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Congressional "Friends of Israel" are busy making noises about the "need" for the United States to provide that Middle Eastern land with full support as it assaults its neighbors.
But no genuine friend of Israel can be happy with what is being done in that country's name by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his misguided followers.
Israel's attack on Lebanon, which has already killed and wounded hundreds and destroyed much of that fragile democracy's infrastructure--including airports, seaports, bridges and roads--has done nothing to make Israel safer or more secure from threats posed by the militant Islamic organization Hezbollah. Indeed, the terrorist group's attacks on targets in northern Israel have become more brazen--and deadly--since Israel began striking Lebanon.
No serious participant in the contemporary discourse would deny that Israel has a right to protect itself. But no one in their right mind thinks Israel is going about the mission in a smart manner.
As Henry Siegman, the former head of the American Jewish Congress explains, "In Lebanon as in Gaza, it is not Israel's right to protect its civilian population from terrorist aggression that is at issue. It is the way Israel goes about exercising that right."
"Despite bitter lessons from the past, Israel's political and military leaders remain addicted to the notion that, whatever they have a right to do, they have a right to overdo, to the point where they lose what international support they had when they began their retaliatory measures," adds Seigman. "Israel's response to the terrorist assault in Gaza and the outrageous and unprovoked Hizbollah assault across its northern border in Lebanon, far from providing protection to its citizens, may well further undermine their security by destabilizing the wider region."
Seigman's right. Israel's assault on Lebanon won't bring stability to the Middle East. Instead, it makes a bad situation worse.
Unfortunately, President Bush has chosen to direct his anger over the crisis toward Syria, a largely disempowered player, and Iran, an increasingly powerful player but not one that listens to the U.S. By failing to express blunt concern about Israel's over-the-top response to a genuine problem, Bush has encouraged Olmert to continue on a course that has already proven devastating for Lebanon and that, ultimately, will threaten Israel's stability.
Bush should start listening to wise voices from Israel, voices that are saying Olmert is wrong.
Both Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Public Security Minister Avi Dichter opposed last week's bombings of Hezbollah headquarters and other facilities in Beirut, a move by Olmert and his allies that dramatically increased tensions and violence.
In the Israeli Knesset there is a good deal of opposition to the current strategy.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, former Israeli Cabinet member Yossi Sarid, a well-regarded veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces, argues that Israel -- and the United States -- need to recognize that they are going about things the wrong way. Instead of destroying the economic and physical infrastructure of Lebanon and Palestine, Sarid argues that efforts must be made to improve economies and opportunities for those who now see violence as the only way to demand fairness and opportunity.
"Iraq is destroyed, Afghanistan is destroyed, the Gaza Strip is destroyed and soon Beirut will be destroyed for the umpteenth time, and hundreds of billions of dollars are being invested solely in the vain war against the side that always loses and therefore has nothing more to lose. And hundreds of billions more go down the tubes of corruption," wrote Sarid.
"Maybe the time has come to put the pistol into safety mode for a moment, back into the holster, and at high noon declare a worldwide Marshall Plan, so that the eternal losers will finally have something to lose," Sarid added. "Only then will it be possible to isolate the viruses of violence and terrorism, for which quiet is quagmire and which in our eyes are themselves quagmire. And once isolated, it will be possible to eradicate them one day."
"There is always a charge that socialism does not fit human nature. We've encountered that for a long time. Maybe that's true. But can't people be educated? Can't people learn to cooperate with each other? Surely that must be our goal, because the alternative is redolent with war and poverty and all the ills of the world."
-- Frank Zeidler
One of my favorite political artifacts is a "Frank Zeidler for President" campaign pin.
Zeidler, an old-school American socialist who served three terms as the mayor of Milwaukee from 1948 to 1960, and who died last Friday at age 93, never got very far as a presidential candidate. In fact, like so many of the great civic gestures he engaged in over nearly eight decades of activism, Zeidler's 1976 campaign for the nation's top job was more about "keeping the red flag flying" than actually winning.
In 1976, when the Socialist Party of Eugene Victor Debs and Norman Thomas was struggling to get its bearings after a series of internal struggles, splits and resignations, Zeidler presented himself as its standard-bearer. Campaigning on a platform that promised a shift of national priorities from bloated defense spending to fighting poverty, rebuilding cities and creating a national health care program, Zeidler won only a portion of the respect that was due this kind and decent man and the values to which he has devoted a lifetime.
The Socialist ticket won only 6,038 votes in 1976 4,298 of them from Wisconsin, where Zeidler retained a substantial personal following. Despite the paucity of support, Zeidler's candidacy renewed interest in a great old political party, which once was a key player in the politics of his native state of Wisconsin and, to a lesser extent, of the nation.
Had Zeidler been born in another land -- perhaps Germany, where the roots of his family tree were firmly planted -- his national campaign at the head of the ticket of the Socialist Party would have been a much bigger deal. Indeed, he might well have been elected.
After all, in most of the world, the social-democratic values that Zeidler has advanced throughout his long life hold great sway. Latin America has been experiencing a revival of socialist fervor in recent years. And virtually every European country has elected a socialist government in the past decade. Indeed, the current leaders of Spain, Italy and Britain head political parties that are associated with the Socialist International, of which Zeidler's Socialist Party is a U.S. affiliate.
Yet, outside of Milwaukee, New York City, Reading, Pennsylvania, and a few other outposts, America never took to socialism with the same energy that Europe and much of the rest of the world did. And by the time of his death, even Zeidler, the last Socialist Party activist to lead a major city in the U.S., was deemed worthy of only a wire-service "brief" in the obituary section of the New York Times.
So my "Zeidler for President" pin, presented to me by the candidate himself, is more a rare artifact than a record of consequential electioneering.
Like the man whose name it heralds, the pin is a reminder of a politics of principle that has mostly existed on the periphery of postwar America's stilted economic and political discourse.
Beyond the borders of the United States, Zeidler's contribution -- a humane, duty-driven, economically responsible version of socialism that is reflective of the man as much as the philosophy -- has always been better recognized by foreigners than by Americans.
Zeidler was the repository of a Milwaukee Socialist tradition with German radical roots and a record of accomplishment -- grand parks along that city's lakefront, nationally recognized public health programs, pioneering open housing initiatives, and an unrivaled reputation for clean government -- that to his death filled the circumspect former mayor with an uncharacteristic measure of pride.
With its emphasis on providing quality services, the politics that Zeidler practiced was sometimes referred to as "sewer socialism." But, to the mayor, it was much more than that. The Milwaukee Socialists, who governed the city for much of the 20th century, led a remarkably successful experiment in human nature rooted in their faith that cooperation could deliver more than competition.
"Socialism as we attempted to practice it here believes that people working together for a common good can produce a greater benefit both for society and for the individual than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest," Zeidler told me in an interview several years ago. "And I think our record remains one of many more successes than failures."
On a Friday afternoon in the spring of 1999, the contribution that Zeidler made to Milwaukee and to the world was honored by people who well understood the significance of what this American socialist did and what he continued to do as someone whose activism slowed only slightly as he passed through his 80s and into his 90s.
At a gathering at the main branch of the Milwaukee Public Library, a favorite haunt of the man who as mayor battled to expand it, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation recognized Zeidler for his many years of public service and his unique contributions to the socialist cause.
Based in Bonn, Germany, the foundation was established in 1925 as a political legacy of Friedrich Ebert, Germany's first democratically elected president. A socialist, Ebert became president of a devastated Germany in the years after World War I, and he struggled to rebuild it as a free and responsible nation.
Banned by the Nazis in 1933, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation began its work anew in 1947 and today operates educational programs and other activities in more than 100 countries. It awards thousands of scholarships in Germany and around the world and maintains an internationally recognized library on the history of labor.
Dieter Dettke, executive director of the foundation's Washington office, came to Milwaukee to present Frank Zeidler with a bound volume of German constitutions -- a text that the former mayor, whose facility with languages was one of his many political assets, could read without the assistance of a translator.
American politics being what they are, Zeidler was never accorded the full measure of honor due him in his own land. But the rest of the world will continue to take inspiration from the recollection of the white-haired Milwaukee socialist whose faith in the possibility of a better world withstood the batterings of depression, war, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Nixon, Reagan and Bush eras,
"The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that," Zeidler told me not long before his death, still raising the red flag he carried across the 20th century and into the 21st. "Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual."
What was the "soundbite line" from the press conference where Senator Joe Lieberman announced that he may cut and run to an "unaffiliated" ballot line if Connecticut Democrats don't renominate him in August? That's easy:
"I have loyalties that are greater than those to my party."
That is an honorable-sounding line.
But to whom are the 2000 Democratic vice presidential nominee's loyalties directed?
That, of course, is the senator's problem.
Were Lieberman merely a predictable centrist Democrat, willing to mumble mild criticisms of the Bush administration's foreign policies but unwilling to make a serious break with the administration, he would not be worrying about the increasingly-viable Democratic primary challenge he faces from anti-war progressive Ned Lamont.
But Lieberman is not a predictable centrist. He is an in-the-pocket Bush man -- at least as far as the war in Iraq goes.
Lieberman called for war with Iraq before Bush did -- in a 2001 letter to the president that was also signed by Arizona Senator John McCain -- and he has been such an enthusiastic booster of the occupation that Bush actually kissed the Connecticut senator at the 2005 State of the Union.
Nothing, not realities on the ground in Iraq, nor realities on the ground in Connecticut, has caused Lieberman's loyalties to waver.
But it is possible to be principled and wrong. And, in the case of both Lieberman and Bush, it is certainly possible to mistake principle for a stubborn refusal to admit fundamental errors.
Whatever the explanation for the Connecticut senator's "my-president-right-or-wrong" positioning, one thing remains certain: Lieberman's principles are, indeed, Bush's.
Last month, Lieberman cast an expected vote against the proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by next year. But he also went a long step further, refusing to support a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.
That stance isolated Lieberman in a group of Democratic senators, mostly from Republican-leaning states, who refuse to put an inch of distance between themselves and George Bush's warmaking. (Even Hillary Clinton -- no war critic she -- voted for the Levin-Reed resolution, as did plenty of other centrist Dems.)
But Lieberman's not from a Republican-leaning state. In fact, a June Survey USA poll found that Connecticut was the sixth most anti-Bush state in the nation -- after Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey.
Only 30 percent of Connecticut voters surveyed last month approved of the president's performance.
Few states register higher anti-war sentiment than does Connecticut, and the distaste for the occupation extends far beyond the Democratic base to include independents and quite a few Republicans.
Some pundits still suggest that, running as an independent in November, Lieberman might prevail against Democratic-nominee Lamont and Republican Alan Schlesinger. They believe, as Lieberman has suggested, that the senator's problem is merely with the Democratic partisans who will turn out for the August 8 primary.
But if Lamont, who has turned out to be a much more attractive and effective candidate than even his proponents in the blogosphere initially expected, beats Lieberman in August he might well beat him again in November.
Indeed, if Ned Lamont runs against Bush and Lieberman, he will be a lot closer to the Connecticut mainstream than the incumbent.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the approval and signing of theDeclaration of Independence, the document's author was an 83-year-old formergovernor, vice president and president. Yet, what Thomas Jefferson was mostknown for in 1826 was his role in crafting the founding vision of the UnitedStates.
This was the recognition that Jefferson welcomed. Indeed, when he diedon that 50th anniversary, he was buried on the grounds of his Monticelloestate beneath a stone that made no mention of the political offices he hadheld. Rather, it read:
HERE WAS BURIED THOMAS JEFFERSON
AUTHOR OF THE DECLARATION OF AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE
OF THE STATUTE OF VIRGINIA FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
AND FATHER OF THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA
Jefferson has little faith in presidents and their Cabinets. He was no greatfan of the Congress.
What he believed in were the ideals of the America experiment. He was proudto have shaped the documents that defined those ideals. And he wanted hislegacy to be that not of a holder of office, but of a champion of therevolutionary promise of liberation from the tyranny of warrior kings andtheir oppressions.
Today, there are those who attempt to remake Jefferson and the otherfounders as religious zealots, as essentially conservative men who happenedto have a slight squabble with King George III, or, worst of all, asimperialists who would want the United States to dominate the affairs ofother lands.
The founders were imperfect men, to be sure. Few were so radical, or sofar ahead of their times, as Tom Paine, the wisest of their number. But theywere, proudly and unquestionably, revolutionaries against the old order ofinherited monarchy, state churches, empires and the authority of the fewover the fate of the many.
We know this to be true of Jefferson because, as July 4, 1826, approached,he was invited to appear in Washington for a celebration of the Declarationof Independence. Age and infirmity prevented Jefferson from attending theevent, but he sent a message – his last political statement – which read:
May (July 4) be to the world, what I believe it will be -- to some partssooner, to others later, but finally to all -- the signal of arousing men toburst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition hadpersuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and securityof self-government. That form (of government) which we have substituted,restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom ofopinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The generalspread of the light of science has already laid open to every view thepalpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles ontheir backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride themlegitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. Forourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh ourrecollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
On this Fourth of July, we Americans would do well to embrace Jefferson's last words and the Americanideals that, though battered by the current tyranny, will outlast the KingGeorge of the moment.
Forty years ago this week, on July 4, 1966, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act.
The choice of July 4 for the signing ceremony was no coincidence.
The signing of the Freedom of Information Act represented the realization of the promise of self governance that may have been born on July 4, 1776, butthat was never fully realized until 190 years later.
Why is the Freedom of Information Act such a big deal?
Because, as James Madison, the father of the Constitution, explained, ""Apopular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it,is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge willforever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors,must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives."
Until the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, Americans were deniedaccess to information that should rightfully have been available to them,and without which they could not be their own governors. As John Moss, thecrusading California congressman who secured its passage, frequently noted,the Freedom of Information Act was the first law in the long history of theRepublic that gave Americans the right to access the records of federalagencies that are funded with their tax dollars and that are, supposedly, attheir service.
That is a right that, Moss argued, was every bit as essential to realizingthe full potential of America democracy as the protections contained in theBill of Rights. And, of course, he was correct. What good is freedom ofspeech if that speech is not informed by knowledge of what the government isdoing in our name but without our informed consent? What good is freedom ofthe press if reporters are unable to find out what government agencies areup to?
The American people well recognize the value of the Freedom of InformationAct. Millions of citizens have made FOIA requests over the past fourdecades.
Unfortunately, the hyper-sensitive and hyper-secretive Bush administrationis now at war with the Freedom of Information Act -- just as the New York Times-bashing president and his allies are battling Freedom of the Press.
In the first year of hispresidency, Bush's then attorney general, John Ashcroft, dispatched a memoto federal agencies that told their administrators to use delaying tacticsto thwart the intent of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Ashcroft'sorder directed federal agencies to stall the release of requestedinformation until the completion of a painstakingly slow "full anddeliberate consideration" of the implications of releasing any particulardocument.The response by federal agencies to FOIA requests slowed to a crawl,creating an outcry that finally led Bush to issue an order last year thatappeared to endorse the values contained in the Freedom of Information Act.In fact, that was not the case.
While Bush's language seemed to support openness – "Agencies shall processrequests under the FOIA in an efficient and appropriate manner and achievetangible, measurable improvements in FOIA processing" – his order wasactually a vague statement that was issued not to get agencies jumping onFOIA requests but to head off Congressional action on the bipartisan OpenGovernment Act.
Written to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, the Open GovernmentAct seeks to end stonewalling by establishing a deadline – 20 days after thefiling of an FOIA request -- by which agencies must respond.
It's a timely and necessary reform.
Yet, at this point, both the House and Senate versions of the OpenGovernment Act are languishing in the Judiciary Committees of the respectivechambers.
If Americans want on this 4th of July Holiday to honor the democratic values that arethis country's greatest strength, perhaps of the best way to do so is bymaking a resolution to contact our representatives in the House and Senateand tell them to support the Open Government Act. This enactment of thissimple reform will renew the promise not just of the Freedom of InformationAct but of the Declaration of Independence and the American experiment.
There is no small measure of irony in the fact that the final vote by the U.S. House of Representatives before leaving for an extended Fourth of July break involved a basic question of American freedom – and there is no small measure of tragedy in the fact that the majority of House members took a position closer to that of King George III than the American revolutions who will be celebrated next Tuesday.
The question so basic that it should not have produced a division at all: Should the United States have a free press that challenges and exposes government wrongdoing, or should the United States have a subservient press that "cooperates" with government to report the "news" in a manner that pleases those in power?
Yet, in a flurry of last-minute procedural votes on House resolutions rebuking the news media for reporting leaks about Bush administration schemes to spy on Americans produced a variety of results, the Congress consistently came down on the side of a subservient press that performs stenography to power.
The final measure of authoritarian sentiment came in the vote Thursday evening on the measure introduced by Ohio Republican Mike Oxley: House Resolution 896. And the result was even worse than on some of the earlier votes: Only 183 of the House's 435 members voted to uphold the Constitution.
The Oxley resolution, written as part of the Bush administration's push to punish the New York Times for reporting on a secret program that monitors millions of bank transfers was fairly draconian in its language – despite the efforts of some House Republicans to temper their caucus' vitriolic response to recent leaks and news stories about Bush-backed domestic and international spying programs.
Among other things, it declares that the House "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" in keeping secret spying programs that the Bush administration claims are part of a war on terrorism but that could easily be used to invade the privacy of Americans.
No member of Congress who took seriously his or her oath to "defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic" could vote for legislation that is so clearly at odds with the Freedom of the Press protections contained in the First Amendment to that document, and with the clear intention of founders such as Thomas Jefferson, who famously declared, "were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
Yet, the final tally on the Oxley resolution was 227 in favor, 183 against.
The party breakdown was murkier than on some of the earlier votes, which pretty much divided along partisan lines.
Two hundred and ten Republicans endorsed the "expects the cooperation of all news media organizations" language, as did 17 Democrats.
The anti-First Amendment Democrats were John Barrow of Georgia, Melissa Bean of Illinois, Dan Boren of Oklahoma, Leonard Boswell of Iowa, Henry Cuellar of Texas, Pete DeFazio of Oregon, Chet Edwards of Texas, Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Brian Higgins of New York, Jim Marshall of Georgia, Jim Matheson of Utah, Charles Melancon of Louisiana, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, Mike Ross of Arkansas, John Salazar of Colorado, Ike Skelton of Missouri and Gene Taylor of Mississippi.
The 183 voted for a free press came from 174 Democrats, 8 Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.
The pro-First Amendment Republicans were Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Walter Jones of North Carolina, Donald Manzullo of Illinois, Butch Otter of Idaho, Ron Paul of Texas, Chris Shays of Connecticut and Jim Walsh of New York.
Through the various procedural votes, Shays was the most consistent backer of Freedom of the Press. But all the Republicans who voted against the resolution deserve praise. They provided a faint signal that there is still bipartisan support for the First Amendment in Congress – even if that there was not enough of it to carry the day for the Constitution.
O.K., so can we just admit that when it comes to redistricting – the processby which politicians define the legislative branch of the federal government– there are few if any limits on partisan power grabs?
That certainly seems to be the signal from the U.S. Supreme Court, which hasruled that disgraced former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his henchmenin the Texas legislature were fully within their rights to radically alterthe maps of the state's U.S. House districts in order to solidify Republicancontrol of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The redistricting of congressional districts – a process traditionallycarried out once every ten years by state legislators, who are supposed touse fresh Census data to assure that all of state's districts have similarpopulations – is the single most powerful tool by which the make up of theU.S. House of Representatives is determined. By gerrymandering districts togive advantages to incumbents from one party or another, legislators haveover the years made most House elections irrelevant. Even a well-fundedchallenger with the issues on his or her side cannot upset an incumbent whohas been given a district with favorable lines. As a result, in any givenelection year, only a few dozen of the nation's 435 House districts seecompetitive contests.
As bad as the circumstance was, in 2003, DeLay made things dramaticallyworse. After using his national contacts to raise the money to putRepublicans in charge of the state legislature in 2002, he had his allies inAustin radically redraw the state's congressional map with the expresspurpose of defeating Democratic incumbents and electing more Republicans.
It worked. Republicans picked up six Texas congressional seats in 2004.
Democrats challenged the redistricting, but the court's ruling has placed astamp of approval on DeLay's map – with one minor objection – and assuredthat the gains Republican gains engineered by DeLay will be retained.
But the importance of the 7-2 Supreme Court decision issued Wednesday goes far beyond Texas.
Three dangerous precedents have been set:
• The court has stated that the map DeLay's produced did not represent an"unconstitutional political gerrymander" of the state's district lines.Since it would be difficult to imagine a more politically-motivated map, thecourt has effectively said that partisans can draw maps that suit theirpolitical purposes without fear of intervention or objection by the courts.While some analysts interpret a line from a previous court ruling assuggesting that critics of a redistricting map could come up with a"reliable standard" for challenging a map, if such a standard could not beapplied to the DeLay map it is hard to say where it would ever be viable.
• The court has upheld the right of states to change their congressionaldistrict boundaries more frequently than once every ten years -- followingthe completion of a U.S. Census. – which is the traditional standard. Whatthis means is that, when control of a state legislature shifts, so too couldthe state's congressional district lines.
• The court has held that there is "nothing inherently suspect about alegislature's decision to replace mid-decade a court-ordered plan with oneof its own." Thus, court-ordered plans – which are usually the fairest tovoters, in that they tend to set up more competitive districts – can bereplaced by legislators who don't like them. This is a hugely significantdevelopment, in that it effectively removes the fall-back position that goodgovernment groups have used when challenging legislative gerrymandering.Foes of a particular map might get it thrown out by the courts, and theymight even get a panel of judges to draw a new map, but there is no longerany certainty that the new map will stand.
The court did rule that the lines of one Texas district will need to be redrawn because DeLay and his minions moved 100,000 Hispanic voters out of the southwest Texas 23rd District in order to protect a Republican incumbent, Henry Bonilla, politically. The court determined that move to undercut the influence of Hispanic voters was a violation of the Voting Rights Act. But, notably, the four most conservative justices on the court opposed even that determination.
Anyone who was looking to the Supreme Court to clean up the redistricting process and to provide for competitive elections is making a mistake. As Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy says, "If we're really concerned about fair elections, we have stop counting on the courts and start looking for political solutions."
In the short-term, Richie says, Congress should set national standards for redistricting. "Congress could establish standards for transparency -- sunshine-on-the-process standards that could be defined so that redistricting can't be done behind closed doors. A second step could be to set guidelines for when you can and cannot do redistricting. That would address some of the concerns about the court's ruling."
In the long-term, Richie says that reformers should begin pushing from a proportional representation system that might see three members of Congress elected from larger, more competitive districts using an instant-runoff voting model.
"If you are concerned about what the court ruling has done, there are immediate steps that can be taken," says Richie. "But what we need to do is dig in to really reform how elections for Congress are conducted."
In a democracy, the first responsibility of a journalist is to get accurate information about what the government is doing to the people so that they can make appropriate decisions about what is done in their name. That's why the founders put an unequivocal freedom-of-the-press protection in the First Amendment to the Constitution, and its why Thomas Jefferson famously declared, "The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."
Of course, there have been some limits on what information journalists share with the citizenry. It is generally agreed, for instance, that reporters ought not report in too much detail on troop movements in wartime, as the publication of such information could endanger soldiers and undermine military objectives.
So when the Washington press corps began reporting this week on leaked information about planning by U.S. commanders in Iraq to withdraw two of the 14 combat brigades stationed in that country by September of this year, it would not have been surprising if the stories had raised eyebrows among the more sensitive players in the Bush administration.
While this is hardly a classic example of "reporting on troop movements," it is an instance where the media is getting into quite a bit of detail about where U.S. troops will be positioned in the none-too-distant future. As an example, television networks are showing maps of the regions of Iraq from which U.S. troops might exit in relatively short order.
So what has been the reaction of a White House that is known to be on edge about leaks to leaks regarding the deployment of U.S. troops in coming months?
President Bush and White House Press Secretary Tony Snow have both ruminated on the rumors in some detail. Each has suggested that no decision has yet been made, and they have even detailed the standards that are being used to come to decisions about withdrawal.
The conversations have been easy going and White House reporters have felt no presidential fury.
Contrast that reaction to the response by the president, his aides and allies to reports in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal that the president has authorized federal agencies to monitor the banking transactions of private citizens.
Ostensibly, the monitoring is intended to track transfers of money by supposed terrorists. But the program, like many of the administration's other moves to monitor the conversations and business dealings of private individuals, has been implemented in secret, without the subpoenas that are traditionally required for such reviews, and in a manner designed to avoid the sort of independent governmental oversight that is supposed to prevent abuse.
Now, it would be ridiculous to think that Osama bin Laden or anyone else associated with al Qaeda would be naïve enough to think that they could transfer large amounts of money through regular banking channels without being found out. So the revelation of the monitoring could hardly be called a threat to the "war on terror" – at least, not by anyone who knows anything about dealing with terrorist networks.
Yet, President Bush went ballistic about reporting on the monitoring, telling White House reporters, "The disclosure of this program is disgraceful. We're at war with a bunch of people who want to hurt the United States of America. And for people to leak that program and for a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America."
Vice President Cheney was even blunter, saying, "Some of the press, particularly the New York Times, have made the job of defending against further terrorist attacks more difficult by insisting on publishing detailed information about vital national security programs."
Bush allies in Congress have even called for the prosecution of the New York Times for revealing to Americans the extent to which they are being spied upon.
So why is the Bush administration so freaked out about a leak regarding a spying program that could not possibly have come as news to any terrorists but that certainly might interest average Americans? And why isn't the president concerned about leaks regarding specific redeployments of troops in the near future?
There's no mystery.
The leak about spying on bank records will feed concerns about the extent that this administration has engaged in spying on citizens. That could be politically damaging.
On the other hand, the leak about planning for troop deployments – coming at a time when the majority of Americans say they want to see a plan for getting the U.S. out of Iraq – eases the political pressure on the president and his Republican allies.
What's the bottom line? The cynical Bush White House has always seen the "war on terror" as a political tool. The president and his allies – heeding the advice of White House political czar Karl Rove – regularly tailor their responses to new developments to benefit their domestic political fortunes while undermining the prospects of their political foes.
Leaks about plans for troop redeployment are fine with the president because they could help him and his congressional allies politically.
Leaks about the administration spying on citizens, on the other hand, are "disgraceful" because they could cause the president and his Republicans acolytes political harm.
Senator Joe Lieberman has maintained his status as the Bush administration's favorite Democrat.
Lieberman did not merely vote against the proposal by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold and Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry to get U.S. troops out of Iraq by next year, the Connecticut Democrat also voted against a vaguely-worded proposal by Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed and Michigan Democrat Carl Levin that urged the Bush administration to start thinking about an exit strategy.
Lieberman was one of just six Democrats who backed the administration's position on both measures. The others were Minnesota's Mark Dayton, who is not seeking reelection this year, and four Democrats who represent Republican-leaning southern and western states: Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, Arkansas's Mark Pryor, Florida's Bill Nelson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson.
Even Republican Lincoln Chafee, who faces an aggressive challenge from a conservative is his party's primary this summer, voted for the Levin-Reed proposal, which called on the president to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq and to submit a long-term exit strategy to Congress.
There was no expectation that Lieberman would back the Kerry-Feingold proposal, which drew just 13 votes -- from its sponsors and Senators Dan Araka and Dan Inouye of Hawaii. Barbara Boxer of California, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jim Jeffords and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
But there had been speculation that Lieberman would join the vast majority of his fellow Democrats -- including Connecticut colleague Chris Dodd -- in backing the Reed-Levin amendment. During Wednesday's debate on the measures, Lieberman, long the most outspoken Democratic advocate for the invasion and occupation of Iraq, admitted that Iraqis need to be given real responsibility for defending and governing their country.
But, when it came time to vote, the senator was not willing to break with the Bush administration. Instead, saying that he did not want to tie the president's hands, Lieberman joined most Senate Republicans in refusing to provide any check or balance on the administration's warmaking.
There is no mistaking the position that Lieberman has put himself in. Though he represents a state that voted against Bush's election in 2000 and against the president's reelection in 2004, and though Connecticut voters express higher levels of opposition to Bush and his war than voters in most other states, Lieberman has signaled that he will continue to give the administration a blank check to wage exactly the war it wants in Iraq.
Lieberman has wedged himself so firmly in the administration's corner that, during the Senate debate on whether to push for any sort of exit strategy, the Connecticut Democrat was not given floor time by the his own party's leadership. Rather, he was introduced by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, R-Va., who served as the White House's floor manager on the issue. When he spoke Wednesday, Lieberman was the first Democrat to back the president's position.
Warner heaped praise on the Connecticut Democrat, as did right-wing Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, perhaps the most enthusiastic supporter of the war in the Senate.
Having Lieberman on board is important for the Bush administration and its Republican allies, who like to suggest that there is broad support for the president's failed approach to Iraq. It's no small thing, when criticizing Democrats who express sensible concerns about the war, to be able to say: "Even the man Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000 says the president is right to stay the course."
There is no question that Lieberman's stance undercuts attempts -- hapless as they may be -- by Democrats to send clear signals regarding their concerns about a war that a clear majority of Americans now describe as "a mistake."
So who were the "winners" in Thursday's votes? The Bush administration may have gotten a boost from Lieberman, but so too will Ned Lamont, the businessman who is mounting an increasingly powerful anti-war challenge to the senator in Connecticut's August 8 Democratic primary. Before the Senate votes this week, Lamont urged Lieberman to break with the administration, saying that it was time to "build a Democratic coalition to establish and stick to a plan to end the war."
"‘Stay the course' is not a strategy for any real victory, and it is time that the President and Congress recognize that fact and take the steps needed to ensure true safety and security for the region and for America," the challenger argued.
Lamont, who has begun to garner support not just from the netroots but from prominent Democrats in Connecticut -- such as former state party chair George Jepsen -- is over 40 percent in the polls and rising rapidly. And this week's pro-administration votes by Lieberman will only serve to reinforce Lamont's message that Connecticut needs a senator who "stand up for our progressive democratic values."
"This innocuous-looking document initiates the single most important public policy debate that the FCC will tackle this year," Federal Communications Commissioner Michael Copps explained Wednesday, as the commission issued the "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" that initiates the next big fight over media ownership rules in the United States.
"Don't let its slimness fool you," added Copps. "It means that this Commission has begun to decide on behalf of the American people the future of our media. It means deciding whether or not to accelerate media concentration, step up the loss of local news and change forever the critical role independent newspapers perform for our country."
The commission's decision to issue the notice marks the beginning of an epic battle in the long struggle over whether to loosen ownership rules in a manner that would allow individual media companies to effectively take control of mass communications in cities across the country. But the precise nature of the fight was left unclear by FCC chairman Kevin Martin, who is guiding the rulemaking process.
Martin, a Bush administration appointee who is closely tied to a White House that wants to rewrite media ownership rules in a manner that will allow for a dramatic new wave of consolidation of ownership at the local level, is expected to use the process that began Wednesday to try and advance the agenda of the media conglomerates that in 2003 sought unsuccessfully to eliminate long-standing barriers to media monopoly. In a strategic shift, Martin is not proposing specifics rule changes at the start of the process. Rather, he is inviting comment on the broad issue of media ownership with the goal of then proposing and implementing specific rule changes after the public comment period is finished.
Martin hopes to avoid the public outcry that greeted the last attempt by the FCC to rewrite ownership rules -- and that, ultimately, thwarted the implementation of changes that would have allowed for massive new consolidation of ownership at the local and national levels.
Martin's attempt to confuse the rulemaking process by refusing to outline the rule changes he hopes to implement by the end of the year generated criticism even before Wednesday's FCC meeting finished. "The manner in which the Commission is launching this critical proceeding is totally inadequate," said Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein. "It is like submitting a high-school term paper for a Ph.D. thesis. The large media companies wanted, and today they get, a blank check to permit further media consolidation."
Copps and Adelstein, the FCC's stalwart defenders of media diversity, competition and localism, made their concerns known by dissenting in part against Martin's rulemaking initiative. Martin had the votes on the five-member commission -- on which Democrats Copps and Adelstein are outnumbered by the chair and two other Republicans -- to create a process that satisfies the media conglomerates. But he may not be able to deliver the changes that the corporations want.
At the top of the corporate wish list is the elimination of the "cross-ownership" rule that prevents a single company from buying buy up all the daily and weekly newspapers, as many as three television stations, as many as eight radio stations, the cable system and primary internet sites in the same metropolitan area. This "company town" scenario -- known in FCC parlance as "cross-ownership" -- was agreed to by the commission three years ago, despite broad public opposition. Only when Congress and then the courts intervened did the scheme get tripped up.
Martin's new rulemaking process is another attempt to get rid of the FCC's bar on cross-ownership. Yet, even with Martin's attempt to obscure the debate, the likelihood is that opposition to this specific rule change will come through loud and clear during the 120-day public comment period that and in the "half a dozen" public hearings that the chairman anticipates.
"The prohibition against owning a local broadcaster and a local newspaper in the same market is critical to preserving what the Supreme Court called ‘antagonistic sources of news' at the local level," says Linda Foley, president of the Newspaper Guild-CWA, the union that represents newspaper reporters and editors. "While some argue that the onset of digital communications provides many sources for national and international news, the vast majority of Americans get local news from either their local TV stations or their local newspaper. Our members know firsthand that the goal of media consolidation is to gain economic efficiencies. The result is merged news operations and reduced numbers of reporters covering local stories."
Foley's message will be amplified by a broad national campaign to assure that the FCC gets the message that Americans want to maintain media competition in their hometowns.
Unlike in 2003, when opposition to the rule changes proposed by the FCC majority built slowly over a number of months, this time the opposition is already organized. With the announcement of the rulemaking process came the debut of a new StopBigMedia.com coalition that includes Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the National Council of Churches, the Leadership Council on Civil Rights, Public Citizen, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, the Future of Music Coalition, Free Press and other church, labor, consumer, community and media reform groups.
In addition to challenging moves to rewrite ownership rules to benefit big media companies, the coalition will police the rulemaking process. If Martin continues to manipulate it in a manner that confuses issues and undermines debate, coalition members say that any rule changes the chairman might get approved by the FCC will be challenged in the Congress and the courts.
"The essence of democratic government is to give the people a chance to effectively participate in writing the rules under which they live," says Mark Cooper, the director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, a veteran observer of the regulatory process. "This Notice denies the public the opportunity to comment on the actual rules that will govern the media in America, since no rules are proposed. If the Commission does not allow further comment, the courts should reject this sham."
The likelihood of Congressional intervention remains real, as well. Moments after rulemaking notice was issued, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, the New York Democrat who chairs the Future of Media Caucus, declared that, "In 2003-2004, the FCC ignored the hundreds of thousands of Americans who expressed their opposition to the proposed rules during the public comment period, and only held one public hearing outside of Washington to hear what the public had to say. This was a grave mistake, and one that the Commission should not repeat. The American public has a right to know the full implications of these proposals and they have a right to be heard by the FCC. I will continue using the power of my office to ensure that this is a lengthy, open and transparent process."
Ideally, of course, the FCC will hear enough from the American people during the four-month comment period to recognize that there is no public support for regulatory shifts that help big media to get even bigger. That recognition might make even Kevin Martin -- an ambitious Republican who would like to run for the governorship in his home state of North Carolina -- think twice before using his position of public trust to do the bidding of the communications conglomerates.