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Indicting the President's Policies

In Washington, where it is exceeding difficult to get the political players or the press corps to pay attention to more than one story at once, no0 one would suggest that it was "smart politics" to deliver a major address on the day that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay being forced to step aside after being indicted on criminal conspiracy charges.

But sometimes the work of Washington involves more than political games.

Sometimes it involves life and death questions of national policy. And it is particularly frustrating in such moments to see vital statements about the nation's future get lost in the rush to discuss the scandal du jour. To be sure, the well-deserved indictment of DeLay merited the attention it received. But the indictment of President Bush's "stay-the-course" approach with regard to the Iraq War, which was delivered on the same day by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, should have gotten a lot more attention than it did.

At a time when too many members of Congress, in both parties, are afraid to address the crisis Bush's missteps, misdeeds, arrogance and intransigence have created, Feingold broke the silence in the Senate.

"I cannot support an Iraq policy that makes our enemies stronger and our own country weaker, and that is why I will not support staying the course the President has set," Feingold told the Senate on the same day official Washington was focusing all its attention on the trials of Tom DeLay

Feingold's declaration came as part of scathing assessment of the Bush administration's determination to continue pursuing failed strategies not just in the Middle East but internationally.

"If Iraq were truly the solution to our national security challenges, this gamble with the future of the military and with our own economy might make sense," explained the senator, who last month called for a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country. "If Iraq, rather than such strategically more significant countries as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were really at the heart of the global fight against violent Islamist terrorism, this might make some sense. If it were true that fighting insurgents in Baghdad meant that we would not have to fight them elsewhere, all of the costs of this policy might make some sense. But these things are not true. Iraq is not the silver bullet in the fight against global terrorist networks. As I have argued in some detail, it is quite possible that the Administration's policies in Iraq are actually strengthening the terrorists by helping them to recruit new fighters from around the world, giving those jihadists on-the-ground training in terrorism, and building new, transnational networks among our enemies. Meanwhile the costs of staying this course indefinitely, the consequences of weakening America's military and America's economy, loom more ominously before us with each passing week. There is no leadership in simply hoping for the best. We must insist on an Iraq policy that works."

Feingold detailed concerns about the damage done to the U.S. military by pursuit of the misguided mission in Iraq. "The Administration's policies in Iraq are breaking the United States Army," explained the Wisconsin Democrat, who reviewed concerns about the stress placed on soldiers and their families and about shortfalls in recruitment for the armed services.

"Make no mistake, our military readiness is already suffering," Feingold explained. "According to a recent RAND study, the Army has been stretched so thin that active-duty soldiers are now spending one of every two years abroad, leaving little of the Army left in any appropriate condition to respond to crises that may emerge elsewhere in the world. In an era in which we confront a globally networked enemy, and at a time when nuclear weapons proliferation is an urgent threat, continuing on our present course is irresponsible at best."

While the military is taking a hit, Feingold noted, so too is the economy. Noting that all of the cost of the war -- "every penny" -- "has been added to the already massive debt that will be paid by future generations of Americans," Feingold asked, "How much longer can the elected representatives of the American people in this Congress allow the President to rack up over a billion dollars a week in new debts? This war is draining, by one estimate, $5.6 billion every month from our economy, funds that might be used to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina recover, or to help address the skyrocketing health care costs facing businesses and families, or to help pay down the enormous debt this government has already piled up."

Feingold remarks were more than a critique of the administration. They were a call to action for the Congress.

"Bush Administration's policies in Iraq are making America weaker," he told the Senate. "And none of us should stand by and allow this to continue."

Truer words have rarely been spoken in the Capitol -- especially in recent years. Feingold's call deserves the attention, and the encouragement, not just of responsible members of the Congress but of the great mass of Americans who know that something has gone very wrong in Iraq -- and Washington.

A CIA-Did-It Defense for Scooter in the Plame Leak Case?

When you already have a fall guy, use him--especially if he's a dead man.

Could that be the legal strategy of I. Lewis Libby (a.k.a. Scooter), Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, in the Plame/CIA leak case?

The news of the day in this scandal is that New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was imprisoned for refusing to cooperate with special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, is free. She and the Times cut a deal with Fitzgerald, after Miller had served 12 weeks for being in contempt of court. Under this arrangement, Miller agreed to testify before Fitzgerald's grand jury and to hand over edited version of her notes.

This is not much of a noble denouement to Miller's crusade for the First Amendment. Throughout this episode, she and her paper took what appeared to be an absolutist position against cooperating with subpoena-wielding prosecutors who yearn to poke around newsrooms--while other reporters accommodated Fitzgerald. Now Miller and the Times have also elected to cooperate. But what distinguishes her case is that it seems she went to jail because of a mistake.

Upon her release, Miller declared she had been imprisoned because "a journalist must respect a promise not to reveal the identity of a confidential source." She added, "I am leaving jail today because my source has now voluntarily and personally released me from my promise of confidentiality regarding our conversations relating to the Wilson-Plame matter." This source was Libby. But a lawyer for Libby, Joseph Tate, told The Washington Post on Friday that a year ago he had informed Floyd Abrams, an attorney for Miller, that Libby had waived confidentiality and that Miller was free to discuss her chats with Libby. (The New York Times account of this--which presumably was heavily lawyered--is rather convoluted; if you want to avoid a headache, stick to the Post piece.) Only a few weeks ago, Tate said, he was contacted by Robert Bennett, another Miller attorney, and was told that Miller had not accepted Libby's waiver and was in jail protecting Libby. Tate claimed he and Libby were "surprised to learn we had anything to do with her incarceration." The lawyers for Libby and Miller arranged a phone call between the two, in which Libby apparently assured Miller his year-old wavier was voluntary. Then she and the Times negotiated a deal with Fitzgerald.

This suggests that Miller ended up going to jail due to a miscommunication. Could she had avoided jail had the lawyers done a better job? Was she a martyr because of a mistake? Her position now is the same as the other reporters who are known to have cooperated with Fitzgerald: if the source waives protection, then a reporter can talk. Her crusade is over.

But back to the fall guy. The end of this sub-plot has caused Libby's team to leak his defense to the media. The Post quotes "a source familiar with Libby's account of his conversations with Miller." The odds are that source is Libby or his attorney. This super-secret source says that on July 8, 2003, Miller and Libby talked. This was six days before columnist Bob Novak disclosed the CIA identity of Valerie Wilson and two days after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson wrote an explosive Times op-ed disclosing that his trip to Niger in February 2002 had led him to conclude that President Bush had falsely claimed that Iraq had sought weapons-grade uranium in Africa. In this conversation, Miller asked Libby why Wilson had been sent on this mission by the CIA. (Miller, whose prewar reporting had promoted the administration's case that Iraq was loaded with WMDs, had a personal, as well as professional, interest in Wilson's tale.) Libby, according to this source, told Miller that the White House was, as the Post puts it, "working with the CIA to find out more about Wilson's trip and how he was selected." Libby noted he had heard that Wilson's wife had something to do with it but he did not know where she worked.

Four or five days later, according to the Libby-friendly source, Libby and Miller spoke again. Now Libby knew more. He told Miller that Wilson's wife worked at the CIA and had a role in sending Wilson to Niger. This source tells the Post that Libby did not know her name or that she was an undercover officer at the CIA. That latter point is crucial, for, under the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, Fitzgerald can only prosecute Libby if Libby disclosed information about a CIA officer whom he knew was a covert employee.

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Howard Dean and the Roberts vote, politics-by-demonstration, Bill Frist, a rightwing cat fight, Bush's photo-opping and other in-the-news matters.

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There's no telling whether this source is being truthful. Karl Rove's attorney put out facts that crumbled as more information became public. But you don't have to look too far between the lines to discern Libby's cover story. It goes something like this: Wilson wrote his Times article. All hell broke loose. The White House asked, "Who authorized this trip?" Someone called the CIA for information. The CIA reported back that Wilson was contacted by the counter-proliferation office, where his wife Valerie was working. But--and here's the crucial "but"--the CIA did not tell the White House that Valerie was undercover. Thus, if any White House officials--say, Rove or Libby--repeated this information to reporters, then they may have been engaged in leaking classified and sensitive information to discredit a critic but they were not committing a crime. And who was at fault? George Tenet, the CIA director at the time.

How convenient. Tenet has already taken the fall for Bush's decision to launch the war in Iraq. He reportedly told Bush that the WMD case was a "slam-dunk." And subsequent investigations--from the Republican-controlled Senate intelligence committee and an independent commission that only looked at the intelligence community, not the White House--have excoriated Tenet's CIA for botching the WMD job. (Still, Bush saw fit to give Tenet a nice medal.)

Tenet is finished in Washington. (Paul Wolfowitz got a medal and was given the top job at the World Bank.) Is Libby looking to point to the dead body in the room and say, "It was him!"? If Libby or any other top White House aide wanted to know what had happened at the CIA regarding Wilson's trip to Niger, what would he or she have done? The obvious answer is that he or she would have called Tenet and demanded answers. And if Tenet--when he or an aide reported back--did not tell the White House Valerie Wilson was undercover, that would not be the White House's fault, right? In this scenario, the CIA outed Valerie Wilson.

Can such a defense fly? It will depend on what facts--or purported facts--Libby and the White House present to the prosecutor (or, if indictments ever come, to a jury). But a CIA-did-it defense might be in the making. And that has worked for this White House before.

All this speculation aside, the public record does show that both Rove and Libby spoke to several reporters (Novak, Miller and Time's Matt Cooper-- about Valerie Wilson and her CIA job. Wittingly or not, they disclosed classified information that derailed her career and that undermined her past and present work to thwart the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. These leaks might have imperiled her contacts, previous operations, and one or more front groups used by her and her colleagues in their efforts to stop the spread of WMDs. (No damage assessment of the Plame leak has been made public.) At the least, contrition is warranted. But there has been none from the WHite House. And Bush's previous vow to dismiss anyone caught leaking classified information has been tossed into the waste bin, now that it is undeniable that Rove and Libby leaked classified information.

When Fitzgerald first pursued Miller and Cooper, it was easy to dismiss him as an overzealous prosecutor interested more in a vendetta than in making a case. But as the Cooper portion of this episode demonstrated, Fitzgerald was after information crucial to his investigation. From Cooper he obtained material that showed Rove had discussed the CIA identity of Wilson's wife with a reporter. Though Fitzgerald and Miller have clashed on non-Plame business previously, perhaps he has been seeking information just as critical from her.

For anyone following the matter, it's impossible not to guess about what's going on and what Fitzgerald will do. His grand jury expires at the end of October. He could impanel a new one and keep investigating. But all indications suggest he's close to done. One person who recently had contact with Fitzgerald and his attorneys says that they seem confident about whatever it is they are pursuing. The Miller matter was something of a sideshow that at times drew more attention than the central issue. Now that Miller has decided to follow the course of the other reporters, perhaps Fitzgerald will be ready to end his inquiry and render decisions about indictment. Throughout Washington, those who have closely observed this investigation express different hunches about whether there will be indictments, about whom will be indicted if there are indictments, about what laws will be invoked if there are indictments. There have been no leaks making one guess more probable than another. Those who care are all waiting for Fitzgerald.

Sweet Victory: Desegregation Works

As Jonathan Kozol points out in his new book Shame of the Nation, the promise of Brown v. Board of Education remains unfulfilled. Thanks largely to a spate of Rehnquist Court decisions throughout the 1990s that limited the constitutionality of desegregation plans, policymakers across the country have abandoned efforts to integrate schools. As a result, schools have become rapidly re-segregated: today, Black and Latino students are more isolated from their white counterparts than at any other period since 1968.

Yet several school districts nationwide are tackling the problem of school segregation with socioeconomic integration plans. And the results, particularly in Wake County, North Carolina, have been profoundly positive. Wake County--which includes Raleigh and surrounding suburbs--made headlines last week when the New York Times reported that the performance of black and Latino students has dramatically improved since the implementation of a comprehensive socioeconomic desegregation program. According to the Times, the number of black and Latino students achieving at grade level has doubled in the last decade since the program has been put in place.

The tragic events in New Orleans once again illustrated that the fault lines of race and class are intimately connected in America. Consequently, class-based desegregation plans often have the dual effect of creating both racial and economic diversity in schools. And, as Wake County demonstrates, desegregation plans do more than simply mix students; they are a recipe for results.

"The implementation of these voluntary plans, either by socioeconomic status or race, by school boards is a recognition of many of the gains we achieved in desegregating our schools over a generation ago," says Erica Frankenberg of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University.

Right now, the Plessy doctrine of "separate but equal" reigns in American public school policy--of course, the reality is that schools are separate and unequal. Yet, with positive trends emerging from districts implementing desegregation plans, we hope to see a day when integrated schools are not the exception, but the rule.

We also want to hear from you. Please let us know if you have a sweet victory you think we should cover by e-mailing nationvictories@gmail.com.

Co-written by Sam Graham-Felsen, a freelance journalist, documentary filmmaker and blogger (www.boldprint.net) living in Brooklyn.

Roberts Draws 22 Democratic Votes

The stampede to confirm Judge John Roberts as the 17th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court roared through the full Senate Thursday as the chamber voted 78-22 to give President Bush's 50-year-old nominee a lifetime sinecure at the head of the nation's highest and most powerful court.

Roberts's record of opposing expansion of the Voting Rights Act, unyielding allegiance to the corporate interests he served as an attorney in private practice and extreme deference to executive power he served as an aide to President's Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush drew broad grassroots opposition.

People For the American Way, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Human Rights Campaign, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Americans with Disabilities Watch, the National Council of Women's Organizations, the National Council of Jewish Women, Rainbow PUSH, the Fund for the Feminist Majority, Legal Momentum, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Abortion Federation, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and MoveOn.org all expressed strong opposition to the Roberts nomination.

But most senators listened less to the grassroots than they did to Inside-the-Beltway chatter. And the easy confirmation of Roberts indicated that he met the exceptionally low standards that now represent the two-party consensus in Washington when it comes to judicial selection.

Every member of the Senate Republican Caucus voted for Roberts, including Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, a frequent dissenter from the party's conservative doctrines who is running for reelection in 2006 with the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the reproductive rights advocacy group that strongly opposed the nomination because of Roberts's repeated refusal to answer questions about whether the Constitution's privacy protections extend to a woman's right to choose. (Notably, one Republican who is facing the voters this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was an outspoken opponent of confirming Roberts because, Bloomberg indicated, he feared that the nominee could turn out to be a judicial activist who would use his position and attack precedents that guarantee reproductive rights.)

The lockstep Republican support would have been enough to confirm Roberts with relative ease. But the nominee also fully half the votes cast by Democrats. Twenty two Democrats voted in favor of confirmation -- including frequent critics of the administration's judicial picks, such as Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Wisconsin Russ Feingold. So too did Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, who left the GOP caucus in 2001 to work with the Democrats. In addition to Byrd, Leahy and Feingold, Democrats who voted to confirm Roberts included Montana's Max Baucus, West Virginia's Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, Delaware's Tom Carper, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and Kent Conrad, Connecticut's Chris Dodd, South Dakota's Tim Johnson, Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Michigan's Carl Levin, Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, Washington's Patty Murray, Florida's Bill Nelson, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Colorado's Ken Salazar and Oregon's Ron Wyden.

All 22 votes against Roberts came from Democrats -- including a number of moderates who are either strong supporters of reproductive rights (such as California's Dianne Feinstein and Washington's Maria Cantwell) or have presidential ambitions that cause them to be particularly sensitive to the concerns of grassroots Democrats (count New York's Hillary Clinton, Indiana's Evan Bayh and Delaware's Joe Biden in this camp).

Ultimately, however, most of the Democratic votes in opposition to confirmation came from the chamber's more reliably progressive members, including: Hawaii's Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, California's Barbara Boxer, New Jersey's John Corzine, Minnesota's Mark Dayton, Illinois's Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, Iowa's Tom Harkin, Massachusetts's Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, Rhode Island's Jack Reed, Nevada's Harry Reid, New York's Charles Schumer and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow.

The most interesting "no" vote came from Obama. The Illinois senator, who delivered the keynote address at last summer's Democratic National Convention and arrived in Washington and arrived in Washington amid high expectations on the part of liberals, has tended to be a cautious player. The anti-Roberts vote represents one of his first big breaks with the two-party consensus and could indicate that he will be an important player in what is expected to be an at least somewhat more engaged debate over President Bush's nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Support the Anti-Cronyism and Public Safety Act

"Crony capitalism," Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer writes this week, "is the name of the Republican game."

Scheer couldn't be more correct. The headline of the lead business story in September 28th's Washington Post is a good example: "Hurricanes Give Lobbyists Hope." The article reports that with Congress dangling as much as two hundred billion dollars in hurricane-related aid, lobbyists for oil companies, airlines and manufacturers are clamoring to get their cut as they work to get regulations waived so oil companies can build (dirty) new refineries which skirt EPA rules and so the airlines can go belly up on their pension obligations.

(For more on predatory profiteering in New Orleans and the Gulf region, read Naomi Klein's recent searing investigation for The Nation and check out recent Doonesbury strips where the ever-opportunistic Duke is characteristically in tune with the latest political currents.)

The devastating hurricane fallout is also proving to be a windfall for President Bush's supporters and handlers. GOP-connected companies like Fluor, Bechtel, and, of course, Halliburton, are quickly raking in tens of millions on no-bid contracts. (Presumably no one checked references for these companies' recent work in Iraq.)

And did you know that some of these corporations are clients of lobbyist Joe Allbaugh, who was Bush's campaign manager in 2000, then Bush's first appointee to head FEMA, then the man to recommend his now-infamous replacement, Michael Brown? Talk about crony appointees!

Allbaugh and Brown are just two of many good examples of why it's so important to support the Anti-Cronyism and Public Safety Act--introduced to the House on September 27 by Henry Waxman and Nancy Pelosi. "Bush has handed out some of the country's most difficult and important jobs--leadership positions in public safety and emergency response--to politically well-connected individuals with no experience or qualifications," Rep. Waxman said. "This common sense legislation will end this practice and ensure that public safety is back in the hands of those who are trained and experienced in protecting the public." (Click here to play the "Crony or Phony" game for more amusing examples of the president's crony appointees.)

The bill would require any presidential appointee for a public safety position to have proven, relevant credentials for that position. In addition, the legislation bars from appointment to an agency any individual who has been a lobbyist for an industry subject to the agency's authority during the preceding two years. Click here to write your elected reps, letting them know that you expect their support for this bill which would go a long way toward draining the crony cesspool in our capitol.

Exposing the Culture of Corruption

Today's indictment of House Majority leader Tom DeLay is a sign that there is some accountability in our capitol. Over the last year, a small group of public interest organizations have led the charge against DeLay--and done commendable work in bringing his abuses to public attention.

One invaluable group is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics (CREW) in Washington. CREW's work also shows why Democrats--even as they rightly expose DeLay's corruption, and the abuses of this Republican Congress--should make themselves the party of reform, offering a series of measures to curb lobbyists, expose the backrooms to sunlight and move towards clean elections that limit the role of big money in politics.

For more on CREW's efforts to bring accountability and transparency to our democracy, click here to read a piece on CREW I posted last March.

DeLay Indictment: Beyond Damage Control?

Minutes after the news hit that a Texas grand jury had indicted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on one count of criminal conspiracy in a case of alleged campaign money laundering, I was in a Washington power-lunch restaurant for a prearranged encounter with Eric Dezenhall, a former Reagan administration official who is one of the top crisis management experts in town (and a writer of entertaining novels on politics, the mob, and celebrity). As I sat down at the table, I said, "The obvious question is...." Dezenhall nodded. He knew. But before he could say anything, a message came in on his Blackberry from a reporter for a major newspaper: had Dezenhall yet been retained by DeLay? He had not. He usually does not handle political cases; he prefers corporations and celebrities. But as DeLay was preparing to step down temporarily as majority leader (as is required by a House rule the GOPers tried to eliminate earlier this year), Dezenhall was happy to think aloud about what a damage-control strategy for DeLay might entail.

"The first thing he must do," Dezenhall said, "is to realize that his objective is to get acquitted, not to look good. He must understand that damage control does not equal damage disappearance. He has to save what is save-able. He might not be able to save everything: his freedom; his political career, and his financial prospects. His life has changed; he has to focus on acquittal." At the same time, he added, DeLay has "to stick with his brand and fight back savagely." And will he depict himself as a martyr being crucified because of his devotion to the conservative cause? I asked. "What does he have to lose at this stage?" Dezenhall answered. "He has to dig in, stay in character and depict the indictment as unholy and agenda-driven. Show contrition? Nah, that's total horseshit."

Dezenhall also noted that from this day on, DeLay's target audience is the to-be-named-later jury that will hear the criminal case against him: "He and his advisers have to concentrate and what will work with a Texas jury. A media roadshow involving someone in a legal case never pays dividends. And DeLay is sufficiently divisive and that does not lend himself well to a careful TV interview. What does pay off is whipping up the preexisting prejudices of the the jury pool." While Dezenhall said that DeLay ought to "speak up within the confines of his brand," he noted that DeLay "is always vulnerable to coming off looking mean, and mean does not go well with juries." (Before DeLay became majority leader, Representative Curt Weldon, a GOP hawk, once observed, "We need someone who can go on national TV and present a good, positive image of the Republican Party and not a mean-spirited image.")

DeLay's team, Dezenhall continued, may also consider playing the leak game. With DeLay indicted on a conspiracy charge, it could be that Travis County DA Ronnie Earle flipped one of the coconspirators. There are several ways of establishing a conspiracy charge--say, obtaining memos or emails that lay out the conspiracy--but one clear way is by obtaining the testimony of one of the schemers. If Earle does have an insider spilling all, DeLay will need to undermine that witness--perhaps before any trial. This could lead to a "media game," Dezenhall said. "Things are leaked to get the person or people who were flipped. This will be done through leaks to the media. The point from DeLay's perspective is, don't love me, but hate him." Above all, Dezenhall added, DeLay has to proceed with the understanding that he "cannot get people to change their fundamental perception of him."

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Don't forget about DAVID CORN's BLOG at www.davidcorn.com. Read recent postings on Bill Frist, a rightwing cat fight, Bush's photo-opping and other in-the-news matters.

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Shortly after this conversation, it looked as if DeLay had been at the table with us. In a videotaped statement--which precluded questions from reporters--DeLay proclaimed that Earle was a "rogue district attorney," who had brought "one of the weakest and most baseless indictments in American history." DeLay claimed, "I have done nothing wrong." He noted that everyone of the "frivolous allegations" previously tossed at him by opponents had ben dismissed. That's not precisely true. The weak-kneed House Ethics Committee last year issued two reports that showed that DeLay had improperly pressured a fellow House Republican to vote for George W. Bush's Medicare legislation (offering to endorse the member's son in a congressional primary if the member voted the right way), had improperly (through his staff) asked the Federal Aviation Administration to find a plane with Democratic Texas legislators who had left the state to thwart a DeLay redistricting scheme, and had improperly held a golfing fundraiser with energy executives when energy legislation was pending in Congress. For all this, DeLay received a few taps on the wrist. The ethics committee noted that three fundraisers for a political action committee linked to DeLay and eight corporate donors to this PAC had been indicted for allegedly funneling illegal contributions to GOP state candidates. Now that DeLay has been indicted as well in this case, will the ethics committee undefer action?

Besides all this, DeLay has been implicated in other rule-bending or -breaking episodes. In 1999, the ethics committee privately chastised him for threatening an industry lobby group for daring to hire a Democrat. The Washington Post once quoted an unnamed lobbyist who claimed DeLay would not allow him to plead his client's case to the GOP leadership because he had not donated to Republicans. (Can you say "extortion"?) And, more notably, DeLay has been drawn into the net of the wide-ranging scandal involving Jack Abramoff, the indicted GOP lobbyist who allegedly bilked Indian tribes, who allegedly commited wire fraud (in a Florida casino deal that ended up with one of his minority partners being murdered allegedly by hit men), and who apparently picked up the tab for overseas trips with DeLay.

The Texas indictment--in which DeLay and his associates are accused of illegally running corporate contributions through the national Republican party in order to skirt the state ban on corporate donations to local candidates--is but one questionable episode in DeLay's history. But it is now the biggest and most direct threat to his future. Conviction could lead to a fine and imprisonment--and removal from the House. His lawyer quickly dismissed the indictment as a "skunk." And DeLay came out hammering. But, as Dezenhall pointed out, there is only so much DeLay can do. Spin cannot derail the criminal proceedings underway. A judge and a jury will have the last word on this indictment. The former exterminator who became arguably the most powerful man on Capitol Hill (see my piece on how he took control of NASA) is at the mercy of others whom--we assume--he cannot bully. And the damage to come may end up being beyond his control.

A Texas Lawman Indicts Tom DeLay

Local lawmen don't usually involve themselves in the affairs of state. It is their job to indict crooks and put them behind bars.

But when the affairs of state are corrupted by crooks, sometimes only a local prosecutor has the skills -- and the sense of duty -- that are required to address the crisis.

That explains why Wednesday's criminal conspiracy indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who essentially runs the Congress, came not from Washington but from Austin.

The trail of sleaze left behind as DeLay has traversed the American political landscape over the past two decades grew so long and so foul that it begged questions about whether any legal action would be sufficient to clean up the mess made by the toxic Texan. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency has no program for cleaning up political Superfund sites like the one created by DeLay and his associates, so the nation's only hope rested with a courageous Texas district attorney and a grand jury that had until this week to decide whether to indict the man who has done far more than George W. Bush or even Dick Cheney to turn Washington into a cesspool and the promise of American democracy into an ugly lie.

DeLay, who had a history of being disarmingly blunt about the pay-to-play commitments he expected from campaign contributors, and who secured the Congressional majorities needed to deliver for his corporate "partners" by warping the redistricting and electoral processes of his home state and others around the country, turned the Republican Party into what it is today: The most thoroughly corrupted political entity this side of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo. (So complete is DeLay's control of the GOP that only a renegade Republican bsuch as Connecticut Representative Chris Shays was willing to admit the obvious: that the Texan's ethical lapses have begun "hurting this Republican majority.")

The Texas congressman, who after the indictment was forced to step down at least temporarily as Majority Leader, was so powerful that even Democrats in Washington treated him with kid gloves. Members of the opposition party might squawk when DeLay oversaw the redistricting of a half dozen Congressional colleagues out of their jobs, or when he warped the rules of the House to hold a trade vote open long enough to "break the arms" that were necessary to "win" it. They might even toss an ethics complaint his way. But, for the most part, top Democrats let the Republican representative known as "The Hammer" pound the political process into a shape that served his sordid ambitions. Though he was not actually the Speaker of the House, everyone knew that DeLay -- who admitted he was "too nuclear" to hold the high-profile Speaker's position when he gave it to his hapless sidekick, Denny Hastert, in 1998 -- ran things.

So it fell to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to press the case that DeLay and two of his longtime associates -- John Colyandro, the former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political action committee -- had engaged in a criminal conspiracy to violate Texas campaign finance rules outlawing corporate contributions. Earle was the right man to make the case. With almost three decades of experience as the elected district attorney for a county that is the seat of state government in Texas, he has more experience prosecuting political corruption than just about any lawyer in the country.

Under Texas law, it is the Travis County District Attorney (who serves the capital city of Austin), not the state attorney general as in most other states, who is responsible for prosecuting criminal acts at the state level. Earle has taken that responsibility seriously, setting up a public-integrity unit that has a number of prominent politicians -- 12 Democrats and 3 Republicans -- with a record of success so impressive that the district attorney has been able to avert moves by angry legislators in both parties to cut the funding for the public-integrity unit or transfer its authority to the attorney general's office.

Earle, a Democrat, has survived the assaults on his power to prosecute political wrongdoers because of his willingness to indict members of his own party and because of his own political purity --- he once filed charges against himself for submitting a campaign finance report one day late.

Now that Earle has secured indictments of DeLay and his associates, however, he will be the target of one of the crudest smear campaigns in American political history -- indeed, it has already begun. Republican operatives and their media allies claim the prosecutor is targeting DeLay for partisan reasons, while DeLay claims that "Ronnie Earle is trying to criminalize politics."

Don't believe it. Ronnie Earle is trying to get the criminals out of politics.

Bush Tries on the Cardigan

"Our energy problems have the same cause as our environmental problems -- wasteful use of resources. Conservation helps us solve both at once." -- Jimmy Carter, 1977

Despite the quagmire in Iraq, his bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina and mounting concerns about the U.S. economy, President Bush has not yet delivered his "malaise" speech.

But as times get tough, Bush is borrowing a page from former President Jimmy Carter and becoming the nation's top pitchman for conservation. That's a bold move for a conservative Republican, as Bush's ideological compatriots have spent the better part of three decades dissing Carter for urging Americans to sacrifice rather than put the pedal to the medal.

Ever since a weary and frustrated Carter tried to get the country to think about the need for an energy policy by referring to a national "crisis of confidence" during a speech to the nation on June 15, 1979 -- Carter didn't actually use the term "malaise" in that speech, but he uttered the "m" word in reference to it several days later and the term stuck -- conservatives have ridiculed the nation's 39th president for his supposed weakness and willingness to surrender to circumstance.

Above all, the attacks have focused in on the fact that the former president, who during the 1979 energy crisis appeared on television wearing a sweater to urge that Americans turn down thermostats, responded to the great challenges facing the nation by preaching the dreaded ethic of conservation.

Carter has taken a lot of hits over the years. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole dismissed him as a "southern-fried McGovern," while author Steven F. Hayward (The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry) says the big problem of the Democratic Party is that it has been "Carterized." For the uninitiated, that translates as wimped out. Former Reagan administration aide Mona Charen has described Carter as "sniveling." Fox blowhard Sean Hannity delights in characterizing the ex-president as "weak." And historian David Oshinsky -- a far more thoughtful and moderate commentator than Charen or Hannity -- probably captured the conservative critique best when, in a New York Times book review a few years back, he mocked the image of "Jimmy Carter battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater" and declared that Carter's talk of conservation and sacrifice "made a gloomy decade seem positively morose. His motto could have read: 'The fun stops here.'"

But now, almost a quarter century after he left the White House, Carter has found a Republican ally.

Responding to rising concern about shortages of gasoline and spikes in energy prices caused by the havoc Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have wrecked in the refining regions of the Gulf Coast, President Bush has delivered a distinctly-Carteresque call for conservation.

Bush is urging people to avoid unnecessary car trips and preaching that, "We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy."

Bush even promised, in another echo of Carter, that the federal government will take the lead. "If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees," the president said this week. "We can encourage employees to car-pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There's ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."

The president is right about the wisdom of conservation, and the need for the government to lead -- even if his own administration's energy policies make a mockery of Carter's wise conservation proposals of the 1970s. Sure some will dismiss Bush's conservation call as just the latest act of post-Katrina political theater scripted by Karl Rove. But who knows? Perhaps Bush, who has staked his presidency on a global crusade to defend energy supplies from threats to "the American way of life," may yet come to recognize that Carter was right when he said of the need to commit to conservation: "If we fail to act soon, we will face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions."

So let's not dismiss Bush as a hypocrite just yet. Give the guy a chance to find the right cardigan. Maybe he'll even bring back the wood stove that Carter used in the White House living quarters -- and that Ronald Reagan ordered removed, along with the the solar panels that Carter had installed. Then its probably only a matter of time before a sweater-sporting Sean Hannity praises his president for launching a new front in the war on terror: Conservation.

Either that, or the conservatives will go back to their tried-and-true practice of responding to energy issues by ridiculing the first and only president to take conservation seriously for the sin of "battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater."