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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Why's a Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel on the "No-Fly" List?

The federal officials who are busy assuring Americans that they've got their act together when it comes to managing port security are not inspiring much confidence with their approach to airline security.

When Dr. Robert Johnson, a heart surgeon who did his active duty with the U.S. Army Reserve before being honorably discharged with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, arrived at the Syracuse airport near his home in upstate New York last month for a flight to Florida, he was told he could not travel.

Why? Johnson was told that his name had been added to the federal "no-fly" list as a possible terror suspect.

Johnson, who served in the military during the time of the first Gulf War and then came home to serve as northern New York's first board-certified thoracic surgeon and an active member of the community in his hometown of Sackets Harbor, is not a terror suspect. But he is an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq, who mounted a scrappy campaign for Congress as the Democratic challenger to Republican Representative John McHugh in 2004 and who plans to challenge McHugh again in upstate New York's sprawling 23rd District.

Johnson, who eventually made it onto the flight to Florida, is angry. And, like a growing number of war critics whose names have ended up on "no-fly" lists – some of them prominent, many of them merely concerned citizens – he wants some answers.

"Why would a former lieutenant colonel who swore an oath to defend and protect our country pose a threat of terrorism?" he asked, in an interview with the Plattsburgh Press-Republican newspaper.

So far, he's not getting satisfactory responses to his questions.

No one at the Syracuse airport would tell him why he was on the list.

Nor has the federal Transportation Security Administration, which compiles the "no-fly" files, been forthcoming – except to say that names are added to the watch lists on the "recommendations and information received from federal agencies, including intelligence and law-enforcement agencies."

The story's gotten a good deal of media attention in upstate New York, and Johnson is speculating with reporters about whether his name ended up on the list because he ran against McHugh as a veteran who boldly declared that: "I know the ravages of war and I know the sacrifices that have to be made when a war is in our national interest. This war is not in our national interest."

McHugh's office denies any wrongdoing by the Republican congressman, a senior member of the powerful House Armed Services Committee who brags about working closely with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.

Johnson's not backing off his call for an explanation.

The physician-candidate told the Plattsburgh paper that the secrecy surrounding his name's addition to the "no-fly" list, and the prospect that it might be there because of his anti-war views, is outrageous.

"This is like McCarthyism in the 1950s," says Johnson.

L'Affair Dubai Spins Beyond Satire

The Onion may have grounds for legal action against the Bush administration for unfair competition.

After all, the administration is supposed to make its best effort to manage the affairs of state in a responsible manner. The Onion, a weekly humor publication that plays the news for laughs much as John Stewart's "Daily Show" does, is supposed to satirize the inevitable mistakes, missteps and misdeeds.

But the month of February has seen the administration stealing The Onion's thunder on a regular basis.

First, the vice president shot a guy in the face and then kept the story under wraps for a day.

Then, before the furor over Deadeye Dick's "peppering" incident had died down, the administration got itself embroiled in a controversy over the determination of the president to approve a deal that would put six major U.S. ports under the operational control of a country that the bipartisan 9-11 Commission warned suffers from "a persistent counterterrorism problem."

The absurdity of the moment was placed in stark relief Thursday afternoon, when senior administration officials from the Departments of Defence, State, Treasury and Homeland Security trooped up to Capitol Hill to brief the Senate Armed Services Committee about the plan to let Dubai Ports World, a firm owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)in charge of ports up and down the east coast.

Noting a particularly concerning line in the 9-11 Commission -- "The United Arab Emirates was becoming both a valued counterterrorismally of the United States and a persistent counterterrorism problem" -- U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, asked the administration representatives: "Just raise your hand if anybody (at the witness table) talked to the 9-11 commission," said Levin.

The senator's request was met with blank stares.

It was a priceless moment, indeed, an Onion moment.

That's the problem.

The way the administration is handling L'Affair Dubai is simply unfair to The Onion. How can a satirical newspaper satirize that which is beyond satire? What next? A plan to "fix" Social Security by betting the retirement security of millions of Americans on a stock market gamble? Oh, well, never mind.

The Abortion Debate Gets Real

It is rare that a decision by the South Dakota State Senate merits national attention. But there is simply no question that this week's vote by that chamber to ban abortion ought to be on the radar of every American who thinks that the right to choose is an issue. Certainly, opponents of reproductive rights recognize the significance; after the South Dakota vote, the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the militantly anti-choice Christian Defense Coalition, said he saw the foundations of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision crumbling and announced that, "With several states waiting in the wings to ban abortion, momentum is clearly building nationwide to overturn Roe."

Mahoney's allies in South Dakota agree. "The momentum for a change in the national policy on abortion is going to come in the not-too-distant future," says Republican Representative Roger W. Hunt, who has spearheaded the drive to make South Dakota the first state to pass a broad ban on the prodecure since the Roe decision of 33 years ago.

There's a reason this fight is playing out in this state.

South Dakota is one of three states -- North Dakota and Mississippi are the others -- with only one abortion provider.

With an overwhelming 23-12 vote to make it a felony for doctors to perform abortions, the South Dakota Senate has joined the lower house of the legislature -- which backed the bill by a 47-to-22 margin -- to endorse a move that could force the shuttering of that state's last clinic.

The fight is not over. South Dakota Governor Mike Rounds, an anti-choice but somewhat sensible Republican, still must decide whether he wants to sign the bill. But the wide margins in favor of the ban in both houses of the legislature suggest that, even if Rounds determines that the measure goes to far, his veto could face an override threat.

If the South Dakota ban becomes law, it will face an aggressive challenge in the courts. But, as everyone is, by now, well aware, the courts have changed a great deal since the last time they weighed the basic question of whether women will have a right to make decisions with regard to the termination unwanted pregnancies.

Just how dramatically unwanted a pregnancy might be is of little concern to the South Dakota legislators who backed the ban. While a narrow exception was allowed for procedures that would save the life of a pregnant woman, the South Dakotans rejected amendments to the bill that would have provided exceptions in the case of rape or incest or serious threats to the health and well-being of the woman.

Representative Hunt was blunt about why he and other took a hard line: Providing protections in "special circumstances" -- such as cases where children are raped -- would have diluted the bill and muddied the push for a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe.

The court fights that may evolve over this particular measure are, in large measure, beyond the control of the great majority of Americans who support maintaining access to safe and legal birth control procedures. The failure of U.S. Senate Democrats and the handful of pro-choice Republicans in that chamber to filibuster the nomination of Justice Samuel Alito has created an opening that the anti-choice movement has for years been preparing -- on a meticulous state-by-state basis -- to exploit. The Supreme Court may still have a narrow pro-Roe majority, but that will only be known when and if a case involving the South Dakota law, or another one like it, is reviewed.

That does not mean, however, that supporters of reproductive rights have to stand by the sidelines and watch as the momentum builds to overturn Roe. As Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America notes, "When you see them have a ban that does not include exceptions for rape or incest or the health of the mother, you understand that elections do matter."

In 2006, 36 governships, including South Dakota's, will be up for election. Additionally, the vast majority of state legislative seats in the 50 states will be selected.

The fight over choice has often played out at the margins of our national politics, exploited by cynical strategists on both sides of the partisan aisle more as a tool to mobilize the passionate than to convince swing voters. Rarely, for instance, are television advertisements seen raising the issue on behalf or against a particular gubernatorial or legislative candidate. But the decision of the South Dakota Senate ought to change the equation for 2006, not merely in that state but nationwide. If ever there was a moment when the debate over reproductive rights was ready for the political primetime, this is it.

The Rule of Law versus The Rule of Cheney

In the moment of executive excess, when abuses of the powers of the presidency and -- thanks to Dick Cheney's contributions to the crisis -- the vice presidency are so threatening to the Republic, it is important to remember that this is not a new fight. Cheney was the prime defender of the "right" of the executive branch to disregard Congress and the Constitution during the Iran-Contra scandal of the late 1980s, contributing a chilling dissent to the bipartisan Congressional report that accused the Reagan administration of "secrecy, deception and disdain for the law."

In that dissent, the man who then represented Wyoming in the House chastised Congress for "abusing its power" by seeking to limit the ability of the president and his aides to spend money as they chose in support of the Nicaraguan Contras. "Congress must recognize that effective foreign policy requires, and the Constitution mandates, the President to be the country's foreign policy leader," argued Cheney, it what remains one of history's most dramatic misreads of the Constitutional mandates with regard to the Constitutional system of checks and balances.

This messianic faith that the executive branch is above the law, which Cheney first spelled out as a member of Congress, has only hardened during his tenure as the most powerful vice president in history. Now, with the war in Iraq fully degenerated into quagmire and with the "war on terror" being used as an excuse for everything from warrantless wiretapping to extension of the Patriot Act, the Cheney doctrine infects the body politic as a cancer so widespread that is raises honest concern about the health and future of the American experiment.

It is important to recall, however, that the dangers inherent in Cheney's views were diagnosed almost two decades ago, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra debacle.

Historian Theodore Draper, who has died at age 93, penned a brilliant assessment of the specific scandal and the broader concern, A Very Thin Line: The Iran-Contra Affairs (Hill & Wang: 1991) which used congressional testimony and private depositions to explain the controversy that erupted after it was revealed that the Reagan administration had set up an entirely illegal scheme to sell arms to Iranian fundmentalists in order to raise money that funded Contra terrorism against the Nicaraguan government and people. The title of the book refers to what Draper saw as "a very thin line (separating) the legitimate from the illegitimate exercise of power in our government."

To Draper's view, the Iran-Contra scandal was "symptomatic of a far deeper disorder in the American body politic" -- a malady characterized by the misguided view that the United States can or should disregard the system of checks and balances in order to create "a president almighty in foreign policy."

Draper warned us well about that "deeper disorder. Unfortunately, his was a warning unheeded. Now, as we struggle with its deadly ramifications, we would do well to return to Draper's text -- not merely to honor a visionary historian who saw both the past and the future, but to arm ourselves for the fight over whether this country will be governed by the rule of law or the rule of Cheney.

John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."

Carter: Don't Punish the Palestinians

The yahoo crowd that runs U.S. foreign policy has been struggling to figure out how to get to the right of Israeli's Likud Party when it comes to countering the decision of the Palestinian people to give the political wing of Hamas an opportunity to form a government. But the new Bush doctrine of punishing people for casting their ballots for political parties that are not approved by the commissars in Washington does not sit well with the American president who actually forged significant progress toward peace in the Middle East -- and who understands the region better in his sleep than a wide-awake Dick Cheney before he's had that beer with lunch.

Jimmy Carter has been making the rounds of the television talk shows with an urgent message about what a mistake it would be to punish the Palestinian people for choosing a government that is not to the liking of Israeli or American politicians.

Carter, who led the team from the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute that observed last month's Palestinian elections, made his case well in an opinion piece headlined "Don't Punish the Palestinians," which first appeared Monday in the Washington Post.

Noting that the outlines of the Palestinian government are still taking shape, Carter argued that, "During this time of fluidity in the formation of the new government, it is important that Israel and the United States play positive roles. Any tacit or formal collusion between the two powers to disrupt the process by punishing the Palestinian people could be counterproductive and have devastating consequences."

"Unfortunately," Carter added, "these steps are already underway and are well known throughout the Palestinian territories and the world. Israel moved yesterday to withhold funds (about $50 million per month) that the Palestinians earn from customs and tax revenue. Perhaps a greater aggravation by the Israelis is their decision to hinder movement of elected Hamas Palestinian Legislative Council members through any of more than a hundred Israeli checkpoints around and throughout the Palestinian territories. This will present significant obstacles to a government's functioning effectively."

And it is not just Israel that is taking the wrong course.

"Knowing that Hamas would inherit a bankrupt government, U.S. officials have announced that all funding for the new government will be withheld, including what is needed to pay salaries for schoolteachers, nurses, social workers, police and maintenance personnel," noted Carter "So far they have not agreed to bypass the Hamas-led government and let humanitarian funds be channeled to Palestinians through United Nations agencies responsible for refugees, health and other human services."

The former president offers a dose of realism when he concludes that: "This common commitment to eviscerate the government of elected Hamas officials by punishing private citizens may accomplish this narrow purpose (of limiting the ability of the new government to function), but the likely results will be to alienate the already oppressed and innocent Palestinians, to incite violence, and to increase the domestic influence and international esteem of Hamas. It will certainly not be an inducement to Hamas or other militants to moderate their policies."

Don't hold your breath waiting for the Bush-Cheney administration to do the right thing. But it would be encouraging if Carter's Democratic Party, the supposed opposition force in American politics, would embrace the wisdom of a former president whose commitment to easing tensions on the planet earned him the Nobel Peace Prize that will ever elude the current occupants of the White House. Unfortunately, most Democrats in Congress are, in all-too-predictable fashion, echoing an administration line that is as dangerous as it is foolhardy.

Corporate Control of Ports Is the Problem -- UPDATED

The problem with the Bush administration's support for a move by a United Arab Emirates-based firm to take over operation of six major American ports -- as well as the shipment of military equipment through two additional ports -- is not that the corporation in question is Arab owned.

The problem is that Dubai Ports World is a corporation. It happens to be a corporation that is owned by the government of the the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, a nation that served as an operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the attacks of 9-11 attacks, and that has stirred broad concern. But, even if the sale of operational control of the ports to this firm did not raise security alarm bells, it would be a bad idea.

Ports are essential pieces of the infrastructure of the United States, and they are best run by public authorities that are accountable to elected officials and the people those officials represent. While traditional port authorities still exist, they are increasing marginalized as privatization schemes have allowed corporations -- often with tough anti-union attitudes and even tougher bottom lines -- to take charge of more and more of the basic operations at the nation's ports.

In the era when the federal government sees "homeland security" as a slogan rather than a responsibility, allowing the nation's working waterfronts to be run by private firms just doesn't work. It is no secret that federal authorities have failed to mandate, let alone implement, basic port security measures. But this is not merely a federal failure; it is, as well, a private-sector failure. The private firms that control so many of the nation's ports have not begun to set up a solid system for waterfront security in the more than four years since the September 11, 2001 attacks. And shifting control of the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia -- along with control over the movement of military equipment on behalf of the U.S. Army through the ports at Beaumont and Corpus Christi -- from a British firm, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., to Dubai Ports World, is not going to improve the situation.

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Unfortunately, the debate has been posed as a fight over whether Arab-owned firms should be allowed to manage ports and other strategic sites in the U.S. Media coverage of the debate sets up the increasingly ridiculous Homeland Security Secretary, Michael Chertoff -- who babbles bureaucratically about how, "We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint" -- against members of Congress -- who growl, as U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-New York, did over the weekend about the need "to guard against things like infiltration by al-Qaida or someone else,"

There are two fundamental facts about corporations that put this controversy about who runs the ports in perspective.

First: Like most American firms, most Arab-owned firms are committed to making money, and the vast majority of them are not about to compromise their potential profits by throwing in with terrorists.

Second: Like most American firms, Arab-owned firms are more concerned about satisfying shareholders than anything else. As such, they are poor stewards of ports and other vital pieces of the national infrastructure that still require the constant investment of public funds, as well as responsible oversite by authorities that can see more than a bottom line, in order to maintain public safety -- not to mention the public good of modern, efficient transportation services.

"He Ain't Kinky, He's My Governor."

In this era of ever-more-cautious electioneering, when consultants counsel contenders to stick to the safe, narrow and drab on the warped theory that the lowest common denominator is dull, the art of political sloganeering has hit something of a dry spell.

It may well be that the last really great -- or, at least memorable -- slogan was the one used by supporters of former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, a man who had faced more than his share of corruption charges, in a 1991 contest with nuevo-Klansman David Duke: "Vote for the Crook. It's Important!"

But 2006 will be different. Country singer and novelist Kinky Friedman's campaign for governor of Texas has already produced the best bumpersticker slogan that the American political landscape has seen in years: "He Ain't Kinky, He's My Governor."

Friedman's also got the best counter to the Bush administration's failed education initiatives. A campaign t-shirt declares: "No Teacher Left Behind."

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Running as an independent who must petition his way onto the fall ballot (his campaign is gearing up to collect signatures from more than 45,540 registered voters beginning March 8), Friedman's pitching a serious set of progressive education, health care and energy policy reforms. Two separate polls released in recent days have Friedman garnering around 10 percent support, behind the ridiculous incumbent, Rick Perry, and his chief challenger, State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn -- a Democrat turned Republican who is now running as an independent with the support of her youngest son, embattled White House spokesman Scott McClellan -- but quite close to overtaking the two Democrats who are trying to mount campaigns. (Perry, who inherited his job when George W. Bush was handed the presidency by the U.S. Supreme Court, may yet prove to be vulnerable. A recent Dallas Morning News poll found that, when asked to name the governor's most important accomplishment during five years in office, 70 percent could not think of anything.)

Even as his campaign gains the sort of attention and support that often causes candidates to put their personalities on hold, the man who once fronted the band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys can be counted on to keep the Texas race worth watching. His campaign manifesto -- which begins by announcing: "Why the hell not?Texas politics stinks" -- makes that clear. "Texans are the most independent people in America, and if we're going to be inspired, the inspiration will come from someone unafraid to deal in new ideas and honest answers, an independent leader who lets the people call the plays instead of dancing to the tune of the money men," it explains. "That kind of leader is never going to look or sound like a politician. He won't steer by image polls, speak in hollow phrases approved by focus groups, or show up in hand-tailored suits."

For the record, Kinky wears blue jeans (faded), a black shirt (untucked), black books (slightly muddied), a black cowboy hat (beaten up a bit) and a Montecristo No. 2. cigar (ever present).

More Support for Impeachment Inquiry

The list of House members who have signed on as cosponsors of U.S. Representative John Conyers' resolution calling for the establishment of select committee that would examine whether President Bush and Vice President Cheney should face impeachment continues to grow. Four more members of the House have added their names to the resolution, bringing to 27 the total number of representatives, including Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who are calling for the creation of "a select committee to investigate the administration's intent to go to war before congressional authorization, manipulation of pre-war intelligence, encouraging and countenancing torture, retaliating against critics, and to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment."

The new cosponsors, all Democrats, are Wisconsin's Gwen Moore, New York's Nydia Velasquez, and John Olver and John Tierney of Massachusetts Wisconsin's Gwen Moore. Olver made his decision to sign on after meeting with Massachusetts members of the national group Progressive Democrats of America, which has been spearheading the drive to attract cosponsors.

Another cosponsor, California Democrat Barbara Lee, put the effort to hold the president and vice president to account in perspective Friday with a powerful critique of the administration's attempts to justify warrantless spying on Americans and other assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law.

"What separates us from terrorists is not simply that our principles are deeply offended by the idea of torture or the murdering of innocents, but that we are a nation of laws. Our principles are enshrined in our Constitution and a system of duly enacted laws, and in a government where all are accountable and no one is above the law," explained Lee, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

"Our Constitution gives us a system of checks and balances and divided powers because our founders were bitterly familiar with dealing with an unaccountable executive and were determined that our nation should not have a king, nor any office like it," Lee added. "The president and his advisers have tried to make this a question of whether we will defend our nation. This is misleading. Democrats and Republicans alike are committed to vigorously defending our nation. The real question is whether we will just as fiercely defend those principles that define our nation and separate us from terrorists, namely our commitment to constitutional government and our respect for the rule of law."

Lonely Defenders of Civil Liberties

In the first of what will be a number of critical votes on renewal of the Patriot Act, only three members of the U.S. Senate supported Russ Feingold's effort to prevent enactment of a version of the law favored by the Bush administration.

Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who cast the sole vote against the Patriot Act in 2001, has promised to fight at every turn to prevent renewal of the Patriot Act in a form that does not respect civil libertries.

On Thursday, he sought to clarify the rights of individuals and institutions that might be subject to inquiries undder the act. But only two senators, West Viginia Democrat Robert Byrd and Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords sided with him.

Some of my colleagues have been arguing, however, that we should go along with this deal because the conference report, as amended by the Sununu bill, improves the Patriot Act that we passed four and a half years ago.

Noting that Republican and Democratic senators who demanded changes in the Patriot Act late last year are now backing a version of the act that does not include the changes they sought, Feingold said, "I oppose the sham legislative process that the Senate is facing here. And I oppose the flawed deal we are being asked to ratify. Notwithstanding the improvements achieved in the conference report, we still have not adequately addressed some of the most significant problems with the Patriot Act. So I must oppose proceeding to this bill, which will allow the deal to go forward. I cannot understand how anyone who opposed the conference report back in December can justify supporting it now. This deal was a beast two months ago and it hasn't gotten any better-looking since then."

But the beast had all the Republican and Democratic supporters it needed Thursday.

And the Constitution had just three friends in the Senate.

Connecting the Dots of Cheney's Crimes

Goodness gracious! Could it be that comedians are doing a better job of connecting the dots regarding Dick Cheney's high crimes and misdemeanors than are the unintentionally ridiculous members of the White House press corps?

Huntergate is certainly worthy of coverage, especially now that the vice president has admitted to shooting while intoxicated. But the on-bended-knee "reporters" who hang around the briefing room waiting for a presidential spokesman to feed them their daily diet of spin look pretty absurd chasing after this particular story with so much gusto while they continue to ignore the big picture of Cheney's misuse of intelligence data before and after the invasion of Iraq and his role in schemes to punish critics of the administration.

If the Bush administration's court reporters are not quite up to the job of holding the vice president to account, however, the nation's fearless comedians are up to the task.

"Good news, ladies and gentlemen," announced David Letterman after news of the vice presidential shooting spree finally came out, "we have finally located weapons of mass destruction: It's Dick Cheney."

Letterman scored another direct hit when he observed: "It turns out now that Dick Cheney did not have a license to hunt, and coincidentally, turns out we didn't have a license to go into Iraq."

Jay Leno was equally on target when he explained that: "You can't blame [Cheney]. Bush says you can spy on people without warrants, you can torture people, you can hold people without a trial, so Dick Cheney thinks, 'Oh what the hell, I can shoot a few guys.'"

Ultimately, however, it was "Daily Show" correspondent Rob Corddry who hit the bullseye, when he reported that: "The Vice President is standing by his decision to shoot Harry Whittington. Now, according to the best intelligence available, there were quail hidden in the brush. Everyone believed at the time there were quail in the brush. And while the quail turned out to be a 78- year-old man, even knowing that today, Mr. Cheney insists he still would have shot Mr. Whittington in the face. He believes the world is a better place for his spreading buckshot throughout the entire region of Mr. Wittington's face."

All seriousness aside, there is a good deal of humor to be found in the fact that members of the White House press corps have finally been roused to mount the journalistic barricades by a hunting accident. While they cannot be counted on to go after the big stories, they are unrelenting in their determination to get to the bottom of every tale of celebrity folly -- be it Britney Spears failure to place her baby in a carseat or Dick Cheney's inability to shoot straight after he's downed a cold one.

But, as in the days when Pravda and Tass could not be relied upon to go after the big stories of Soviet shenanigans, Americans now know that, for the full story about this administration, they must turn to the comedians and the satirists who understand that Cheney's abuse of beer and guns cannot compare with his abuse of the most powerful vice presidency in American history.

John Nichols's book The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press) is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. Publisher's Weekly describes it as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."

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