The Nation

Rein in The Decider (continued)

First a bipartisan American Bar Association panel decried George W. Bush's unconstitutional use of signing statements. And now, according to The Boston Globe, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) has declared that the President is using signing statements as "an integral part of his comprehensive strategy to strengthen and expand executive power at the expense of the legislative branch."

Read the confidential report posted here.

Signing statements are assertions by a president that he (or, someday, she) need not obey or enforce the bill he is signing into law. Before the current Bush regime, all presidents in our nation's history had issued signing statements for approximately 600 laws. But King George alone has challenged over 800 laws. A recent example – in signing a bill barring the Pentagon from using illegally obtained intelligence, The Decider suggested that he alone can make that determination.

The CRS report deemed that many of Bush's assertions of presidential powers are "generally unsupported by established legal principles."

Anyone who cares about our nation's historical separation of powers and the checks and balances of our Constitution knows that George Bush must be reined in and reined in now. Fortunately, we have the opportunity to elect a Congress that will do just that on November 7.

The Problem With the Mark Foley Problem

Unfortunately, it appears those of us who have argued that the current ruckus on Capitol Hill is not a Mark Foley Scandal but a Republican Congressional Leadership Scandal may be losing the debate.

A week after Foley's political career imploded -- after details of his emails and instant messages to teenage congressional pages began to surface -- the fascination with the former congressman seems actually to be on the rise. Yesterday's New York Times features a lengthy profile of Foley beginning on its front page today, while talk radio and the blogosphere are abuzz with discussion of every new salacious detail about a politician who until last Thursday was barely known outside the precincts of central Florida and a few blocks of Washington, DC. My most amusing progressive radio show on the dial, Stephanie Miller's morning program, features daily reports on "La Cage Aux Foley."

Everywhere Americans look or listen, the shorthand for the whole affair is "The Foley Scandal."

The focus on Foley is problematic for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, it turns what ought to be a discussion about the win-at-any-cost approach of the Republicans who run Congress into a wildly speculative discourse on one troubled man and what his experience says about everything from pedophilia to workplace ethics to privacy and gays in politics. Everyone is getting into the act, from moralizing conservatives -- like Family Reserach Council Tony Perkins claiming that "tolerance and diversity" are to blame for the whole mess -- to Desperate Democrats describing Foley as a "pedophile predator." The tone of the discussion is especially disturbing at a time when right-wing forces have placed anti-gay initiatives on the November 7 ballots in eight states. Prospects for beating those measures in states such as Wisconsin, Colorado and Arizona are not helped by discussions that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, reinforce inaccurate yet persistent stereotypes.

While I have shied away from writing at much length about Foley's personal story -- preferring to focus on the far more serious and significant issues that have been raised about how the Republican leadership places politics above all other concerns -- it seems that some consideration of the congressman's circumstance is in order. I was convinced of this when my wise colleague Katha Pollitt emailed the other day with some smart questions about a line in one of my articles on the scandal. In a piece discussing the pressures on Foley as a closeted Republican, I wrote, "Unlike the vast majority of homosexuals -- who, as a group, are less likely to be attracted to children than heterosexuals -- the congressman began to engage in activities that were inappropriate and potentially illegal. Details that have surfaced in recent day suggest that Foley had made a mess of his life – a mess that exploded on him and his party when it was revealed that the co-chair of the Congressional Caucus for Missing & Exploited Children had sent 'Do I make you a little horny?' e-mails to teenage boys." Katha wanted to know whether I meant to suggest that closeted gay men were more likely to be attracted to teenagers -- a notion about which she was distinctly, and correctly, dubious.

I appreciated the question, and others from friends and colleagues regarding Foley's personal story and whatever conclusions can be drawn from it, because they provide an opening to explore the backstory of a controversy that could yet depose the Speaker of the House.

As regards Katha's specific question, I don't buy the argument that being closeted caused Foley to be attracted to particular groups of men or boys. Sure, the need to cloak a huge part of his identity created pressures on the congressman. But, right or wrong, I'm of the view that our behavioral penchants and tendencies are set early in life. I share the position of Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force, who says: "Given similar past sordid situations in the page program perpetrated by male members of Congress against female pages, it's absurd to blame the Foley spectacle on his being gay, closeted or otherwise." In other words, what Foley did is what Foley did. It makes little sense to try and find in his specific actions indicators of broad patterns or universal tendencies among gays or straights, people who are in the closet or people who are out.

So, then, the question becomes: What was up with Foley?

With all the new twists and turns in his story -- including this week's declarations by the former congressman's lawyer that he's an alcoholic and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse -- that's a tough question to answer with precision.

But, as someone who has covered Foley for many years and had an opportunity to spend a good deal of time with the man, let me offer some thoughts:

I first got to know Foley a number of years ago when he was one of the few Republicans who was speaking up on the issue of media consolidation. Always interested in media issues -- especially as they related to the film and music industries -- the congressman had a good eye for the changing character of our communications after the passage of the noxious Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Foley's insights about the collapse of the political discourse on local radio stations that were bought up by national chains, as well as a his concerns about the homogenization of music playlists, made him stand out not just from his fellow partisans but from most members of Congress. I appreciated Foley's intelligence, and his enthusiasm. He was a less regimented Republican than most, which made him more interesting than the average member of the party's House caucus. I wrote about Foley frequently and we appeared at some of the same forums on media issues.

I knew Foley was gay, and was aware that he was in a long-term relationship with a Florida physician. As someone who saw him in a number of settings, I never had a sense of him as being "on the prowl." He was gregarious, even boisterous. I thought that Foley seemed oddly immature for a veteran legislator; someone who always seemed to be trying a little too hard. But in hindsight I suspect that he was trying a bit too hard to fit in with folks who he did not want to stereotype him as just another conservative Republican. Some people speculated that he was experiencing a bit of a mid-life crisis as he passed the age of 50 and looked at the prospect that he had hit a political ceiling in a Republican Party. GOP leaders had made it clear that they would not support him for higher office, but that very much wanted him to hold onto a "safe" seat in a electorally volatile state.

Foley had always been a good politician, but in the first years of the Bush presidency he began losing his touch. It was no secret that Foley was struggling with questions of how "out" he could be. The struggle heated up in 2003 when, as he was preparing to seek Florida's open U.S. Senate seat, Foley became the subject first of "he's gay" whispering campaign and then of articles in gay and lesbian publications and finally daily newspapers that discussed his sexuality in varying degrees of detail. Foley did not handle the controversy well, and ultimately ended up folding that campaign. Two years later, in 2005, he again toyed with making a Senate bid. But, by that point, party leaders were clearly and unequivocally discouraging him from seeking any office but the one he held.

Foley's political tightrope walk became an increasingly difficult one as the Bush administration and Florida Republicans ramped up their use of anti-gay messages to energize the party's social conservative base. My sense of Foley in recent years was that the congressman was growing increasingly isolated within his own party, and increasingly lonely in Washington. He wanted out. And he had job offers, good ones, coming from the entertainment industry, which is always on the hunt for Republicans who can lobby on its behalf. Foley was unenthusiastic about seeking reelection in 2006.

More than a year ago, he had begun hinting about exiting politics for a lobbying gig, or perhaps what he considered a dream job in the movie industry. Undoubtedly, complaints about his emails to pages were a factor, although at the time no one outside Foley's inner circle and the offices of House Speaker Dennis Hastert and a few other key players in the GOP caucus knew of them

This spring, as the deadline for declaring his candidacy for another term approached, Foley was pressured by Republican Congressional Campaign Committee chair Tom Reynolds, R-New York, to make one more run "for the good of the party." Reynolds wanted to keep open seats at a minimum in what was shaping up as a difficult political year, Though we now know that that the RCCC chair was aware of Foley's troubling emails, holding the House was Job One. Foley finally agreed to seek another term, and the rest is history.

But it is a more complex history than the shorthand version that reporters who are covering this fast-breaking scandal -- including this writer -- have tended to descibe.

There is more to Foley's story than the "sleazy hypocrite" label that has been attached to him by Democratic critics in particular. Yes, the congressman was a co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children, and, yes, his office was the source of a steady stream of blunt pronouncements about the need to crack down on those who prey on children. If one accepts that 16- and 17-year-old young men who are past the legal age of majority and who are living away from home are children, or if one is simply unsettled by abuses of the power relationship between a senior member of Congress and teenage pages who dream of political careers, then it is evident that the "hypocrite" tag may be the kindest that can be attached to Foley.

But the congressman was not so hypocritical when it came to social issues. He was one of the most prominent members of former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman's "It's My Party Too" group, which has worked to pull the GOP away from the grip of the religious right -- although you would not know about the association from the group's website, from which all Foley references have been removed. Foley has been reelected in recent years with support not just from moderate GOP groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans and the Republican Majority for Choice but with generous campaign contributions from groups that generally back Democrats, such as the Human Rights Camaign and the Service Employees International Union.

The Log Cabin Republicans, the party's chief advocacy group for gay and lesbian rights, strongly endorsed Foley this year, noting that: "He has consistently voted against the anti-family marriage amendment, and has supported the hate crimes bill, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), and the Early Treatment for HIV Act."

It is true that Foley was an imperfect player on issues of concern to gays and lesbians. Early in his career, he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, and unlike another supporter of that foul measure, former Senator Paul Wellstone, he never renounced the vote. Foley also faced legitimate criticism for failing to be a leader in challenging the military's failed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. But his record was still better than those of all but a few Congressional Republicans -- and, it should be noted, many Congressional Democrats.

So, while Foley may have refused to publicly acknowledge that he was a gay man until this week, he chose frequently to vote as a supporter of gay rights. That distinguished him from other Republicans who have become the focus of scandals, such as former Congressman Ed Schrock. Before the 2004 election, Schrock, a Virginia Republican who regularly voted against gay rights and enjoyed Christian conservative support, was ruined politically when recordings began to circulate of the congressman using a telephone service on which men placed ads to arrange liaisons with other men. Like Foley, Schrock quickly quit his seat.

There are those who will suggest that the fact that both Schrock and Foley were closeted Republicans is an important factor in this discussion, and that being closeted really was Foley's primary problem. One of the Florida congressman's most consistent critics, online journalist Mike Rogers, told the Miami Herald, ''I do believe that he had unhealthy sexual advances to these guys because he was living his life as a closeted gay man. Healthy gay men who are mature and dealing with their sexuality in a mature way don't hit on kids who are 16 years old. What's his signature issue [child protection]? You don't know whether to laugh or cry.'' Rogers has been covering these stories for a long time, and he certainly has a right to assess them as he thinks appropriate. But, again, I'm not of the view that being a closeted Republican is the issue. There is no question that Foley struggled with the challenge of how to be a prominent Republican and a gay man without acting as a total hypocrite. No doubt, in recent years in particular, he struggled with a sense of isolation within a party that was, unquestionably, more understanding and respectful of gays and lesbians in its congressional caucus during the days when an ascendant Newt Gingrich was running the show. But other closeted congressional Republicans -- and Democrats -- have managed their lives without scandal.

My sense of Mark Foley in recent years was that he was becoming an increasingly sad and lonely man. How that sadness and loneliness related to his inappropriate and potentially illegal actions is something that, no doubt, Foley and others will explore in the future. But, I remain in agreement with the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Matt Foreman, when he says of Foley's circumstance: "It's a tragedy for him and his family. I don't want to get into the pain of the closet. It's irrelevant if he's gay or not."

Above all, however, I agree with something else that Foreman says: "What's clear is that the House leadership elevated holding onto a seat above the interests of young people in the page system. And they want to talk about ‘moral values'? Please."

Pity Mark Foley or hate him, try to understand this congressman or try to demonize him, but understand that the fundamental truth of the current moment is that Republican leaders in the House knew that one of their own had a problem and chose to disregard that knowledge in order to protect a "safe" seat and their shaky grip on power.

That, to my view, is the greater scandal.

Denny's Man

Yesterday the House Ethics Committee issued four dozen subpoenas but declined to appoint an outside counsel to investigate a possible cover-up of Mark Foley's conduct by the House Republican leadership--meaning that they're likely to sweep the most damning revelations under the rug.

There's many reasons to distrust the Ethics Committee, which I outlined in a piece in January, "Ethics-Go-Round." The most obvious red herring is that the Chairman of the committee, Rep. Doc Hastings, was specifically appointed by Hastert to prevent investigations of fellow Republicans.

After rebuking Tom DeLay three times, Hastert purged three Republicans from the committee and replaced the old chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley, with Hastings. The committee didn't function for the next year, even as scandal after scandal gripped Washington.

Only recently did the Committee hire full-time staff and begin working again. But it's hardly independent. Is the man who owes his job to Hastert really going to thoroughly investigate him?

N.J. Pride At Risk

As someone who was born and raised in New Jersey I can assure you with some authenticity that New Jersey pride is often under-appreciated and overlooked. Personally, I've always been particularly proud of my state's more liberal leanings over the last few decades. But my confidence in the judgment of my states' voters is being shaken currently by an uncomfortably close race for senate between 10-month-long Democratic incumbent Robert Menendez and his Republican challenger, Tom Kean Jr., who's son of 9/11 commission head and popular former N.J. governor Tom Kean.

In Jersey, Bush is more unpopular than he is in roughly 45 of the other states. He was defeated there handily in '00 and '04. The state hasn't elected a Republican senator in over 30 years. But with the corruption and scandal fueled downfalls of former Democratic Senator Robert Torricelli in 2002 and the former Democratic Governor James McGreevey last year, has soured many New Jersey citizens on the state's Democratic machine. Menendez, an appointee of Gov. Jon Corzine's, has been similarly marred by accusations of poor ethics. With the exception of a recent Zogby poll, Menendez has been trailing Kean Jr by a few points consistently for weeks now.

Even more discouragingly, Menendez has about as much charisma as a 9th grade algebra teacher. Nevertheless, he has taken some impressive political stands. Throughout the campaign Menendez has been savvy to highlight his opposition to the war in Iraq from day one. On the other hand he's shown a disheartening inclination to pander to the right, as he did by voting to essentially allow President Bush to continue with his blatant disregard for the Geneva Conventions.

Meanwhile Kean Jr. seems just as affable and sensible as his father. But his sunny exterior and moderate posturing disguise much more conservative views on issues like stem cell research. When it comes to what is arguably the most important issue in the country right now, the war in Iraq, Kean Jr. says he supported it initially and despite what we all now know, still does.

New Jersey can't risk putting someone in office from either party who spouts that kind of reactionary rhetoric. The senate swings in the balance and the opportunity to finally change course on Iraq and host of other issues does too.

Waterboarding's Comeback

Did you read Walter Pincus's important article in Thursday's Washington Post? Pincus--whose extraordinary reporting has been a rare beacon of truth and accountability in these last years--shows through historical example that actions once considered, and treated, like war crimes are now condoned and sanctioned by legislators relying on immoral legalisms crafted by criminal yes-men like David Addington and John Yoo and, of course Dick Cheney. I'm talking about torture. Specifically, waterboarding. In 1947, the US charged a Japanese officer with war crimes for carrying out a form of waterboarding on a US civilian. The officer was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor.

No wonder millions of Americans--you can read their words in letters to the editor or hear their words on talk radio--express a sense of loss. I'm not just talking about the tragic loss of lives in Iraq or the loss of jobs or the loss of America's good name in the world. I'm talking about a loss of our moral standing as a great nation. What use is power if corroded by torture and fear?

I also think of our loss as a democracy. Think of this: There have been other periods in American history when torture has been committed, when habeas corpus has been suspended; when innocent civilians have been imprisoned; when secret prisons were created; when due process has been denied; when private records have been subpoened; when illegal domestic spying has been approved; when the President of the United States has repeatedly and consistently broken the law.

But they have never all happened at the same time. They have never all happened under the watch of the same Administration. They have never come with the promise that this song will remain the same for the rest of our natural lives. Because of it, I believe there has never been a more important time to raise our voices and hold our leaders accountable as there is today.

Every other chapter of excess and overreach in American history has been followed by a period of regret, and then reform. But what do we make of this President's claim that the war on terror is a war without end? Does that also mean that the war on our fundamental rights and liberties knows no end?

The true test of a great nation's highest ideals aren't what it espouses when times are good, but the ideals and values it embraces when times are bad. I believe that the best defense against excess are informed and engaged citizens, unafraid to speak their minds, unafraid to hold their leaders accountable, unafraid to remind us of the principles that made this nation great.

Teach the Children Well

Escalating violence in Iraq has resulted in the deaths of 24 US soldiers since Saturday, and the Pentagon just reported that IED attacks are taking place at an unprecedented rate. (The number of planted bombs is "at an all-time high," Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell told the Washington Post, defying American efforts to stanch the vicious sectarian bloodshed in Baghdad that has the country on the cusp of civil war.) Unsurprisingly, the latest CNN poll reports that 66 percent of Americans currently disapprove of the job the President is doing in Iraq.

Why is the United States still occupying Iraq? How and when can we withdraw? How does the Iraqi occupation relate to the current crisis in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon? What are the prospects for a new war in Iran or Syria? How and why is the Bush Administration expanding the powers of the Executive Branch? What are the domestic effects of the administration's commitment to a prolonged "war on terrorism?"

Historians Against the War (HAW), formed in 2003 to oppose the Iraq invasion, is urging professors and students nationwide to organize National Teach-Ins from October 17 to November 7 to address these questions. There are currently more than thirty events planned coast to coast with many more in the works. The exact formats and themes will reflect the specific identities and issues of each respective institution but the common bond will be a revulsion against this war, an accounting of the multilayered costs it has exacted, and a renewed commitment to bringing the troops home.

Check out HAW's website if you'd like to organize something yourself. The group is currently lining up speakers, offering suggestions on logistics and planning, and faciliating connections between student groups and national organizations such as Military Families Speak Out, Gold Star Parents and Iraq Veterans Against the War. Click here to see if there's a teach-in near you, and sign and circulate HAW's statement against the war. Any historian, historically-minded scholar, teacher, or student of history is eligible.

The Blame Game

Republicans have finally found the causes and culprits of Foleygate: political correctness and George Soros.

First, political correctness. On Tuesday the Arlington Group, a coalition of over seventy religious right organizations, issued a letter responding to Rep. Foley's conduct.

"We are very concerned that the early warnings of Mr. Foley's odd behavior toward young male pages may have been overlooked or treated with deference, fearing a backlash from the radical gay rights movement because of Mr, Foley's sexual orientation," the letter stated. "It appears that the integrity of the conservative majority has given way to political correctness, trading the virtues of decency and respect for that of tolerance and diversity. No one should be surprised at the results ofsuch a tragic exchange."

In other words, gays and liberals are to blame.

But it doesn't stop there. The new conservative talking point is that Soros-funded organizations, particularly Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW) leaked the emails and IMs between Foley and the underage pages to help Democrats regain control of Congress. "The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros," still-Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert told the Chicago Tribune yesterday as part of a desperate attempt to keep his job.

Last I heard, ABC News is not funded by Soros. And CREW, which filed an ethics complaint against Foley and passed on some of his emails to the FBI, targets Democrats as well as Republicans and receives only a small percentage of its budget from Soros personally.

And the source who originally gave ABC News the emails was a House GOP aide. Let me repeat: a Republican. Not someone presumably funded by the "radical gay rights movement" or George Soros.

Big-Brother Software

Read Wednesday's New York Times article about how software is being developed to monitor negative opinions of the US or its leaders in overseas newspapers and other publications. It's like an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Orwell.

It's also creepy because it's so reminiscent of the aborted 2002 attempt to develop a tracking system called Total Information Awareness that, as the Times points out, "was intended to detect terrorists by analyzing troves of information."

This administration actively tries to alienate everyone through its words and actions and then it wants to measure just how much they've offended everyone? You couldn't make this stuff up.

Premature Celebration

The President and his speechwriters have, these last years, fallen in love with "victory." Back in November, 2005, for instance, promoting his administration's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," Bush used the word "victory" 15 times in a single speech. Things in Iraq were already bad enough then. Now, of course, they are beyond disastrous and, in a small but telling piece on p. A28 of Wednesday's New York Times, Thom Shanker reports the following: "Tucked away in fine print in the military spending bill for this past year was a lump sum of $20 million to pay for a celebration in the nation's capital ‘for commemoration of success' in Iraq and Afghanistan." He adds, "Not surprisingly, the money was not spent." It was, in fact, rolled over to next year when… well, if the Republicans still control Congress, it will surely be rolled over to 2008, 2009, and 2010.

Victory in Iraq is not on many American minds right now in a country where, according to the latest CNN poll, 66% of us disapprove of the job the President is doing there. So it's not surprising that a little piece about marches in honor of "success" in his wars is tucked away in the paper, while an unexpected slaughter among the Amish and mayhem over charges over pedophilia cover-ups among Republicans, dominates front pages countrywide. But here's the strange thing: Right now, if victory is relegated to p. 28 (and next year's military budget), the pain of American loss has hardly been easier to see recently, unless, as Juan Cole pointed out at his Informed Comment blog, you're reading very local papers.

Since Saturday, at least 23 American soldiers have died in Iraq (mostly in Baghdad) and at least 2 in Afghanistan. A single day total of 8 was announced by the Pentagon for Monday and yet these numbers generally didn't make it near a front page. The Washington Post, whose Wednesday front page had a huge story on the murdered Amish girls, "Pa. Killer Had Prepared for ‘Long Siege,'" on page 1, dealt with American casualties in Iraq in a tiny Associated Press piece on page A21 ("11 U.S. Troops, 52 Iraqis Killed"). A story of rising American casualties around Baghdad only hit the paper's front page today. The New York Times, whose front page had a similar Amish story ("Elaborate Plan Seen by Police in School Siege") Wednesday, put its Iraq piece by Michael Luo ("8 G.I.'s Die in Baghdad, Most in a Day Since '05") on p. A12 -- with a tiny box about it on p. 1.

The news from Baghdad is even worse than you might imagine, but this week you had to be a news junkie to notice. The capital not only experienced the highest daily American casualties of the war, but "the highest number of car bombs and roadside bombs... this year." And here's the real twist: While American casualties are on the rise, Iraqi military casualties are actually falling! This undoubtedly reflects not better fighting skills on the part of the Iraqi Army, but an ever-lessening engagement with the insurgency in Baghdad where a militia-ridden, death-squad-linked national police brigade was also being pulled off the capital's streets and replaced by… well, what did you expect?... American troops.

The President has long said, "As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But what if they stand down? And Americans in their place simply die in increasing numbers.

Maybe the Vietnam-era advice of Vermont Senator George Aiken is still worth considering. What if we just declared "victory" and started to come home. Then that $20 million in parades might be a fine investment.