The Nation

Pelosi's Disastrous Misstep on Iran

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her allies in the chamber's Democratic leadership initially accepted that spending legislation designed to outline an Iraq exit strategy should also include a provision barring the president from attacking Iran without congressional approval, they opened up a monumental discussion about presidential war powers.

As such, the decision by Pelosi and her allies to rewrite their Iraq legislation to exclude the statement regarding the need for congressional approval of any military assault on the neighboring country of Iran sends the worst possible signal to the White House.

It is not too much to suggest that Pelosi disastrous misstep could haunt her and the Congress for years to come.

Here's how the Speaker messed up:

The Democratic proposal for a timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq included a provision that would have required President Bush to seek congressional approval before using military force in Iran. It was an entirely appropriate piece of the Iraq proposal, as the past experiences of U.S. involvement in southeast Asia and Latin America has well illustrated that when wars bleed across borders it becomes significantly more difficult to end them. Thus, fears about the prospect that Bush might attack Iran are legitimately related to the debate about how and when to end the occupation of Iraq.

Unfortunately, Pelosi is so desperate to advance her flawed spending legislation that she is willing to bargain with any Democrat about any part of the proposal.

Under pressure from some conservative members of her caucus, and from lobbyists associated with neoconservative groupings that want war with Iran and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC), Pelosi agreed on Monday to strip the Iran provision from the spending bill that has become the House leadership's primary vehicle for challenging the administration's policies in the region.

One of the chief advocates for eliminating the Iran provision, Nevada Democrat Shelley Berkley, said she wanted it out of the legislation because she wants to maintain the threat of U.S. military action as a tool in seeking to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. "It would take away perhaps the most important negotiating tool that the U.S. has when it comes to Iran," explained Berkley.

The problem with Berkley's "reasoning" -- if it can be called that -- is this: Nothing in the provision that had been included in the spending bill would have prevented Bush from threatening Iran. Nothing in the provision would have prevented war with Iran. It merely reminded the president that, before launching such an attack, he would need to obey the Constitutional requirement that he seek a declaration of war.

By first including the provision and then removing it, Pelosi and her aides have given Bush more of an opening to claim that he does not require Congressional approval.

Again and again, the Bush administration has seized any and every opening to claim powers that were never accorded the executive branch by the Constitution or the Congress. Remember that this administration has sought to justify a massive, unregulated domestic spying program by claiming authority under narrow legislation that was passed permitting the president to respond to the September 11, 2OO1, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Never mind that no mention of such spying was included in the 2OO1 legislation; the fact that it was not explicitly barred gave the administration all the room it required to claim the power to disregard the Constitution and the rule of law.

By stripping the Iran provision from the legislation that is now under consideration by Congress, Pelosi has handed Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney -- no believer he is the separation of powers -- exactly what they want. They can and will say that, when the question of whether Congress should require the administration to seek Congressional approval for an attack on Iran, Pelosi chose not to pursue the matter.

Anyone who thinks that Bush and Cheney will fail to exploit this profound misstep by Pelosi has not been paying attention for the past six years. The speaker has erred, dramatically and dangerously.

Pelosi should reverse her decision and restore the Iran provision to the legislation. It is the only way to check and balance an administration that stands ready to exploit every opening it is given by a naive and inept Congress.


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The AIPAC Caucus

The night before Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) annual conference, House Democrats removed language from an Iraq supplemental bill that would have prevented President Bush from attacking Iran without Congressional approval.

"Conservative Democrats as well as lawmakers concerned about the possible impact on Israel had argued for the change in strategy," the Associated Press reported. "Opposition to the Iran language from conservative Blue Dogs had threatened to sink the spending plan," added National Journal's Congress Daily.

Hawkish "pro-Israel" organizations, on the Jewish and Christian right, have been leading advocates of a more confrontational Iran policy. Thousands of supporters are in town for AIPAC's star-studded convention, which as usual drew half of the Senate and a third of the House, including members of both parties' leadership.

The effort to remove the Iran language was spearheaded by Congressman Allen Boyd (the only Democrat to support the privatization of Social Security in 2005). In addition to supporting the White House line on Iran, the Blue Dogs want to give Bush a waiver to keep US troops in Iraq indefinitely. Appeasing the Blue Dogs could hurt Pelosi with the progressive wing of her caucus, which is already weary about the supplemental.

Rep. Jim McDermott, sponsor of the Iran provision, says he wants to see the final version of the bill before deciding how to vote. That's also the position of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

But there is much unease. By acquiescing to the White House, many rank-and-file Democrats believe their leadership is missing a major opportunity to end one war and prevent another. The leading proponent of reining in the Bush Administration on Iran is Senator Jim Webb. You'd think that Webb would be the ideal person to speak for the party on national security matters. The Blue Dogs and the AIPAC caucus apparently disagree.

Surge Creep

When it comes to surging in Iraq, it's "encouraging" out there. So the President tells us ("Yet even at this early hour, there are some encouraging signs…"); so Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the surge commander in Baghdad, tells us ("[It's] too early to discern significant trends, [but] there have been a few encouraging signs…"). No, they're not talking about what Juan Cole calls the "new spate of massive and deadly bombings [that] has spread insecurity and further compromised the Iraqi government… right in downtown Baghdad, within spitting distance of the Green Zone, where the U.S. and the Iraqi government planned out the new security arrangements"; they're referring to some weapons caches found, some under-strength Iraqi units deployed to the capital, a possible small drop in deaths from sectarian violence.

Still, if surge success isn't exactly looming on the horizon, it's clear enough what is: Call it "surge creep." In a way, surge creep has been the story of the Iraq War since the beginning.

Numbers creep: As Tom Ricks has reported in his book Fiasco,when the Bush administration first invaded Iraq in March 2003, its top officials believed that, by August, most American troops would be withdrawn. Only 30,000 or so would remain to garrison a grateful country. That, of course, was four years ago. Today, American troop totals in Iraq are heading back towards 160,000-plus.

The forces for the surge plan alone, announced at 21,500 by the President in January, are already creeping toward 30,000. Recently, the administration "clarified" all this in a piecemeal sort of way. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England explained to Congress that the surge combat units might well need up to 7,000 more support troops. He suggested this in rejecting "a recent estimate by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that the surge would require an additional 15,000-28,000 support personnel." (Keep that figure in the back of your mind, as surge creep continues.) Then Lt. Gen. Petraeus requested 2,200 extra military police for all the detainees he plans to pick up in sweeps of Baghdad neighborhoods. The President signed off on them this week. Whether they are part of those up to 7,000 support troops or not remains foggy; meanwhile Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, the commander of American forces outside the surge zone in Northern Iraq, just called for reinforcements for Diyala Province where attacks have risen 30%.

Money creep: The administration supposedly budgeted $5.6 billion for the new surge plan in the capital and al-Anbar Province. But that was January, this is March. Another billion dollars or so has already been added on for those extra "support troops" (that no one had evidently given a thought to a month and a half ago) and--among easy predictions--look for real costs to creep ever higher, as they have done since March 2003.

Time creep: When the surge plan was first proposed in January, then-commanding general George W. Casey Jr. suggested that it might be successfully completed, with Baghdadis "feeling safe" in their neighborhoods, by "the summer, late summer." Soon enough, new Secretary of Defense Robert Gates let it be known that the time estimate had crept into the fall, when, he felt sure, the surge might begin to be "reversed." Now, Petraeus is talking about extending the (rising) surge troop levels into the winter; his second-in-command, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, is already floating the idea of surging into February 2008; and, according to the Washington Post, some commanders under them in Baghdad are "predicting that U.S. troop levels in the Iraqi capital will have to remain elevated until at least the spring of 2008." This sort of time creep--like the numbers creep and the money creep--has been an ongoing aspect of the administration's Iraq for years now.

Blame creep: Finally, we can already see the first little surge of blame creep out of Baghdad. Petraeus, not even a month in the Iraqi capital, has evidently taken a good hard look around and found things not exactly to his liking. He's just held his first news conference and offered his mantra for saving the capital (or at least his own rep): "There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq... Military action is necessary to help improve security... but it is not sufficient." Such comments are already getting him headlines like: "U.S. commander says no military solution in Iraq." Think of the general as carefully beginning to signal his future explanation for the failure of the surge plan. (Those dopes in Washington couldn't handle the politics of the situation.) Remember: If you're going to blame someone convincingly, you have to plant your story early.

In the meantime, when it comes to what the President's surge plan will actually do in Baghdad, check out Michael Schwartz's "Surge and Destroy."

Workers to Nike: Just Don't Do It!

Back in the 1990s, the BJ&B hat factory, in the Dominican Republic, represented one of campus anti-sweatshop activism's biggest triumphs. (Back in the day, I did a lot of reporting on this student movement for The Nation, and co-authored a book on the subject.)

Workers at BJ&B, which contracted with Nike to make baseball caps for the collegiate market, labored under terrible conditions, and were usually fired when they spoke out in protest. When students and workers pressured Nike to intervene, the company agreed--and life at BJ&B improved greatly: workers were even able to form a union--one of only a handful for Nike employees anywhere--and negotiate a wage increase. Nike, always looking for a way to spin itself as a responsible company, and facing a deteriorating global reputation as a sweatshop employer, was happy to take credit for the improvements at BJ&B.

The BJ&B story showed that international organizing and solidarity--among students, workers, consumers and other activists--could force a company like Nike to take action. It showed that with enough political pressure from the outside, companies could force suppliers to treat workers better.

Now, unfortunately, anti-sweatshop activism doesn't get much attention, and the spirit of anti-corporate activism made famous by the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle has been in retreat for a number of years. BJ&B has suddenly become a study in what happens when companies think that no one cares anymore. Nike has announced plans to close the factory on May 22, moving cap production to Bangladesh and Vietnam, where they can be made for just a few cents less.

United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) is pressuring universities, hoping they will threaten to cut off business with Nike unless the company keeps BJ&B open. USAS is also pressuring Nike, holding protests at Niketowns across the country over the next few weeks. At the end of this month, workers from BJ&B will be traveling to the United States, speaking out about their situation on campuses and at Niketown protests. "The campaign's really heating up now," says USAS organizer Zack Knorr.

If you want to help save BJ&B--by organizing on your campus, writing to Nike or attending a Niketown rally near you--email zack@usasnet.org. I warned Zack that he might be overwhelmed by emails from Notion readers if we printed his email address. Bring em on, he says: "That's a problem I'd love to have."

Will Dems Channel Rove to Sell Iraq Withdrawal?

Democrats in Congress have finally settled on a binding timeline to withdraw troops from Iraq by late 2008, which President Bush threatened to veto. This weekend Speaker Pelosi responded by blasting the threat as proof that Bush is only interested in "an open-ended commitment to a war without end." She also took the opportunity to review the costs of the Iraq war: "President Bush's Iraq policies weaken our military's readiness, dishonor our nation's promises to our veterans, and fail to hold the Iraqi government accountable for overdue reforms."

Progressive members of the Out of Iraq Caucus have been urging Pelosi to make the deadline binding and add a provision banning any attack on Iran without congressional approval. Blogger Chris Bowers, who volunteered for the progressive caucus for two weeks of the Iraq debate, writes that while the funding bill does not have everything he wanted, it "does contain enough provisions that will force Bush into operating the war illegally if he refuses to begin drawing it down over the next year or so."

Front page bloggers at Daily Kos are less satisfied. BarbinMD argues that the bill is "toothless" because enforcement of the benchmarks that would bring troops home is actually "left in the hands of George Bush." Mcjoan, a former aide to Sen. Ron Wyden, concludes that Democrats are missing the whole point. "McConnell has vowed to filibuster anything that has restrictions, and Bush has vowed to veto it should it somehow emerge from a filibuster," she emphasizes, so Democrats should focus on simply trying to "win this round" on political terms.

A similar strategy is favored by the OurKarlRove blog, which offers Rovian spin for Democratic ends, courtesy of a 38-year-old independent in Philadelphia. The imaginary Rove advises Democrats to avoid micro-managing war funding, which only risks entangling the party in "Bush's disastrous strategy." Instead, Democrats should strive to be the country's "Chief Financial Officer," providing broad strategic direction and reminding the public that since Bush "is still solely responsible for the war effort, every loss America takes is a result of a failed Republican foreign policy strategy." OurKarlRove also chides some Democrats' framing of withdrawal: "Stop talking about getting our troops 'out of harm's way.' Our armed forces volunteered to be trained to be in harm's way. That's their job. It's the Generals' job to ensure their troops are safe, not the Congress."

Even if the Democrats don't listen to the bloggers' advice, it looks like the public already supports the plan. A new poll of "conservative-leaning House districts" found a whopping 67 percent of respondents favored legislation to get U.S. troops "out of Iraq by early 2008." The Politico summed up the news last week under the headline, "Democrats' Iraq Plan Draws Broad Support, Poll Shows."

Now Democrats must force Bush to make good on his brash threat.

Does he really want to reject funding for the troops, against the will of the American public and a Congress elected on a huge mandate to end the war?

A veto would be the the kind of brazen move that could even put Republicans over the edge. As Republican Senator Chuck Hagel says in the forthcoming issue of Esquire, Bush may think "[h]e's not accountable anymore, which isn't totally true. You can impeach him, and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment. I don't know. It depends how this goes."

The New Rumsfeld

Alberto Gonzales is the new Donald Rumsfeld.

Up until President Bush replaced his defense secretary a day after the midterm elections, Rummy was synonymous with the arrogance, secrecy and detachment from reality that botched the war in Iraq and abandoned Afghanistan.

Now Gonzales is the figure most identified with the second casualty in the war on terror--the erosion of the rule of law at home. He's at the center of two metastasizing Justice Department scandals: the political purge of eight top US prosecutors and the FBI's misuse of the Patriot Act to compile thousands of personal, business and financial records without judicial approval.

He's also the man who helped formulate the Bush Administration's "torture memos," championed the warrantless wiretapping program and undermined minority rights enforcement at DOJ. Civil liberties advocates now believe that if John Ashcroft was bad, Gonzales is worse.

In recent days, the New York Times (their editorial is a must-read) and leading politicians, such as Chuck Schumer, have called on Gonzales to resign. "One day there will be a new attorney general, maybe sooner rather than later," Senator Arlen Specter said last week.

Democrats and a growing number of Republicans are hoping for the former.

How Our Soldiers Became Hostages

You would have to start any brief "support our troops" history with the dismal end of the Vietnam War and a consensus that the antiwar movement had been particularly self-destructive in not supporting the soldiers in Vietnam. (In fact, this is a far more complex subject, but we'll save that for another day.) In any war to come, it was clear that the charge of not supporting the troops was going to be met by an antiwar opposition determined to proclaim their support for the soldiers, no matter what. In fact, nowhere on the political spectrum was anyone going to be caught dead not supporting-the-troops-more-than-thou. This was one simplified lesson everyone seemed to carry away from defeat in Vietnam (despite the fact that in the latter years of the war, the heart of the antiwar movement was antiwar Vietnam veterans and that the Army in Vietnam itself was, until withdrawn, in a state of near revolt and collapse).

Add into this the history of the yellow ribbon. The yellow ribbon had long been a symbol of military men gone to war (and the women they left behind them), while captivity narratives had been among the earliest thrillers, you might say, of American history (though the captives were usually women). In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn released "Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Ole Oak Tree," a song about a convict returning from prison and wondering whether his wife or lover would welcome him home. It was a massive success as were a postwar spate of films about MIAs and imprisoned American soldiers in Vietnam. In the wake of defeat, the theme of the heroic soldier as mistreated captive and victim came front and center in the culture.

Now jump to 1979 and the Khomeini Revolution against the Shah of Iran. On November 4 of that year, Iranian students broke into the US embassy in Tehran and took the Americans inside hostage, holding them in captivity for 444 days. "In December 1979, Penelope Laingen, wife of the most senior foreign service officer being held hostage, tied a yellow ribbon around a tree on the lawn of her Maryland home. The ribbon primarily symbolized the resolve of the American people to win the hostages' safe release, and it featured prominently in the celebrations of their return home in January 1981."

Throughout the 1980s, the yellow ribbon remained a symbol of support for unarmed Americans kidnapped in the Middle East. In 1990, however, at the time of the First Gulf War, something truly strange, if largely forgotten, happened. The yellow ribbon as a symbol migrated from captive American civilians to American volunteer troops simply sent into action. This was quite new. From the beginning of the First Gulf War, the administration of George H. W. Bush dealt with its troops in the Persian Gulf as if they were potential MIAs. Their situation was framed in a language previously reserved for hostagedom: They were an army of "kids" (as the President called them), essentially awaiting rescue (in victory, of course) and a quick return to American shores.

During that brief war--which was largely a slaughter of Iraqi conscripts from the army Saddam Hussein had sent into Kuwait--the most omnipresent patriotic symbol, along with the flag, was the yellow ribbon, tied to everything in sight and now a visible pledge to support our troops re-imagined as potential hostages. The yellow ribbon certainly emphasized the role of those troops as victims. (Because they were already imagined as captives, there was confusion about how to portray the small number of American military personnel actually captured by the Iraqis during hostilities, a few of whom were shown, battered-looking on Iraqi TV.)

The yellow ribbon reappeared for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, largely miniaturized as removable car magnets. It was by now the norm not just to imagine supporting our troops without regard to their mission, but to think of them, however unconsciously, as mass victims, captives of whatever situation they happened to be in once things went bad.

A Policy Built on the Backs of the Dead

With our soldiers transformed into warrior-victims and the objects of all sympathy, the stage was set for the President's latest explanation for his ongoing policy in Iraq. For some time now, he has implied, or simply stated, that his war must go on, if for no other reason than to make sure those Americans who already died in Iraq have not died in vain. This bizarre, self-sustaining formula has by now come to replace just about every other explanation of the administration's stake in Iraq. We are there and must remain there because we must support our soldiers, not just the living ones but the dead ones as well -- and this is the single emotional valence upon which everyone now seems to agree (or at least fears to disagree).

In January of last year, for instance, Bush said typically, "And, I, as the Commander-in-Chief, I am resolved to make sure that those who have died in combats' sacrifice are not in vain.…"; in October 2006, he commented that "[r]etreating from Iraq would dishonor the men and women who have given their lives in that country, and mean their sacrifice has been in vain."

In a strange way, this is but another version of the "waste" explanation set on its head. Now that "supporting the troops" has become not only the gold standard, but essentially the only standard, by which this administration can rally support for Bush's war, such presidential statements have become commonplace. No longer is Congress to fund the war in Iraq; it is to fund the troops, whatever any particular representative might think of administration policy.

Here, for instance, is how a White House response to the House of Representatives resolution criticizing the President's Iraq surge plan put it on February 16th: "Soon, Congress will have the opportunity to show its support for the troops in Iraq by funding the supplemental appropriations request the President has submitted, and which our men and women in combat are counting on." Or as the President stated the previous day: "Our troops are risking their lives. As they carry out the new strategy, they need our patience, and they need our support… Our men and women in uniform are counting on their elected leaders to provide them with the support they need to accomplish their mission. We have a responsibility, Republicans and Democrats have a responsibility to give our troops the resources they need to do their job and the flexibility they need to prevail." Or in a press conference the day before that: "Soon Congress is going to be able to vote on a piece of legislation that is binding, a bill providing emergency funding for our troops. Our troops are counting on their elected leaders in Washington, D.C. to provide them with the support they need to do their mission."

Put another way, American troops in Iraq, or heading for Iraq, and the American dead from the Iraq War are now hostage to, and the only effective excuse for, Bush administration policy; and American politicians and the public are being held hostage by the idea that the troops must be supported (and funded) above all else, no matter how wasteful or repugnant or counterproductive or destructive or dangerous you may consider the war in Iraq.

The President expressed this particularly vividly in response to the following question at his recent news conference:

"[i]f you're one of those Americans that thinks you've made a terrible mistake [in Iraq], that it's destined to end badly, what do you do? If they speak out, are they by definition undermining the troops?"

Bush replied, in part:

"I said early in my comment… somebody who doesn't agree with my policy is just as patriotic a person as I am. Your question is valid. Can somebody say, we disagree with your tactics or strategy, but we support the military -- absolutely, sure. But what's going to be interesting is if they don't provide the flexibility and support for our troops that are there to enforce the strategy that David Petraeus, the general on the ground, thinks is necessary to accomplish the mission."

This is hot-button blackmail. Little could be more painful than a parent, any parent, outliving a child, or believing that a child had his or her life cut off at a young age and in vain. To use such natural parental emotions, as well as those that come from having your children (or siblings or wife or husband) away at war and in constant danger of injury or death, is the last refuge of a political scoundrel. It amounts to mobilizing the prestige of anxious or grieving parents in a program of national emotional blackmail. It effectively musters support for the President's ongoing Iraq policy by separating the military from the war it is fighting and by declaring non-support for the war taboo, if you act on it.

It indeed does turn the troops in a wasteful and wasted invasion and war, ordered by a wasteful, thoughtless administration of gamblers and schemers who had no hesitation about spilling other people's blood, into hostages. Realistically, for an administration that was, until now, unfazed by the crisis at Walter Reed, this is nothing but building your politics on the backs of the dead, the maimed, and the psychologically distraught or destroyed.

As the Iranians in 1979 took American diplomats hostage, so in 2007 the top officials of the Bush administration, including the President and Vice President, have taken our troops hostage and made them stand-ins and convenient excuses for failed policies for which they must continue to die. Someone should break out those yellow ribbons. Our troops need to be released, without a further cent of ransom being paid, and brought home as soon as possible.

[Note: This is the third part of a series. Part 1: A Wasted War; Part 2: Wasting Our Soldiers' Lives.]

Not Silent Anymore

In 2000, the Surgeon General released a report describing "the silent epidemic of oral diseases" affecting mainly the poor due to lack of access to dental care. Two weeks ago, that silence was broken in Maryland when a 12 year old homeless boy, Deamonte Driver, died tragically due to an untreated molar infection which spread to his brain.

Driver's death has again drawn attention to how very few dentists are available to the poor and working class. In Maryland, for example, only 900 out of 5,500 dentists even accept Medicaid. As a consequence, there is a struggle to get an appointment, and travel time can take as much as three hours for a single dental visit. Moreover, in the case of Driver's mother, according to The Post, "…bakery, construction and home health-care jobs she has held have not provided insurance."

In response to this child's horrific death, Maryland's junior Senator, Ben Cardin, introduced the Children's Dental Health Improvement Act of 2007 last week that would authorize $40 million (less than 4 hours of Iraq funding) to help community health centers hire dentists to serve poor children. It would also help states in increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for dentists.

As Cardin said on the Senate floor: "It is outrageous today that in America, a young boy can die because his family can't find a dentist to remove an infected tooth. It is not enough simply to mourn Deamonte's death. We must learn from this failure of our health-care system and take action to make sure it never happens again. Congress must act to make sure every child in America has access to quality dental care."

A Maryland State Senate bill had already been introduced to provide $2 million annually over the next three years to expand dental clinics for the poor. But after the initial Washington Post stories about Deamonte "added urgency" to the bill, it has subsequently been revealed that the $6 million in state funding will not necessarily be available. According to The Post, Thomas M. Middleton, the bill's sponsor, said that "in the event that there is some money, that money will be targeted where there is the greatest need." Middleton is optimistic he can work with the Health Secretary to move around previously budgeted resources but there are no guarantees.

The outrage is, as recently elected Maryland State Senator and Nation contributor Jamie Raskin said, "We always have enough money for things we don't need – like funding the war in Iraq, or boondoggle projects that will make developers a lot of money. But when it comes to things we do need – like dental care for kids – suddenly there's no money. The fact is states are scrambling to patch together a fundamentally broken health care system, but until we move to a universal, single-payer type of approach, that's how it's going to be."

Raskin also pointed out that poor dental care – such as rotting teeth, abscesses and gum disease – results in adverse social outcomes as kids grow up and enter the workforce. "If we are consigning our kids to poor dental health," Raskin said, "we are limiting their opportunities for a lifetime."

If ever there were a case of skewed priorities this is one – and the costs couldn't be clearer or more heartbreaking. A child has lost his life due to a toothache, and our government's callousness to easily remedied suffering has been revealed.

Now that this epidemic is no longer silent who will lead a humane and sane response?

Honoring Our Rock and Roll Tom Paine

"O ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose, not only the tyranny, but the tyrant, stand forth!"

-- Tom Paine

"I can relate to Thomas Paine. When he wrote Common Sense, he was trying to stir people up, get them thinking. And he did. Paine's words -- 'These are the times that try men's souls' -- became the battle cry of the American Revolution. I can relate to a person like that, who has this calling and does the work."

-- Patti Smith

Patti Smith will be recognized tonight as a member of rock-and-roll royalty.

But Smith is no royalist. She remains as rebellious as ever – and as politically charged.

Few of the dozens of individual artists and bands that have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame have accepted the honor at a point when their careers are so vibrant, and necessary.

Because of the Hall of Fame's quarter-century rule – artists can't get in until 25 years after they begin recording -- inductees tend to be honored at the point when they are either retired or, at the very least, retiring in their approach to demands of the day.

But Patti Smith continues to push the envelope, releasing adventurous albums, touring passionately and speaking up as an American who sees herself in the tradition of Tom Paine.

"I guess I'm essentially a late-18th-century, early-19th-century kind of person. There is a part of me that likes to serve the people," she says. "In a different era, I'd have liked to have worked with Thomas Paine."

While she may not work with Paine, Smith's career has been marked by a determination to work like Paine -- as a poet-pamphleteer with a good beat

Smith is an artist, not a politician. But she has never shied away from the power of the pen – or the guitar – to rouse the masses against tyranny and injustice. Her faith in the force of an informed citizenry, expressed in the 1988 song, "People Have the Power," remains unaltered:

I believe everything we dream

can come to pass through our union

we can turn the world around

we can turn the earth's revolution

we have the power

People have the power ...

"That song came out in an election year, in 1988, and I saw Jesse Jackson delivering speeches and I felt like, if I knew his phone number, I'd call him and say, ‘I have a song for you,'" Smith once told me. "His speeches, the concepts he was addressing, were very similar to the lyrics in the song."

Eventually, "People Have the Power" would become the theme song of a presidential campaign, that of Ralph Nader in 2000. Smith even got the consumer advocate to sing along on the chorus at some of his super rallies that year.

Smith's political passions run deeper than mere calls to arms – although this fan of Paul Revere would never dismiss the noble work of rallying Americans to embrace and act upon their citizenship. "The country belongs to us," she once explained to me in a conversation about her political ethic. "The government works for us. But we don't think of it that way. We've gotten all twisted around to a point where we think that we work for the government."

Over the course of three decades as a recording artist, Smith has been both activist and educator. She has constantly explored issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and militarism. She has written of the conditions of Native Americans ("Ghost Dance"), immigrants ("Citizen Ship") and Africans ("Radio Ethiopia/ Abyssinia"), of the Chinese occupation of Tibet ("1959") and the Vietnam War ("Gung Ho"). She has celebrated the inspiration of the Mahatma ("Gandhi") and of the and the WTO protests in Seattle ("Glitter in Their Eyes").

Militantly opposed to the war in Iraq, Smith penned what remains the most powerful anti-war song of the moment, "Radio Baghdad," which ends with chilling indictment of the bombing of that city and the cry: "They're robbing the cradle of civilization." Fiercely critical of the Bush administration, Smith's most recent songs have condemned the detention without trial of foreign nationals at the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay facility ("Without Chains") and U.S. support for Israel's 2006 assault on Lebanon ("Qana").

Smith is an artist, first and foremost. She is a rock-and-roller wholly worthy of her hall of fame induction.

But she is also a Tom Paine for our time, calling out as the great pamphleteer did to a nation in need of redemption. She places no faith in the current "King George" – a ruler she judges worthy of impeachment – or in rulers generally. In her manifesto for a "New Party," Smith sings to the commander-in-chief:

You say hey

The state of the union

Is fine fine fine

I got the feeling that you're lying…"

Like Paine, Smith keeps the faith in the people, and in the potential of the American experiment to be redeemed by a politics worthy of a nation founded on the Jeffersonian principle "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it…"

"When in the course of human events," Patti Smith sings in "New Party":

It becomes necessary

To take things into your own hands

To take the water from the well

And declare it tainted by greed

We got to surely clean it up…

Or, as Paine suggested a few centuries earlier: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."


John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"