The Nation

Health Scare, Democracy Scare

South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson, reportedly recovering after brain surgery Wednesday, reminds Americans of one of the most troublingly undemocratic aspects of this country's uneven and often dysfunctional political process.

If Johnson is incapacitated, the decision about how to fill his seat will not be made by the voters of South Dakota but by one man: the state's Republican governor. And if, as is expected, that governor were to appoint a fellow Republican, control of the upper chamber of the Congress would turn on his whim.

Johnson, a Democrat who is in his second term, became disoriented during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. The normally sharp 59-year-old began stuttering in his responses to questions. He seemed to make a comeback, and returned to his Washington office. There, he appeared again to be sick and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.

Johnson was in critical condition early Thursday morning, after he underwent surgery. Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, described what he saw as "the symptoms of a stroke," although that was not a final diagnosis.

For Democrats, who control the Senate by a 51-49 margin, however, the diagnosis was clear. If Johnson is incapacitated, South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, a partisan Republican perhaps best known for signing the most draconian antiabortion law in the land, will be able to appoint a Republican to replace the Democratic Senator.

Rounds has a track record of using appointments to gain partisan advantage. In 2002, after a Democratic member of the South Dakota State Senate died, the Governor put a Republican in his place.

The appointment by Rounds of a Republican to Johnson's seat would saddle the Senate with a 50-50 split. That would give President Dick Cheney, who as the chamber's presiding officer is empowered to break ties, the authority to hand control to the GOP.

Cheney will do so.

Thus, if Democrat Johnson were forced to give up his seat, two Republican partisans, Mike Rounds and Dick Cheney, could overturn the decision of American voters on November 7 to hand control of Congress to the Democrats.

Under South Dakota law, the governor has the power to fill an open Senate seat and, according to South Dakota Secretary of State Chris Nelson, there are no restrictions on such appointments. Thus, Rounds does not have to appoint another Democrat. Nor does he have to call a special election that, presumably, would be won by South Dakota Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth, a popular Democrat.

Though senators must be elected by the people in all states, when they are incapacitated during their terms they can be replaced in a variety of manners. Some states, such as Texas and Wisconsin, hold special elections to fill open seats--thus keeping decisions about who sits in the Senate with the people. Other states, such as South Dakota, allow a gubernatorial designation that is roughly akin to a royal appointment.

The United States should have a uniform system for replacing senators. The system should be democratic, placing authority in the hands of the electorate rather than a single man or woman. Instead, we have a lingering remnant of royalism--gubernatorial appointment--that could in this rare circumstance upset the will not just of the people of one state but of the United States.


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

DeLay Does Dems a Favor

Democrats picked up their 30th seat in the House of Representatives last night. In a major upset, Democrat Ciro Rodriguez defeated Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla in a runoff election in Texas's 23rd district. Rodriguez had previously lost two primaries to conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar, in '04 and '06. The third time around, he managed to defeat a conservative Republican.

In an odd way, Rodriguez has Tom DeLay to thank for his victory. DeLay controversially redrew the district in 2002, booting out 100,000 Hispanics to make it more Republican-friendly, giving Bonilla a safe seat. This summer the Supreme Court found that DeLay's scheme violated the Voting Rights Act and forced the state to include a larger Hispanic population, boosting the Democrats chances. When Bonilla failed to receive 50 percent of the vote in the November 7 election, he moved into a runoff with Rodriguez.

Democrats knew they had a strong pickup opportunity, albeit very much under the radar. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spent $1.5 million on the race. The National Republican Congressional Committee, by contrast, didn't drop a dime. Bet they regret that now.

Moreover, the election proved just how much the Tom Tancredo wing of the Republican Party turns off Hispanic voters. Bonilla was the only Mexican-American Republican in Congress--and an aggressive proponent of hardline immigration measures. This election, usually supportive Hispanic voters deserted him in droves. "Bonilla's loss last night confirms one of the Bush administration's greatest fears," the Hotline writes, "that a hard-line position on illegal immigration could cause Republicans long-term damage among the growing Latino vote."

Citizen Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss stood before a packed community meeting in Martha's Vineyard last week and asked, "Where do we offer young people the chance to fall in love with America?" He insisted that he was "not speaking for Democrats, Republicans or anything else. [But] as an American who wants to hand to his kids the country he learned about." He then led a discussion on the importance of reviving civics education in our nation's public schools.

The man who once obsessively built clay models of a form that couldn't escape his mind, who warned locals on this same island of a killer shark roaming the waters offshore, who devoted himself to teaching music at the expense of his relationship with his hearing-impaired son... Those fictitious events were part of Dreyfuss's other life as an actor. But it is Citizen Dreyfuss who spoke at the community meeting--living what he calls "the second half of my life."

From the age of 12, Dreyfuss has wanted to do three things: be an actor, be a movie star, and be in politics. He says that four years ago, after he was fired from the London production of The Producers, he decided it was time to retire and do the third thing.

"I've been acting since I'm 12," he says. "I've been famous since I'm 25.... So, I just got really tired of it. After forty years, there are other things you love and want to spend time with.... I decided that instead of waiting to be rich enough to do whatever you want to do, you'll just do whatever you want to do and scramble around for the money."

What he wanted to do was enroll at Oxford University to study democracy. And he did. "I came there with a notion that I had tried to sell to Coca-Cola about ten years previously," he says. "That was to create a two-hour show for kids. The idea was the story of democracy as a biography like a Dickensian tale. Think of David Copperfield as Democracy, and it becomes immediately a more interesting story: born under perilous circumstances, raised without any love and affection--fragile childhood. Held in contempt, dismissed... surprising allies and surprising opponents. And then, out of nowhere almost, he prevails. And he not only prevails he becomes the system of choice--the most popular in England. But he carries within himself the seeds of his own destruction because that's what he sought. And I think that that could be a legitimate two-hour movie for TV, and never stray from the truth. And hook people on that story, and make them want to go even further."

But Dreyfuss found himself drifting towards political writers at Oxford and wanting to be in the classroom. And he was deeply distressed about the state of America's democracy.

"There is no serious place to discuss serious issues any more and that's a serious problem," he argues. "How do you discuss serious issues without the melodrama and all that stuff? Kids grow up thinking that shouting is the only way to discuss politics--that rumination and thinking things through is for sissies."

Dreyfuss says that the Framers felt that the people could be relied upon to maintain our system--they could be sovereign. But being sovereign required a thoughtful, intelligent, active citizenry. Dreyfuss believes that today we know so little about our system; even worse, we are taught so little about how to preserve and strengthen it. As he said in an interview on This Week with George Stephanopoulos, "If the people are sovereign, they are the monarch. Who tutors the monarch? Who trains and teaches the people to be sovereign?" Dreyfuss says that he became convinced "America was going to go by way of all the other leading nations which slipped up, kept hold of its documents which lost any meaning, and simply faded away...."

But at some point during his time at Oxford Dreyfuss found reason for hope. "I realized that all of the institutions are there," he says. "And it just takes the revivification of one or two of these places and the rest will follow." His original idea for the TV show began to morph into a civics curriculum--which he says is the teaching of the tools that are necessary to maintain our system of government--"the internal combustion engine and not the Porsche and not the Chevy." He says that these tools are "pre-partisan," and he defines them as reason, logic, clarity of thought, dissent, debate, and civility. Dreyfuss says that civility was the one "I thought I had to bury because I knew it was the biggest buzzword." But civility, he insists, is "the oxygen that democracy requires. Democracy is our willingness to share political space with those with whom we disagree. We need to share it with respect--letting [people] finish their sentences, not patronizing them, thinking things through, getting to know people. Otherwise we strangle on incivility."

Last summer, Dreyfuss and his longtime friend and Martha's Vineyard educator, Robert Tankard, spoke with the island's Superintendent, James Weiss, about teaching a new civics curriculum. They wanted parents, teachers, students, historians, and others to collaborate on it, use the Martha's Vineyard school system as a laboratory, and then offer it as a model for a national civics revival. Weiss said that if they could generate interest in the local community he would implement the classes.

"I never heard such a great offer in my life," Dreyfuss says. "It's the difference between walking and talking." And that's how Citizen Dreyfuss found himself talking civics with the community last week.

Dreyfuss spoke about the risk of doing nothing. Without doing the rigorous work, the training, and learning "the tools of democracy, we leave the running of our system to happenstance and luck. We can kiss it goodbye in the lives of my children and yours."

Dreyfuss found a receptive crowd. On the importance of civility an elderly man said, "You were born with two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth. Use them in those proportions." Others complained of people "making up facts in order to win arguments." Or "bashing others to score political points instead of working to solve problems." They felt that civics education needed to start younger so that by the time people finished high school they were practicing citizenship rather than learning it. Historian Gordon Wood told the group, "We are a nation of immigrants.... What holds us together? It can't be Starbucks and McDonald's. That's why we go back to the Founders--equality, liberty, self-government.... If younger people don't know [this foundation], they will lose any sense of collectivity, identity as Americans." Sociologist James Loewen, author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, also participated in the meeting and called the teaching of civics "one leg of many in our culture to revive and renew us." A retired principal spoke of the obstacles created by No Child Left Behind--the forced focus on reading and math, and the consequent cuts to music, arts and other programs. "To be successful, we need to think of the whole child again," he said.

There was another target on the mind of Dreyfuss and many of the citizens at the meeting: the media, and especially television. (Dreyfuss calls television "possibly the worst thing that ever happened to us. I think it shortened our brains. I think it created road rage. I think it killed rumination. I think it allows us to think that we are discussing serious public issues when we're not. I think that it has become the place of serious public discussion of issues but it isn't. And it just passes for that.") He said that television is where we go for news information. It delivers information through image (rather than text) instantaneously, leaving no time for rumination. He cited 9/11 coverage as an example--the instantaneous images of the Twin Towers replayed over and over again--leaving room for nothing other than feelings of "grief and revenge." Dreyfuss believes television has caused us to reinterpret what makes a good politician (the image being more important than the text). He called people in the industry "like addicts--denying that a problem exists." Meanwhile, he says, we accept the medium as offering the same level of reflection and insight as reading and rumination. There was general agreement that we have lost our way in teaching young people to be critical thinkers and sort through the information industry.

As the meeting ended, Dreyfuss asked: "Are you in favor of teaching civics in American public schools?" He called for the nays and there was silence. Dreyfuss allowed it to linger. Finally, he asked for the yeas, and hundreds of people responded with enthusiasm. The contrast was striking, and Dreyfuss had clearly drawn on his skillful sense of timing to orchestrate the moment. Dreyfuss and Tankard had achieved their objective of demonstrating strong public support. Participants were invited to attend a follow-up session at a local high school the next day where the focus would shift to developing a pilot program.

After the meeting Superintendent Weiss said that there is an eighteen-month window of opportunity to revamp civics education on the island. The standardized testing in social studies for the state will be decided during that time period and curricula will be revised. He said that eighteen months was "just enough time" to succeed.

The next morning, Dreyfuss was pleased with the conference but also tired and frustrated as he reflected on the contributing factors that he perceives as threatening our system of government--a system he undeniably loves and is passionate about. He railed at a media that fails to demand the truth on the gravest matters of our time ("You want someone to say [to the President], 'Excuse me, you're full of shit, and answer the question.' And they don't do that"). He decried the infighting of the Democratic party ("Democrats eat their young") and the failure of the left to articulate a compelling case that people can rally around. He denounced Republicans for not being straight with people about what they stand for and why. He said that America has broken the hearts of young people and caused cynicism to be rampant among them. Dreyfuss believes that civics--despite what he calls its boring reputation--is the way young people can begin to have "a love affair with America."

Whether or not one agrees with Dreyfuss's critique of political culture, one thing is clear: He's not only talking the talk, he's also walking the walk--and demonstrating the kind of committed citizenship he espouses. How many Oscar-winners walk away from their profession to develop curricula ("The only time you'll ever see me in a movie or anything like that is when you know they paid me a billion dollars....")? To Dreyfuss, "representative democracy is as thrilling as anything Charles Dickens wrote and Alfred Hitchcock ever shot." It is both a thriller and a romance, and offers a narrative with a distinct beginning, middle and end. The beginning and the middle are history--and to Dreyfuss, the still open-ending begs this question: "What country do we want to hand to our kids?"

With reporting from Martha's Vineyard by Gregory Kaufmann, a Washington, DC-based journalist and screenwriter.

Rummifying the War on Terror

You gotta give Donald Rumsfeld this. He's doing his best to cover his behind as he walks out the door. First he dropped a "snowflake" memo, obtained by the New York Times, admitting that the war in Iraq was "not working," and exploring possible exit strategies.

Now he's conceding that the US is not engaged in a "war on terror," even though he previously claimed we were.

Here's what he told Cal Thomas yesterday: "I don't think I would have called it the war on terror. I don't mean to be critical of those who have. Certainly, I have used the phrase frequently. Why do I say that? Because the word 'war' conjures up World War II more than it does the Cold War. It creates a level of expectation of victory and an ending within 30 or 60 minutes of a soap opera. It isn't going to happen that way. Furthermore, it is not a ‘war on terror.' Terror is a weapon of choice for extremists who are trying to destabilize regimes and (through) a small group of clerics, impose their dark vision on all the people they can control. So ‘war on terror' is a problem for me."

Such words would have been heretical to Rumsfeld a year ago. Now he practically sounds like a Democrat. What's next? Is Rummy going to support Obama in '08?

Gore v. Nader

Can Al Gore ever escape him? No, I don't mean Bill Clinton; I'm talkingabout Ralph Nader. In 2000, the Nader vote was the margin of victory inFlorida, and thus, a Gore presidency, and therefore an alternativereality much less grim than the one we now face. But that is the past.In the present, they are at it again.

Gore's global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, has been atriumph for the issue itself and Gore's reputation. It has beenshort-listed for the Oscar's documentary category, as it should be. Butwait, there's more. Also on the short list is a dark horse candidate, An Unreasonable Man, a documentaryabout the political life of (natch) Ralph Nader.

So here we are six years later faced with the potential of another Gorev. Nader race. Will Nader siphon off enough votes to cost Gore yetanother victory? Given the makeup ofthe 5,830 Academy voters, largely older and significantly Jewish, willFlorida be the deciding battleground?

This is crucial because many believe Gore's Oscar campaign--Lenoand Oprah already--may be the first primary in his 2008 presidentialrun.

What terrible irony if Nader cost him the win once again.

Kucinich: Democrats Must Honor Mandate

Dennis Kucinich is running for President again and, yes, he would love to cure what ails the United States.

But, first, he wants to cure what ails his own Democratic Party.

The Democratic disease, he says, is caution regarding the antiwar position it should be taking.

"Democrats were swept into power on November 7 because of widespread voter discontent with the war in Iraq," says Kucinich. "Instead of heeding those concerns and responding with a strong and immediate change in policies and direction, the Democratic Congressional leadership seems inclined to continue funding the perpetuation of the war."

That is not the typical opening salvo for a presidential primary bid.

But Kucinich is not a typical campaigner for the presidency. His aggressively antiwar run for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination captured the imagination of many activists but only won around 70 of the 2,162 delegates he would have needed to secure the nod. He remained in the race to the end, however, and left in place a network of supporters across the country that evolved into the effective activist group Progressive Democrats in America.

As the 2008 race approached and sentiments regarding the war soured, attention on the part of the growing mass of antiwar Democrats focused on the potential candidacy of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, who opposed the war from the start and was the first senator to call for a withdrawal timeline. But Feingold decided after the November 7 election to remain in the Senate, where he will chair key subcommittees on the Constitution and foreign relations.

So Kucinich saw an opening to run a message-driven campaign on the war issue. The Congressman, who was re-elected with 66 percent of the vote in November by Cleveland-area voters who appear to be comfortable with their representative making longshot presidential bids, says he will take a blunt antiwar message to the campaign trail and to every debate.

In particular, he will challenge Democrats who have voted to keep funding the war. Kucinich argues that Congress should provide the money for an orderly withdrawal of US troops from Iraq--one that assures the safety of the soldiers and the smoothest transition--but that it should not continue to meet Department of Defense demands for continued funding of what looks more and more like a permanent military presence in the Middle East country.

"Unless and until Congress decides to force a new direction by cutting off funds, the United States will continue to occupy Iraq and have a destabilizing presence in the Middle East region," argues Kucinich.

Can Kucinich win more votes in 2008 than he did in 2004? That's an open question. Concern about the war runs deeper now, and frustration with the Democratic Party's failure to develop a clear stance on an exit strategy runs higher. But there may be another candidate who, while not as pure or precise as Kucinich on the issue, can point to a record of opposing the war from the start and to his support for a redeployment timeline.

Like Kucinich, this other candidate has a name that a lot of Americans still have trouble pronouncing. But, if the media frenzy that surrounded Barack Obama's trip to New Hampshire last weekend was any indication, it's a good bet that Obama will be given more opportunities to introduce himself and deliver his message than the Congressman from Ohio.

That said, Kucinich's presence in the debates could well sharpen the discussion among Democrats regarding the war. And as Kucinich rightly points out, that sharpening is needed.

Indeed, Kucinich argues, the fate of the Democratic Party could rest on the question of how it responds to the desire of Americans to bring the troops home.

"On November 7, 2006, the American public voted for a new direction for our Iraq policy. That direction is -- out. As Democrats prepare to take the majority for the first time in twelve years, Democrats now have the responsibility to act on the overwhelming mandate issued by the American public," says the congressman. "Will that new direction mean an exit from Iraq? Because, if not, America will be held hostage by the skyrocketing cost of the war in Iraq even as President Bush leaves office at 11:59 am on January 20, 2009. And, the voters will not forget who let them down. "


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by authors and historians Gore Vidal, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn for its meticulous research into the intentions of the founders and embraced by activists for its groundbreaking arguments on behalf of presidential accountability. After reviewing recent books on impeachment, Rolling Stone political writer Tim Dickinson, writes in the latest issue of Mother Jones, "John Nichols' nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic, The Genius of Impeachment, stands apart. It concerns itself far less with the particulars of the legal case against Bush and Cheney, and instead combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use of the "heroic medicine" that is impeachment with a call for Democratic leaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by the founders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

When “Withdrawal” Is Not Withdrawal

Here's a riddle: When is withdrawal not actually withdrawal? The answer: when the bulk of the troops don't actually come home.

That seems to be the scenario envisioned by the Iraq Study Group when they recommended last week that the bulk of the US combat troops could leave Iraq by early 2008. According to the New York Times, frontline combat troops represent only 23 percent of the 140,000 US troops in Iraq.

"An analysis of the current numbers and tasks of American forces suggests that it will prove difficult to drop far below 100,000 by early 2008, and that 70,000 or more troops might have to stay for a considerable time," the Times reports.

That doesn't sound like much of an exit plan. Conventional wisdom held that the Baker-Hamilton commission would allow the Bush Administration to withdraw US troops without calling it withdrawal. In fact, just the opposite may occur.

'Impeachment is Not Optional'

After the death of her soldier son in Iraq, and after it became clear that the misguided policies that put her boy in harm's way would not be changed, a then little-known woman named Cindy Sheehan wrote a letter to the man responsible for those policies: George Bush.

In the letter, she told the president, "I will make it my life's work to see that you are impeached." And so she has, first by taking her protests against the war to the roads outside Bush's Crawford,Texas, ranchette, and then to cities across the country to declare that Congress has a fundamental responsibility to hold this president and vice president to account.

When tens of thousands of Americans participated Sunday in rallies, forums and teach-ins organized by the afterdowningstreet.org coalition and its allies to say that they want impeachment "on the table" for the new Congress, I joined Sheehan in New York at one of the largest of the gatherings.

"Impeachment is not optional. It's not something that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid can say is not on the table," Sheehan said of the incoming Democratic leaders of the U.S. House and Senate, who have expressed caution about employing the tool created by the founders of the American experiment for the purpose of sanctioning errant executives. "It is their duty as officers of the Constitution, who who have sworn an oath to defend the Constitution, to carry out impeachment."

With the crowd that packed an auditorium at Fordham University's law school cheering her, Sheehan declared, "If George Bush isn't impeached then we should never impeach anyone else. We should just take [the sections outlining the impeachment process] out of the Constitution. It is a meaningless clause of the Constitution."Like many of the activists across the country who rallied Sunday, Sheehan made a direct connection between impeaching Bush and ending what Lynn Kates, an organizer with the Center for Constitutional Rights who joined the New York forum identified as "an illegal, immoral, unethical war."

"The war and impeachment are intertwined," said Sheehan. "George Bush has said over and over again that the troops aren't coming home while he is president. That just means we have to get a new president."Sheehan and other members of Gold Star Families for Peace will join activists with the World Can't Wait movement and other groups in Washington in the first week of January to lobby Congress to take up impeachment. It will be a frustrating process initially, as House Democratic leaders are working hard to keep a lid on pro-impeachment sentiment among members of their caucus.

So far, only one member of the House, outgoing Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney, has proposed actual articles of impeachment against Bush and Vice President Cheney. But more than three dozen House Democrats, as well as Independent Bernie Sanders, who in January will join the Senate, signed onto incoming House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers' resolution to establish a select committee to examine whether impeachment might be the right response to charges that the president and vice president doctored intelligence regarding reasons for going to war in Iraq and committed other acts that could reasonably be defined as high crimes and misdemeanors.

Sheehan is not letting Democrats, or Republicans, off the hook.

"Some issues transcend politics," she argued Sunday. "Our Constitution, our rule of law, our very humanity, demands that Congress begin impeachment proceedings."


John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism has been hailed by author Gore Vidal as "essential reading for patriots." David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, says: "With The Genius of Impeachment, John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so."

The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

Rush to Judgment in the Ex-Spy Poisoning

As the mystery of Alexander Litvinenko's death by polonium 210 continues to unfold--and the shadowy world of spies, former agents, defectors and seedy characters revealed seems lifted from a twisted Le Carré plot--questions continue to arise about the poisoning of the former FSB agent and defector to Britain.

What we do know is that Litvinenko died in London on November 23. What we also know is that in the days after many in the British and US media rushed to judgment--reporting rumor and speculation as fact.

As one British journalist put it, four days after Litvinenko's death: "As the case rolls on, and the media hysteria continues, more and more, I feel what the situation is exposing is not the evilness of the Kremlin but our own gullibility, the sloppiness of our media, the irresponsibility of our politicians, and the greed of our PR industry." Take the British magazine The Spectator, whose end of November cover featured a caricature of Russia's president and the headline, "The Long Arm of Putin." The story didn't even engage other hypotheses than that the Kremlin was responsible for the poisoning. In one typical paragraph, the author wrote, "poisoning a British citizen on British soil demonstrates a new level of chutzpah even for the Putin regime."

In its editorial on November 25, the venerable Times of London demanded that "President Putin must prove by deeds that he is not linked to Mr. Litvinenko's murder."

In the United States, the Washington Times's Arnold Beichman trumpeted: "Meet today's Murder Inc. Headquartered in the Kremlin." Echoing the charge, the Times's Wesley Pruden wrote, "A hit job worthy of the KGB." Pruden went on to assert that "nearly everybody assumes that the Russian government probably with the assent, if not the encouragement, of Vladimir Putin, ordered the hit and assigned the hit man." The Wall Street Journal on November 26 announced that Russia is "the enemy of the United States," arguing that "Alexander Litvinenko's death is the latest in a series of killings, attempted murders, imprisonments and forced exiles whose victims just happened to be prominent opponents of Mr. Putin." And last weekend, the New York Post's headline told the world that it was "Putin's poison."

In more respected media outlets--such as the Washington Post--regular columnists Charles Krauthammer and Anne Applebaum were more sophisticated in their indictments. Nevertheless, they too concluded that Putin did it. "Well, you can believe," Krauthammer wrote, " in indeterminacy. Or you can believe the testimony delivered on the only reliable lie detector ever invented--the deathbed--by the victim himself, Litvinenko directly accused Putin of killing him" ("The Murder in London," 12/8/06). Applebaum, just a few days earlier, wrote: " But though it's doubtful that he ever gave an actual order to an actual thug, Putin is certainly responsible for Litvinenko's death in this deeper sense: He presides over this web of old intelligence operatives, indeed sits at its center. And he approves of their methods." A central piece of evidence: According to Applebaum, "One of his first acts as Prime Minister in 1999 was the unveiling of a plaque to Yuri Andropov."

What does it reveal about the Western media's standards that so many news organizations--even the most reputable--have rushed to confuse speculation and rumor-mongering with fact-based reporting? "It seems safe to say," wrote a Western commentator in Moscow news, "that the juridical dictum 'innocent until proven guilty' does not apply to Russia."

As the investigation unfolds, we're bound to see more media hype. Witness yesterday's New York Times article, "When an ex-KGB man says they're out to get him" (December 10).

But what is also emerging, as the investigation and radioactivity spread to Germany, is an alternative hypothesis, a counter-story--focusing on the business dealings of members of Russia's private security industry and the security (and health) risks posed by trafficking of the dangerous (and extremely valuable) radioactive isotope polonium 210.

(To its credit, the New York Times's William Broad--in two stories, "Polonium, $22.50 Plus tax," Dec. 3, 2006, and "US and Foreign Regulators Consider Tightening Controls on Deadly Polonium 210," Dec. 10--debunked the conventional media line that only the Kremlin had the wherewithal to administer a lethal dose. Broad writes that "public and private inquiries have shown that it proliferated quite widely during the nuclear era, of late as an industrial commodity.")

As an antidote to the media frenzy, it's been valuable to read investigative writer Edward Jay Epstein's blogs about the Litvinenko case. What sets him apart is his interest in cooly and rationally raising the questions that few are asking. On November 30, Epstein raised the question of whether it was murder--or an accident which, as he put it, is even "scarier." And in "The Polonium Puzzle: The Alternative Hypothesis," Epstein suggests the alternative hypothesis to murder: polonium smuggling--for profit rather than assassination.The real question we have to ask, Epstein says, is not who killed Litvinenko but how did it come about that he was exposed to a very rare isotope--one which is produced only in a few grams? In his latest blog, " A Diversion From Hell: The Polonium Mystery" (December 10), Epstein raises a whole new set of questions--specifically about the relationships Litvinenko had with his contaminated associates--that need to be answered in order to resolve the extraordinary mystery of the poisoned ex-spy.

Stay tuned.