould be emotionally satisfying to haul the president before theSenate--look how much fun the Republicans had with Clinton. I understand why some of my Nation colleaguesare so keen on it. But it's not going to happen--the numbers in Congress and Senate aren'tthere , and I don't care how many people sign petitions and call theircongressperson, that is not going to change. Despise the Democrats for caving in -- on war funding, on FISA, on abstinence-only education. Pressure them, confront them, make them feel your wrath. But to insist that they work themselves into a lather for what is essentially a symbolic gesture with no chance of success? I don't see the point of that.

Second, Sheehan's run is futile. There's a place for outsidercandidates, even longshots. Ned Lamont lost hisSenate race, but first he won the primary and he ran to win. Moreover, even though he lost the race, he made his point: hiscandidacy put the Democrats -- and the media -- on notice that antiwarfeeling was far deeper, and antiwar opponents far better organized,than they had believed. Nancy Pelosi has been a cautious -- too cautious -- leader, and if a lefter candidate could take her seat, fine. But let me go out on a limb here: Sheehan has nochance of defeating her, and still less chance of moving into an open seat because the impeachment of Bush and Cheney has moved Speaker Pelosi, next in line, into the White House. Sheehan's candidacy is less likethat of Ned Lamont than it is like the barely visible symbolic third-party runs of JonathanTasini and Stanley Aronowitz for Governor of New York. She'll getmore media than those gentlemen, because she and Pelosi are national celebrities,but I doubt she'll come much closer to victory. Thus, instead of showingthe Democrats how strong is the threat from the left, it will showthem how weak it is.

Third, and most important, Sheehan already has a crucial role inour politics: as an activist. More than any other single person, she changed the discourse about the war. She put a middle American face on theantiwar movement at a time when it was widely caricatured as a ragtagcollection of hippies , Stalinists, and movie stars. She forcedthe media--and the country -- to acknowledge that antiwar feeling was widespread and growing and included even red staters, even militaryfamilies. By her simple demand that Bush meet with her and explainwhy her son died, she pointed up the president's evasions andbefuddlement and arrogance -- the ban on photographs of coffins,his seeming lack of concern for the deaths of soldiers, his basicrefusal to engage. No matter that she sometimes seemed to be conducting her political education in public. She was a mother wrenched out of her ordinary life by tragedy -- that is a very powerful and inspiring symbolic role.

Maybe Sheehan got tired of being a symbol, a catalyst. I didn'treally understand the somewhat murky blog post she wrote in May, announcing her resignation from the antiwar movement , buther frustration and impatience were clear enough.

Still, the placefor symbolic protest is in protest movements. Elections areabout something else and are played by different rules. There, symbolic figures are mostly wasting theirtime, and tend to emerge smaller than they went in.

CORRECTION: As is noted in the comments thread, Jonathan Tasini ran for Senate, not Governor of New York. He competed against Hillary Clinton in the 2006 Democratic primary, and did not run as a third party candidate. In the primary he received 115,943 votes (including mine), or 17% of the total. Sorry for the mistake!

One More Thing: As you can see, I'm giving the comments thread another chance. I value people's responses to what I write, so as long as the discussion is relevant and civil, I'll keep it open.

Dems Go Queer, For a Night

On Thursday night, Logo (the gay network owned by Viacom) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) sponsored a Democratic Presidential forum on gay issues. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel and Bill Richardson all participated. Columnist Margaret Carlson moderated the proceeding, joined by the Washington Post's Jonathan Capehart, HRC's Joe Solmonese and lesbian rocker Melissa Etheridge. Unlike the recent contretemps at the YearlyKos convention, this affair was decidedly more civil. It had to be. The candidates showed up, one by one, to chit-chat with Carlson and friends in a rather antiseptic, faux-talk show studio. The audience was small, peppered with B-list gay celebs and mostly quiet. The candidates never crossed paths, and so, there was never any real debate. 

Nonetheless, there were some interesting moments: Bill Richardson's supposed gaffe in response to the nature vs. nuture question (are you born gay or do you choose to be gay?), Etheridge's attack on Hillary Clinton's record and the general, totally gay enthusiasm of Gravel and Kucinich. I sat down to watch and discuss the forum with queer critics Lisa Duggan, Tavia Nyong'o and Alisa Solomon.


Richard Kim: So what did you folks think? The Human Rights Campaign has been promoting this event as an "historic" forum, the first of its kind. Did it feel historic to you?

Alisa Solomon: I have mixed feelings about the forum. My attitude going in was kind of cynical, yet I found myself moved at some points. But not only is it not historic, because it happened before, but it's actually worse than the last one. [HRC hosted a similar event in 2003 on CSPAN, moderated by Sam Donaldson.] This forum was on a queer cable network. It's not even on a mainstream network. It didn't involve mainstream interviewers. It's much more ghettoized. With all of these forums and debates, it's great that supposedly there's an opportunity to ask the candidates to go into depth on specific issues, whether it's labor or African American issues or gay issues. But there's something really balkanizing about it too. It's the worst kind of niche marketing. Are candidates going to discuss LGBT issues only before a queer audience, labor issues only before an audience of union members, and so on? And are union members the only people who are supposed to care about labor issues, and so on?

Tavia Nyong'o: The forum was what I expected it to be--circling back and forth on the question of marriage equality with some minor excursions to other issues like healthcare or employment. But part of what I found moving about the event was the raw political need emanating from interviewer Melissa Etheridge. Counterbalancing the insistence on marriage was this more general hunger for public recognition. It was almost a subtext of the whole forum. Joe Solmonese and Melissa Etheridge indicated that they've had these conversations about gay issues in private, that they have this ongoing relationship with Hillary, with the Clintons, with some of the other candidates, and it was like they wanted these inside conversation acknowledged publicly.

Lisa Duggan: I felt cynical about it too. It wasn't historic, and not only was it ghettoized in terms of its circulation and broadcast, but the definitions of "gay community" and "gay issues" have become so narrow. Marriage equality has become the absolute litmus test. It's like seeing the women's movement reduced to abortion rights. It's like marriage is the only question and the other questions were raised on the side.

RK: Well, how do you think the candidates did on the question of marriage? There seemed to be two camps--Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, who support full marriage equality now, and the rest of the candidates [Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Bill Richardson], who want some form of civil union and perhaps marriage equality later on.

AS: I absolutely agree with Lisa that gay marriage has become a litmus test issue. But, even though it's not the major issue for me, and even though I don't share the view that marriage is the way to secure health and other benefits, when I heard the candidates dancing away from it, it pissed me off. You want them to stand morally for equal rights and then make the progressive analysis that would call for a different relationship between marriage and the state in general.

RK: What would that sound like?

LD: Well, there was no question about marriage in this forum. The only question was about gay inclusion in it. It was up or down on gay inclusion. Full inclusion now or some incremental progress to full inclusion later, but the desirability of one size fits all marriage, over and above any reworking of options, was completely unquestioned. It was only about who we let in or out. Only Obama suggested some readjustment in the landscape of possibility. The really amazing thing about his answer was the idea that civil unions should include full federal benefits, and that marriage should be considered a purely religious practice. He advocated separation of church and state; religion should be over there and federal civil unions should be over here…

AS: But only for gays and lesbians. There was no follow up question that said--Do you think that's how it should be for straight people too?

LD: Obama almost went there. He more or less said that marriage is a religious institution and that civil unions should have full federal rights. It had more of a progressive edge.

AS: Well, Edwards tried to go there when he said he wouldn't impose his faith on the nation.

LD: But his answer to the marriage question was the worst in some ways, totally self-contradictory. Clinton's answer was similar in content, but it was much more polished and practiced. She had clearly thought about how to respond and how her answer would be reported in the press. But Edwards seemed nervous, unthinking. It's like no one coached him at all. I was really sorry to see that because in some ways his positions, especially on poverty, are more progressive than the other candidates. His whole speech about homeless gay youth…

AS: That was pathetic! It's 2007, and it's like the first time he's ever heard of gay kids getting kicked out of their homes. Though I do give him credit for bringing it up --along with adoption and anti-discrimination in employment and other issues that the questioners weren't bothering to raise.

RK: What did you think about the way Obama addressed the analogy between marriage equality and the civil rights movement?

TN: I appreciated that he pointed out how gays are being scapegoated as a threat to the black family. Family values rhetoric resonates strongly in black political settings, and I'm thrilled Obama is willing to take it head on in venues like the Howard University debate, and not just in front of a gay audience. I also think he's figured out where the comparison between gay rights and civil rights falls apart and becomes unproductive. The whole tagline of "separate but equal" that the questioners kept bringing up, they kept talking about it as it if were just a tagline instead of a whole institutional structure of segregation.

LD: When the questioners asked Obama to compare marriage equality and civil rights, he first balked at the question, then he said we're not talking about Jim Crow here. We're talking about inequality, but we're not talking about Jim Crow, so he did reference the structural difference. But it's like people aren't familiar with the basic history of the civil rights movement, that there's a debate and discussion over the failure of purely formal civil rights to produce substantive equality. It's like the questioners were totally unaware of that discussion.

TN: In some ways nobody seemed to have watched the Howard debate because that was the context of the whole debate--the fact that formal quality doesn't match up to substantive equality. That's why we still need the black debate now, to address all the issues of racial inequality that are still around. That wasn't the language of the Howard debate, but that was the context.

AS: What did you think about Obama saying that if he had been counseling the civil rights movement at the time his parents got married, when they wouldn't have been able to do that in some states, that he would have advised that the more important issue was voting rights laws, not anti-miscegenation laws?

TN: I feel that he came up with that just to short circuit the comparison between anti-miscegenation laws and bans on gay marriage. He's been asked that question a lot because he makes his personal story so central to his own candidacy. He can use this personal narrative to diffuse the one-to-one analogy between marriage rights and civil rights.

LD: He's the one that gets pressured the most on that analogy. So he has to come up with a response to that analogy in a way that the other candidates just don't.

RK: There were a couple times in this debate where the Howard debate and the AFL-CIO debate were referenced. This debate could be seen as just another one in the identity politics primary. What do you think about that and the way gay issues play into identity politics? It's not clear to me that, in fact, this forum is the same as the AFL-CIO one, which has a real institutional base, or the Howard debate which had a constituency the Democrats really need.

LD: Labor politics can be translated into a kind of identity politics, as if it's a special interest politics, but it's not fundamentally. Meanwhile, the kind of sexual politics that exceeds the terms of identity politics--that wasn't represented at all tonight. The Howard debate had a lot of depth about economic issues intertwined with racial inequality issues. This one did not. The people who brought those structural issues up tonight were the candidates, not the questioners. And when the candidates were advocating employment nondiscrimination or improvements in health care, the questions would just come back to marriage.

RK: What did you all think about the way Bill Richardson answered the question, posed by Melissa Etheridge, about whether you are born gay or choose to be gay?

AS: I thought Richardson's failure to grasp that question was one of the most poignant moments of the entire forum. It honestly didn't matter to him. It just wasn't computing. Why would it matter? Why would protection from discrimination be appropriate for people who were born Jewish but not for people who converted to Judaism? It makes no logical sense whatsoever, and I think that's why it wasn't computing with him, and I found that kind of endearing and also heartening.

LD: I think it was the inadvertent best moment in the whole forum because his answer was basically so good. He said it doesn't matter, that equality isn't a matter of choice or biology. It's when he said, "I don't want to characterize people according to some standards of science that I don't understand."

AS: It was his least political, most direct answer. You could really see him processing the question and trying to think it through because for once, he didn't have a prepared answer. It was very naked and honest--and right-on.

LD: They pushed him on it over and over again. Margaret Carlson followed up and explained to him that saying you are born gay is the ground on which equality can be claimed. But he was clearly, absolutely resisting the language of choice versus biology. It's not clear to me why he was, but he was.

TN: That marks a certain political shift. I thought it was a positive sign.

RK: Do you feel like the questioners treated Clinton, Edwards and Obama differently than they treated the other candidates?

AS: I think HRC felt that with Gravel and Kucinich, they [HRC] were doing those marginal candidates a favor by letting them participate. Gravel even called Joe Solmonese on his decision to exclude him at first. But with the other candidates, the vibe was more that those front-running candidates were doing HRC a favor just by showing up--sort of feeding the tacit expression of need that Tavia mentioned earlier. Melissa Etheridge kept telling candidates how honored and grateful she was that they came, as if we don't have every right simply to expect candidates to show up.

LD: Kucinich went down the list of economic issues, peace and war issues, all the big issues in this election that matter to everyone. He went down the list of gay issues too, but he also mentioned universal healthcare. He used the words "not for profit" and "Medicare for all," and he was the only one to do so.

AS: Those were the points that got no applause. His answer to the question about health benefits for same-sex partners was that there should be healthcare for all. If he had said marriage rights, everyone would have clapped. But they didn't clap for universal healthcare. It was the same thing when he said he voted against the war. Silence.

RK: What did you think about the format of the forum? What about the audience?

TN: The audience was salted with former and current Logo talent and the cast of Noah's Ark. It's like, they didn't even go outside the building to get the audience. It was a talk show format instead of a political debate or discussion.

AS: There was no idea of collectivity or movement because of the format.

RK: Who do you think won?

LD: Substantively, I think Obama won. But in terms of positioning and media savvy, I think Hillary Clinton did.

TN: I thought Hillary was a clear winner in the Howard debate, which was surprising. She did so much better than Obama and Richardson, and she really connected with the crowd, which was huge there. Here there was no crowd, a tiny studio audience, so it was harder for her to do that. I thought she did well and was very polished, but I think the performances evened out here. She did better than Edwards. The hardest question for her to deal with was when Melissa Etheridge asked her why her husband had abandoned gay people in 1996…

AS: She said, "You threw us under a bus!"

TN: Right, it was the toughest question of the night because she has a record to stand on, when her husband was in the White House and her votes in the Senate. I think there's some kind of spell that Hillary Clinton puts us under. Because if you follow the logic of her reasoning, her narration is that we've been steadily moving along a progressive path since the ‘90s in this country, and that's totally counterfactual.

AS: I think what she said was more complicated and calculated. She said we had been in a horrifying moment, and when anti-gay politics was used cynically and viciously, and it got personal. It was ugly, and we really had to fight against that and it was a big setback for us. She used that description to define a difference between Democrats and Republicans as well as to excuse some of her questionable earlier support for such legislation as DOMA, which she characterized as a bulwark against the riled up pressure for a marriage amendment.

LD: What about when she was asked why, as a member of the Armed Services Committee, why she didn't introduce legislation to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

AS: You didn't find her answer persuasive?

LD: No.

AS: Why didn't you? Not that I did, necessarily. But where do you see the flaw in her being strategic as a legislator and asking--Why bother under a Republican Congress, under a completely hostile President?

LD: Because there are other reasons than winning to introduce legislation. If you accept her pragmatic terms, the kind of politician she is, then that's the answer. But if you were a different kind of politician, then there's another kind of answer.

TN: Bill Richardson tried to get domestic partnership rights in New Mexico. That's the one thing I really responded to in his attempt to say he has a progressive record. I found myself sympathizing with him when he said that he's been trying to get this done in a Western state, not Massachusetts, but spending political capital in this area. What irks me about Hillary's progress narrative is that it re-writes her own history. She could have actually taken a symbolic stand on a bill in the Senate to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. But she's not prepared to do that kind of thing. Richardson was willing to call a special session and lose.

LD: Going back to the progress narrative…the problem is that it frames as inevitable something which requires political will. So rather than saying we need political will, we just say we should trust in inevitability or in the goodness of the American people. So it lets everyone off the hook in terms of the risks and efforts that are required to organize political will. One of the central tricks of American liberal discourse is to frame political progress as inevitable. So you let everyone off the hook.

AS: That's one way to read it, but another way--which the candidates at the forum also invoked--is to applaud the LGBT movement, to say what you are doing is admirable. You are on the streets. And I'm right there with you. Still another way of using the progress narrative is to stir people, to say that the train is going, and you should get on, and you should help push.

RK: Kucinich and Gravel said things similar to that…

TN: Here's where I miss Al Sharpton. Al Sharpton would have said, "I support gay marriage. I've performed gay marriage." But then he would have turned it around and made the conversation much more political. And I think, even Kucinich, he kind of resorted to a kind of "I love gays" argument.

LD: I miss Sharpton and Jesse Jackson too, because they were the kind of candidates who would turn things around and challenge the questioners and challenge the audience. They would turn around and say, "Well I'm for this, but what are you for? Are you standing up for other people too?" And none of these candidates did that tonight.

Kenneth Foster's Fate

In less than three weeks Kenneth Foster, an African American man sentenced to death in 1997 for the murder of Michael LaHood, is scheduled to be executed in Texas.

LaHood's actual killer, Mauriceo Brown, was executed in 2006. Foster, who was in a car about 100 yards from the crime when it was committed, was convicted under the controversial Texas state "law of parties", under which the distinction between principal actor and accomplice in a crime is abolished. The law can impose the death penalty on anybody involved in a crime where a murder occurred. In Foster's case he was driving a car with three passengers, one of whom, Brown, left the car, got into an altercation and shot LaHood dead. Texas is the only state that applies this statute in capital cases, making it the only place in the United States where a person can be factually innocent of murder and still face the death penalty.

Foster maintains that he did not know that Brown would either rob or kill LaHood. According to an Amnesty International investigation, there is evidence not heard at trial that the murder was an unplanned act committed by Brown, as the latter himself claimed before his execution.

In 2005, a federal district judge found a "fundamental constitutional defect in Foster's sentence" and ruled that Foster's jury had not been asked to determine if he had any intent to kill LaHood, and that this failure represented a misapplication of the law. However, the state of Texas appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the decision.

The crazy thing about this case is that no one argues that Foster killed the victim. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's award-winning columnist Bob Ray Sanders wrote, the case "is further proof of how cruel, capricious, unjust and utterly insane our death penalty laws have become....Because of this tainted system, whether you believe in capital punishment or not, a man who did not plan or commit a murder will die August 30 unless somebody -- a judge, the Board of Pardons and Paroles and/or the governor-- has the heart and the guts to stop it."

You can help these folks get up the guts at freekenneth.com. Find updates on the case and urge members of the Texas legislature to stay Foster's execution and ask for a re-trial based on new evidence.

AT&T Censors Criticism of Bush

Telecommunications giant AT&T says no one should worry about their aggressive lobbying to eliminate net neutrality -- the first amendment of the internet that guarantees equality of access to all websites.

AT&T executives claim they would never interfere with web content.

When Americans hear this spin, they should hang up on AT&T.

The truth is that, within business circles, the company is already promoting its schemes for "shaping" the internet if net neutrality protections fall.

And a good sense of how the telecommunications corporation would like to "shape" the world wide web can be gleaned from reports of how AT&T managed the live webcast of last weekend's Lollapalooza concert when it came time for Pearl Jam to perform.

The Seattle-based band has a long history of highlighting smart political statements -- about war and peace, protecting the environment and promoting tolerance -- in its songs and in the on-stage comments of lead singer Eddie Vedder.

But on Sunday, when Pearl Jam was performing the song "Daughter" during the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, the band broke into a version of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." Reworking the lyrics of the classic rock song, Vedder sang, "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush, find yourself another home."

The lyrics that criticized Bush were muted in the webcast.

Coincidence? Not at all.

AT&T admits that the censorship occurred. The company describes the muting of Vedder's references to a president who appoints Federal Communications Commissioners -- and, thus, has a major role in deciding whether AT&T gets what it wants -- as "a mistake by a webcast vendor."

Then, in a nice Orwellian twist, the company declares, "We have policies in place with respect to editing excessive profanity, but AT&T does not censor performances."

In fact, "editing excessive profanity" is censorship.

And, of course, Vedder's lyrics about Bush, which were not profane, did in fact get censored.

Web-savvy Pearl Jam fans noted the silencing of the message and immediately contacted the band. Pearl Jam members released a statement on the censorship incident that declared, "This, of course, troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issue of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media. AT&T's actions strike at the heart of the public's concerns over the power that corporations have when it comes to determining what the public sees and hears through communications media."

Pearl Jam's statement continued: "What happened to us this weekend was a wake-up call, and it's about something much bigger than the censorship of a rock band."

The band's right. The censorship of Pearl Jam by AT&T serves as a reminder of what will be lost if net neutrality is eliminated and telecommunications corporations are free to decide which web sites are on "the information superhighway of the future" and which are on the gravel road of slow or impossible connections.

"This event shows that companies like AT&T will risk the appearance of censorship by turning off the sound on a webcast that's being viewed by thousands of people, just because it works counter to their financial interests," says Jenny Toomey, the executive director of the Future of Music Coalition, which has been working to defend net neutrality. "What do you think they will do to protect their financial interests on the web when no one is looking?"

Tim Karr, of the Save the Internet coalition, adds that, "AT&T's history of breaking trust with their customers includes: handing over private phone records to the government; promising to deliver services to underserved communities and then skipping town; and pledging never to interfere with the free flow of information online while hatching plans... to build and deploy technology that will spy on user traffic."

"The moral of this story is put Net Neutrality permanently into law and never trust AT&T at their word," says Karr. "The company acts in bad faith toward the public interest and will do whatever it can to pad it's bottom line -- including sacrificing its users freedom to choose where they go, what they watch and whom they listen to online."


John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the nation's media reform network, which has helped to organize the campaign to defend net neutrality. With Robert W. McChesney, he is the co-author of Tragedy and Farce: How the American Media Sell Wars, Spin Elections, and Destroy Democracy [The New Press].

A New New Deal

When the levees broke in New Orleans, I wrote about the desperate need for a New Deal for the 21st Century – one which would rebuild a crumbling infrastructure, help address glaring income inequality, and repair the damage done by a Bush administration fiercely hostile to the notion that government can serve the public good.

The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis is yet another alarm, alerting us to our skewed priorities and need for a public investment agenda.

As The Nation argues in its forthcoming lead editorial, the neglect of our infrastructure is seen in collapsing bridges and exploding steam pipes, flooded subways, traffic-choked streets and clogged-up ports, electrical power brownouts, corroding drinking water systems, uneven broadband access, and an antiquated air traffic system.

The US Department of Transportation estimated that freight bottlenecks cost the economy $200 billion a year--nearly 1.6 percent of GDP. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that it would cost $151 billion and $390 billion every year over the next 20 years to repair obsolete drinking water and wastewater systems, respectively -- systems that average 50 to 100 years of age. According to the Federal Highway Administration, $131.7 billion and $9.4 billion is needed every year over the next 20 years to repair deficient roads and bridges, respectively. Moreover, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that $1.6 trillion over the next five years would be required to alleviate problems with the nation's infrastructure. As John Nichols wrote, "That $1.6 trillion figure sounds like a lot of money, unless it is compared with the anticipated cost of $1 trillion or more for completing George Bush's mission in Iraq."

This is eminently doable, it's a question of political will.

Following the bridge collapse, Senators Christopher Dodd and Chuck Hagel introduced legislation to establish a National Infrastructure Bank that would enable the federal government to help finance infrastructure projects – partly through federal guarantees to state and local governments. Projects would include publicly-owned mass transit systems, roads, bridges, drinking water and wastewater systems, and housing properties. In the House, Congressmen Dennis Kucinich and Steven LaTourette introduced The Rebuilding America's Infrastructure Act which would create a low-cost federal financing mechanism to administer zero-interest loans to localities. States choose which projects to fund with the loans according to their specific needs.

The problem is that the Dodd bill, as well-intentioned as it is, would still invest only $60 billion a year – which pales in comparison to the scope of the problem. Similarly, Senator Bernie Sanders good bill to foster green collar jobs – which passed in the House too – also allots only $100 million. A much bolder undertaking is needed.

In a forthcoming paper for the New America Foundation economist (and sometime Nation contributor) James K. Galbraith writes, "Contrary to considerable myth, economic development in America has never been a purely private matter." Galbraith cites the Congress of 1862 and its authorization of land grant universities, homesteading, and the transcontinental railroads. And the New Deal which "laid down much of the public architectural legacy with which we live today."

Galbraith describes attempts in the 1980's to foster higher infrastructure investment on a systematic basis – such as Representatives Lee Hamilton and James Howard's effort to create a Federal Infrastructure Bank "which would have provided funds on a revolving basis to states and cities to support local and regional infrastructure." And late in the Clinton administration similar ideas were discussed "but of course died with the arrival of the Bush government."

In order to address the infrastructure needs – and the transition to a low-carbon emissions society that is required to meet the challenge of global warming – Galbraith calls for a Federal Infrastructure Bank to assist state and local governments with financial resources; and investments in universities and research centers to develop the needed specialists in urban design, environmental engineering, energy economics, transportation systems, carbon sequestration, the management of carbon trading markets and other fields. Galbraith estimates that a new large scale public investment initiative could be undertaken that amounts to new expenditures rising to two percent of GDP over a period of a few years – approximately 290 billion dollars per year in present dollars. (Roughly one-half of the current national security budget.)

In Hometown America, a report based on two years of research by a group of progressive thinkers, the authors write that "for the past 20 to 30 years, major parts of our economy and society have been short-changed – trillions of dollars of investment needed but not made in healthcare, education, energy independence, and a broad range of other essentials. We conclude that serious reforms are needed to make up for these shortfalls and to build a new generation of growth and middle class prosperity."

The report argues that the last great American middle class – created on rising wages, a strong industrial economy, and government programs that expanded public education, increased home ownership and eliminated poverty in old age – has eroded over the last three decades due to globalization, financial liberalization at the expense of middle class prosperity, an increased tax burden on the middle class, and military adventures abroad over public investments at home. The authors call for using "government much like an earlier generation did to create a high-wage and technologically advanced economy with a broad base of middle class jobs."

The report outlines "a new federal revenue sharing and regional decision-making process…."; a National Capital Budget and Development Bank "to finance and oversee the substantial resources that federal, state, and local governments will need to accomplish major reforms in healthcare, education, energy use, and other key areas"; and "reining in an over-reliance on military projection and strengthening economic and diplomatic engagement…."

Specifically, Hometown America calls for investment in the following areas: basic infrastructure – roads, bridges, levees, water systems, electrical grids; a new energy infrastructure for biofuels, hydrogen, solar, and other renewables; the build-out of America's broadband infrastructure; an expanded and advanced air and rail transportation system, including a new Skyways and Rail system to for the American heartland to complement the Interstate Highway system; a new system of federal research centers to push the frontiers of science of technology; and a network of public health clinics, new technology extension centers, and regional art and culture centers. And, as many have pointed out, "For national security, environmental, and economic reasons, the promotion of a renewable energy industry must be the first priority of any new public investment initiative." The Apollo Alliance has provided a blueprint to do just that – with $300 billion invested over the next 10 years, creating 3.3 million jobs, leading to economic growth, more tax revenues, and energy independence.

Citizens need to make it clear to the presidential candidates – and their representatives – that they seek a bold vision to renew our shredded social contract and rebuild our public infrastructure. Otherwise we can expect continued tragedies as we saw last week, and the same path of privilege for the few and treading water for the rest.

Carl Bernstein: Bush More "Disastrous" Than Nixon

Carl Bernstein will always be known as the journalist who brought down a president whose disregard for the Constitution and the rule of law disqualified the errant executive from completing a second term in the White House. And Bernstein still gets a round of applause when mention is made of the role he played, as part of a Washington Post investigative team that also included Bob Woodward, in exposing the high crimes and misdemeanors of a president named Nixon.

But 33 years after Nixon resigned in order to avoid an inevitable impeachment -- on August 9, 1974 -- Bernstein is more concerned about a president named Bush.

When we appeared together recently at The Aspen Institute's first symposium on the political reporting of gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, Bernstein recalled the old stories of when he and Thompson were busy revealing the sordid details of Nixon's presidency.

But the Pulitzer Prize-winning author was under no illusions regarding the extent of Nixon's wrongdoing as compared with that of Bush and those around the current president.

Bernstein says that Bush's presidency has produced far more "disastrous consequences" for the country than did Nixon's.

Unlike the often crude and conniving but unquestionably intelligent and highly-engaged 37th president, Bernstein says of Bush: "He's lazy, arrogant and has little curiosity. He's a catastrophe..."

But that is not the worst part of the Bush era as compared to the Nixon era, explains Bernstein.

What has made this time dramatically more troubling, the 63-year-old journalist explains, is that "there is no oversight."

"The system worked in Watergate," Bernstein told the Denver Post.

Even after Nixon was reelected in a 49-state landslide in 1972, Bernstein said, the president was checked and balanced in the manner intended by the founders of the American experiment.

The news media investigated Nixon, and editorialized boldly when the president's lawless behaviors were exposed.

The Congress responded to those revelations with hearings and demands for White House tapes and documents. When the materials were not forthcoming, Congress went to court to force Nixon and his aides to meet those demands.

The courts responded by aggressively and consistently upholding the authority of Congress to call the president to account.

And when it became clear that Nixon was governing in contradiction to the Constitution, the U.S. House took appropriate action, with Democrats and Republicans on the Judiciary Committee voting for three articles of impeachment. Congressional Republicans, led by Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, then went to the White House to inform their party's president that he stood little chance of thwarting an impeachment vote by the full House or surviving a trial in the Senate.

Nixon resigned and so ended a constitutional crisis created by a president's disregard for the rule of law -- a crisis that was cured by an impeachment move by House members who respected their oaths of office.

Today, says Bernstein, the system that worked in the 1970s is failing as the country witnesses presidential and vice presidential misdeeds that former White House counsel John Dean has correctly characterized as "worse than Watergate."

Referring to the media, congressional and judicial oversight that is essential to maintaining a republic, Bernstein says, "That hasn't happened here."

That failure of oversight, as opposed to any wrongdoing by George Bush or Dick Cheney, is the great tragedy of our time. But, as I reminded the crowd at the symposium during a discussion of Hunter Thompson's enthusiasm for Nixon's impeachment, it is never too late for the people to lead. Approval ratings for the current president and vice president are now below those for Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal. And more and more members of Congress are taking up the call for accountability -- boldly sponsoring and cosponsoring the impeachment resolutions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had tried to keep "off the table.".

Bernstein is right. The system has not worked up to now. But with 18 months to go, it is certainly not too late for Americans to demand that the medicine that cured the Constitutional crisis of 33 years ago should again be applied.


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.'"