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The Nation

Talking Back To Bush

Below is my running commentary on Bush's inaugural speech. Too bad heckling the president is a federal crime.

....We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

And have you notified the leaders of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, China and Uzbekistan that you're going to make bringing liberty and freedom to their lands the number-one national security priority for your administration?

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government.

Is that why we overthrew democratic governments in Iran and Chile and cozied up to the racist regime in South Africa? for years.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.

What have you done lately to support the democrats of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Russia, or China?

This is not primarily the task of arms, though we will defend ourselves and our friends by force of arms when necessary. Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen.

Did Iraqis choose to be invaded and occupied in a fashion that has led to tens of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths?

America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.

So why did your administration impose its choice for Iraqi interim president upon the UN official in charge of selecting the person for that post?

The difficulty of the task is no excuse for avoiding it. America's influence is not unlimited, but fortunately for the oppressed, America's influence is considerable, and we will use it confidently in freedom's cause.

After the first Persian Gulf War, the Kuwait government promised to implement democratic reforms. It has not kept its promises, Have you used his considerable influence to promote freedom and democracy there?

We will encourage reform in other governments by making clear that success in our relations will require the decent treatment of their own people.

Does Pakistan "President" Pervez Musharraf know about this?

Some, I know, have questioned the global appeal of liberty.

Please, Mr. President, name someone who has. You often say this, but you never tell us who you have in mind. We cannot hound these people out of polite society until you tell us who they are.

Americans, of all people, should never be surprised by the power of our ideals.

Should they be surprised by the fact that America's standing abroad is at an all-time low?

Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world: All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.

Mr. President, if a fellow were to stand in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square after hearing this speech, what precisely would you do for him?

Democratic reformers facing repression, prison, or exile can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.

Will US ambassadors in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Russia, China, Uzbekistan and elsewhere demand access to imprisoned dissidents and political opponents, explaining to the governments of those countries that the United States recognizes these people as the "future leaders"?

The rulers of outlaw regimes can know that we still believe as Abraham Lincoln did: "Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it."

You neglected to mention that Alabama voters in November rejected a measure that would have erased provisions in the state's constitution that support segregated schools and the use of poll taxes.

The leaders of governments with long habits of control need to know: To serve your people you must learn to trust them.

When American citizens wanted to know which energy industry executives were advising Vice President Cheney's energy task force, you weren't keen on trusting them. You and Cheney refused to share this information with the "people." Do you have trust issues?

And all the allies of the United States can know: we honor your friendship, we rely on your counsel.

But we will dismiss your counsel--and even deride it--if it does not accord with our own views.

Division among free nations is a primary goal of freedom's enemies.

Yet in 2003 you showed no concern that your decision to short-circuit the inspections process in Iraq and launch an invasion without the support of the UN and key allies would lead to "division among free nations."

Today, I also speak anew to my fellow citizens: From all of you, I have asked patience in the hard task of securing America, which you have granted in good measure.

But you have not dared asked the wealthiest among us to pay a dime extra for our defense in these difficult times. In fact, you have not even asked them to pay the same tax rates under which they got rich in the first place.

Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom.

Perhaps more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians are dead because you have "acted." How about compensation for their families?

And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts, we have lit a fire as well--a fire in the minds of men.

The National Intelligence Council notes that the war in Iraq has created a breeding ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists. Did you read its report?

All Americans have witnessed this idealism, and some for the first time. I ask our youngest citizens to believe the evidence of your eyes. You have seen duty and allegiance in the determined faces of our soldiers. You have seen that life is fragile, and evil is real, and courage triumphs. Make the choice to serve in a cause larger than your wants, larger than yourself -- and in your days you will add not just to the wealth of our country, but to its character.

But you're not going to ask your kids to go over there, right?

In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character -- on integrity....

Such as leaders telling the truth about national security threats?

...and tolerance toward others.

But apparently not gay people who want to live in legally-recognized, committed, stable relationships.

Self-government relies, in the end, on the governing of the self.

Unless, of course, the issue is reproductive rights. In that case, we do not believe in self-government of the self.

That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.

By the way, do you still believe, as you once said, that God does not hear the prayers of Jews?

In America's ideal of freedom, the exercise of rights is ennobled by service, and mercy, and a heart for the weak.

Which is why your administration has been considering cutbacks in programs for low-income Americans.

Americans, at our best, value the life we see in one another, and must always remember that even the unwanted have worth.

But we can execute those who commit a crime--even if they have lousy lawyers.

And our country must abandon all the habits of racism, because we cannot carry the message of freedom and the baggage of bigotry at the same time.

See Alabama.

Americans of every party and background, Americans by choice and by birth, are bound to one another in the cause of freedom. We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes -- and I will strive in good faith to heal them.

How? By continuing your practice of saying untrue remarks about your political opponents?

Yet those divisions do not define America. We felt the unity and fellowship of our nation when freedom came under attack, and our response came like a single hand over a single heart.

And why was it that you could not maintain that unity as the grand leader of the nation? Why did you claim during the 2002 congressional campaign that Democrats put their own political self-interest about the national security of the nation?

America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength -- tested, but not weary -- we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom.

When--and, more importantly, where? Please tell us.

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

For more information and a sample, go to www.davidcorn.com. And see his WEBLOG there

An Empty Exercise in Deceit

President Bush has not lost his flair for irony.

Just as the President hit the point in his second inaugural address where he declared to the dissidents of the world that "when you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you," authorities were removing peaceful protesters from the regal one's line of sight.

It was a similar juxtaposition of lofty rhetoric and less-than-lofty deeds that made the first term of the Bush presidency so unsettling to thinking people in the United States and abroad. And nothing in Thursday's inaugural ceremony suggested that the second term would be any better. Even as American forces remained mired in the quagmire of Iraq into which they were led by the Bush Administration's deliberate misreading of intelligence information, the President offered no indication whatsoever that he had learned from the mistakes and misdeeds of his first term.

Bush's lack of self-reflection belied the occasionally humble notes struck during his twenty-minute address. And it called into question the speech's bold assertions:

§ "Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen," said Bush, who declared, "America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling." Sounds great. But should anyone read that as an abandonment of the doctrine of preemptive war that served as an excuse for the unilateral invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq during the President's first term? The President provided no such indication, and his record recommends the most extreme skepticism.

§ "We do not accept the existence of permanent tyranny," Bush said as he specifically addressed dissidents around the world, urging them to resist oppression and issuing that ringing promise that, "When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you." Does this mean that when challenges are mounted to the oppressive regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt or elsewhere, the United States will take the side of the rebels? Can we expect the United States to impose trade sanctions on China because of that country's brutal occupation of Tibet, its jailing of dissidents and its smashing of movements for trade unionism, religious freedom and democracy? If the leaders of Russia continue to dismantle that country's freedoms, will that put them on the wrong side of the United States? The sad truth is that Bush's Republican allies continue to ridicule former President Jimmy Carter for attempting to use economic sanctions and other diplomatic tools to oppose tyranny.

§ "America's influence is considerable, and we will use it competently in freedom's cause," the President announced. That's a reasonable sentiment. But should anyone take this as an acknowledgment that poor planning, self-delusion and isolation from the world made the Iraq occupation the mess that it is? Or that the United States will now set a different course? Read Sy Hersh's latest report in The New Yorker on maneuvering within the Administration to launch a guaranteed-to-be-disastrous war with Iran and you will have a hard time believing that competence and common sense have won out.

§ Speaking of what he called the "essential work at home," the President said he was determined to "make our society more just and equal." But how does he reconcile that pledge with the growing gap between rich and poor, assaults on affirmative action programs that allow victims of past discrimination to get an equal footing in society, and scheming to dismantle the safety-net protections of Social Security, Medicare and other programs?

§ The President affirmed his faith in "the durable wisdom of the Constitution." That's a fine choice of words. But does that mean that a second Bush Administration will begin dismantling the Patriot Act and other policies that undermine constitutional protections? Does that mean that he will refuse to nominate anyone to the federal bench who does not respect the Constitution's well-defined right of privacy--particularly as it relates to a woman's right to choose?

It would be appealing to take George W. Bush at his word. But, considering his track record, that is not an option. In fact, if history is a guide, the one guarantee we have is that Bush's words will not match his deeds. And his inaugural address will be remembered as nothing more than an empty exercise in deceit.

Taking It to the States

As Bush begins his second term today, progressives must fight hard in DC against the dismantling and rollback of the twentieth century's hard-earned rights and liberties. But with legislative--and this week, literal--gridlock in our capitol city, it's time to recognize that the road to renewal may well run through the states.

As Justice Louis Brandeis argued in the 1930s, "It is one of the happy accidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory, and try novel social and economic experiments."

A savvy progressive state-based strategy (and some of the smartest minds in politics today are at work crafting this ) would seize on this "happy accident," and turn to the states to develop and promote the reforms and ideas that, eventually, will make their way onto the national agenda. Here's a quick guide to ten initiatives (in both red and blue states) that are already winning beyond the Beltway.

1) Raising the Minimum Wage: George W. won't even consider raising the federal minimum wage, but in November 2004, a whopping 71 percent of Florida's voters approved a referendum that raised the minimum wage above the miserly federal figure of $5.15 an hour. Nevada voters did the same. In New York, Rhode Island, Illinois and Vermont, the state legislatures have followed suit; fourteen states now have minimum wages that are higher than the federal government's.

2) Promoting Tax Fairness: In the November election, California voters approved by a three to one margin tax increases on those making more than $1 million a year--and earmarked the proceeds for mental health programs. In recent years, several states "both red and blue"--Nebraska and North Carolina among them--have adopted legislation "decoupling" state law from Bush's 2001 revisions to the tax code which ultimately "would prevent the total elimination of estate taxes in 2010," says the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA). Thirty states have rejected a depreciation provision written into the tax code by Republicans for their corporate allies in March 2002. Last year, the Virginia state legislature voted to raise taxes by $1.6 billion to provide more resources for education and other state programs, and in November Maine voters rejected a cap on property taxes.

3) Promoting Clean Elections: The Maine state legislature approved the Clean Election Act, which provides public financing to those candidates who refuse to use private donations or their own money to finance their campaigns. Well over 50 percent of Maine's legislators have run "clean money" campaigns. Voters in Arizona and Vermont have recently approved "clean money" ballot initiatives, and Arizona became the first state to elect a governor under the clean money system.

4) Protecting the Environment: In 2002, California enacted the nation's toughest law to limit car and truck emissions--thus reducing greenhouse gases, antagonizing the automobile industry and dealing a blow to SUVs and other gas-guzzling vehicles. In the past two years, six other states including Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey have adopted California's tough new emissions standards--spearheading the fight for clean air and reducing the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Other victories: In this past election, Colorado voted to promote renewable energy, and Washington State voted to ban nuclear waste dumping.

5) Promoting Stem Cell Research: More good news from the Golden State! In November, California voters rejected Bush's cynical policy on stem cell research when they approved, 59 to 41, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. The law will raise $350 million to support stem cell research in the hopes of ultimately finding cures for Alzheimer's and other diseases. One San Diego scientist predicted that the law would establish in California a "mini-NIH" that will give a much-needed shot in the arm to stem cell research.

6) Reinstating Overtime Pay: In August, the Bush Administration prevented millions of Americans from collecting overtime pay when it approved regulations narrowing the list of those eligible. Illinois rejected this anti-worker policy, however, passing a law reinstating overtime pay for workers in the state. Twenty states have created overtime rules that are more expansive than the ones that the Bush Administration has adopted.

7) Providing Access to Emergency Contraception Pills: In 2003, two FDA committees advised the FDA to make emergency contraception pills available to women over the counter. The pills were declared safe and they were declared efficacious. But the FDA rejected its committees' recommendations, so Maine, California and Hawaii, among others, have passed rules making this option available to women who go to their neighborhood pharmacy. And New York and New Mexico require that rape victims in emergency rooms must be offered emergency contraception.

8) Outlawing Racial Profiling: Montana, New Jersey, Arkansas, Illinois and other states have banned racial profiling, fighting off John Ashcroft's efforts to target and detain Muslims simply, in many instances, because of who they are.

9) Financing Public Education:This past election, Nevada voted to require its legislators to fund K-12 education before anything else. Oklahoma created a lottery system to raise money for public education, and North Carolina chose to put money collected from fines into its public school system, as well as to require more equitable distribution of state money among the rich and poor school districts.

10) Protecting the Rights of Death Row Inmates: Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and four other states have reformed their death penalty laws, giving those on death row the right to DNA testing. Illinois undertook a comprehensive re-examination of its death row system; after the Illinois Governor's Commission on Capital Punishment found widespread flaws and abuses, the Illinois state legislature adopted many of the eighty-five reforms that the Commission had recommended. In Wyoming and South Dakota, juvenile executions have been banned.

So, let's not hang our heads this Black Thursday but instead recognize that these are victories to build on in the next years. As Joel Rogers--director of The Center on Wisconsin Strategy, one of the savviest and most effective state policy groups around--wrote last year in these pages, progressives urgently need to develop and implement a more comprehensive and ambitious state strategy, building on the policy victories and organizing already underway.

Faced with four more years of Bush and DC gridlock,that's what I call a smart and winning agenda for a second term.

An Un-American Inaugural

The First Lady has always merited her designation as "the brighter Bush." But, clearly, she needs to study up on American history.

With concern mounting about the wisdom of the Bush team's plans for four days of lavish inaugural festivities, Laura Bush was dispatched to make the case for the $40 million blowout that was organized to erase any doubt about who is in charge. Like her husband and his aides, the First Lady announced her approval of the ridiculous extravagance that will accompany what that is starting to look more and more like a royal coronation. The excess is necessary, she explained, because big parties at the opening of a presidential term are "an important part of our history."

"They're a ceremony of our history; they're a ritual of our government," she said of free-spending inaugural celebrations, after being asked whether it was appropriate to spend tens of millions of dollars on ten different parties at a time when the nation is at war and much of the world is still recovering from the tsunami disaster.

It was a measure of the concern of the Bush Administration's political overseers that the First Lady, whose popularity is greater and surely more deserved than that of the President, was sent out to fight for the Administration's right to party.

Unfortunately, she added nothing to the debate over inaugural bloat when she grounded her argument in historical precedent.

The fact is that America has a mixed history with regards to inaugural style. Yes, there have been opulent ceremonies and celebrations in the past, organized by Democrats as well as Republicans. But there have also been restrained recognitions of the transfer of power, particularly in times of war and international turbulence--most notably Franklin Delano Roosevelt's subdued fourth inaugural during the last days of World War II.

In truth, however, only one President has marked his inauguration in the true spirit of the American experiment.

That President understood the experiment better than most because he, Thomas Jefferson, had had such a central hand in launching it.

Elected after a bitter campaign that culminated in the first defeat of a sitting President--the often regal John Adams--Jefferson could have been excused for putting on a great celebration to mark the peaceful transition of power.

But he chose to do the opposite.

On the morning of March 4, 1801, the President-elect awoke in his small room in Conrad's Boarding House on Capitol Hill--where he had lived during the past four years when he served as a dissident Vice President. After dressing in simple clothes, he went to the breakfast room and took his usual seat at the table, declining the offer of a place at the head of the table that had been made in deference to the fact that on this day he would be sworn in as the nation's third President.

Just before noon, Jefferson left Conrad's and walked through the muddy streets of Washington to the Capitol, where he was sworn in without pomp or circumstance. He quietly delivered an inaugural address in which he affirmed his faith in "Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the people..."

Jefferson then walked back to his rooming house, where at dinner time he again refused a place of honor at the table--displaying not merely in words, but in deeds, his belief that the President was a servant of the people, not their better and certainly not their ruler.

The symbolism of Jefferson's approach to his inauguration was intentional.

The new President wanted Americans to put behind them the trappings of their colonial past.

He believed that the age of kings and queens was ending, while the age of the democracy was beginning.

It should come as no surprise that George Bush, with his regal instincts and inflated sense of self-importance, would want a big party. But Laura Bush, who has never seemed quite so royally inclined as her husband, should know better than to suggest that there is anything inherently American about such festivities.

They are, in fact, an ugly and wholly indefensible abandonment of the template that Jefferson sought to imprint upon a nation founded in revolt against royalty.

Crying Wolf

Social Security is in danger. We must take preventive action: Baathist dead-enders have targeted the Social Security lockbox with Saddam's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Our only hope is to adopt private accounts so the trust fund can be spread to multiple locations, before the smoking gun turns out to be a mushroom cloud.

Sound silly? No sillier than the Administration's full-court press to scare the retirement checks out of seniors' hands. A propaganda push so vile, it's a wonder Armstrong Williams isn't part of it. (But Dick Cheney is.)

Americans need to take a deep breath and repeat: There is no crisis in Social Security. There is no crisis in Social Security. Feel better? If absolutely no reforms are made, Social Security will not start running out of money until 2042! That's four decades away, and that is the pessimistic scenario. According to the optimistic projections, the danger of doing nothing is...nothing.

We've been down this road before, and we all know the result. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Holding WMD Liars Accountable

Now that the Bush administration has finally stopped wasting millions of tax dollars each month on the futile search for the weapons of mass destruction it promised would be found in Iraq, it is time for an accounting.

First off, let's be clear about the fact that there was never any credible evidence to suggest that Iraq had a serious WMD program -- let alone the "stockpiles" of already-produced weaponry that the president and his aides suggested. Twenty-three members of the Senate and 133 members of the House rejected the intensive lobbying by the administration and the pliable press for the use-of-force resolution that Bush would use as his authorization to launch a preemptive war. Among those who voted "no" were the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and key members of the Senate and House committees responsible for intelligence, armed services and foreign relations -- all of whom had followed the issue for years and saw no evidence of a threat sufficient to justify an invasion of Iraq. Former President Jimmy Carter and others with long-term knowledge of the issues involved were critical of the rush to war, as were dozens of prominent players in the nation's political, foreign service, intelligence and military elites.

So the suggestion that there was broad acceptance of the premise that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs, or was deep into the process of developing them, is absurd. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had access to the same information as those who recognized that there was not a sufficient threat to merit military action by the United States. They chose to dismiss that information, and instead to peddle as genuine a fabricated threat.

When we look at what they said, however, it is clear that some pushed the lies more aggressively than others.

To be sure, Bush said outrageous things. For instance, in February 2002, he told the admittedly gullible folks at the American Enterprise Institute, "In Iraq, a dictator is building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world -- and we will not allow it."

Unless he was referring to someone other than Saddam Hussein, Bush was wrong. Dramatically wrong. But not, arguably, as wrong as Vice President Dick Cheney when he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on August 26, 2002, that, "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction."

Ouch, that's really wrong. Why, that's almost as wrong as when Cheney told an Air National Guard event in Denver on December 1, 2002, that, "Iraq could decide on any given day to provide biological or chemical weapons to a terrorist group or a terrorist individual." Or when Cheney appeared on NBC-TV's Meet the Press on March 16, 2003, to say of Saddam Hussein: "we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."

Long after it had become clear that the invading forces of the United States were not going to turn up any of the promised weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Cheney continued to promote the lie. Even after the arms inspector David Kay's report raised damning doubts about Iraq's ability to produce WMDs, Cheney told a crowd in Denver on November 7, 2003, that Saddam Hussein had "cultivated weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them."

Cheney's refusal to back off the WMD claim actually became an embarrassment to the Bush reelection campaign when the president was forced to say publicly in 2004 that he could not confirm the statements his own vice president was making.

So if even Bush backed away from Cheney, where was the vice president getting these crazy ideas?

Gee, could have been the national security advisor? Condoleezza Rice, the Dr. Strangelove of the Bush administration, spent much of 2002 promoting the fantasy that Iraq posed a nuclear threat. Famously, she declared on CNN on September 8, 2002, that, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Don't expect Bush or Cheney appear before a Congressional committee to explain themselves anytime soon. But, conveniently, Rice will have to do so this week, as part of the process of reviewing her nomination to serve as Secretary of State. It seems as if this might be an appropriate point for Congress to begin holding the administration accountable.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and by clicking here.

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Babushkas Versus Putin

In February 1917, bread riots took place in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), and spread quickly to working-class quarters where the violence increased. Women, many of them elderly, led the protests that led to the collapse of the czarist regime and eventually to the Bolshevik revolution.

In January 2005, few anticipate genuine revolution--or even a change in government. But, in one of the most interesting developments in Russia since 1998, when disgruntled coal miners went on strike and blocked railway tracks in protest of unpaid wages, thousands of pensioners are demonstrating across the country--protesting the abolition of a wide range of social benefits. (Unlike 1998, however, what makes these protests potentially more powerful is that every family in Russia has a pensioner--often a beloved babushka caring for the grandchildren.)

The source of the pensioners' anger is a law that came into force on January 1, replacing longstanding social benefits--free public transportation, and subsidies for medicine, rent, utilities and other basic services--with inadequate, monthly cash payments. The new legislation affects the most vulnerable in Russia--the country's 34 million pensioners, veterans and people with disabilities. (They make up just over one quarter of the population.)

The spreading protests, which are the largest, angriest and most passionate since Putin came to power in 2000, began quietly on January 9 and now stretch from Russia's Far East to Moscow itself. Most important, at times they've brought vital transport arteries to a halt.

Last Monday, a crowd of elderly pensioners blocked the highway from Moscow's city center to one of its main international airports. The newspaper Russki Kurier reported, "The angered old people had to be dispersed with the help of the paramilitary forces." This past weekend, an estimated 10,000 pensioners and veterans jammed the streets in Putin's hometown of St Petersburg. In a sign of the radicalization of these pensioneer-protesters, many are now linking political demands to their calls that benefits be restored. Thousands in St. Petersburg shouted, "Putin--resign!" they also called for the regional governor's resignation. Pensioners have also staged protests in Khimki, outside Moscow, and in towns such as Samara, Ufa, Izhevsk, Tula, Penza, Kursk, Barnaul and Podolsk. In the main square of Almetyevsk last week, 5,000 people massed with placards, shouting slogans, "Down With Putin."

In Khimki, World War II veterans may face trial as a result of skirmishes during the protests.(In a sign of the government's hypocrisy, Putin used his televised New Year's greeting to the nation to mark the sixtieth anniversary of World War II this May, and honor its veterans--the very ones his "reforms" will now impoverish. As a 78-year old veteran told the New York Times, " The fascists took away my youth. And now these people are taking away my old age." )

There have also been outbreaks of violence. In Nizhnii Novgorod, two pensioners beat up a female trolley-bus conductor. According to Channel 3, dozens of trolley conductors across the country were assaulted last week. And the newspaper Moskovskii Komsomolets reported that, on January 11, a car trying to get through a cordon hit four elderly women during a demonstration in the Moscow suburb of Khimki.

Perhaps because large-scale protests in Moscow's center are difficult to hide, the usually tightly controlled Russian television has broadcast striking images of crowds of angry elderly women squaring off against policemen.

The conventional view is that these spontaneous and somewhat chaotic protests will not pose a serious challenge to the stability of Putin's regime--unless, through strategic leadership and ties to opposition parties, pensioners are able to mobilize and organize a nation-wide general strike.Yet, that view ignores the fact that few anticipated the ferocity of these protests. As late as a month ago, a respected Russian analyst argued that "the Russian masses, even the most destitute, have not sent any signal of their determination to confront the regime."

On the other hand, for months leading opposition commentators and politicians have talked about "the despair syndrome," suggesting that the situation in Russia is on the verge of an explosion. In December, rabid nationalist Alexander Prokhanov characterized the situation as "pre-revolutionary." Writing in Zavtra ("Tomorrow") , the newspaper he has edited for the last decade, Prokhanov declared that Putin's head will be "cut off," and asserted that everyone is against Putin in Russia, including "the humiliated governors, the oligarchs, his liberal intelligentsia, the nationalists, the West and the Russian people as a whole."

While Russia's newspapers are now filled with debates about the meaning of Ukraine's "Orange Revolution" for Russia, few believe that country will see a change in government. What is clear, however, is that the current political and economic crisis threatens Putin's personal standing. In a poll taken at the end of last week, 97 percent of people blamed Putin for the crisis. And a poll released Saturday shows that trust in Putin's leadership has plummeted. The wildfire demonstrations have also contributed to a decline in the public's mood about the country's direction.

The central question today is, Will pensioners be joined by younger protesters--students, unpaid school teachers, miners, doctors? Will there be a pensioners' general strike? Will demands escalate--as they already seem to be--and include widespread calls for the resignation of key ministers, the Parliament and Putin? If so, what will be the Kremlin's reaction? It's already clear that the regime--from the parliament to the ministries--is in a panic.

For now, however, the government is not backing down. Last week, the Putin -controlled parliament refused to approve a motion by the Communist and the Motherland parties to review and amend the benefits legislation.Instead, the Kremlin is blaming the regional authorities for poor implementation of the changes.

Several leading political opposition leaders are calling on the regime to use its budget surplus--or what is called the "stabilization fund"--of some $25 billion (largely a result of soaring oil prices) to increase pensions, restore benefits and subsidies and, more generally, develop a comprehensive economic development program. (Sergei Glaziev, a leading parliamentary deputy who challenged Putin in last year's presidential election, has also argued that these billions shouldn't be parked in Western banks, where the money does nothing for Russia's economy.)

What will the next days bring? A leading parliamentary deputy told a Moscow radio station last weekend, "The demonstrations will reach their peak in February when people will have to pay their utility bills for the very first time."

Babushkas of Russia--Unite!

MLK's moral values

The anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. falls just five days before the second inauguration of a president who has broken faith with most of the civil rights leader's legacy -- at home and abroad.

But, while today's leaders are out of touch with King's legacy, Americans who still hold out hope that their country might truly embrace a higher and better morality than that of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice must keep in touch.

Amid our celebrations of King's monumental contribution to the struggle for racial and economic justice in the United States, we must also celebrate his commitment to peace – and to the humane foreign policies that ultimately provide the best defense against threats and violence.

Thus it will be appropriate over these next few days, as we honor King's memory, that we recall what the slain civil rights champion had to say about a subject that is much in the news these days: moral values.

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: ‘This is not just.' It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of Latin America and say: ‘This is not just.' The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just," King explained in his April 4, 1967, address at Manhattan's Riverside Church.

King explained that robbing the nation's treasury to fund military misadventures abroad did not fit into any definition he knew of "moral values." Indeed, he suggested, morality called Americans to oppose presidents who embarked upon careers of empire -- for the sake not just of victimized nations on the other side of the planet, but for the sake of America.

"A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

We honor King best by following his teachings. And, while he taught us much about how to live with one another, he taught us even more about how to live in peace with the rest of the world. It is that lesson that we must carry into what the Bush administration and the pliant press will portray as a festive week of celebration.

For those who are not celebrating with the Bushes and Cheneys, however, it is important to remember that King would not have settled for the excuse of "necessity" that the president will peddle. America, King told the crowd at Riverside Church on that April evening, could change.

"America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values," the Nobel Peace Prize winner explained. "There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood."

Partying While Baghdad Burns

While death benefits for troops in Iraq remain at $12,000, George W. Bush is throwing himself a $40 million party to celebrate the first time in his life he out-achieved his father. But the dynastic dysfunction continues into the next generation.

The Bush twins wanted to book Kid Rock to headline the inauguration youth concert they are hosting. But the White House was forced to disinvite him after family values groups complained about his vulgar, sex-soaked lyrics, including these lines from "Pimp of the Nation":

Pimp of the Nation, I could be it
As a matter of a fact, I foresee it
But only pimpin' hoes with the big tush
While you be left pimpin' Barbara Bush

This leaves the Bush daughters with a problem: What star from the thin ranks of white male rappers can replace Kid Rock? It seems unlikely to be fellow Detroit native Eminem, who sang in his explosive pre-election release "Mosh":

Let the president answer our high anarchy
Strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war
Let him impress daddy that way

As for the Beastie Boys, they rapped in "It Takes Time to Build":

Maybe it's time that we impeach Tex
And the military muscle that he wants to flex
By the time Bush is done, what will be left
Selling votes like E-pills at the discotheque
Environmental destruction and the national debt
But plenty of dollars left in the fat war chest

Of course, they can't invite any of the musicians from the pro-Kerry, Vote for Change concerts: Bruce Springsteen; Pearl Jam; R.E.M.; Jackson Brown; Bonnie Raitt; Ben Harper; Crosby, Stills, & Nash; Sheryl Crow; Dave Matthews; the Dixie Chicks; Foo Fighters; Tracy Chapman; or Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds.

Is anyone left?

There are always the Republican stalwarts Ted Nugent and Brooks & Dunn. But here's to hoping the Bush twins invite the Olsen Twins. It would be one wild and crazy after-party: "Double, double the trouble, double, double the fun."