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The Nation

Another Mourning in America

SAN FRANCISCO -- Watching the All-Reagan-All-the-Time television coverage last week might have created the impression that everyone in California was overwhelmed by sorrow over the death of the man who served two terms as the Golden State's governor before becoming the nation's fortieth President. But that was not exactly the case.

To be sure, there was mourning and, while much of it was carefully orchestrated by the Reagan family and their retainers, much of it was also sincere. But, for the most part, Californians did not seem to bemoan Ronald Reagan's passing with any more frenzy or fervor than did other Americans. And in some parts of the state, notably the Bay Area, a lot of people were looking back in anger.

Reagan was never so supremely popular in California as the revisionist histories would have him be. Elected governor in 1966 with 56.6 percent of the vote, Reagan was re-elected in 1970 with just 52.8 percent. The next time he faced the state's voters in a general election, as the Republican nominee for President in 1980, he fell to 52.7 percent. But, at least that year, he ran two percentage points better in California than he did nationally. By 1984, the last time California voters would have an opportunity to officially assess the man who was so closely associated with their state, Reagan ran a full percentage point behind his national showing--and in San Francisco, a remarkable 67.4 percent of voters cast their ballots for Reagan's Democratic challenger, Walter Mondale.

From 1985 on, Reagan consistently had a lower presidential job approval rating in California than he did nationally. Indeed, in the last full year of Reagan's presidency, while he maintained better than 50 percent approval ratings nationally, he fell to the mid-forties in California.

In San Francisco, where Reagan lost election after election, the city's Chronicle newspaper noted after the 40th president's death that, "San Francisco's relationship with Reagan has always been unhappy and uneven."

That was true even on Friday, as the television networks provided breathless coverage of the former President's funeral service at the National Cathedral in Washington and the internment ceremony at Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley. In one San Francisco neighborhood that a Chronicle writer visited Friday, the newspaper reported, "none of the television sets in bars, barbershops, or appliance stores was turned to the Reagan funeral coverage. In the neighborhood, which has a large gay and lesbian population, the paper also pointed out that "none of the ubiquitous rainbow flags that whipped in the wind Friday afternoon was lowered to half-staff."

In a city that, perhaps more than any other, felt the devastating impact of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, there is still a great deal of anger over Reagan's neglect during his presidency of acquired immune deficiency syndrome and the death toll associated with it. On the day of Reagan's funeral, roughly a dozen candles burned in the windows of the city's Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center. A sign urged people to remember those who have died as a result of the AIDS pandemic and, noting Reagan's refusal to take the AIDS threat seriously, suggested that it was important to recognize, "His failure, their deaths, our mourning."

Thom Lynch, an activist on AIDS issues, echoed the complaints of many San Franciscans regarding the unrealistically generous interpretations of Reagan's legacy that dominated media coverage of Reagan's death. "The media has gone, in my mind, over the top," Lynch said. "People are willing to give a former President his due, with all the ceremony, but there was a lack of context about his presidency."

What might the proper perspective be? Start, many San Franciscans would suggest, by recognizing that, when it came to the AIDS crisis, Reagan's failure to act was devastating. While activists begged the White House to take the disease seriously, Reagan and his aides refused to address the crisis. That failure, AIDS researchers say, prevented the country from mounting the sort of response that could have saved thousands of lives.

"His silence was deafening," Dr. Mervyn Silverman, who served as director of the San Francisco Department of Health when AIDS was first declared an epidemic in the early 1980s, said in an interview last week. Reagan) "is portrayed as a compassionate and caring individual who brought people out of the doldrums, but his silence on AIDS was tragic."

A Week in the War Against Labor

Somehow it seemed fitting that the week former President Ronald Reagan died, the United States was named as one of the world's most serious violators of worker's rights. The other countries included some of the world's most repressive governments--China, Burma, Belarus and Colombia. According to an annual survey by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the US, "far from being a shining beacon of labor practices," is a country in which "trade union rights violations continue unabated." The report cited the "fierce anti-trade union behaviour" of several American companies, including firings, layoffs and threats of closure after workers sought better pay and conditions. ICTFU also reported that 40 percent of America's public employees, or 6.9 million people, are denied collective bargaining rights.

The same week, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) announced that it is considering a radical change in the law that could further inhibit workers from exercising their freedom of association. The Board--three of whose five members were appointed by Bush--announced that it will review a case that reconsiders the long-used practice of forming a union through voluntary recognition. (In this process, companies agree to recognize a union that has collected signature cards from a majority of workers indicating their desire to join, without forcing workers to go through potentially contentious elections.) According to a statement from the newly formed group American Rights at Work, the NLRB's move could further expose workers to potential intimidation and harassment by employers,a common practice during union organizing drives. "Workers who want a voice on the job need more protection, not less," said David Bonior, Chair of American Rights at Work.

The modern war on labor, ruthlessly waged today by the Bush Administration, was launched by Ronald Reagan. His firing of the air traffic controllers in 1981 set the tone for labor relations for years to come. And he appointed members of the National Labor Relations Board who were hostile to union organizing. As Harold Meyerson observed in the Washington Post, "Roughly a quarter of American workers belonged to unions when Reagan took office. When he broke the PATCO strike, it was an unambiguous signal that employers need feel little or no obligation to their workers, and employers got the message loud and clear--illegally firing workers who sought to unionize, replacing permanent employees who could collect benefits with temps who could not, shipping factories and jobs abroad."

This past week, the United States joined some of the world's most repressive regimes as a violator of working peoples' rights and the NLRB threatened to radically weaken workers' freedom of association. That is Reagan's real legacy to the working people of America.

Reagan's Politics of Passion

Rest assured that the radical reworking of history that America witnessed in the hours after Ronald Reagan died Saturday at age 93 will be temporary. While the over-the-top media coverage and official commentary regarding the fortieth President's passing has made him out to be such a noble figure that otherwise rational people have been heard to suggest that Reagan was the greatest President of the twentieth century, it will not take long for a balancing to begin. In short order, the assessments of Reagan the man, and of his tenure in the Oval Office, will be tempered.

Then, conservatives and liberals will be free to consider ths ideologically-driven--and misguided--President's record with eyes wide open.

For now, however, realism is in short supply--much to the detriment of not just of the historical record but of Reagan's memory.

All of a sudden, the man who redirected tens of billions of dollars away from domestic needs to build up the largest nuclear arsenel on the planet, ran up record deficits, saw members of his Administration investigated and indicted at a staggering rate and, himself, came close to being impeached for allowing aides to create a shadow government that peddled weapons to sworn enemies of the United States and used the profits to fund illegal wars in Central America was remade as a statesman who restored dignity and direction to his country.

While no one should begrudge Reagan's admirers this opportunity to replay those "morning in America" commercials that were deployed with such success during the last of their man's fourth runs for the presidency, it is a bit embarrassing to watch pundits and pols who know better embracing the spin.

The problem with all this hero worship is that the spin underestimates and mischaracterizes Reagan. It reduces a complex and controversial man to a blurry icon with few of the rough edges that made him one of the most remarkable political figures of his time.

That he was remarkable does not mean that he was right. Most of what Reagan did during two terms as governor of California and two terms as President can most charitably be described as "misguided." Aside from his support for abortion rights during his governorship, and his opposition to anti-gay initiatives in California during the late 1970s, Reagan displayed an amazing ability to place himself on the wrong side of the issues--and of history.

Yet, there is something that liberals can--and should--learn from Reagan.

Ronald Reagan was a master politician who understood how to package rightwing ideas in appealing enough forms to get himself elected and, sometimes, to implement his programs. Even when Americans did not like the ideas Reagan was peddling--as in 1984, when polls showed Democrat Walter Mondale's ideas were significantly more popular--they liked Reagan. Throughout his career, Reagan benefitted from the penchant of Americans to embrace politicians who seem to be at ease with their ideology. This sense that true believers are genuine creates confidence in citizens, lending itself to lines like, "Even if you disagree with him, you know where he stands." And such lines translate on election day into votes that frequently cross ideological and partisan lines.

Reagan connected as a conservative by displaying an optimism about his ideology and its potential that most right-leaning politicians before him had lacked. And that optimism transformed the conservative movement from a petty circle of grumbling cynics who believed that every glass was half empty--and probably poisoned--into energetic and, dare it be said, happy warriors on behalf of tax cuts, ever-more-expensive weapons systems, corporate welfare, privatization, deregulation and the blurring of lines between church and state.

In the years after Republican right-winger Barry Goldwater's landslide loss of the 1964 presidential election, many conservatives had doubts about whether they would ever be able to peddle their programs successfully. But Reagan did not doubt. He believed. And his faith was infectious. It helped him beat a liberal Democratic governor of California in 1966 and a moderate Democratic President in 1980. And it permitted a new generation of conservatives to feel they were part of a movement with not just principles but with a future.

As that movement grasped its future, during Reagan's presidency and in its aftermath, liberals--particularly those working within the constraints of the Democratic Party--began to be the ones who entertained doubts. Many Democrats gave up altogether on the liberal values that had carried that party to its greatest successes, and moved to the right. It was a tragic error, for which the Democratic party continues to pay.

The lesson to be learned from Reagan is not an ideological one. His ideology was wrong for America and wrong for the world--something even Reagan sometimes recognized, as when he backed away from the most extreme tenets of the conservative agenda to, for instance, defend Social Security, and when he finally agreed, at the behest of Margaret Thatcher, to negotiate with reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Rather, the lesson to be learned from Reagan is a stylistic one. He loved preaching his conservative doctrines. And he loved battling with liberals at the ballot box, at the debate podium and in the Capitol. He was a conservative first, a Republican second. He showed no respect for party decorum, challenging a sitting Republican President--Gerald Ford--who he felt was too moderate. And he was willing to lose on principle, whether in that 1976 nomination fight with Ford or, during his presidential terms, in fights with Congress over tax policy, foreign affairs or nominations to the US Supreme Court.

Just imagine if Bill Clinton had been as committed to advancing an activist liberal ideology as Reagan was to his conservative agenda. America might have a national health care plan today. Labor law reform could have been a reality, rather than an empty promise. The United States would certainly have a more progressive judiciary. And here's another notion: If Clinton or Al Gore had put as much energy and enthusiasm into educating Americans about and promoting a liberal agenda as Reagan did for his conservative ideals, the United States would today have a different Congress and President.

This willingness to fight so fearlessly and forcefully for his political faith is what made the fortieth President remarkable. It is what inspired conservatives. And it is the one thing that liberals would do well to learn from Ronald Reagan.

Protest the Occupation of Iraq

With the legitimacy of the US occupation of Iraq falling further in doubt, the Bush Administration has turned to the UN for help. However, Tuesday's Security Council resolution approving a new interim government does nothing to alter the fact that Iraq is still an occupied country. Indeed, the US government announced today that it is increasing the number of US soldiers stationed in Iraq from 140, 000 to 145, 000, despite earlier projections of a troop reduction.

As long as Iraq remains under occupation the violence will not end. With neither of this year's major-party presidential candidates offering a clear plan for the prompt return of US troops from Iraq, United for Peace and Justice has issued an urgent appeal to get our troops home. It aims to get tens of thousands of signatures on two letters, one to President Bush, the other to John Kerry, calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq. The campaign will culminate in a weekend of nationwide protests on June 26 and 27, jointly organized with Win Without War.

Click here to add your name to the letters--and be sure to pass this alert on to others.

'Mad as Hell'

There's a stealth issue in this presidential campaign that could go far in determining the election results. I'm talking about the rising gas, phone, electricity, milk and cable prices that are damaging millions of hard-working families struggling to live in George W. Bush's America. In addition to paying $2-plus per gallon prices at the pump, consumers are getting squeezed at the supermarket--shelling out as much as $4 per gallon for milk.

Other staples are going through the roof. Since 1996, cable rates have risen 56 percent, besting inflation by nearly a factor of three. Sen. John McCain recently pointed out that consumers are getting bilked: "When it comes to purchasing cable channels, consumers have all the choice of a Soviet election ballot. One option: Take it or leave it."

According to an exhaustive study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Enron and other electricity giants manipulated California energy markets to boost wholesale electricity and natural gas prices to make a financial killing. In 2001, electricity prices soared in the western United States, as blackouts became routine and millions of consumers got gouged. Looking ahead and perhaps no farther than next week, phone rates may well rise now that a federal appellate court has scuttled regulations that had saved consumers $11 billion annually on their phone bills. Bush has refused to appeal the phone rate court ruling, a decision that will virtually guarantee higher phone bills for nearly 50 million customers.

This Administration has sided with its corporate cronies on these and other issues. Under Bush many families have had to face tuition hikes, state service cuts and sky-high health care costs. Bush's tax giveaways have boosted the corporate bottom line and helped the wealthiest individuals. Hard-working families have received little to nothing in return.

This White House is addicted to deregulation. It has flung open the doors to its corporate contributors. Cronies like Enron's Ken Lay called the shots in the corridors (and commissions). The FCC's Michael Powell led the fight to raise the media ownership caps, generating momentum for corporate consolidation, stifling diversity and undercutting localism in communities nationwide. Despite valiant efforts by Democratic members of the FCC, the Commission has refused to take action on rising consumer cable rates.

Whether it's mad cow disease or dairy prices, the Administration stands pat while consumers take the hit.

The bitter fruits of deregulation are caught on the recently released Enron traders' tapes. Gloating about how they successfully cheated "poor grandmothers" out of their life savings, these traders show a cynical contempt for people. When one trader gets wind of a transmission line fire that caused a power failure, "Burn baby, burn" is his response.

But, so far, most politicians have failed to become the champion of consumers who are being hit hard in their pocketbooks where it hurts. One Washington communications lawyer told the LA Times: "If you tell this story as part of a larger discussion about the rising price of milk and gas, then suddenly three things make a pattern and you have a campaign issue."

Look at what happened in Florida--not an inconsequential state this November. When state regulators--at industry's urging--proposed a $350 million hike in phone rates, Floridians flooded those regulators with more than 7,000 letters decrying their decision. The regulators responded--they changed the decision.

According to some analysts, the issue of rising phone bills has the potential to sway the presidential race in four closely contested states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In Fort Worth, Texas, the cable manager received numerous complaints that the local provider Charter Communications was forcing large cable packages down people's throats, making consumers pay for channels they never even watched.

John Kerry ought to step up and confront the Baby Bells, cable companies and energy conglomerates. His recent statement against media consolidation suggests Kerry understands this is an issue that resonates with voters across the political spectrum. He could side with consumers who are under siege by an Administration that never met a regulation it didn't want to destroy.

But politicians, including Kerry, are lagging behind and failing to seize the opportunity to protect people's pocketbooks. In the meantime, we may see corporate greed and Administration-sanctioned gouging rousing consumers to take action. To paraphrase that great Paddy Chayevsky film Network, we may be at a moment when the American people are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

For more information:

""Bush Backs off Rule that Eased Phone Line Fees"
Stephen Labaton, New York Times, June 10, 2004

"FERC Finds Widespread Energy Manipulation in 2000 Energy Crisis"
SRIMedia.com, March 27, 2003

"FERC Says Power Firms Maybe Gamed Markets"
Hil Anderson, UPI, Insightmag.com

"Rising Cable Television Rates Become Election Year Issue"
Bobby White, Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Texas Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, April 12, 2004

"Got Cash? Milk Prices on the Rise"
Donna Balancia, Florida Today, May 9, 2004

"Got More Money? Milk Prices Rising"
Romeo Cantu, KGBT4.com , June 8, 2004

"Could Telephone Rates Become a Campaign Issue?"
Jube Shiver Jr., LA Times, June 1, 2004

"Milk Still Fortifies the Bones, but What about the Wallet?"
June 7, 2004, Lydia Polgreen, New York Times

"Enron's Awesome Cynicism"
New York Times editorial, June 6, 2004

"Kerry Comes out Against Big Media....Sort of"
Timoth Karr, Mediachannel.org, June 9, 2004

Reagan and the Media: A Love Story

What is it about Republicans and their distrust of the mainstream media? As most news outlets are portraying the dead Ronald Reagan as an iconic and heroic figure, the Pew Research Center has released a survey that shows GOPers trust the major media organizations much less than Democrats. Only 15 to 17 percent of Republicans believe the network news shows are credible. Even Fox News Channel is trusted by only 29 percent of Republicans; CNN is trusted by 26 percent of this band. About a third of Democrats said they have faith in the networks, and 45 percent said they consider CNN credible. (Only one in four Democrats considered Fox a trustworthy news source.) The Pew report notes, "Republicans have become more distrustful of virtually all major media outlets over the past four years, while Democratic evaluations of the news media have been mostly unchanged."

But doesn't the current Reaganmania in the media undercut the old conservative bromide that the media is a dishonest bastion filled to the brim with liberals seeking to undermine Republicans? On NPR, interviewer Susan Stamberg eagerly participated in the rah-rah and raved that Reagan was an "extremely handsome" and "physically vibrant guy," saying little about his policies. CNN's Judy Woodruff repeatedly referenced Reagan's "extraordinary optimism" and reported that "everyone admired" his marriage with Nancy Reagan. Crossfire initially booked only Reagan friends, aides, and admirers. The Washington Post has devoted far more inches to the man then his policies. There have been some voices of gentle criticism. But mostly it's been a gushfest, as if the divisive and bitter battles that occurred on Reagan's watch--over his trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy, his contra war in Central America, his severe cutbacks in social programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, his effort to expand the nuclear arsenal, his firing of 13,000 air traffic controllers, his defense of the apartheid regime of South Africa--never happened. (For a cheat sheet on the worst of the Reagan years, see this piece I wrote in 1998.) As this week's lead editorial of The Nation (drafted by yours truly) notes, "It's as if Gore Vidal coined the phrase 'United States of Amnesia' for the moment of Ronald Reagan's death."

Much of the media coverage accepted and promoted--as fact--the right's favorite mantras about Reagan: he won the Cold War, he renewed patriotism, he was a lover of freedom and democracy. (For a challenge to that last point, see my piece at TomPaine.com.) There was little in the way of counterbalance. His role in the demise of the Soviet Union remains a question of historical debate, yet he has been depicted as the man who brought the Commies to their knees. Even Democrats got into the act. Senator Barbara Boxer of California praised Reagan because America "regained respect" in the world during his presidency. (She was trying to make a not-too-subtle point about the current occupant of the White House, but she should go back and check what she had to say about Reagan's foreign policy in the 1980s.)

Strong. Optimistic. Visionary. Reagan was described in warm, fuzzy and glorious terms. In the coverage that I've seen, there was little discussion of his less positive features, such as his not infrequent flights from reality. While commander-in-chief, he commented that submarine-based nuclear missiles once launched could be recalled. They cannot. Of the brutal military in El Salvador, he said, "We are helping the forces that are supporting human rights in El Salvador." (These forces--backed and trained by the US government--massacred 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote in December 1981, and the Reagan administration denied this mass murder happened.) Justifying his constructive engagement policy with the racist government of South Africa, he said, "Can we abandon this country that has stood beside us in every war we've ever fought?" The leaders of the ruling Afrikaners of South Africa had been Nazi sympathizers. He also claimed that segregation had been eliminated in South Africa--when blacks still did not have the right to vote and were banned from certain areas and facilities.

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After you read this article, check out David Corn's NEW WEBLOG on the Bushlies.com site.

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Reagan maintained that real earnings were increasing in the United States when they were decreasing. In 1983, he said, "There is today in the United States as much forest as there was when Washington was at Valley Forge." But the US Forest Service estimated only about 30 percent of forest lands of 1775 still existed 208 years later. He once told the story of a brave WWII bomber commander who stayed behind with an injured subordinate and went down with the plane, noting that this commander was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News checked and found no such event had occurred--except in a 1944 movie. In 1985, Reagan quipped, "I've been told that in the Russian language there isn't even a word for freedom." There is; it's svoboda. In the 1987 book, Reagan's America: Innocents at Home, Gary Wills notes that on two occasions, Reagan told visitors to the White House that when he was in the military he had filmed the Nazi concentration camps. That was false. He had served in Los Angeles, where he had made training films.

Even Reagan's devotees could not avoid the obvious. In Triumph of Politics, David Stockman, Reagan's White House budget director, writes of one meeting with the boss: "What do you do when your president ignores all the palpable, relevant facts and wanders in circles? I could not bear to watch this good and decent man go on in this embarrassing way. I buried my head in my plate."

But now Reagan is hailed as a decisive and passionate leader. Few of the examples above are included in the glowing media coverage. How do the media-bashers of the right account for that? On NPR, the subject of Reagan's drifts from reality was politely raised by Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan during an interview with David Gergen, who was communications director for Reagan. Gergen's response was illuminating. Here's the exchange.

Conan: Hmm. For a while, the press used to keep a running record of his malapropisms, his mistakes and things that he'd gotten wrong, facts he'd remembered from the movies that he presented as real. After a while, they stopped because people didn't care.

Gergen: Well, that's right. You know, I was one of the people that had to keep a total on those things and he'd ask me to go check them out. He had said during--after he became president, he said, 'I want you to go look up these various things that I said that people accuse me as being wrong and let's get the record straight.' So I went and looked up--you know, he said during the [1980] campaign that trees kill more people than--pollution from trees kills more people than--from pollution from automobiles. Well, as you can imagine, the press had a field day with that. They all went crazy and he said that in New Hampshire....And there were a lot of things like that. You know, '50 taxes on a loaf of bread,' and there were not 50 taxes on a loaf of bread. As to the pollution issue, there is a question about--it's a little bit like cows: Do cows cause pollution? There are some issues that scientists raise, but of course, trees by and large are very good for us.

I came to defend him, Neal, on the basis on some of these things, that Reagan was telling larger truths, that--I went out and defended him once, you know, 'You've got to remember the importance of parables in life. Don't try to use every one of these stories as an absolute truth to see them in parables.' And I think that's the way the country saw him. I got a lot of grief for saying 'parables.' I got attacked by some people. But I think the country did see them as sort of stories that pointed to larger truths rather than stories that were necessarily, you know, grounded in a day-to-day reality. I mean, he remembered things out of movies he thought actually happened.

I'm not going to second-guess Conan, who did not follow up on this point, but isn't one obvious question: what was the "larger truth" that was served by Reagan's claim that trees cause pollution? How did it enhance public discourse by making false claims about the amount of taxation levied on a loaf of bread? Parables? Imagine if during the 2000 campaign, Al Gore, caught in factual inaccuracies, had defended himself by saying he was speaking in parables. How would the media have covered that?

It is no fun to kick the dead. And I am not suggesting that journalists, anchors and media commentators do so--especially when the man in the casket was beloved by so many. But it is not unreasonable--or disrespectful--to have an honest discussion about Reagan and his legacy and to acknowledge (and explain why) he was hardly a hero to all. The media too often gave him a free ride when he was president (see Mark Hertsgaard's On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency), and that ride has continued this week.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to the official website: www.bushlies.com. And check out Corn's NEW WEBLOG on the site.

Soros on America's Future

Looking down the list of speakers scheduled to address the Campaign for America's Future's well-attended and well-spoken "Take Back America" conference this week, it was easy to surmise that the most newsworthy remarks would be those of US Sen. Hillary Clinton, US Sen. John Edwards, former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, the Rev. Jesse Jackson or, perhaps, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who was honored for his crusading against Wall Street's excesses and abuses.

Edwards skipped the event, costing himself an opportunity to appear before one of the most energized and engaged progressive audiences that will gather this year--and begging questions about whether he really is ready for the primetime of a vice-presidential nomination. Dean, on the other hand, was front and center, noting the resignation of CIA director Gene Tenet with the fiery declaration that, "It's about time somebody in this Administration resigned over all the misdeeds that have gone on..." Other speakers were equally fierce in their denunciations of the Bush White House, especially NAACP chairman Julian Bond, who told the crowd, "We have a President who talks like a populist and governs for the privileged. We were promised compassionate conservatism; instead we got crony capitalism."

But the most memorable address was a thoughtful and provocative commentary on foreign affairs by an unlikely populist: billionaire George Soros. Identifying himself as someone who had "never been very active in electoral politics," Soros told the crowd of more than 2,000 progressive activists who had come to Washington from across the country that he felt compelled to involve himself deeply in the 2004 presidential election fight because "I don't think this is a normal election."

"This is a referendum on the Bush Administration's policies, the Bush doctrine and its application--its first application, which was the invasion of Iraq," Soros explained. To the cheers of the crowd, the man who has donated an estimated $15.5 million to groups such as the Media Fund and MoveOn.org that are seeking to oust the Republican President described the Bush doctrine as "an atrocious proposition."

"It's built on two pillars," he said. "One, that the United States must maintain its absolute military superiority in every part of the world; and second, that the United States has the right for preemptive action."

Designed to allow the United States to operate on the world stage without international constraints, Soros said, the Bush doctrine has created a circumstance straight out of Orwell's Animal Farm, where "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." In such a circumstance, the Hungarian-born financier said, the rest of the world looks at the United States with a mixture of concern, fear and anger.

That, he explained, is why the 2004 presidential election matters so very much.

"If we endorse the [Bush] doctrine, then we have to take the consequences: the mistrust and rage that is directed at the US today," Soros said. "If we reject it, then the blame belongs where it really should be: namely, in the policies of the Bush Administration. And we have to show that America doesn't stand for those policies."

Soros spoke eloquently to a reality that has yet to be fully impressed on the American people by John Kerry or the Democratic Party. The rest of the world is watching this year's presidential election closely. There is broad acceptence in other countries that Bush assumed the presidency under dubious premises--or, more precisely, as Soros put it, that "he was elected by one vote in the Supreme Court" rather than by a popular mandate. Thus, the 2004 election offers the American people a chance to signal to the rest of the planet that they do not share their President's worldview.

That worldview is shaped by Vice President Dick Cheney, Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and a small circle of men and women who, Soros noted, are "usually described as neoconservatives." He suggested another name: "American supremacists"--who believe that "the United States is the most powerful and therefore it must use that power to impose itself on the world."

That imposition, Soros argued in the most controversial and compelling section of his address, has come at great cost to other countries and other peoples. But it may be costing the United States and the American people even more.

"I think that the picture of torture in...Abu Ghraib, in Saddam's prison, was the moment of truth for us, because this is not what this nation stands for," Soros said, to loud applause from the crowd. "I think that those pictures hit us the same way as the [September 11, 2001] terrorist attack itself--not quite with the same force because [in] the terrorist attack, we were the victims. In the pictures, we were the perpetrators; the others were the victims. But there is, I'm afraid, a direct connection between those two events, because the way that we, President Bush, conducted the war on terror, converted us from victims into perpetrators. This is a very tough thing to say, but the fact is that the war on terror as conducted by this Administration has claimed more innocent victims than the original attack itself."

Those words, fact-based as they may be, brought harsh condemnations from the usual crowd of Bush-can-do-no-wrongers. Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie, who has made no secret of his determination to slander any critic of the President as hater of America, was the first out of the gate.

"For Democrats to say that the abuse of Iraqi fighters is the moral equivalent of the slaughter of 3,000 innocent Americans is outrageous," grumbled Gillespie. "Their hatred of the President is fueling a blame America first mentality that is troubling."

Gillespie was, of course, wrong. Soros went out of his way to note the differences between American values and ideals and the Bush doctrine. But, of course, such subtleties are lost on political cheapshot artists.

In fact, Soros's speech was a deeply patriotic statement, grounded in the high regard of an immigrant for his adopted land. As a man of the world, Soros spoke with sorrow about "the damage that [the Bush doctrine and its application in Iraq] has done to our standing in the world."

"We need an alternative vision," he exclaimed. "We need an alternate vision to reestablish our position in the world."

Speaking of his faith that the American people will reject Bush, and his doctrine, this November, Soros said, "We mustn't turn away from the world because we are increasingly dependent and what happens, what kind of regime prevails in Afghanistan or Iraq, does have a great bearing on our security and on our properity, so we must develop ways of intervening when there is an oppressive regime or a rogue state. But...we cannot do it alone. We must do it in cooperation with others."

Signs of Revival

Thursday's Wall Street Journal reports that "the American left is seeing signs of political revival" as Bush's economic and foreign policies alienate growing numbers of Americans. More people are identifying themselves as "liberals" while fewer are willing to call themselves "conservatives," a term many believe has lost meaning since the fiscal excesses and extremist policies of the Bush Administration have replaced traditional conservatism.

The Journal story reports that this shift in America's political identity is also reflected in the country's reading habits. As John Harwood writes, "The flagship publication of the left, the Nation, claims to have captured the highest circulation of any weekly political magazine." The article continues, "The Nation has seen its circulation grow to 160,000 from nearly 140,000 in mid-2003 and just over 102,000 in June 2001. The latest figure exceeds the circulation of longstanding conservative stalwart National Review, which is roughly 155,500, down from about 159,000 in mid-2001."

In a recent interview with Buzzflash.com, I had a chance to talk about politics, passion, principle, the role of The Nation, and my new book Taking Back America--and Taking Down the Radical Right, (co-edited with Robert Borosage).

Buzzflash.com is a progressive news headline and commentary site that has more than 3.6 million visitor sessions a month. It is dedicated to the principle that an informed public is essential to the preservation of our democracy.

Tenet Heads Into the Cold

CIA chief George Tenet should have left a long time ago. But that doesn't mean he should be the fall guy now.

When Tenet announced his resignation after seven years in the job, he claimed that there was one reason--and one reason alone--for his quitting: his family. In Washington, few believed that. The timing of his departure was rather convenient in that the CIA is about to be blasted by several reports due out in the coming weeks. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has wrapped up its investigation of the prewar intelligence on WMDs. The 9/11 Commission's final report has to be released by the end of July. The administration's chief WMD hunter in Iraq is scheduled to produce a report this summer. And the various investigations into the prison abuse scandal in Iraq could implicate CIA officers. Tenet had good reason to skedaddle before all this incoming arrives. He reportedly tried to argue against the findings of the Senate report (which Senator Pat Roberts, the chairman of the intelligence committee, has characterized as scathing), but ultimately he gave up.

Tenet remained in the spy chief's chair longer than he should have. He should have submitted his resignation--or been fired by George W. Bush--after 9/11, and then again after it became clear there were few, if any, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (See this previous Capital Games column for a reminder of how a pre-9/11 CIA screw-up prevented the FBI from chasing after two of the 9/11 hijackers at least 18 months before the September 11 attacks.) But Bush kept supporting Tenet and insisting that the prewar intelligence had been "good" and "solid."

Bush's defenders have pointed to Tenet's prewar declaration to Bush (per Bob Woodward's Plan of Attack) that the WMD case was a "slam-dunk." This, the Bush-backers claim, proves that Tenet, not Bush, is the one to blame for those embarrassingly absent WMDs, that Bush was not disingenuous or deceitful. He was merely misinformed by his CIA director.

That is not the full story. Bush repeatedly exaggerated the case presented to him by the CIA. He, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice took bad intelligence and made it worse. I have written about this extensively elsewhere (click here to see a catalogue of such Bush misrepresentations), but one notable example is Bush's claim that Iraq had a "massive stockpile" of biological weapons. The National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq produced by the CIA in October 2002 concluded that Iraq had biological weapons, but it was referring to a biological weapons development program. A development program is not the same thing as a "massive stockpile." But that did not stop Bush from claiming Iraq was sitting on a giant arsenal of bioweapons. By the way, the White House conceded last summer that neither Bush nor Rice ever bothered to read the entire 90-page NIE (which contained information challenging the view that Iraq was loaded to the gills with weapons of mass destruction).

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After you read this article, check out David Corn's NEW WEBLOG on the Bushlies.com site.

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Tenet was not responsible for the many exaggerations and misstatements Bush and his gang used to grease the path to war. Tenet and the CIA, for example, did attempt to stop Bush from claiming in his 2003 State of the Union address that Iraq had been shopping for uranium in Africa, but the White House kept the false charge in the speech.

With the announcement of his resignation, Tenet continues to be the central figure in the WMD controversy. This might be viewed as Tenet's last favor for Bush. But Tenet chose a politically inconvenient time to depart. Most CIA-watchers in Washington expected him to leave (or flee) after the election. By saying good-bye now, Tenet tarnished the first good week the White House had in months.

"Good week" is a relative term. This week, the news broke that Bush has consulted with an outside lawyer about the White House/CIA leak investigation, which is still under way; front-page headlines shouted that Bush would be keeping US troops in active duty longer than the usual rotation; and Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi, the favorite Iraqi of the neocons and the Pentagon, was accused of being a spy for Iran and disclosing to Tehran that US intelligence had broken a key communications code used by Iran. (The Chalabi episode seemed to mark Tenet's ultimate triumph over Chalabi, a longtime foe. After The New York Times reported the Chalabi allegations, Chalabi accused Tenet of leaking the information to destroy him.) Still, the appointment of a new government in Baghdad allowed Bush to talk about something that he could depict--or spin--as a hopeful sign. And Bush was on his way to what would, no doubt, be a stirring commemoration of D-Day in Europe. By the middle of the week, Bush campaign aides and other Republicans were saying they believed that Bush--politically--had hit bottom and, with the establishment of the new government in Iraq, was finally pulling out of a months-long nosedive. Then came the Tenet bombshell, which, within hours, was followed by reports that James Pavitt, head of the CIA's operations directorate, would also be resigning.

This is not the sort of news--chaos at the CIA!--that Karl Rove and the White House would prefer to see at the end of a "good week." It could be expected to dominate the weekend chat shows. So if Tenet was being pushed by the White House to leave, it seems he decided to announce his departure time at a time of his own choosing--which sure was not in sync with White House political interests. Does that mean anything? Was it a not-too-hidden signal? Maybe Tenet will explain so in his book. (No, there is not any word that he is pulling a Richard Clarke. That would be a true surprise.)

After Tenet made his announcement, the first indications out of the administration were that Bush would allow the deputy director, John McLaughlin, to serve as acting director for a while, and that no replacement for Tenet would be nominated until after the election. Such a decision may be politically dicey. That would leave Bush open to the charge that he is prosecuting the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism without filling an essential position. (McLaughlin is not generally regarded as director material.) The smart political move would be for the White House to pick Representative Porter Goss, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, for the job. Goss is a former CIA case officer. His committee has been critical of the CIA's prewar intelligence without causing discomfort for the White House. Goss could probably win confirmation quickly. But one cause of concern for the White House might be that any confirmation hearing before the election--whoever Bush nominates--might bring yet another round of attention to those never-found WMDs. (Some neocons quickly suggested that former CIA chief James Woolsey or Michael Leeden, an Iran-contra alumni now ensconced as a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute--aka Neocon Central--be handed the job. This is evidence some neocons live in a bizzaro, fantasy world. Can any neocon cheerleader of the war who was a fan of Chalabi--a suspected Iranian spy--serve as CIA chief? Woolsey's law firm even was a registered foreign agent representing Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress in Washington.)

The White House knows there will be a wave of bad news when the Senate report on the prewar intelligence is released. Why set up the opportunity for another? But it is not yet clear whether the Senate report will go beyond lashing the CIA. Last year, Democrats demanded that the committee not only examine the CIA's performance but also examine the Bush administration's use--or abuse--of the intelligence. Roberts resisted for weeks, and then relented. But how thoroughly did his presumably reluctant investigators pursue that end of the inquiry?

Tenet was responsible for the performance of the CIA regarding 9/11 and the WMDs in (or not in) Iraq. But it was Bush who kept Tenet in the post. More importantly, Bush should be accountable for how he used the material he got from the CIA. It is undeniable that Bush, when presenting his prewar case against Iraq, made false statements that went far beyond the information Tenet and his CIA produced. So Bush could use a fall guy. Is Tenet going out into the cold to become the patsy or to avoid being the mark? Whatever the true reason for Tenet's exit--and maybe he really is quitting for his family--the fellow who still needs to assume responsibility for the WMD scam is the man who received and accepted Tenet's resignation letter.

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DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, "This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research....[I]t does present a serious case for the president's partisans to answer....Readers can hardly avoid drawing...troubling conclusions from Corn's painstaking indictment." The Los Angeles Times says, "David Corn's The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case." The Library Journal says, "Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations....Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough." And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, "I'd like to tell you I've read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that'd be a lie."

For more information and a sample, go to the official website: www.bushlies.com. And check out Corn's NEW WEBLOG on the site.