In our country, Wednesday night's "surge" was mainly a surge of words, twenty-minutes worth, 2,898 of them. In the build-up to the speech, as almost every last detail of it was leaked to the media, untold hundreds of thousands of words surged onto news pages, onto the TV news, into talk radio chatter, and on-line -- and so many hundreds of thousands more, these included, will follow in the days to come.
As Gail Russell Chaddock of the Christian Science Monitor wrote, the President's "new way forward" plan is guaranteed to run into a "wall of words on Capitol Hill," but, she added, "not much more." The New York Times front-paged that the Democrats were planning "symbolic votes" against the President's plan "which would do nothing in practical terms to block Mr. Bush's intention to increase the United States military presence in Iraq."
Practical terms means, not words but Congress's undeniable power of the purse, and so its right to deny at least some part of the tsunami of money the Bush administration is demanding to carry out its latest plan. Only in recent days has the possibility of using the purse to rein in the war begun to make its way from the distant frontiers of critical pariah-hood onto at least some mainstream agendas.
In the lead-up to Bush's speech to the nation, almost nowhere did words not surge -- despite the odd irony that the President did not actually use the word "surge" in his speech. Amid the deluge of words, only George Bush resorted to the resounding sound of silence. As Howard Fineman wrote in Newsweek:
"[T]he new chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee -- Carl Levin, an important character now -- sent Bush a private letter three weeks ago offering his counsel. Levin never got a reply. Bush can be just as deaf to Republicans. At a recent White House ceremony, Sen. Susan Collins offered to brief him on her Iraq visit. He responded by escorting her to the office of his deputy national-security adviser -- and then left before she told her story."
Given the crisis atmosphere, much of the speech itself, when the President was not plodding through his tactical changes in Iraq or offering insincere thanks to James Baker's Iraq Study Group, was remarkably ordinary Bush boilerplate. The newest (and most ominous) note struck hardly related to Iraq at all. It lay in these two lines clearly aimed at Iran, a country the Study Group wanted to draw into negotiations: "I recently ordered the deployment of an additional carrier strike group to the region. We will expand intelligence sharing and deploy Patriot air defense systems to reassure our friends and allies." At a moment when at least one American air strike had just taken place in Somalia, it hinted at a different kind of surge entirely.
Otherwise, we had heard it all, including the plan, before. The President struck only a few Iraq notes that, with a modest stretch of the imagination, might be called new and which are already all over the news. He called the situation in Iraq "unacceptable to the American people" and to him. (No mention was made of the Iraqis, of course). He offered this: "Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me," which, though already being headlined, managed in typical fashion to sound as if he was somehow taking responsibility for mistakes he had little or nothing to do with making.
He did speak of "benchmarks" twice -- "So America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced…" -- but where exactly those "marks" were and how the Iraqis were to be held to them no one listening to the speech could have had a clue. Perhaps the single novel statement was this one: "I have made it clear to the Prime Minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended." Of course, it too went utterly undefined, but assumedly when the present surge fails, it does leave the President some vague kind of out, were he ever to decide to use it.
When it came to much of the rest of the speech, you could easily have taken his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, or his September 11, 2006 anniversary address on the World Trade Center attacks, shaken the words up and simply dumped them randomly into last night's speech without reaching for a bit of new vocabulary. As in either of those previous speeches, he created his usual hair-raisingly Manichaean vision of an embattled us-and-them world (one he and his top officials have worked assiduously to bring into being), of simple good and pure evil (though, a rarity for him, he did not actually use the word "evil" last night), of longed-for security and utter terror.
If you were simply to do a word count comparison to his 9/11 anniversary speech (almost 400 words shorter), there would be little way, except possibly by the rise in the use of the word "sectarian," to note the passage of time in Iraq. Just to take the dystopian side of his official presidential vision, here are some word counts from last night (with the September counts in parentheses).
Terror, terrorists: 13 (17)
Violence, violent: 13 (3)
Sectarian: 9 (1)
Al Qaeda: 10 (3)
Extreme/ists: 6 (6)
Enemies: 5 (14)
Attack: 5 (13)
Insurgents: 5 (0)
Kill, Killing, Killers: 4 (3)
Fight, fighters, fighting: 4 (6)
War: 3 (13)
Struggle: 3 (4)
Death, Deadly: 3 (1)
Islamic (Radical Empire, Radical Extremists): 2 (1)
Murder, Murderers: 2 (1)
Threat: 1 (6)
Defeat: 1 (5)
Destroy, Destruction: 2 (2)
Hateful: 1 (2)
Danger, Dangerous: 2 (1)
Aggressive: 1 (1)
Conflict: 1 (1)
On our side of the black/white divide were all his (and his speechwriters') usual favorites: "protect," "secure," "defend," "democracy," "liberty," and even, against all expectations, not just "success" and its cognates, as well as "prevail," but "victory" itself (twice), even though it long ago went missing in action in the real world.
Awkwardly, even uncomfortably delivered, last night's Way-Forward-in-Iraq speech was, in sum, a speech to be forgotten, a speech certain to be buried -- and quickly -- in the coming carnage.
And here's a strange footnote to the administration's surge of words. The most secretive White House in our history, ever ready to accuse others of leaking or releasing information that could hurt national security, has over the last week essentially released the full American "surge" plan for the Baghdad area -- as if we weren't in one world, as if those resisting the American military didn't watch CNN and couldn't read our press on-line like anyone else. Whether you belong to a Sunni insurgent group, al-Qaeda in Iraq, or Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, you now know that the American plan involves dividing the Iraqi capital into nine sections; more or less how many American (as well as Iraqi) troops and police will be assigned to live in each of them; that new mini-bases for the surging Americans will be created throughout the city, and so on.
Given administration and military leaks, copious official background briefings for the media, Bush's speech, and the endless comments of key neocon planners and presidential briefers Frederick Kagan and retired General Jack Keane, can there be anyone on our planet who doesn't know a great deal about the American "way forward" and the exact schedule on which it is to be rolled out? Since the President's plan sounds so much like past "surges" into Baghdad, military and economic, just as the speech itself caught so many past presidential speech patterns, planning to avoid, outwait, outfight, or outwit it should be well underway as you read this.
[Note: Part 1 of this three-part blog, Body Count, appeared Thursday; part 3 follows this weekend.]
Pity the poor Democrats. They never get any respect. Even after their historic return from twelve years in the minority desert, no one wants to throw them a presidential party.
While the Twin Cities are more than happy to serve as the stomping grounds for the fat cats of the Republican Party, Denver and New York City have balked at hosting the Democratic National Convention. The problem in Denver is a labor dispute. The problem in New York is Michael Bloomberg doesn't want to risk $80-100 million, which is, to put it into perspective, the amount of money Bloomberg was willing to risk of his own fortune to run for mayor.
He was also willing to risk that amount in 2004 to host the Republican National Convention--most of whose delegates entered Manhattan as if crossing over to the dark side of the moon--so that Karl Rove could exploit the memory of 9/11. If you suspect Bloomberg is insulting Democrats' relative purchasing power, you are correct.
And yet the mayor may have a point. It's no secret that presidential conventions have become scripted, stage-managed rituals with little drama and no surprises. And as my friend Micah Sifry, an authority on money in politics says, they also provide a last gasp stab at free TV time that the networks now give most grudgingly to the parties, and a moment for the political-lobbying-industrial complex to gather for a few days --with the key players trying to impress each other, buy and sell influence, and take advantage of some of the last, great big money loopholes in the national political process.
The only people who might mourn them if the conventions were abolished would be political reporters who enjoy all the free food, liquor and sweet attention; the hotel and catering industry in their host city and a small group of history buffs.
Even worse, as Sifry points out, the conventions have also become a huge drain on the public purse, with cities competing for the privilege of showering each party with millions in special favors. Not just free parking and police escorts, but subsidized hotel rooms, millions in telecom services, you name it. (The Center for Public Integrity has uncovered the contractual arrangements made around past conventions and what they found is pretty disturbing. See their report for details on the 2004 DNC, for example.)
A modest proposal: Let the delegates mail in their votes, and let's take the money that is spent on the conventions by the taxpayers and put it toward something genuinely democratic, noble and educational.
"The first thing we have to gauge is the reaction of the American people tonight and tomorrow," Senator Jack Reed, the Democrats' point person on the war in Iraq, said yesterday.
The reaction of the American people towards the war remains unchanged. They opposed it before Bush's speech and they still oppose it after. Seventy percent of Americans now disagree with deploying more troops, according to an AP-Ipsos poll released this morning.
In a story today the New York Times gauged the reaction of voters in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, a traditionally Republican suburb outside of Philadelphia that voted for Democrat and Iraq war vet Patrick Murphy for Congress in '06.
A 64-year-old Republican barber and Vietnam vet says of President Bush: "The guy keeps digging us deeper and deeper into this mess, why not start pulling us out now?"
A Democrat whose son is stationed in Cyprus implores Congress to block Bush's escalation. "It's not too late for impeachment," adds one of her house guests.
Sam Graham-Felsen and I visited Bucks County in the days before the election and filed this in-depth video report, "The 'Burbs Go Blue."
Republicans are currently disputing the notion that the midterm elections represented a referendum on Iraq. But when we asked voters in Bucks County, including many Republicans, what they wanted Democrats to do if elected, they repeated over and over, "They've got to get us out of Iraq."
Sending more troops, it's fair to say, was the last thing voters wanted.
In 1979, the new theocratic government in Iran intiated an international crisis when it allowed a group of students to blatantly violate international norms by invading the US embassy in Tehran and taking its staff members hostage. The Carter administration rightfully decried the actions as "not just a diplomatic affront," but a "declaration of war on diplomacy itself."
Now comes word that just as Bush was finishing his speech, the US launched a raid on an Iranian consulate in the Kurdish north and detained five of the Iranians working there. Am I wrong in understanding that, under international law, this is technically an invasion of Iran? If that's the case, doesn't that count as a major escalation of the war to a second front?
On January 4th, the Pentagon "announced the identities" of six American soldiers who had died between December 28th and New Year's Eve. It was just one of many such listings over these last years and, like similar announcements, this one had a just-the-facts quality to it -- spare to the bone, barely more information than you would get from a POW: rank, age, place of birth, date of death, place of death, type of death, and the unit to which the dead soldier belonged.
These announcements, which blend seamlessly into one another, also blend the dead into a relatively uniform mass. You can, of course, learn nothing from such skeletal reports about the dreams of these young men (and sometimes women), their hopes or fears, their plans for the future or lack of them, their talents and skills, their problems, their stray thoughts or deepest convictions, their worlds, and those who cared about them.
So few paragraphs are almost bound to emphasize not the individuality of the dead, but their similarity in death. Five of these soldiers died due to roadside explosives (IEDs), one from small-arms fire. Two died in Baghdad; two in Baqubah; the embattled capital of Diyala Province, north of Baghdad, where civil war rages; one in Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar Province, the heartland of the Sunni insurgency; and one in Taji, also in the "Sunni Triangle." None had a rank higher than sergeant. The oldest was only 22; the youngest, 20. Another thing five of the six had in common was not coming from a major American city.
In order of population:
Pvt. David E. Dietrich came from Marysville, Pennsylvania, (population, 2,428 in 2005), not far from Harrisburg.
Pfc. Alan R. Blohm came from Kenai, Alaska (population, 7,166 in 2003), 150 miles south of Anchorage.
Cpl. Jonathan E. Schiller came from Ottumwa, Iowa, (population 24,998 in 2000), best known as the home of Radar O'Reilly in the TV show M*A*S*H. It supposedly has "the highest unsolved murder rate (per capita) in the free world."
Sgt. John M. Sullivan came from Hixson, Tennessee (population 37,507).
Spc. Luis G. Ayala came from South Gate, California (population of 103,547), part of Los Angeles and once the home of a huge General Motors plant.
Spc. Richard A. Smith came from Grand Prairie, Texas, population 145,600 in 2005. "Legend has it," the Wikipedia tells us, "that the town was renamed after a famous female actor stepped off the train and exclaimed ‘My, what a grand prairie!'"
Some of them, in other words, grew up in places with vanishingly small populations but even those who didn't came from places you're likely to have heard of only if you grew up there yourself. As Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren put it, in examining the last thousand American deaths in Iraq for the New York Times:
"The service members who died during this latest period fit an unchanging profile. They were mostly white men from rural areas, soldiers so young they still held fresh memories of high school football heroics and teenage escapades. Many men and women were in Iraq for the second or third time. Some were going on their fourth, fifth or sixth deployment."
All you have to do is look through the most recent of these Pentagon announcements of deaths in Iraq to find more evidence of that parade of places you just haven't heard of: Vassar, Michigan (pop. 2,823), Paris, Tennessee (pop. 9,763), Wasilla, Alaska (pop. 5,470), Tamarac, Florida (pop. 55,588), New Castle, Delaware (pop. 4,836), and Vancouver, Washington (pop. 157,493).
This isn't new. You could say, in fact, that here, as elsewhere in the American experience of war in Iraq, the Vietnam analogy seems to apply, at least to a degree. Historian Chris Appy in his book Working-Class War comments:
"Rural and small-town America may have lost more men in Vietnam, proportionately, than did even central cities and working-class suburbs… It is not hard to find small towns that lost more than one man in Vietnam. Empire, Alabama, for example, had four men out of a population of only 400 die in Vietnam -- four men from a town in which only a few dozen boys came of draft age during the entire war."
But in the present all-volunteer military at the height of an increasingly catastrophic, ever less popular war, this trend toward sacrificing the overlooked young from overlooked American communities seems especially pronounced.
What does this mean, practically speaking? Assistant Professor James Moody of Duke University recently estimated that somewhere between 4.3 and 6.5 million Americans "may know people who were killed or wounded in the recent fighting" in Iraq and Afghanistan. That may sound like a lot of people, but as Globalsecurity.org's director John Pike put the matter, "The probability of knowing a casualty was about 100 times higher in [World War II] than today." Similar figures for the Vietnam years would have been significantly higher than the present ones as well (and, of course, the omnipresence of the draft gave so many more Americans a sense of being at war). As University of Maryland sociology professor David Segal put the matter, in considering Moody's research, "The bottom line is that the American military is at war, but American society is not. Even in Vietnam, everybody knew somebody who was killed or wounded."
When, last night, the President announced that he had already "committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq," when he "surges" them into Baghdad and al-Anbar Province, he is surging from Kenai, from Hixon, from Wasilla, from South Gate. And he is ensuring a spate of future Pentagon "announcements" that will again take us to what's left of the hamlets, villages, small towns, and out of the way smaller cities of this country, the places Americans increasingly don't notice.
When the President talks to us, as he did last night, about "a year ahead that will demand more patience, sacrifice, and resolve," this is who he is mainly sacrificing. Today, in our civilized world, we are shocked when we read of the bloody rites, the human sacrifices, of the Aztecs whose priests ripped hearts, still beating, from human chests to appease their bloodthirsty gods. These were, of course, the hearts of captives. In all his fervor, George W. Bush looks ever more like an American high priest who, for his own bloody gods, is similarly ripping hearts from the chests of the living. Make no mistake, in his speech last night, he was offering up human sacrifices from the captive villages and towns of the United States on the altar of blind faith and pure, abysmal folly.
[This is Part 1 of a 3-part blog. Tomorrow: Word Count]
George W. Bush finally has dipped his toe into the reality-based pool.
Standing in the White House library--because his PR guides wanted him to seem "conversational"--the president delivered a long-in-the-hyping speech on Iraq on Wednesday night, and he conceded what the American people have already figured out: his war is not faring well. Shortly before the November elections, Bush declared, "we're winning" in Iraq. With public opinion polls showing that close to three-quarters of the nation disapprove of his handling of the war, Bush wanted to demonstrate that he, too, is aware that Iraq is a mess. So he said, "The situation in Iraq is...unacceptable to me....Where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me." But here's the obvious question: given the president's history of false and misleading statements about the war and his record of poor decision-making related to the war, why should anyone accept anything he says or proposes now? He has no credibility--and far too long of a resume of failure. One speech--standing or sitting--will not make a difference in how Americans regard Bush and the war. There will be no surge of popular support for his newest plan: sending 21,000 additional US troops to Iraq for a last-chance stab at securing and stabilizing Baghdad.
Bush's announcement of this escalation came as no surprise. Critics and advocates of such a thrust have been debating the idea for weeks, anticipating Bush would order such a move. After all, it seemed the only choice left available to pro-war partisans. But the whole notion rests upon a rather iffy proposition: that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shares Bush's vision and can deliver. Maliki is Bush's lifeline in Iraq. Bush's escalation can only succeed if Maliki's government does what Bush says it will do: clamp down on the sectarian violence that is partly fueled by Shiites who are part of Maliki's government. In his speech, Bush credulously quoted a Maliki statement from last week: "The Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of [their] sectarian or political affiliation." And Bush noted that Maliki has pledged that there will be no "political or sectarian interference" in the coming campaign to pacify Baghdad. As a cynical foreign policy realist might say, Isn't it pretty to think so?
Maliki's word is not much better than Bush's. Parts of his government have protected--if not sponsored--Shiite death squads. And two weeks ago, Maliki told The Wall Street Journal that he wanted to bow out as prime minister before his term expires. Bush's reliance on Maliki's promises and character brings to mind his 2001 endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin: "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy....I was able to get a sense of his soul." Without a sincere and successful effort from Maliki and his colleagues, Bush's plan has no real meaning. And that means the lives of US soldiers in Iraq will depend upon the integrity and competence of a leader who so far has failed and who recently expressed a desire to abdicate.
What's going to change on the Iraqi homefront to make the deployment of more American troops worthwhile? Bush said that Maliki's government has to meet a series of benchmarks (including assuming responsibility for security in all provinces by November, passing a law that ensures the sharing of oil revenue, spending $10 billion on reconstruction projects that create jobs, and reforming the draconian de-Baathification laws), and he reported that he had warned Maliki that the US commitment to Maliki's government is "not open-ended." But can Bush pressure Iraq's political actors to ignore domestic politics and behave in a fundamentally different manner than they have to date? Can the White House count on the current leaders in Baghdad to mount a multi-billion-dollar New Deal within months--and do so free of political and financial corruption? (Bush noted that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "will soon" appoint a "reconstruction coordinator" in Baghdad "to ensure better results" for US economic assistance being spent in Iraq. Why does no such animal exist--after nearly four years of botched and fraudulent reconstruction spending?) And how does Bush define "not open-ended"? In discussing his so-called surge, Bush never used the word "temporary."
Bush is doing what could be expected: digging a deeper hole in Iraq. It's possible that sending more troops might improve security in Baghdad and that doing so might create breathing space that might allow for some measure of political reconciliation. It's just as possible--if not more so--that the deployment of additional troops to Baghdad will do nothing other than force sectarian militants to do violence elsewhere and not address the basic factors driving the chaos and conflict that has been unleashed by Bush's war. Bush is merely placing a bet; the chips are the lives of American soldiers.
Bush's speech--make that, conversation--was absent soaring rhetoric. He did claim that the war in Iraq was essential to both the war on terrorism and the American mission to spread liberty. But it seemed that even he has come to realize that the time for such easy sentiments has passed. Americans, he acknowledged, want to know what he's going to do to undo the disaster in Iraq. He cannot say--as did James Baker and the other members of the Iraq Study Group--that there is no good solution for the problem he created in Iraq. So Bush is escalating the conflict. For him, there's not much choice. Staying the course would be unsellable. And extrication without victory is not an option. He has painted himself--and Americans and Iraqis--into a bloody red corner.
In a moment of quasi-candor, Bush noted, "Even if our new strategy works exactly as planned, deadly acts of violence will continue, and we must expect more Iraqi and American casualties." Indeed, Bush has gotten around to recognizing reality--at least its most obvious elements. Yet he still is boxed in by his earlier refusals to do so. As a consequence, Bush's war in Iraq is about to become larger.
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.
It is all well and good to celebrate the cautious baby steps being taken by Congress to reassert itself as a check and balance upon the executive-branch excesses of the monarchical Bush administration. When even Republicans, such as Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, are publicly admitting that the House and Senate failed during the first six years of the Bush interregnum to practice even minimal oversight with regard to the administration, there is perhaps a measure of hope for the Republic.
But that hope will not be realized if we wait for Congress to develop the spine it has been deprived of since the Watergate era. There must be an external check and balance upon the executive branch, and that will only happen if the media abandons the bended-knee position from which it has covered the Bush administration.
The willingness of most mainstream media outlets to continue to treat seriously the absurd and propagandistic claims of this president and his aides is at least as damaging to the discourse--and, by extension, to the American experiment--as the collapse of Congressional oversight. To allow the Administration and its supporters to suggest, at this late stage in the disaster that is the Iraq invasion and occupation, that challenges to the president's proposal to escalate the war are disrespectful of US troops serving in that country--or perhaps even threatening to them--is to perpetuate a lie that warps the national debate in a manner that ensures more Americans and Iraqis will be killed.
The President and his dwindling circle of supporters certainly have a right to make their pronouncements. But they do not have a right to expect that lies and spin will be swallowed by the media and then regurgitated into the living rooms of Americans.
Unfortunately, that is what happened Wednesday night, as a presidential address that should have been met with unbridled skepticism was instead treated as a meaningful statement regarding the future U.S. presence in Iraq. Yes, of course, there were more critical voices and questions than before the country went to war, but for the most part the Washington press corps was still trying to suggest that the emperor really was wearing clothes.
Just as it would be wrong for the media to censor Bush, so it is equally wrong for the media to allow the madness of this modern-day King George to infect the discourse without the immediate application of the antidote of truth.
Handing the bully pulpit over to a president who has repeatedly misused his position to deceive the Congress and the American people is not journalism, it is stenography.
And make no mistake: A "free" press that practices stenography to power is no different from the "kept" press of a totalitarian state.
Indeed, the promise of "freedom of the press" is nothing more than a meaningless clause in a disposable document if journalists do not use the freedom they have been afforded by the Constitution to challenge the status quo.
It is significant, indeed, that the travesty of the latest presidential address to the nation comes on the eve of the third National Conference for Media Reform, which will bring more than 3,000 activists, academics, members of Congress and concerned journalists to Memphis this weekend. They could not have picked a better time to address the crisis created by a increasely consolidated, dumbed-down and homogenized national media.
There is a dawning realization that what's wrong with America is not just the fault of an incompetent and deceptive president, nor of a cowardly and dysfunctional Congress. The founders established a free press to keep watch on the executive branch – particularly in a time of war. No less a figure than James Madison warned that, "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both."
Iraq is a tragedy. Proposals to escalate US involvement are a farce. And, surely, Madison would tell us a media system that does not have the capacity to communicate that fact to the American people--bluntly, and without apology--is in need of radical reform.
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the national media reform network that has organized the National Conference on Media Reform.
MEMPHIS -- The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose legacy has been celebrated this weekend in Memphis by National Conference for Media Reform speakers such as Bill Moyers, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Vermont Senator Bernie Sander, actor Danny Glover and Democracy Now's Amy Goodman, often prodded the U.S. media to do a better job of covering the civil rights movement that he championed in the 195Os and 196Os.
King recognized that, while ending segregation and creating opportunities for African Americans was his first goal, getting the media to do its job had to be on the agenda.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner knew that organizing, marching and protesting in a vacuum would not bring change. The American people and their elected representatives needed to know that demands were being made for the redress of grievances.
As Jodie Allen, a veteran journalist with U.S. News and World Report, has noted, "Martin Luther King presciently saw that the pictures were worth a thousand words in showing this and that segregation could not persist in the face of illumination when the spotlights were on it."
King believed that the generally favorable coverage of the 1963 March on Washington represented a breakthrough, writing in his autobiography that, "If anyone had questioned how deeply the summer's activities had penetrated the consciousness of white America, the answer was evident in the treatment accorded the March on Washington by all the media of communication. Normally Negro activities are the object of attention in the press only when they are likely to lead to some dramatic outbreak, or possess some bizarre quality. The march was the first organized Negro operation that was accorded respect and coverage commensurate with its importance. The millions who viewed it on television were seeing an event historic not only because of the subject but because it was being brought into their homes."
"Millions or white Americans, for the first time, had a clear, long look at Negroes engaged in a serious occupation," King continued. "For the first time millions listened to the informed and thoughtful words of Negro spokesmen, from all walks of life. The stereotype of the Negro suffered a heavy blow. This was evident in some of the comments which reflected surprise at the dignity, the organization, and even the wearing apparel and friendly spirit of the participants. If the press had expected something akin to a minstrel show, or a brawl, or a comic display of odd clothes and bad manners, they were disappointed. A great deal has been said about a dialogue between Negro and white. Genuinely to achieve it requires that all the media of communications open their channels wide as they did on that radiant August day."
Unfortunately, the channels have not remained so wide open.
When King began in 1967 to express outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam, historian Taylor Branch recalls, "The reaction of the press was the most damaging public reaction that he had from the white press." The Washington Post went so far as to declare that, with his opposition to the war, "King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."
Similarly, King's attempts to advance an economic justice agenda –- the work of his final days as he came to Memphis to march with striking garbage collectors –- was dismissed as a both futile and dangerous.
Things have only grown worse as media consolidation has led to a dumbing down of our mass communications. As civic and democratic values have been replaced by the commercial and entertainment impulses of bottom-line driven big media companies, coverage of social and economic justice movements has declined. And the relatively serious examinations of fundamental questions of war and peace that were seen during the Vietnam War have been replaced by the embedded – or, as Pultizer Prize winning author Studs Terkel refers to it: "in bed with the administration" -- coverage of the Iraq quagmire.
This weekend, as Americas prepare to mark the 78th anniversary of King's birth, activists, journalists, academics, FCC commissioners and members of Congress have gathered in Memphis for the third National Conference for Media Reform. Jackson, Moyers, Sanders, Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley and 3,000 others are raising the alarm about the threat consolidation of media ownership and the embrace of bottom-line values poses to quality journalism and to democracy itself.
Dr. King understood that a free, diverse and adventurous press was essential to social progress. As Danny Glover explained in Memphis, the media-reform movement has embraced that understanding and are carrying it into the 21st century.
Recalling King's observation that, "Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power," Glover told the crowd, "The nettlesome task about which Dr. King spoke is still being carried out by people who embody character, courage and the fortitude to make decisions in support of truth not spin, people who critically embrace diversity and reject monopoly."
John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the national media reform network that has organized the National Conference on Media Reform.
White House press secretary Tony Snow is right about one thing:Democratic resolutions on Iraq may be non-binding, but the war--andnow its escalation--is "very real."
Just because the Bush Administration is out of touch with realitydoesn't mean that Democratic leaders should react in kind. Manyhigh-ranking Democrats seem to believe that a symbolic Congressionalvote against Bush's escalation of the occupation will be enough to change the President's mind. "If you really want to change the situation on the ground, demonstrate to the president he's on hisown," Senator Joe Biden told the New York Times. "That will spark real change."
Not likely--even if a significant number of Republicans vote against escalation. Bush is already on his own. Upwards of 80 percent ofAmericans--and more than half of the military, including the JointChiefs of Staff--oppose sending more troops to Iraq. The presidenthas no intention of governing by consensus. Just ask his father'sbest friend, James Baker. Bush's idea of bipartisanship, as his speech tonight made clear, consists of talking to Joe Lieberman.
His admission last March that future Presidents will decide whento withdraw US troops from Iraq was no slip. The only way Bush willlisten to the Congress is if they force him to, by refusing toprovide the money or the manpower to escalate the war.
Jack Murtha get this. So does Ted Kennedy. As he said yesterday atthe National Press Club: "We campaigned as Democrats in 2006. And wemust govern as Democrats in 2007. We have the solemn obligation nowto show the American people that we heard their voices. We will standwith them in meeting the extraordinary challenges of our day – notwith pale actions, timid gestures, and empty rhetoric, but with boldvision, clear action, and high ideals that match the hopes and dreamsof the American people. That is our duty as Democrats and asAmericans on the war in Iraq."
In the Democratic response to Bush, Senator Dick Durbin hinted at Congressional action beyond passing a non-binding resolution. "I believe we need to go beyond that," Senator Barack Obama said tonight. The logical next step is legislation introduced by Kennedy andRep. Marty Meehan, which simply and effectively states that "no funds can be spent to send additional troops to Iraq unless Congress approves the President's proposed escalation of American forces." Presidential candidates John Edward and Tom Vilsack have endorsed such an approach.
Criticism alone will not be enough to stop the President in thisinstance. In an important post, blogger Chris Bowers likens the comingfight over escalation to the 2005 battle to save Social Security. "Inthe Social Security fight, Democrats ended up looking like heroes notjust because they weren't those evil Republicans who tried to destroySocial Security," Bowers writes, "but rather because Democrats werethose stalwart fighters who prevented Republicans from destroyingSocial Security."
The difference between then and now is that in 2005 Bush claimed"political capital"--at least briefly. After a year of ineptness bythe President, Democrats won in '06 precisely because voters wantedthem to keep Bush's powers in check, particularly on Iraq. "We[Democrats] were swept into office," Bowers writes, "not just becausewe voiced support for withdrawal or opposition to Bush's policies,but with the expectation that we could stop Bush's policy."
A large majority of Americans in a recent CBS News Poll want andexpect Democrats in Congress to try and decrease or remove all UStroops from Iraq. But 82 percent of those polled say CongressionalDemocrats have still not developed a "clear plan" for resolving theconflict. Blocking Bush's escalation will go a long way towardconvincing skeptical Americans that Democrats have an idea about howto end the war.
In a sober address to the nation Wednesday night, President Bush confirmed his determination to surge the United States military deeper into the Iraq quagmire by sending roughly 21,500 more troops to that troubled land.
The president went even further than his critics feared he might, outlining a dangerous program of integrating U.S. and Iraqi military units – with U.S. trainers and strategists embedded in Iraqi units and U.S. brigades partnered with Iraqi brigades. And he signaled that he will implement his new approach before Congress has a chance to consider it. Indeed, the first new U.S. brigade is scheduled to hit the ground in Iraq Monday.
Bush confidently dismissed Congressional opposition, anticipating – correctly it turned out – that while Democratic leaders in the House and Senate would criticize the strategy, they would not move to block it by employing the power of the purse to cut off funding of moves to escalate the war.
Despite the muted Democratic response, the proposal advanced by the president in Wednesday evening's televised address to the nation will be rejected on its merits by serious-minded Americans, able military analysts and those members of Congress who take seriously their Constitutionally-mandated duty to check and balance a dangerous executive. And, predictably, these expressions of sincere opposition to a misguided strategy will be criticized by the Bush administration's amen corner.
The president's boosters will continue to claim that any challenge to his war-making authority amounts to, at best, hatred of America, and, at worst, playing politics with the lives of U.S. troops already on the ground in Iraq.
No Democratic criticism of the president's same-as-it-ever-was approach – be it from cautious leaders or bolder backbenchers -- will be accepted by those who have decided that their first loyalty is to the Bush administration rather than to the United States.
So it is only appropriate to turn for comment of the president's "surge" strategy to a Republican supporter of the war who has made eight trips to Iraq.
Suggesting that Bush's plan to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq "sounds eerily like Lyndon Johnson's plan to save Vietnam in the mid 1960s" with an escalation of U.S. troops numbers in southeast Asia, Lt. Colonel Oliver North says the this president's approach is every bit as wrong as Johnson's.
"Sending more U.S. combat troops is simply sending more targets," North argued in columns and television appearances during the period leading up to the president's speech.
The Marine who was the Reagan administration's Iran-Contra point man and who went on to run as a Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate from Virginia, before joining Fox News as the host of the conservative network's "War Stories" program, has actually done something that few conservative supporters of the war have. He's gone to Iraq, again and again, spending substantial amounts of time talking with the troops, the commanders and Iraqis.
As a result, North speaks with a measure of authority when he rejects the arguments of the neoconservative theorists and hawkish senators, such as Arizona Republican John McCain and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman, who advocate for a troop surge in Iraq. Bluntly stating that McCain and Lieberman, and by extension Bush, are "wrong" to argue for adding troops, North complained before the president's speech that the neoconservatives and their senate allies were not listening to the Americans who are already on the ground in Iraq.
"Messrs. McCain and Lieberman talked to many of the same officers and senior noncommissioned officers I covered for Fox News during my most recent trip to Iraq," North noted this week. "Not one of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Guardsmen or Marines I interviewed told me they wanted more "U.S. boots on the ground." In fact, nearly all expressed just the opposite: 'We don't need more American troops, we need more Iraqi troops,' was a common refrain. They are right."
"Adding 10,000 or 20,000 more U.S. combat troops -- mostly soldiers and Marines -- will not improve Iraqi willingness to fight their own fight, which is an imperative if we are to claim victory in this war," explains North, who adds that, "While putting 200,000 American or NATO troops on the Iranian and Syrian borders to stop infiltration might make sense, that's "mission impossible" given the size of U.S. and allied armed forces."
Don't get North wrong. He's not a "Bring the Troops Home Now!" man. He favors a continued U.S. presence in Iraq, and he's particularly enthusiastic about adding more trainers to help the Iraqis to actually "stand up" so that Americans can "stand down." And North can be expected to soft peddle some of his message in the days to come, as he is facing immense pressure from his conservative allies and employers to get on board for the surge.
But North's writings and comments regarding the surge strategy -- especially a thoughtful column that appeared in the Washington Times Tuesday -- offer a poignant reminder of how even the president's amen corner is no longer shouting "amen."
Reasonable people can -- and should -- debate North on whether a continued U.S. presence in a country where the vast majority of people do not want us. And, certainly, reasonable people can debate the colonel's continued willingness to give the Bush administration one more chance.
But there is no debating that North got things right when he warned against any escalation of that presence.
Forget about the Democratic response to Bush's madness. When the president's defenders attack war critics for questioning the sanity of the surge, just point them toward Lt. Colonel North's observation that: "A 'surge' or 'targeted increase in U.S. troop strength' -- or whatever the politicians want to call dispatching more combat troops to Iraq -- isn't the answer."
John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal,Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into theintentions of the founders and embraced by activists for itsgroundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability.After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone politicalwriter Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "JohnNichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, TheGenius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less withthe particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and insteadcombines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"
The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and atwww.amazon.com