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Thoughts on the SOTU

1/Bush may want to strengthen marriage in this country but he strained mine last night. Just as he launched into sermon about how "a strong America must also value the institution of marriage," my husband was furious with me for making him miss the end of the Tennessee/Kentucky college basketball game. (Yes, we are a two TV family, but the other one was broken.) And, as for trying "to send the right messages to our children," I did make my daughter watch the speech. Her response was to ask why Bush doesn't propose a constitutional amendment making it illegal for pop stars like Britney to marry if he cares so much about preserving the sanctity of the institution of marriage.

2/The New York Times observed today that the President concluded his address by echoing the words Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote on the day he died in April 1945: "My fellow citizens, we now move forward with confidence and faith." Faith and confidence in this speech? Pleeez. In a time of revolutionary despair, during the Great Depression and World War II, President Roosevelt gave America a vision of hope, confidence and courage and told us that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Instead, Bush just reminded us last night that this Administration has nothing to fear but the end of fear itself.

3/Watching Teddy Kennedy's expressions during the speech almost made up for the fact that there were 71 rounds of applause. (71 rounds? They didn't even get that in Soviet Central Committee meetings.) The first shot showed Kennedy's despair; the second showed his disbelief when Bush brandished the new threat--"weapons of mass destruction-related program activities," by the end Kennedy was downright grimacing. And, in a post-speech interview, the senior Senator from Mass. was literally hopping mad as he lashed out at Bush's mendacity--"see what he does, not what he says," he warned.

4/Hopeful sign of life in the Congressional chamber: the small round of applause which greeted Bush's warning that "key provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire next year."

5/And what was all that stuff about steroids? Was it Bush's way of taking a shot at Arnold in case California's new governor succeeds in getting an amendment passed allowing US citizens born outside of the US to run for President? As Bush warned, steroid use "...sends the wrong message--that there are shortcuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character."

NOTE: Click here for Robert Borosage's "Kitchen Table State of the Union," which offers a true look at America at the dawn of 2004.

Bush's Defiant State of the Union

"No one can now doubt the word of America."

That's what George W. Bush told the United States and the world public in his State of the Union address this evening. He was referring to the war in Iraq, which he defended vigorously in the speech. But this remark made it seem he was oblivious to the fact that many people around the globe believe that the war in Iraq demonstrated that Bush's word is worth nothing. Yes, he did make good on his threat to use military force in Iraq. But he misled America and the world regarding Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. Bush chose not to directly address the issue of MIA WMDs in the speech. Instead, he offered a weak argument, noting that David Kay, the chief weapons hunter, "identified dozens of weapons of mass destruction-related program activities." Programs are not weapons. And Kay's report contradicted key assertions Bush and his aides issued before the war. Bush and Company had claimed Hussein had revived a nuclear weapons program. Kay said, "to date we have not uncovered evidence that Iraq undertook significant post-1998 steps to actually build nuclear weapons or produce fissile material." Bush and his crew had maintained they possessed undeniable evidence Hussein had chemical weapons. Kay reported, "Our efforts to collect and exploit intelligence on Iraq's chemical weapons program have thus far yielded little reliable information on post-1991 CW stocks and CW agent production." In his State of the Union address, Bush said, "Had we failed to act, the dictator's weapons of mass destruction programs would continue to this day." But it remains unclear how advanced those weapons programs were. And, more importantly, Bush had not argued prior to the war that Iraq had to be invaded and occupied to thwart Hussein's programs. Weapons that could be slipped to al Qaeda were the raison de guerre. Has he forgotten?

By now, it should be clear: Bush made the word of America dubious. And in this State of the Union speech, Bush continued his slippery ways, as he passionately hailed the pillars of his presidency: his war in Iraq and his tax cuts. Explaining why the war on terrorism must continue, he noted, "The killing has continued in Bali, Jakarta, Casablanca, Riyadh, Mombassa, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Baghdad. The terrorists continue to plot against America and the civilized world." With such rhetoric, Bush aimed to tie the war in Iraq to the war against terrorism. Yet the link between the two is harder to prove now than ever. The most current evidence suggests that Hussein had no WMDs and maintained no working relationship with al Qaeda. He was a brutal, murderous thug. He was not part of the terrorist challenge the United States faces in the post-9/11 period. But Bush conflates the conflict in Iraq with terrorist attacks elsewhere for the obvious effect.

Bush was confident in his speech. He yielded no ground. "American will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people," he proclaimed--further suggesting that the war in Iraq was somehow necessary for the immediate protection of the United States. He celebrated the controversial Patriot Act and called on Congress to renew it before it expires next year. "The terrorist threat will not expire on that schedule," he effectively quipped.

His administration, he assured Americans, is doing everything to secure the homeland. "Inside the United States, where the war began, we must continue to give homeland security and law enforcement personnel every tool they need to defend us," he said. But he declined to respond to the criticism that his administration has moved rather slowly to enhance security at chemical plants and ports. He also neglected to mention that a report put out by a Council on Foreign Relations task force (headed by former Republican Senator Warren Rudman) noted that the needs of emergency responders are being underfunded by almost $100 billion over the next five years.

Of course, in Bush-land the American economy is doing just swell. Bush cited the obvious stats, concentrating on the recent boost in economic growth. But he also reported, "jobs are on the rise." Does he not read the newspapers? (Oh, I forgot: he has told interviewers that he does not bother with the daily papers.) In December, Bush's "strong" economy created 1000 jobs. That's less than the number of people who attend the average Bush fundraiser. And on Planet Bush, there are no problems with his No Child Left Behind Act--which has been blasted by educators across the country for shackling school systems with arbitrary tests and standards that can cause more harm than good and for shortchanging schools on funds.

Bush proposed more tax cuts and said there was no reason to fret about budget deficits. He urged Congress to extend the various tax cuts it passed last year. "Unless you act," he said, "Americans face a tax increase. What the Congress has given, the Congress should not take away. For the sake of job growth, the tax cuts you passed should be permanent." This was a disingenuous statement. There is nothing wrong with Congress providing temporary tax breaks. In fact, Republicans put expiration dates on the tax cuts in order to keep the size of the package down and within budgetary limits. As for job growth, there is no proof yet (it may come; it may not) that the recent tax cuts will stir significant job growth.

Bush claimed that the budget he will soon send to Congress will "cut the deficit in half over the next five years." Here was the latest installment in a long run of fuzzy math. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Bush's projections "show a large decline in the deficit by 2009 only because the [Office of Management and Budget] figures will omit a series of very likely or inevitable costs in taxes, defense spending, and other areas." The center explains:

"A series of analyses -- including analyses by the Brookings Institution, Goldman-Sachs, and a joint analysis by the business-led Committee for Economic Development, the Concord Coalition, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities -- all have found that recent budget projections omit a number of likely costs that must be added back to gain a realistic sense of the budget deficits we face in coming years. The administration's forthcoming budget is expected to have approximately $200 billion in missing costs in the fifth year."

"Specifically, the OMB figures are likely to exclude the costs of fighting terrorism internationally after September 30, 2004; to fail to reflect the full costs of the Administration's own "Future Year Defense Plan;" to omit the costs of extending relief from the mushrooming Alternative Minimum Tax after 2005; and to omit the costs of extending a series of very popular tax breaks."

Using real-world assumptions, the center calculates that the deficit is likely to rise from $374 billion in 2003 to between $440 billion and $500 billion in 2009. It adds, "The administration's contention that the deficit will be cut in half in the next five years thus is essentially an accounting fiction, derived in large part by omitting very likely or inevitable costs, including costs for proposals the administration itself hopes and intends to submit in the years ahead." Let's see Bush keep his word on his deficit pledge.

Bush peppered the tail end of his speech with references to domestic policy initiatives that have been designed either to steal thunder from the Democrats or to jazz up his social conservative base. To achieve the former, he praised the recently passed Medicare prescription drug benefit and proposed a refundable tax credit that would allow lower-income Americans to buy their own basic health insurance. Then he signaled he would support a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and pressed Congress to pass legislation that would lead to greater federal funding of religious groups that provide social services. In a weird twist, Bush did not refer to his recent space exploration initiative. But he did call for doubling federal funding of abstinence education as a means of combating sexually transmitted disease among teens, for devoting $300 million to a program to assist newly released prisoners, and for sports teams owners, coaches and players to launch a campaign against steroids use in professional sports.

"My fellow citizens," Bush said, "we now move forward, with confidence and faith." At least, the Bush campaign does. The speech was a sign that Bush and Karl Rove see no need to modulate, triangulate, or recalibrate. They have nothing to apologize for. Nothing to explain. They are quite pleased with the path they have charted this past year. They will stay the course. They are not ducking. There is no rope-a-dope. That probably is good news for Democrats. Bush is a fixed target, defiantly standing by his policies and daring his opponents to bring it on.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! 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." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

And, read Corn's Iowa Talking Points.

IOWA: Ten Talking Points

1. It's not the movement, it's the man. Voters vote for a person, not the forces he or she unleashes. Howard Dean did birth a movement of sorts. It has been made up in part of political newcomers outraged by the war in Iraq and George W. Bush's lies. The rise of this Internet-fueled activism was the story of the campaign--until Iowa. When the voting started, the only issue was the candidates, not their troops. Dean was judged on his own. And he did not sufficiently impress the caucus attendees. Was it his gaffes? Did he come across as too angry, too unsteady, or not experienced enough? The reasons don't matter. In the electoral arena, a movement can only go so far as its leader can carry it.

2. The war didn't matter. An entrance poll taken at the caucuses showed that 75 percent of the attendees opposed the war in Iraq. But only 14 percent said the war had influenced their selection of a nominee. This somewhat explains Dean's slide. The candidates who had voted to grant Bush authorization for war garnered 81 percent of the vote. The two antiwar candidates--Dean and Dennis Kucinich--attracted 19 percent. Voters who disagreed with Kerry and Edwards on the war were still willing to support them. Why? Perhaps the old cliche of political consultants provides the explanation: elections are about the future, not the past. Even if voters were on the same side as Dean on the war, it did not mean they believed he would be able to beat Bush or be able to handle the national security challenges that lie ahead. Being right only gets you so far. A candidate has to offer more than that. The Iowa returns indicate the war has not yet become an overwhelmingly divisive--or decisive--political issue.

3. Voters want to be reassured, not merely fired up. Dean had the passion. He pumped up the volume. (He shouted like a madman on election night, promising to win the primaries to come.) His message and method certainly struck a nerve and drew hundreds of thousands of Americans to his campaign. But the Iowa caucuses suggest that Dean did not inspire confidence among caucus goer. Are voters--particularly in the post-9/11 era--looking for leaders who not only can express outrage but who can also project calm and strength?

4. Negative campaigning works. Dean's drop was not entirely of his own making. He was battered by his competitors, and the media attention he drew was often caustic. Negative ads tend to take a toll--especially when they are relentless. Unfortunately for Gephardt, his attacks on Dean also appeared to have damaged his own campaign and created an opening for Kerry and Edwards. Is there a lesson here for the general election? Perhaps. Bush will have $200 million or so to spend in the months before the summer. That can buy a lot of mud to hurl at whoever winds up the Democratic nominee. But also the Democratic nominee will have to figure out how to balance his attacks against Bush with a positive, upbeat message.

5. Special interests are bad. Every Democratic candidate in Iowa bashed special interests. Each promised that if he were elected he would do battle with HMOs, drug companies, insurance firms, agribusiness, power companies and the like. On election night, John Kerry stood before a banner that read, "Fighting for Us," and proclaimed, "I have a special message for the special interests that call the Bush White House home: We're coming. You're leaving. And don't let the door hit you on your way out." This was bad news for the corporate-funded Democratic Leadership Council wing of the party, which has often counseled against class warfare or corporate-bashing. Populist rhetoric (which, of course, is different from populist action) reigns supreme--at least for now.

6. Is money enough? In recent years, the candidate with the biggest campaign bank account at the start of the primary process always bagged the nomination. Dean was in that position before Iowa. His money allowed him to create large organizations in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere, and to fund an advertising barrage in key states. But is the money enough to sustain Dean's candidacy? Will this be the year a candidate with less money triumphs?

7. Can the Democrats count on traditional Big Labor? Richard Gephardt had a lock on the industrial unions in Iowa. They vowed to turn out their members for him. But these promises ended up meaning little. Either the labor unions failed to get their folks to the caucuses, or they failed to persuade their people to vote for the guy they endorsed. In either case, Democrats ought to worry about the ability of the large trade unions to produce vast blocs of votes for the Democratic challenger in November.

8. Dennis Kucinich is not acquitting himself well. Kucinich's 1 percent does not provide much justification for continuing his progressive campaign. But he also committed a misstep when he struck a deal with John Edwards and pledged his voters to Edwards in caucuses where Kucinich would not reach the cutoff. Since Kucinich is running as an antiwar candidate--boasting he will pull the troops out of Iraq faster than the others--it was odd that he forged an alliance with Edwards, who has supported the war in Iraq. Why not Dean, who shares Kucinich's opposition to the war? In any event, this tactical move made little difference in the final results. But it did tarnish Kucinich's status as a stand-by-principles politician.

9. Ban the caucuses. Anyone watching the caucuces on C-SPAN--which was the best reality TV of the season--could see that this is a poor way of choosing a nominee. It's not grassroots democracy at its best. It's chaos. In precincts where candidates do not hit 15 percent, rampant dealmaking ensues, as the other camps try to entice the supporters of the under-15 candidates to join them. How do they do this? By offering them delegate slots and by making arguments that often are factually suspect. The final results, then, do not reflect the true preferences of the people who bothered to attend the caucuses. They are a partial reflection, shaped by whatever wheedling goes on while the "voting" is in process. A primary--and direct voting--would provide a more accurate representation of Iowans' wishes.

10. The pundits know what they're talking about. Before the Dean movement--or bubble--fully emerged, political prognosticators pegged Kerry as the front-runner. He had the stature, the gravitas, the experience, the money. He was, many said (myself included), the default candidate. But Kerry ran a poor campaign and spent months failing to connect. He also devoted too much time and energy to swiping at Dean--which made Kerry look desperate and small. But once he stopped flailing, and once Iowa voters got closer to having to make a choice, Kerry returned to his pre-Dean spot: a by-the-numbers Democratic candidate acceptable (if not inspirational) to many Democratic voters. The pundits had that right. But after the surprising results in Iowa, they would be wise not to make any further predictions for the duration of the race.

DON'T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN'S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! 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." For more information and a sample, check out the book's official website: www.bushlies.com.

IOWA: Caucusing for Kerry, Edwards

DUBUQUE, Iowa -- "We got beat by the nuns," said Carol Petrick, a disappointed supporter of Howard Dean as it became evident that her candidate was going to get whipped by John Kerry when the votes were recorded at Dubuque's Precinct 13 caucus.

For all the talk about how Dean would pull new voters out for the caucuses, only a dozen people turned up to support the former Vermont governor who until last night was widely viewed as the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. A few more showed up for former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who had until recent days been seen as Dean's most serious competitor in Iowa. But when the final tally was taken, neither Dean nor Gephardt had enough supporters in the Windsor Park apartment complex's community room to meet the threshold for winning delegates from Precinct 13.

Instead, the caucus was dominated by supporters of Kerry. While a number of those who caucused for Kerry were members of the Sisters of St. Francis religious order, which is headquartered on this heavily Catholic city's north side, the reality was that support for the Massachusetts senator ran broad and deep in the working-class neighborhood. In that sense, Precinct 13 proved to be a microcosm for all of Iowa, where Kerry scored a major victory in Monday night's first-in-the-nation caucus voting.

"This looks like the start of something big," said Kerry backer Clark Zivojnovich, a union electrician who delighted in noting that most of the people caucusing in Precinct 13 wore white stickers that read, "I'm standing for John Kerry -- He's Fighting for Us."

"People are starting to realize that John Kerry's the only one who can beat George Bush," added Zivojnovich. "And the one thing that matters most to Democrats in Iowa is beating Bush."

While Gephardt and Dean beat each other to pieces in a bitter battle for the support of Iowa Democrats, Kerry surged by arguing that, as a decorated Vietnam veteran, he was best positioned to take on Bush in a fall race that could turn on national security issues.

Second place in Precinct 13 went to the rapidly-rising campaign of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who presented himself as an optimistic populist who was more interested in talking about economic justice than in tearing down his opponents.

"Here Gephardt and Dean were supposed to be the frontrunners, and they just collapsed. It's all Kerry and Edwards," mused Tom Tully, the chairman of this one caucus out of the almost 1,993 that were held across Iowa Monday night.

Precinct 13 was relatively representative of the rest of Iowa. Kerry stunned pollsters and pundits by winning 38 percent of the vote at caucuses across the state, while Edwards secured an equally unexpected 32 percent. Dean mustered only 18 percent. And Gephardt, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988, secured just 10 percent and began making arrangements to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination. Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, the only other candidate who campaigned aggressively in Iowa, won just 1 percent of the recorded votes, as many of his backers threw their support to Edwards as part of a last-minute deal between the candidates.

The caucus in Precinct 13 followed the same pattern as caucuses across Iowa. As the 6:30 p.m. starting time approached, 145 Democrats from the working class neighborhood followed signs with arrows directing them to the caucus room. Tom Tully reminding everyone that, under the arcane rules of the state party, a candidate had to have the support of 15 percent of those present to win delegates to the county convention -- the next step in naming Iowa's delegation to this summer's Democratic National Convention in Boston. He then pulled out a calculator and informed the assembled Democrats that, on the basis of last night's turnout in Precinct 13, a candidate would need 21.75 votes to secure delegates.

Tully rounded that number upward to 22 and announced that it was time for everyone to divide into candidate groups. There were so many Kerry backers that they had to move into an adjoining hallway, which they filled. Inside the room, it became clear that only Edwards had met the threshold, although Gephardt's backers -- many of them union members and retirees -- were close.

That's when the lobbying began.

Sister Gwen Hennessey, a veteran peace and social-justice activist, quickly led the nine Kucinich backers into an alliance with the Edwards backers -- who agreed to allow Sister Gwen to fill one of their delegate slots. A Dean backer made a last-minute ideological appeal to the Kucinich group, noting that Dean and Kucinich had been outspoken critics of the war in Iraq while Edwards voted for the October, 2002, Congressional resolution that authorized President Bush to wage the war: "Are you sure you want to go for Edwards? Dean is antiwar," she said. But the Kucinich backers, noting that Edwards had echoed at least some of their man's populist anti-corporate message, stuck with the North Carolinian.

Most of the Gephardt backers went with Edwards, as well. And the Dean backers, many of whom admitted that they were stunned by the low turnout for their candidate, split among the Kerry and Edwards camps. "I'm really surprised," said Anastasia Bissell, a librarian who proudly wore her blue Dean sticker. "There were so many people at the Dean rallies. But Kerry had Kennedy," she added, referring to Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, an icon among Iowa liberals, who campaigned in Dubuque at Kerry's side.

Bissell complained that the other candidates, and the media, had been brutal in their treatment of Dean. But, as she moved over to cast her lot with the Kerry group, Bissell was already reconciling herself to the reality of a caucus night that had not turned out as she had expected. "I do think that Kerry is electable," she said. "And I do like the fact that he was a war hero in Vietnam who then came home and opposed that war. I think he understands that we need to get our troops out of Iraq, and that's really important."

A moment later, the final vote of Precinct 13 was recorded: 91 for Kerry to 54 for Edwards. That meant Kerry would have seven delegates to the county convention, while four would be counted for Edwards.

The Precinct 13 caucus goers then voted unanimously for a resolution that declared "President Bush led the United States into war in Iraq on the basis of a morally bankrupt policy of preemptive military action against states on his military list" and called for turning over responsibility for stabilizing Iraq to the United Nations. They gave equally overwhelming support to resolutions condemning the development of new nuclear weapons, supporting universal health care and favoring the interests of family farmers over those of corporate agribusiness.

"We may not have won the contest among the candidates, but we won the issues," said Sister Gwen, the Kucinich backer who ended up caucusing with Edwards.

Anastasia Bissell, the Dean backer who finished up in the Kerry camp, was equally philosophical. "I think this is probably what the founders had in mind for America -- this kind of consensus building. People come into a room, and we all disagree. But some of us give up something to achieve a greater goal. And, of course, the greater goal for all of us Democrats is to beat George Bush."

It's Just Opposition, Stupid!

Have you noticed how sensitive some of these Republicans are? When did plain and simple opposition become political hate speech?

After former Vice-President Al Gore delivered a smart, sometimes humorous, and ultimately scathing critique of the Bush Administration's assault on the environment in a speech in New York City last Thursday, GOP Chairman Ed Gillespie characterized Gore's remarks as "political hate speech" and called on him to repudiate such "vile tactics." (Click here for the full text of Gore's speech.)

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay--who dishes it out but can' t take it--had the same overheated reaction to Senator Edward Kennedy's powerful talk last week in which he accused Bush and his advisers of capitalizing on fear from the September 11th attacks and putting "a spin on truth to justify a war that could well become one of the worst blunders in more than two centuries of American foreign policy." (Click hereto read Kennedy's remarks.)

Kennedy's speech, according to DeLay--the man aptly called the Hammer--was a "hateful attack" that "insulted the President's patriotism." Someone's gotta get these guys into a good Con-Law class fast before they brand the Bill of Rights a subversive document because it protects the right to dissent--or what Gillespie calls "political hate speech."

NOTE: Thanks to longtime Nation reader Adam Komisaruk from Morgantown, West Virginia for his help with drafting "Parallel O'Reilly Factor."

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Grover's World

Talking about political hate, did you see the Washington Post's January 12 profile of anti-tax guru Grover Norquist? Norquist, an intimate of Karl Rove is the head of Americans for Tax Reform and the architect of a rightwing infrastructure designed to implement his long-cherished plan to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub."

More recently, Norquist has made comments like "Bipartisanship is another name for date rape," or fantastically compared the estate tax to the Holocaust. (His reasoning: Referring to the supposedly specious argument that the estate tax was worth keeping because it really affected only "two percent of Americans," Norquist went on, "I mean that's the morality of the Holocaust. 'Well, it's only a small percentage,' you know, I mean, it's not you. It's somebody else.")

Now, he's ready to crush and purge. According to the Post profile, Norquist says "Democrats used to anger him." But "he's past angry now. 'Do you get mad at cancer? We'll defeat and crush their institutions, and the trial lawyers will go sell pizza, We're not going to hang them. Most of the the people on the left will be happy in Grover's world. I feel about the left the way Rumsfeld felt about the Iraqis." Welcome to Grover's world. Talk about haters.

NOTE: Thanks to longtime Nation reader Adam Komisaruk from Morgantown, West Virginia for his help with drafting "Parallel O'Reilly Factor."

IOWA: Kerry Runs as JFK

GUTTENBERG, Iowa – John Forbes Kerry, who has moved into the frontrunner position in key polls of Iowans who will set the course of the Democratic presidential campaign at Monday night's critical caucuses, does not mind being confused with another "JFK."

When the Massachusetts senator appeared before Democrats in this Mississippi River town north of Dubuque the other day, he invited questions from the crowd. Barbara Pape, of Guttenberg, raised her hand and, when Kerry recognized her, she began, "Senator Kennedy... Oh, I meant Senator Kerry."

The crowd laughed, and so did Kerry, who quickly interjected, "That's alright. Many, many people do it. It doesn't bother me at all."

In fact, Kerry is doing everything he can to play up his Kennedy connections in eastern Iowa, a heavily-Catholic region of working-class communities and rural areas where it is not uncommon for Democrats to hang photographs of former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the nation's first Roman Catholic president, next to images of the Virgin Mary and their Irish flags.

That's smart politics in these parts. And it seems to be working.

It is on the basis of his support in Dubuque and eastern Iowa that Kerry, who has worked the city and surrounding counties assiduously for more than a year, has resurrected his campaign. Just a month ago, pollsters and pundits were writing Kerry off. The Massachusetts senator who, like JFK, is a decorated US Navy combat veteran with a record of service as a senator from Massachusetts, entered the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination as a presumed frontrunner. But he fell far behind former Vermont Governor Howard Dean in polls of Democrats nationally and in Iowa.

Now, however, the Des Moines Register poll released Sunday shows Kerry in first place with 26 percent support, followed by North Carolina Sen. John Edwards with 23 percent, Dean with 20 percent and former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt with 18 percent.

The Iowa caucuses are notoriously difficult to poll, and Kerry's organization on the ground is not thought to be as strong as operations put in place by the Dean and Gaphardt campaigns. But if Kerry does win Monday night, he will be back in serious contention for the nomination. And it could well be the Kennedy connection in general, and its special resonance in eastern Iowa, that puts him there.

Kerry recognized early on that it is impossible to overplay the Kennedy card in Dubuque. The city's biggest shopping mall is named "Kennedy." So is one of the elementary schools, as well as a major thoroughfare that runs through town. And, campaign memorabilia from the presidential runs of John. Bobby and Teddy Kennedy seems to be everywhere.

"In Dubuque, a lot of people still think that ‘Kennedy' is another word for ‘Democrat,'" explains Michael Breitbach, a native eastern Iowan who runs Breitbach's Farmers' Market Food Store in downtown Dubuque.

So, in addition to visiting the region repeatedly, and in addition to adding an extra dose of Kennedy references to his stump speech whenever he's in the area, Kerry has run a Kennedy-style campaign in Dubuque and the towns north and south of it along the Mississippi. His local campaign literature tells Dubuque-area voters that "People You Trust… Trust John Kerry" and lists endorsements from local Democratic officials named Connolly, Connors and Flynn. It also reminds caucus goers that the senator, who shares the other JFK's Catholocism, is backed by Sister Marlene McDonnell, Sister Corrine Murray, Sister Mary Ellen Dolan and other well-known nuns from Dubuque.

Needless to say, Kerry's Senate record of strong support for abortion rights gets little emphasis here. Instead, the Kerry campaign has emphasized bread-and-butter economic issues and his ties to a certain Massachusetts family.

Kerry has repeatedly brought his fellow Massachusetts senator, Edward Kennedy, to eastern Iowa to campaign for him. Grabbing a line from Howard Dean, Kerry introduced Kennedy at a Sunday night rally in Waterloo by declaring, "This man is not just the conscience of the Senate, the lion of the Senate ... but the undisputed, clear leader of the democratic wing of the Democratic party."

When Kennedy made his second visit to Dubuque on Kerry's behalf the other day, 600 people packed into a local hall. And Kerry, who worked on Kennedy's first campaign for the Senate in 1962, got an "almost-family" blessing from the last of the Kennedy brothers.

Recalling that eastern Iowans were enthusiastic backers of his brother John's presidential campaign in 1960, and of his brother Bobby's campaign in 1968, Kennedy noted that he lost the state when he sought the presidency himself in 1980. He said all would be forgiven if Dubuque Democrats delivered for Kerry on caucus night.

"You are going to have three out of four, and I'm going to forgive you," Kennedy told the crowd. "I'm telling you I want to see every one of you show up at those caucuses, or I'll never forgive you. For the rest of my life, I'll never forgive you!"

Then, Kennedy introduced a candidate with the initials, "JFK." And the Dubuque crowd, properly encouraged, went wild.

IOWA: President Bartlet Hits the Trail

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- President Josiah "Jed" Bartlet's name cannot be found on the list of candidates contending on Monday for votes at Iowa's first-in-the-nation Democratic presidential caucuses. But he is the star of this campaign season.

Everywhere Bartlet goes in Iowa, he draws the biggest crowds. When he steps onto a stage, people start chanting "Bartlet." Reporters hang on his every word. Children ask for his autograph. Adults want to know his thoughts about the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and religion in politics.

Bartlet is, in every sense, the man of the moment.

Unfortunately, he is also a fiction.

"President Bartlet is a fantasy," explains actor Martin Sheen, who plays the character on the NBC political drama, "The West Wing." "Howard Dean is a reality."

Sheen is an enthusiastic supporter of the former Vermont governor, who is locked in a tight four-way contest going into Monday's caucuses with former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

The latest Reuters/MSNBC/Zogby Poll, released Saturday morning, has Kerry with 23 percent, Dean with 22 percent, Gephardt with 19 percent and Edwards with 18 percent. That represents a slight drop for Kerry from the previous day's polling, no movement for Gaphardt and last-minute surges for Dean and Edwards.

Dean will try to improve his position Sunday, with a quick trip to Plains, Georgia, where he is scheduled to attend church with former President Jimmy Carter. Getting a blessing from the man who put the Iowa caucuses on the map when he scored an upset win here in 1976 --and who remains popular in the first-caucus state--is seen by Dean strategists as an extension of their Iowa campaigning. They hope to get a bounce on Monday, when pictures of Dean and Carter will, undoubtedly, be splashed across the front pages of caucus-day newspapers.

But Dean may end up getting just as much of a bounce from another "president."

As the caucuses approached, "West Wing's" Sheen left sunny southern California for snowy Sioux Falls, Mason City and Davenport, where he campaigned almost as vigorously as the candidate himself.

In Iowa, where campaigns that could be made or broken by Monday's voting are pulling out all the stops, celebrity backers are turning up even in the smallest towns. The candidates hope that a little star power will sway wavering Democrats in their direction.

The fast-finishing campaign of John Kerry dispatched songwriter Carole King to make the pitch for him in a Dubuque coffeehouse and an Indianola living room, where she autographed albums, played "You've Got a Friend" on the host family's piano and exclaimed that, "The beauty of this, for me, is coming into a real American town meeting." Dennis Kucinich campaigned across the state last year with country singer Willie Nelson and will close his pre-caucus campaigning by taking the stage Sunday night with a singer half Nelson's age, Ani DiFranco, in Des Moines. Even Dick Gephardt has been appearing in the closing days of the campaign with a "star" suitable to the labor-backed candidate's union hall rallies, International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., the son of legendary labor boss Jimmy Hoffa.

In New Hampshire, the first primary state, filmmaker Michael Moore is expected to hit the trail for retired Gen. Wesley Clark Saturday. And there is talk that Clark might yet get the biggest of his superstar backers, Madonna, stumping on his behalf.

But only one candidate for president has a "president" working the campaign-trail as his surrogate. And, even if he is a make-believe commander-in-chief, Bartlet, er, Sheen is making the most of his association with the White House.

This veteran star of stage and screen knows exactly how to deliver an applause line.

"As the acting president of the United States, I am here to announce that next Monday, Jan. 19, is Howard Dean Day in America!" Sheen declared in Council Bluffs. He said pretty much the same thing in Cedar Falls. And in Cedar Rapids. The response was absolutely consistent: Thunderous applause.

For Sheen, however, this is not just a theatrical performance.

A veteran campaigner for peace and economic justice, the actor got involved in politics long before writer Aaron Sorkin put him in charge of the West Wing. Sheen was an outspoken foe of former President Ronald Reagan's funding of military dictators and Contra rebels in Central America in the 1980s. He has been arrested more than once in protests against weapons systems and the arms race in general. He has marched with farmworkers, trade unionists and antiwar activists. And he is no stranger to the real world of electioneering. He campaigned across the country for Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore in 2000. And he was one of the first prominent players in Hollywood to endorse Dean for the Democratic party's 2004 nomination.

Sheen announced his support for Dean a year ago, when the Vermonter barely rated an asterick in most polls. Like the vast majority of Dean's early backers, Sheen was attracted by the candidate's outspoken opposition to President Bush's preparations for war with Iraq. Sheen, who appeared in a MoveOn.org-sponsored television commercial encouraging Americans to lobby Congress to block Bush's invasion plans, says, "Dean was against the war when we needed someone. That's why I'm with him now."

Sheen delights in Dean's angry denounciations of "Republican-lite" Washington Democrats who have compromised with the Bush administration and the GOP leadership in Congress. Pointing to the fist-pumping, ready-to-rumble crowds at a Dean rally in Des Moines. Sheen declared, "This is the Democratic party I was born into. The party was taken away from us, and now we're getting it back."

Counting himself in with the army of Dean volunteers that has swarmed over the first-caucus state, including large contingents from surrounding states that began arriving by the busload Saturday, Sheen echoes the just-short-of-messianic language of the former Vermont governor's most fervent backers. "We've awakened a movement," he says. "And we've made this election meaningful -- a real referendum on the direction of our country."

Sheen dismisses charges that Dean is too volatile, or too extreme in his style or his stands, to beat Bush next November. "These guys in the White House are in for a surprise if they think they're going to roll over this guy," says the actor, who has no problem with Dean's much-discussed anger. "Anger moves you to justice," says Sheen. "It's a great energy, and it allows you to do great good."

So, is Dean comparable to President Bartlet?

"There are a lot of similarities," Sheen says, noting that the president he plays on TV is, like Dean, a New Englander with a penchant for making bold, often controversial, statements. But, he adds, "President Bartlet is a fictional character. Howard Dean is a reality. And that makes all the difference in the world."

The Dream and Beyond

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously came out against the Vietnam War before he was assassinated in April 1968. And, http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0120-03.htm "> according to David Garrow, King's Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, if King were alive today at age 75, he'd be spending almost every waking hour organizing mass demonstrations against the US occupation of Iraq.

From 1961 to 1966, King somehow found the time to write an annual essay for The Nation on the state of civil rights and race relations in America. Click here to read "Let Justice Roll Down," from the March 15, 1965 issue of the magazine.

Also read King's inspiring Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam, delivered at Manhattan's Riverside Church in April of 1967. It's unfortunately still very timely.

The Arrogance of George Will

The tale of Conrad Black, the media magnate facing inquiries by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department for looting millions from Hollinger International, the newspaper company he controlled, is foremost a story of rotten greed and corporate abuse. But, it's also a tale about media corruption and the lack of journalistic ethics.

"My business is my business. Got it?" That was syndicated columnist George Will's reply when asked why he didn't tell his readers in a column--defending Black's political views on Iraq--that he had been a member of an advisory group set up by Black and had received $25,000 per diem for each meeting he attended.

You'd think that Will's arrogant reply would have elicited quick rebuke--hell, even outrage--from his editors at the Washington Post. Instead, after theNew York Times revealed Will's renumerative affiliation with Black in a front-page story, Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of the Washington Post Writers' Group, peeped up: "I think I would have liked to have known."

So, it was heartening to see the Post's Ombudsman Michael Getler finally weigh in last Sunday. After quoting Fred Hiatt, editor of the Post's editorial page--who argued lamely that Will's "lack of disclosure doesn't strike me as a major lapse"--Getler blasted the Post's influential and widely syndicated columnist for his arrogant failure to disclose his conflict of interest.

"My own view," Getler wrote, "is one that is troubled by this omission. It is important to be reminded, as Hiatt points out, that this financial relationship ended more than two years before the column reference. Yet it seems to me that all journalists and commentators need to be scrupulous in making known any possible conflict of interests, real or likely to perceived. Sometimes it needs to be done in print, but it certainly must be made known to editors, who can make their own decision before publication or distribution. It shouldn't be so easy to just say 'got it' when it comes to conditions for access to the columns of the country's newspapers and magazines."

Or as Gilbert Cranberg, the former Chair of the Professional Standards Committee of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, put it in a letter to theNew York Times two weeks earlier, "The code of ethics of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, the organization of editorial page editors and writers puts it plainly: 'The writer should be constantly alert to conflicts of interest, real or apparent, including those that may arise from financial holdings, secondary employment, holding public office or involvement in political, civic or other organizations. Timely public disclosure can minimize suspicion. Editors should seek to hold syndicates to these standards."

As Getler noted, Will is no novice when it comes to flouting journalistic ethics. In fact, as Nation columnist Eric Alterman makes clear in his valuable book, The Sound and the Fury:The Washington Punditocracy and The Collapse of AmericanPolitics, super-pundits like Will "never developed a recognizable code of ethics." Remember "Debategate"--when Will helped Ronald Reagan in his debate with President Jimmy Carter and then, appearing on "Nightline" as an impartial observer, credited his pupil with a "thoroughbred performance"? At the time, a Los Angeles Times media critic called Will "a political shill," Chicago columnist Mike Rokyo called him a "lapdog," and the New York Daily News kicked him off their editorial pages (though it reinstated him too soon after).

Even Ben Bradlee, Alterman reports, then the nation's most respected newspaperman, and editor of Will's flagship daily the Washington Post, later complained that if it had been up to him, "I would have canned him on the spot." The denunciations were so vehement that Will was forced to respond with some pap about how he had accepted the invitation to help prepare Reagan for his debate as a columnist, rather than as a journalist. "But, far from resulting in Will's losing his job," Alterman writes, "the controversy only added to Willian lore, further blurring the line between watchdogs and the watched."

These days, as that line has become ever more blurred--largely due to media conglomeratization, Murdochization and the media's political timidity--it's worth commending Ombudsman Getler for trying to hold lapdog Will to some standard of accountability.