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Well, of course, the investigation of who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's name -- violating the federal law that bars the "outing" of intelligence operatives -- has come around to Vice President Dick Cheney's office. While it may be news to the Washington Post -- which headlined a breathless report on Tuesday: "Cheney's Office Is A Focus in Leak Case" -- the fact is that Cheney and his aides have been likely suspects from day one.
No prominent member of the administration had more to lose as a result of the 2003 revelation by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, that the White House's pre-war claims regarding Iraq's weapons of mass destruction had been inflated than did Cheney -- who, to a far greater extent than George Bush, had a hand in shaping the arguments for going to war, plugged them in media appearances and defended them after all evidence suggested his pronouncements had been wrong. It is important to recall that, while Bush may have deliberately fuzzed the facts in his 2003 State of the Union address, it was Cheney who leapt off the cliff of speculation with the pre-war declaration that, "We know Saddam Hussein's been absolutely devoted to trying to acquire nuclear weapons, and we believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons."
No key player in the administration was more at odds with the Central Intelligence Agency than Cheney. Indeed, Cheney's badgering of the agency to come up with "evidence" of Iraqi WMDs and al-Qaeda connections was so aggressive -- he regularly stormed into the CIA headquarters to demand a briefing and then, when the information did not fit his biases, demanded that someone else brief him -- that members of the House Intelligence Committee complained in a reprimanding letter, "These visits are unprecedented. Normally, vice presidents, including yourself, receive regular briefings from (the) CIA in your office and have a CIA officer on permanent detail. There is no reason to make personal visits to the CIA."
No top office within the administration was better positioned than Cheney's to gather the information that was used to attack Wilson and his wife and to peddle that information to the press. In fact, as Joe Wilson told me in an interview about the leaking of his wife's name that we did early in 2004, "With respect to who actually leaked the information, there are really only a few people -- far fewer than the president let on when he said there are a lot of senior administration officials -- who could have done it. At the end of the day, you have to have the means, the keys to the conversations at which somebody might drop my wife's name -- deliberately or not -- a national security clearance, and a reason to be talking about this. When you look at all that, there are really very few people who exist at that nexis between national security and foreign policy and politics. You can count them, literally, on two hands."
Wilson added that, without a doubt, "the vice president is one of those people."
And no one, repeat no one, in Washington is known to be more vindictive than Dick Cheney. So the notion that Cheney would not only have been aware of but in fact delighted in punishing Wilson by ruining the career of the ambassador's wife is entirely plausible. By all accounts, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is investigating that prospect as his long examination of crimes that may have been committed in relation to the Plame leak draws to a close.
Does this mean that the vice president will be indicted by the federal grand jury that is currently examining the actions of White House political czar Karl Rove and, more importantly, Cheney Chief of Staff I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby?
Don't bet on it.
Libby is blood-oath, fall-on-the-sword loyal to Cheney. A Reagan-era State Department hand and Congressional staffer who came to know his future boss when Cheney was serving in Congress during the 1980s, Libby went with Cheney to George H. W. Bush's Defense Department -- serving Secretary of Defense Cheney as Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Strategy and Resources and Deputy Under Secretary for Policy. Libby was then a founder of the neo-conservative Project for a New American Century, which promoted the vision of American Empire that Cheney and his staff had cooked up in their controversial draft Defense Policy Guidance statement during their final days at the Pentagon. And when Cheney returned to the corridors of power, as vice president, Libby was at his side.
But the Cheney-Libby partnership is not merely a power and policy connection. Their relationship is more father-son than boss-surrogate. Libby vacations with Cheney at the vice president's $2.9 million villa in Wyoming, and Libby's access is such that he is welcome to invite friends and compatriots along to enjoy the skiing near Jackson Hole.
The likelihood that Libby would give up a relationship that has buttered his bread for the better part of a quarter century is even more remote than the likelihood that Rove would turn on Bush.
Yet, no one who knows about how Cheney and Libby operate will doubt that the two men had no secrets from one another during the period when the attacks on the CIA, in general, and Wilson and Plame, in particular, were taking place.
The vice president is a famously hands-on player. He personally requested information about claims that the Iraqis were attempting to obtain uranium from African countries -- the issue that Wilson examined in 2002, when he was dispatched to Africa and found that the claims were not credible. And while Cheney now says that he knew nothing of the report that Wilson produced before the war, the former ambassador has never believed him.
"If you are senior enough to ask the question, you are senior enough to get a very specific response," said Wilson. "In addition to the circular report that was sent around as a consequence of my trip, I have every confidence that one way or another the vice president was briefed as well." Yet, it was the vice president who continued to claim, long after Bush had dropped the line, that Saddam Hussein was a nuclear threat. And Cheney always went much further than Bush or others in the administration when making that claim. Indeed, it was Cheney who specifically stated prior to the Congressional votes on authorizing the use of force in Iraq that, Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons." Cheney claimed in the same speech that, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
It is certainly reasonable to argue that Cheney had more reason to strike out at Wilson than anyone else in the administration when the former ambassador revealed the truth in a New York Times opinion piece that appeared in the summer of 2003. And, while Cheney may not have done the deed directly, it is comic to suggest that the vice president -- who was in constant contact with both Libby and Rove around the time of the leak -- could have been unaware of any serious effort to discredit Wilson by "outing" his wife as a CIA agent.
John Nichols' biography of Vice President Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President (The New Press, 2004) is currently available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. An expanded paperback version of the book, which Publisher's Weekly describes as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says "reveals the inner Cheney," will be available this fall under the title, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press).
George Bush has given up.
We should have seen this coming. During the first debate of the fall 2004 campaign, a weary and frustrated Bush repeatedly referred to how the presidency had proven to be a difficult job for him. Again and again, the commander-in-chief responded to questions about the missteps, mistakes and misdeeds of his first term by pleading that, "It's hard work."
The guy was clearly overwhelmed a year ago. So it can't really come as much of surprise that he has thrown in the towel.
The evidence of his surrender is all around. The man who spent years denying global warming is now borrowing talking points from Jimmy Carter to call for energy conservation. He can't even convince himself -- let alone anyone else -- that the "mission-accomplished" occupation of Iraq is functional, let alone a success story. He has essentially abandoned his primary domestic-policy initiative for 2005, admitting during a Rose Garden press conference that there is a "diminished appetite" for his scheme to privatize Social Security. And when it came to what is arguably the most important appointment of his presidency -- the selection of a replacement for the critical "swing" justice on the U.S. Supreme Court – he didn't even try.
In defending his selection of his attorney, Harriet Miers, to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Bush claimed that, "I picked the best person I could find."
He obviously did not look very hard. Maybe that's because the guy who used to tell him who to nominate for judicial openings, Karl Rove, is busy trying to avoid a indictment by a federal grand jury. Maybe it is because Vice President Dick Cheney's office is in crisis, as the veep's chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby, is targeted by the same investigation into who in the White House revealed the identity of an intelligence operative in order to punish the husband of that operative, Ambassador Joe Wilson, for revealing that the administration had warped intelligence in order to make the "case" for invading Iraq.
Whatever the explanation, the Miers nomination is a signal of surrender.
Miers is a dramatically less inspired selection for an open seat on the nation's highest court even than the last great "crony" appointment: former President Lyndon Johnson's naming of his sometime attorney and longtime pal Abe Fortas to replace Associate Justice Arthur Goldberg in 1965. Like Miers, Fortas had no record of judicial service. And, like Miers, Fortas's primary qualification was unquestionably his friendship with the man making the appointments.
But at least Fortas had argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court, putting together the team of lawyers that won the unanimous Gideon v. Wainwright ruling that secured the constitutional right of criminal defendants to legal counsel. Fortas had also taught at Yale Law School, served as Undersecretary of the Interior during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency and earned acclaim in the legal community for his courageous defense of the victims of former Senator Joe McCarthy's ideological witch hunts of the 1950s.
Miers can point to no such record of accomplishment. Where Fortas had earned a place in legal history books before he was ever considered for a place on the Supreme Court, Miers hadn't even garnered footnote status before Bush tapped her for the lifetime sinecure.
Yet, while the Fortas nomination was easily confirmed in 1965 by a Senate that was friendly to Johnson, his story still serves as a reminder of the perils of cronyism. Three years later, when Johnson tried to name Fortas as the replacement for Chief Justice Earl Warren, the nomination faced a Senate filibuster that ultimately derailed it. A year later, when it was revealed that he had accepted a $20,000 fee from a foundation controlled by a financier who was under investigation for violating Federal securities laws, Fortas was forced to resign from the court.
Harriet Mier's closet may not have as many skeletons in it as did Abe Fortas's.
But the story of the last crony appointment to the high court remains a cautionary one for Bush. Lyndon Johnson nominated Fortas for the job of Chief Justice in June of 1968, after he had announced that he would not seek a second full term. Like Bush, Johnson had given up. He lacked the political capital to hold his own party's senators in line. The Fortas nomination was blocked when Democrats abandoned the nominee of a Democratic president.
With the rising tide of conservative criticism of the Miers nomination, Bush's primary problem at the moment is with Republicans -- not with the Democrats who, as usual, are having a hard time figuring out how to respond to crass cronyism. Columnists George Will and Ann Coulter, former presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan and other prominent conservatives have condemned the nomination, as has Manual Miranda, who heads the Third Branch Conference, a coalition of 150 grassroots conservative and libertarian groups across the country. And Bush's feeble defenses of his nominee have done little to silence the outcry. If the Miers nomination fails -- either because it is withdrawn or because it fails to gain traction in the Senate -- the reason for that failure will be the same as it was for the Fortas flop: a failing president's inability to keep his own partisan allies in line. If enough right-wing senators – led by Kansan Sam Brownback and Oklahoman Tom Coburn – abandon Miers, and by extension Bush, this nomination could yet be crushed in a right-left vice grip. There's no guarantee that will happen. The current Senate has a penchant for confirming stealth nominees such as Miers. But if Miers is rejected as the result of a right-wing revolt, it will not merely be a defeat for Bush. It will be the inevitable consequence of his decision – conscious or otherwise – to just give up.
Sally Baron is not alone in the afterlife.
The Wisconsin woman whose August, 2003, obituary created a nation sensation with Americans who had come to resent George W. Bush's disreputable presidency -- it included the line "Memorials in her honor can be made to any organization working for the removal of President Bush," inspiring t-shirts, badges and, as of this week, more than 980,000 unique references on the Internet -- will be pleased to make the acquaintance of one Theodore Roosevelt Heller.
Heller, who died last week in his native Chicago was recalled in yesterday's editions of the Chicago Tribune with an obituary that read:
Theodore Roosevelt Heller, 88, loving father of Charles (Joann) Heller; dear brother of the late Sonya (the late Jack) Steinberg. Ted was discharged from the U.S. Army during WWII due to service related injuries, and then forced his way back into the Illinois National Guard insisting no one tells him when to serve his country. Graveside services Tuesday 11 a.m. at Waldheim Jewish Cemetery (Ziditshover section), 1700 S. Harlem Ave., Chicago. In lieu of flowers, please send acerbic letters to Republicans.
Heller lived to see two more years of lies, corruption and cronyism. He also lived to see Bush's approval rating fall to the lowest level of his presidency -- just 37 percent, according to the latest CBS News poll.
So, while Baron referred to Bush as a liar and a "whistleass," it is possible that the ascerbic letters sent in the late Chicagoan's honor might direct even fiestier langauge toward Bush's Republican supporters.
The President has lost the support of Democrats (84 percent of whom disapprove of his presidency) and independents (64 percent of whom disapprove ), but he still runs strong among true believers in the Grand Old Party. Seventy-nine percent of self-described Republicans interviewed for the CBS poll expressed approval of Bush, while just 13 percent disapproved.
But perhaps even blind partisanship has its limits.
According to the new AP-Ipsos poll, Bush's support is softening among Republicans.
In the weeks after the 2004 election, an AP-Ipsos survey found that almost two-thirds of Republicans expressed strong approved of the president's work. In the new AP-Ipsos survey, only half expressed "strong" approval." And, according to AP, "Those most likely to have lost confidence about the nation's direction over the past year include white evangelicals, down 30 percentage points, Republican women, 28 points, Southerners, 26 points, and suburban men, 20 points."
So how best to honor Theodore Roosevelt Heller -- a man who was, after all, named for a great Republican?
Perhaps with a friendly reminder to Republicans that it is not merely appropriate, but necessary, to criticize a president who has lost his way. That may be best done with a quote from the TR, himself. To wit:
"The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants," Roosevelt explained in 1918. "He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else."
Of course, if it really is most important to tell the truth about the president, it might be necessary add the following:"P.S. Bush is still a whistleass."
It is fair to say that a good many Americans perceive George W. Bush to be a doltish incompetent who does not know the first thing about fighting terrorism.
But, whatever the president's actual level of competence may be, it is now clear that he has even less respect for the intelligence of the American people than his critics have for his cognitive capabilities.
As the president struggles this week to make a case for the staying the course that leads deeper into the quagmire that is Iraq, he is, remarkably, selling a warmed over version of the misguided take on terrorism that he peddled before this disasterous mission was launched.
Apparently working under the assumption that no one has been paying attention over the past two and a half years, Bush delivered a speech to the National Endowment for Democracy Thursday in which he dismissed calls for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. "Some observers also claim that America would be better off by cutting our losses and leaving Iraq now," the president argued, before concluding that, "It's a dangerous illusion refuted with a simple question: Would the United States and other free nations be more safe or less safe with Zarqawi and bin Laden in control of Iraq, its people and its resources?"That's a scary scenario. Unfortunately, it is one that the president created. And it is one that the president still fails to fully comprehend.
To hear the president tell it, the U.S. went to Iraq to combat bin Laden's al Qaida network.
The problem, of course, is that going to Iraq to confront al Qaida in 2003 was like going to the Vatican to confront Protestants.
Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party cadres were a lot of things, but they were never comrades, colleagues or hosts to the adherents of what Bush referred to in his speech as "Islamic radicalism," "militant jihadism" or "Islamo-fascism."
If any individuals on the planet feared and hated al Qaida, it was Hussein and his allies. The Iraqi Baathists were thugs, to be sure, but they were secularist thugs. Indeed, many of the most brutal acts of oppression carried out by the Iraqi regime targeted Islamic militants and governments aligned with the fundamentalists. The eight-year war between Iraq and Iran pitted the soldiers of Hussein's secular nationalism against the armies of the Ayatollah Khomeini's radical vision of Islam. That is why, while the United States remained officially neutral in the war that lasted from 1980 to 1988, it became an aggressive behind-the-scenes backer of Hussein. As part of that support, the U.S. State Department in 1982 removed Iraq from its list of states supporting international terrorism. That step helped to ease the way for loans and other forms of aid -- such as the U.S. Agriculture Department's guaranteed loans to Iraq for purchases of American commodities. It also signaled to other countries and international agencies that the U.S. wanted them to provide aid to Hussein -- and if the signal was missed, the Reagan White House and State Department would make their sentiments clear, as happened when the administration lobbied the Export-Import Bank to improve Iraq's credit rating and provide it with needed financial assistance. If any lingering doubts about U.S. attitude remained, they were eased by the December 20, 1983, visit of Donald Rumsfeld, who was touring the Middle East as President Reagan's special envoy, for visits with Hussein and Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
As it happened, the U.S. was reading Hussein right. In a region where the common catchphrase is "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," Hussein was not merely someone who was fighting a neighboring country. He was fighting the spread of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that the U.S. so feared because he was a committed secularist. Hussein promoted the education of women and put them in positions of power. Under Hussein, Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims enjoyed a greater measure of religious freedom than they have in most Middle Eastern countries in recent decades. Hussein included non-Muslims among his closest advisors, most notably Aziz, a Christian adherent of the Chaldean Catholic faith that remains rooted in Iraq.There was a paranoid passion to Hussein's secularism. He and his vast secret police network remained ever on the watch for evidence of Islamic militancy, and when it was found the response was swift and brutal. It was an awareness of the fact that Hussein was a bulwark against militant Islam that led key aides to President George H.W. Bush to argue against displacing him after the liberation of Kuwait by a U.S.-led force in 1991.
Nothing about Hussein's Baathist ideology changed during the 1990s. So it came to no surprise to anyone who knew the region that the 9/11 Commission, after aggressively investigating the matter, found no operational relationships existed between al Qaida and Iraq before the 2003 invasion that toppled Hussein.
Now, after having removed the bulwark against militant Islam, Bush describes an Iraq that is rapidly filling up with followers of al Qaida, and warns that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would allow the militants to "use the vacuum created by an American retreat to gain control of a country, a base from which to launch attacks and conduct their war against nonradical Muslim governments."
What Bush did not say in his speech Thursday was that his own actions had created the dire circumstance he described.
If George Washington's mantra was that he could not tell a lie, George Bush's is that he cannot admit a mistake.
But the president's refusal to face reality has isolated him from those who are serious about fighting the spread of terrorism.
General Peter Cosgrove, the former head of Australia's Defense Forces, rejects the notion that staying the course is the smart response. In fact, the well-regarded former commander of the military of a key U.S. ally, says that withdrawal makes sense because it will "take one of the focal points of terrorist motivation away, and that is foreign troops."
It is Cosgrove who suggested the late 2006 withdrawal date that has been taken up by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, the first member of the Senate to urge the development of an exit-strategy timeline.
For those who do not trusts the assessment of an Australian, consider that Porter Goss, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, who says, "The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists. Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraq conflict to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists."
The president who argued that Iraq needed to be invaded in order to fight terrorism has instead opened up a new country to al Qaida's machinations.
The president who argued that the U.S. must continue to occupy Iraq in order to prevent the spread of terrorism has instead created a quagmire in which even the head of his own CIA says that the U.S. presence is being exploited by terrorists to recruit new, anti-U.S. jihadists.
Now, George Bush argues for staying the course.
Perhaps Osama bin Laden would agree with that strategy.
But the American people are wising up.
The latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll tells us that only 32 percent of those approve of Bush's handling of the war. A remarkable 59 percent now say that the invasion a mistake. And an even more remarkable 63 percent say they want to see some or all U.S. troops withdrawn.
John Nichols covered the first Gulf War and has frequently reported from the Middle East over the past two decades. For more of his analysis of the administration's misguided approach, check out his book The Rise and Rise of Dick Cheney, out in paperback November 2 from The New Press.
More than three decades have passed since a President nominated someone without judicial experience to serve on the US Supreme Court.
The last such nominations--those of William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell Jr.--were announced on the same day, October 20, 1971, by then President Richard Nixon. Nixon had run into problems getting sitting federal judges placed on the high court. His nomination of Clement F. Haynsworth Jr., chief judge of the Fourth US Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Abe Fortas, was rejected by the Senate in 1969. A year later, the Senate turned down Nixon's nomination of G. Harrold Carswell, a judge on the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill the same vacancy.
In the fall of 1971, with vacancies created by the resignations of Justices John Marshall Harlan II and Hugo Black, Nixon opted for Rehnquist, an Arizona lawyer with close ties to conservative icon Barry Goldwater, and Powell, a former president of the American Bar Association. And, while the Rehnquist nomination created a bit of a stir, both men were confirmed before the year was out--giving Nixon a pair of "wins" in his long wrestling match with an overwhelmingly Democratic and ideologically muscular Senate.
On the surface, it would not seem that George W. Bush would have any reason to imitate Nixon's approach. Bush's first pick for the high court, John Roberts, a member of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia when he was selected, was easily confirmed to replace Rehnquist as Chief Justice--winning the support of every Republican and half the Democrats in the Senate. And the Senate that Bush is working with has a solid Republican majority and a soft Democratic opposition that is far more pliable than the one Nixon confronted.
Indeed, if Bush faced a challenge as he selected a replacement for retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, it came from the Republican right. Supportive but unexcited by Roberts, social conservatives made it clear that they wanted to see an abortion-opposing, gay rights-rejecting judicial activist as the next nominee from the President who repeatedly told Republican rallies that his favorite members of the court were right-wing Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Kansas Senator Sam Brownback, a conservative firebrand who entertains notions of seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2008, recently went so far as to suggest that he would vote against a Supreme Court nominee who lacked a "solid and known" record of opposition to reproductive rights, same-sex marriage and the wall of separation between church and state.
Brownback did not get his "solid and known" nominee. Bush just wasn't up for the fight.
Suffering from dismal approval ratings and unsettled by the burgeoning legal scandals involving the Republican leaders of the Congress, Bush went for the judicial-selection equivalent of a bunt. With his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers, the President has selected a non-judge so obscure--and so free of the burdens imposed by a judicial "paper trail"--that the Associated Press headlined a profile of her: "Bush's Court Pick Tends to Avoid Limelight."
In an interview earlier this year, Miers told the Dallas Morning News that it was her job to "stay out of the headlines."
She has done so with considerable success during a public career that, aside from brief tenure as president of the Texas State Bar Association, has pretty much been defined by her friendship with George W. Bush--who counted on her to help him sort out lingering controversies arising from his avoidance of the draft during the Vietnam War, and who then rewarded her with appointments to various positions during his gubernatorial and presidential terms. Now comes the ultimate appointment: nomination to a lifetime job on the nation's most powerful court.
That's quite a token of their friendship. But Miers has given Bush something, as well: a "stealth nominee" who ought to be able to sail through the toothless confirmation process with little trouble. Yes, of course, there will be grumbling from liberal interest groups--and even some conservative ones. But the precedent set by Roberts and other recent nominees--refusing to answer direct questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee and stonewalling requests for paperwork produced while serving in appointive positions--should serve her well.
The only hope that Americans will get a sense of where Miers is coming from before she puts on the judicial robes–-and it is a faint one indeed--is that members of the Senate will consult the Constitution and historical precedents before this confirmation process is done. They might look back to a page from the Nixon days.
The former President once complained that, by rejecting some of his nominees and subjecting the rest to tough scrutiny, the Senate was usurping his authority. Senate majority leader Mike Mansfield, a Western Democrat whose love of the Senate was exceeded only by his distrust of the executive branch, responded by explaining that the "advise and consent" clause in the Constitution meant that the Senate shared the president's powers when it came to filling court vacancies.
Nixon's slogan in his re-election campaign of 1972 was "Nixon--Now More Than Ever."
Faced with a stealth nominee for one of the most important positions in the land, and the rapid degeneration of Congressional checks and balances on the executive, we could use some Mike Mansfields in the Senate--now more than ever.
In Washington, where it is exceeding difficult to get the political players or the press corps to pay attention to more than one story at once, no0 one would suggest that it was "smart politics" to deliver a major address on the day that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay being forced to step aside after being indicted on criminal conspiracy charges.
But sometimes the work of Washington involves more than political games.
Sometimes it involves life and death questions of national policy. And it is particularly frustrating in such moments to see vital statements about the nation's future get lost in the rush to discuss the scandal du jour. To be sure, the well-deserved indictment of DeLay merited the attention it received. But the indictment of President Bush's "stay-the-course" approach with regard to the Iraq War, which was delivered on the same day by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, should have gotten a lot more attention than it did.
At a time when too many members of Congress, in both parties, are afraid to address the crisis Bush's missteps, misdeeds, arrogance and intransigence have created, Feingold broke the silence in the Senate.
"I cannot support an Iraq policy that makes our enemies stronger and our own country weaker, and that is why I will not support staying the course the President has set," Feingold told the Senate on the same day official Washington was focusing all its attention on the trials of Tom DeLay
Feingold's declaration came as part of scathing assessment of the Bush administration's determination to continue pursuing failed strategies not just in the Middle East but internationally.
"If Iraq were truly the solution to our national security challenges, this gamble with the future of the military and with our own economy might make sense," explained the senator, who last month called for a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that country. "If Iraq, rather than such strategically more significant countries as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were really at the heart of the global fight against violent Islamist terrorism, this might make some sense. If it were true that fighting insurgents in Baghdad meant that we would not have to fight them elsewhere, all of the costs of this policy might make some sense. But these things are not true. Iraq is not the silver bullet in the fight against global terrorist networks. As I have argued in some detail, it is quite possible that the Administration's policies in Iraq are actually strengthening the terrorists by helping them to recruit new fighters from around the world, giving those jihadists on-the-ground training in terrorism, and building new, transnational networks among our enemies. Meanwhile the costs of staying this course indefinitely, the consequences of weakening America's military and America's economy, loom more ominously before us with each passing week. There is no leadership in simply hoping for the best. We must insist on an Iraq policy that works."
Feingold detailed concerns about the damage done to the U.S. military by pursuit of the misguided mission in Iraq. "The Administration's policies in Iraq are breaking the United States Army," explained the Wisconsin Democrat, who reviewed concerns about the stress placed on soldiers and their families and about shortfalls in recruitment for the armed services.
"Make no mistake, our military readiness is already suffering," Feingold explained. "According to a recent RAND study, the Army has been stretched so thin that active-duty soldiers are now spending one of every two years abroad, leaving little of the Army left in any appropriate condition to respond to crises that may emerge elsewhere in the world. In an era in which we confront a globally networked enemy, and at a time when nuclear weapons proliferation is an urgent threat, continuing on our present course is irresponsible at best."
While the military is taking a hit, Feingold noted, so too is the economy. Noting that all of the cost of the war -- "every penny" -- "has been added to the already massive debt that will be paid by future generations of Americans," Feingold asked, "How much longer can the elected representatives of the American people in this Congress allow the President to rack up over a billion dollars a week in new debts? This war is draining, by one estimate, $5.6 billion every month from our economy, funds that might be used to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina recover, or to help address the skyrocketing health care costs facing businesses and families, or to help pay down the enormous debt this government has already piled up."
Feingold remarks were more than a critique of the administration. They were a call to action for the Congress.
"Bush Administration's policies in Iraq are making America weaker," he told the Senate. "And none of us should stand by and allow this to continue."
Truer words have rarely been spoken in the Capitol -- especially in recent years. Feingold's call deserves the attention, and the encouragement, not just of responsible members of the Congress but of the great mass of Americans who know that something has gone very wrong in Iraq -- and Washington.
The stampede to confirm Judge John Roberts as the 17th Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court roared through the full Senate Thursday as the chamber voted 78-22 to give President Bush's 50-year-old nominee a lifetime sinecure at the head of the nation's highest and most powerful court.
Roberts's record of opposing expansion of the Voting Rights Act, unyielding allegiance to the corporate interests he served as an attorney in private practice and extreme deference to executive power he served as an aide to President's Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush drew broad grassroots opposition.
People For the American Way, the National Organization for Women, the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Human Rights Campaign, Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Americans with Disabilities Watch, the National Council of Women's Organizations, the National Council of Jewish Women, Rainbow PUSH, the Fund for the Feminist Majority, Legal Momentum, the National Association of Social Workers, the National Abortion Federation, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and MoveOn.org all expressed strong opposition to the Roberts nomination.
But most senators listened less to the grassroots than they did to Inside-the-Beltway chatter. And the easy confirmation of Roberts indicated that he met the exceptionally low standards that now represent the two-party consensus in Washington when it comes to judicial selection.
Every member of the Senate Republican Caucus voted for Roberts, including Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, a frequent dissenter from the party's conservative doctrines who is running for reelection in 2006 with the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America, the reproductive rights advocacy group that strongly opposed the nomination because of Roberts's repeated refusal to answer questions about whether the Constitution's privacy protections extend to a woman's right to choose. (Notably, one Republican who is facing the voters this year, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was an outspoken opponent of confirming Roberts because, Bloomberg indicated, he feared that the nominee could turn out to be a judicial activist who would use his position and attack precedents that guarantee reproductive rights.)
The lockstep Republican support would have been enough to confirm Roberts with relative ease. But the nominee also fully half the votes cast by Democrats. Twenty two Democrats voted in favor of confirmation -- including frequent critics of the administration's judicial picks, such as Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Wisconsin Russ Feingold. So too did Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords, who left the GOP caucus in 2001 to work with the Democrats. In addition to Byrd, Leahy and Feingold, Democrats who voted to confirm Roberts included Montana's Max Baucus, West Virginia's Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, New Mexico's Jeff Bingaman, Delaware's Tom Carper, North Dakota's Kent Conrad and Kent Conrad, Connecticut's Chris Dodd, South Dakota's Tim Johnson, Wisconsin's Herb Kohl, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Michigan's Carl Levin, Arkansas's Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor, Washington's Patty Murray, Florida's Bill Nelson, Nebraska's Ben Nelson, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Colorado's Ken Salazar and Oregon's Ron Wyden.
All 22 votes against Roberts came from Democrats -- including a number of moderates who are either strong supporters of reproductive rights (such as California's Dianne Feinstein and Washington's Maria Cantwell) or have presidential ambitions that cause them to be particularly sensitive to the concerns of grassroots Democrats (count New York's Hillary Clinton, Indiana's Evan Bayh and Delaware's Joe Biden in this camp).
Ultimately, however, most of the Democratic votes in opposition to confirmation came from the chamber's more reliably progressive members, including: Hawaii's Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, California's Barbara Boxer, New Jersey's John Corzine, Minnesota's Mark Dayton, Illinois's Richard Durbin and Barack Obama, Iowa's Tom Harkin, Massachusetts's Edward Kennedy and John Kerry, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, Rhode Island's Jack Reed, Nevada's Harry Reid, New York's Charles Schumer and Michigan's Debbie Stabenow.
The most interesting "no" vote came from Obama. The Illinois senator, who delivered the keynote address at last summer's Democratic National Convention and arrived in Washington and arrived in Washington amid high expectations on the part of liberals, has tended to be a cautious player. The anti-Roberts vote represents one of his first big breaks with the two-party consensus and could indicate that he will be an important player in what is expected to be an at least somewhat more engaged debate over President Bush's nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
Local lawmen don't usually involve themselves in the affairs of state. It is their job to indict crooks and put them behind bars.
But when the affairs of state are corrupted by crooks, sometimes only a local prosecutor has the skills -- and the sense of duty -- that are required to address the crisis.
That explains why Wednesday's criminal conspiracy indictment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who essentially runs the Congress, came not from Washington but from Austin.
The trail of sleaze left behind as DeLay has traversed the American political landscape over the past two decades grew so long and so foul that it begged questions about whether any legal action would be sufficient to clean up the mess made by the toxic Texan. Unfortunately, the Environmental Protection Agency has no program for cleaning up political Superfund sites like the one created by DeLay and his associates, so the nation's only hope rested with a courageous Texas district attorney and a grand jury that had until this week to decide whether to indict the man who has done far more than George W. Bush or even Dick Cheney to turn Washington into a cesspool and the promise of American democracy into an ugly lie.
DeLay, who had a history of being disarmingly blunt about the pay-to-play commitments he expected from campaign contributors, and who secured the Congressional majorities needed to deliver for his corporate "partners" by warping the redistricting and electoral processes of his home state and others around the country, turned the Republican Party into what it is today: The most thoroughly corrupted political entity this side of the Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party's Politburo. (So complete is DeLay's control of the GOP that only a renegade Republican bsuch as Connecticut Representative Chris Shays was willing to admit the obvious: that the Texan's ethical lapses have begun "hurting this Republican majority.")
The Texas congressman, who after the indictment was forced to step down at least temporarily as Majority Leader, was so powerful that even Democrats in Washington treated him with kid gloves. Members of the opposition party might squawk when DeLay oversaw the redistricting of a half dozen Congressional colleagues out of their jobs, or when he warped the rules of the House to hold a trade vote open long enough to "break the arms" that were necessary to "win" it. They might even toss an ethics complaint his way. But, for the most part, top Democrats let the Republican representative known as "The Hammer" pound the political process into a shape that served his sordid ambitions. Though he was not actually the Speaker of the House, everyone knew that DeLay -- who admitted he was "too nuclear" to hold the high-profile Speaker's position when he gave it to his hapless sidekick, Denny Hastert, in 1998 -- ran things.
So it fell to Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle to press the case that DeLay and two of his longtime associates -- John Colyandro, the former executive director of a Texas political action committee formed by DeLay, and Jim Ellis, who heads DeLay's national political action committee -- had engaged in a criminal conspiracy to violate Texas campaign finance rules outlawing corporate contributions. Earle was the right man to make the case. With almost three decades of experience as the elected district attorney for a county that is the seat of state government in Texas, he has more experience prosecuting political corruption than just about any lawyer in the country.
Under Texas law, it is the Travis County District Attorney (who serves the capital city of Austin), not the state attorney general as in most other states, who is responsible for prosecuting criminal acts at the state level. Earle has taken that responsibility seriously, setting up a public-integrity unit that has a number of prominent politicians -- 12 Democrats and 3 Republicans -- with a record of success so impressive that the district attorney has been able to avert moves by angry legislators in both parties to cut the funding for the public-integrity unit or transfer its authority to the attorney general's office.
Earle, a Democrat, has survived the assaults on his power to prosecute political wrongdoers because of his willingness to indict members of his own party and because of his own political purity --- he once filed charges against himself for submitting a campaign finance report one day late.
Now that Earle has secured indictments of DeLay and his associates, however, he will be the target of one of the crudest smear campaigns in American political history -- indeed, it has already begun. Republican operatives and their media allies claim the prosecutor is targeting DeLay for partisan reasons, while DeLay claims that "Ronnie Earle is trying to criminalize politics."
Don't believe it. Ronnie Earle is trying to get the criminals out of politics.
"Our energy problems have the same cause as our environmental problems -- wasteful use of resources. Conservation helps us solve both at once." -- Jimmy Carter, 1977
Despite the quagmire in Iraq, his bumbling response to Hurricane Katrina and mounting concerns about the U.S. economy, President Bush has not yet delivered his "malaise" speech.
But as times get tough, Bush is borrowing a page from former President Jimmy Carter and becoming the nation's top pitchman for conservation. That's a bold move for a conservative Republican, as Bush's ideological compatriots have spent the better part of three decades dissing Carter for urging Americans to sacrifice rather than put the pedal to the medal.
Ever since a weary and frustrated Carter tried to get the country to think about the need for an energy policy by referring to a national "crisis of confidence" during a speech to the nation on June 15, 1979 -- Carter didn't actually use the term "malaise" in that speech, but he uttered the "m" word in reference to it several days later and the term stuck -- conservatives have ridiculed the nation's 39th president for his supposed weakness and willingness to surrender to circumstance.
Above all, the attacks have focused in on the fact that the former president, who during the 1979 energy crisis appeared on television wearing a sweater to urge that Americans turn down thermostats, responded to the great challenges facing the nation by preaching the dreaded ethic of conservation.
Carter has taken a lot of hits over the years. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole dismissed him as a "southern-fried McGovern," while author Steven F. Hayward (The Real Jimmy Carter: How Our Worst Ex-President Undermines American Foreign Policy, Coddles Dictators, and Created the Party of Clinton and Kerry) says the big problem of the Democratic Party is that it has been "Carterized." For the uninitiated, that translates as wimped out. Former Reagan administration aide Mona Charen has described Carter as "sniveling." Fox blowhard Sean Hannity delights in characterizing the ex-president as "weak." And historian David Oshinsky -- a far more thoughtful and moderate commentator than Charen or Hannity -- probably captured the conservative critique best when, in a New York Times book review a few years back, he mocked the image of "Jimmy Carter battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater" and declared that Carter's talk of conservation and sacrifice "made a gloomy decade seem positively morose. His motto could have read: 'The fun stops here.'"
But now, almost a quarter century after he left the White House, Carter has found a Republican ally.
Responding to rising concern about shortages of gasoline and spikes in energy prices caused by the havoc Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have wrecked in the refining regions of the Gulf Coast, President Bush has delivered a distinctly-Carteresque call for conservation.
Bush is urging people to avoid unnecessary car trips and preaching that, "We can all pitch in by being better conservers of energy."
Bush even promised, in another echo of Carter, that the federal government will take the lead. "If it makes sense for the citizen out there to curtail nonessential travel, it darn sure makes sense for federal employees," the president said this week. "We can encourage employees to car-pool or use mass transit, and we can shift peak electricity use to off-peak hours. There's ways for the federal government to lead when it comes to conservation."
The president is right about the wisdom of conservation, and the need for the government to lead -- even if his own administration's energy policies make a mockery of Carter's wise conservation proposals of the 1970s. Sure some will dismiss Bush's conservation call as just the latest act of post-Katrina political theater scripted by Karl Rove. But who knows? Perhaps Bush, who has staked his presidency on a global crusade to defend energy supplies from threats to "the American way of life," may yet come to recognize that Carter was right when he said of the need to commit to conservation: "If we fail to act soon, we will face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions."
So let's not dismiss Bush as a hypocrite just yet. Give the guy a chance to find the right cardigan. Maybe he'll even bring back the wood stove that Carter used in the White House living quarters -- and that Ronald Reagan ordered removed, along with the the solar panels that Carter had installed. Then its probably only a matter of time before a sweater-sporting Sean Hannity praises his president for launching a new front in the war on terror: Conservation.
Either that, or the conservatives will go back to their tried-and-true practice of responding to energy issues by ridiculing the first and only president to take conservation seriously for the sin of "battling the energy crisis in his cardigan sweater."
Amid chants of "Arrest Bush," hundreds of antiwar activists participated in a peaceful but boisterous sit-in outside the White House Monday, as part of a day of protests that saw Cindy Sheehan and others taken into custody.
Sheehan, the California woman whose 24-year-old son Casey was killed in the Iraq War, drew international attention in August when she camped out near George Bush's ranchette in Crawford, Texas, as part of an effort to secure a face-to-face meeting with the President. Over the weekend, the woman whom Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Lynn Woolsey, D-California, praised for "waking up America" brought her demand to Washington, where she participated in the mass demonstration against the war on Saturday.
On Monday, more than 1,000 people gathered in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Code Pink activists stretched a huge "Mothers Say No to War" banner across Pennsylvania Avenue, and early in the afternoon several hundred members of the crowd, including Sheehan, approached the northwest entrance of the executive residence. Holding a picture of her son in his US Army uniform, Sheehan again requested an opportunity to talk with the President about the Iraq War.
After about ten minutes, Sheehan joined a large sit-in along the fence outside the White House. As the group chanted "Stop the War!" and "The whole world is watching!" she was the first arrested by US Park Police. Like the others who were taken into custody, she was charged with demonstrating without a permit, a misdemeanor that carries a $50 fine. (In addition to the 370 people who joined the sit-in near the White House, another forty-one--including a number of members of the group Veterans for Peace--were arrested earlier in the day near the Pentagon.)
Though Bush did not meet with Sheehan on Monday, his spokesman Scott McClellan was forced to acknowledge that the President is "very much aware of the people here who have come to Washington."
McClellan, whose statements often display all the authenticity of pronouncements from the Politburo, made a hamhanded attempt to compare the weekend's mass anti-war protests with the tiny counter-protests by groups that are supportive of the war--suggesting that the crowds that poured into Washington included "some [who had come] to express support for the steps that we're taking and a number of others that have expressed a different view."
McClellan did allow as how the antiwar activists were "well-intentioned." But he added, "The President strongly believes that withdrawing [US troops from Iraq] would make us less safe and make the world more dangerous."
Sheehan took a different view, suggesting that the real danger comes from those in Congress who gave the Bush Administration permission to launch its war, and who have failed to demand an end to the misguided mission.
"We need a people's movement to end this war," Sheehan told Saturday's rally, during which she urged activists to increase the pressure on members of Congress to break with Bush and support the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq. "We're going to ask them: How many more of other people's children are you willing to sacrifice for the lies?"
The White House may not be taking Sheehan or the broader antiwar movement seriously, but some members of the House of Representative seem to be getting the message. Woolsey, who has sponsored a resolution calling for an exit strategy, told Saturday's rally of antiwar activists: "You are far ahead of the Congress and the policy-makers on this war."