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Sure, it's been fun joking about the fact that Dick Cheney obtained five -- count them, five -- deferments to avoid serving in the military during the Vietnam War. Sure, its been amusing to recount his limp claim that the man who served as George Bush I's Secretary of Defense had "other priorities" than taking up arms in defense of his country. Sure, it was a laugh when the chief cheerleader for the war in Iraq mocked John Kerry for having actually carried a weapon in a time of war.
But it is time to stop laughing at Dick Cheney's expense.
Now that the vice president has accidentally shot and wounded a companion on a quail hunt at the elite Texas ranch where rich men play with guns -- spraying his 78-year-old victim, er, friend, in the face and chest with shotgun pellets and sending the man to the intensive care unit of a Corpus Christi hospital -- it has become clear that Cheney was doing the country a service when he avoided service.
Despite the best efforts of Cheney's apologists to have it otherwise, the man the vice president misstook for a quail, millionaire attorney Harry Whittington, was in plain sight, wearing a bright orange vest at the time the vice president blasted him.
U.S. troops had enough problems in Vietnam without letting a trigger-happy incompetent like Dick Cheney start shooting things up from behind the lines.
Those deferments were well and wisely issued.
Americans ought be listening to Russ Feingold in these defining days for the Republic, because what the Democratic senator from Wisconsin is saying goes to the heart of the question of whether a nation founded in revolt against monarchy will be ruled by laws or by the crude whims of an intemperate sovereign and his out-of-control administration.
Feingold has been fighting for weeks to get the Congress to address the issue of President Bush's illegal approval of warrantless wiretapping of Americans. A small but growing group in Congress, including some prominent Republicans -- most recently, U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., the chair of the House Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, who this week called for a "complete review" of the National Security Agency domestic spying program -- have begun echoing Feingold's demand that the Constitutional crisis created by the president's wrongdoing be taken seriously.
But too many major media outlets continue to treat the eavesdropping scandal as little more than a political game. They chart the progress of the critics and then measure the extent to which the administration's spin has limited the damage to the president's approval ratings.
Frustrated by the game playing, Feingold went to the floor of the Senate last Tuesday in an effort to break through the spin and speak the blunt truths of the moment.
"Last week the President of the United States gave his State of the Union address, where he spoke of America's leadership in the world, and called on all of us to 'lead this world toward freedom.' Again and again, he invoked the principle of freedom, and how it can transform nations, and empower people around the world," Feingold told the chamber. "But, almost in the same breath, the President openly acknowledged that he has ordered the government to spy on Americans, on American soil, without the warrants required by law. The President issued a call to spread freedom throughout the world, and then he admitted that he has deprived Americans of one of their most basic freedoms under the Fourth Amendment -- to be free from unjustified government intrusion."
The Wisconsinite who emerged as the Capitol's most diligent defender of the Constitution when he cast the sole vote in the Senate against the Patriot Act in 2001 delivered a blistering indictment not just of the president but of those who are treating the debate over the administration's assault on basic liberties as just another fight between political partisans.
"The President was blunt. He said that he had authorized the NSA's domestic spying program, and he made a number of misleading arguments to defend himself. His words got rousing applause from Republicans, and I think even some Democrats," Feingold continued. "The President was blunt, so I will be blunt: This program is breaking the law, and this President is breaking the law. Not only that, he is misleading the American people in his efforts to justify this program."
Noting that many Republican members of the House and Senate cheered the president's defense of his illegal acts, Feingold asked, "How is that worthy of applause? Since when do we celebrate our commander in chief for violating our most basic freedoms, and misleading the American people in the process? When did we start to stand up and cheer for breaking the law? In that moment at the State of the Union, I felt ashamed."
It is time, Feingold explained, for his colleagues to recognize its shame and begin to act honorably.
"Congress," the senator said, "has lost its way if we don't hold this President accountable for his actions."
Feingold is right. But it is not only Congress that must act. The American people need to get into this fight.
The defense of the Constitution against executive lawbreaking is not merely the work of elected legislators.
It must be the work of patriots. Feingold is leading the defense of basic liberties, but we all have a place in this struggle to preserve both the Bill of Rights and an American experiment that is now gravely threatened. Only an outcry from the people will assure that Congress -- and America -- does not lose its way.
Twenty-two members of the House have now signed on as co-sponors of the call by Representative John Conyers, D-Michigan, to establish a select committee of the Congress to investigate whether the Bush administration's actions before and after the invasion of Iraq violated Constitutional requirements, statutes and standards in a manner that would merit impeachment of the president or vice president.
Conyers introduced the resolution last December, and only a handful of members agreed to cosponsor the measure before Congress went on its long holiday break: California's Lois Capps, Maxine Waters and Lynn Woolsey, New Jersey's Donald Payne, New York's Charles Rangel and Texan Sheila Jackson-Lee. The list of cosponsors swelled after the long holiday break, when ten members from around the country -- California's Barbara Lee and Pete Stark, Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie, Illinois' Jan Schakowsky, Minnesota's Jim Oberstar, Missouri's William Lacy Clay, New York's Jerry Nadler and Major Owens, Washington's Jim McDermott and Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin -- came back to Washington convinced that the American people are a good deal more interested than most DC insiders recognize in reasserting checks and balances on an administration that has spun out of control.
In the past week, six additional members have signed on: California's Mike Honda and Sam Farr, Georgia's John Lewis and Cynthia McKinney, and New York's Carolyn Maloney and Maurice Hinchey.
There's a reason why this measure is beginning to draw broader support.
In addition to seeking a review of whether the administration began planning to go to war before obtaining authorization from Congress, along with investigations of the White House's manipulation of pre-war intelligence and encouragement and countenancing of torture, the Conyers resolution proposes to examine steps taken by the administration to retaliate against critics.
It is that final concern that could prove to be the most immediate threat to a member of the administration -- now that National Journal is reporting that Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby, has told a federal grand jury that he was "authorized" by Cheney and other White House "superiors" to disclose classified information to journalists as part of a scheme to defend the Bush administration's manipulation of prewar intelligence in order to make the "case" for going to war with Iraq.
No one who has followed the workings of this White House has ever doubted that Cheney -- the administration's most over-the-top proponent of the war -- would turn out to be the ripest target for impeachment. But the leap from Scooter Libby's charges, if they are confirmed, to actual articles of impeachment is not a long one.
An essential step in that process has already been taken. One of the cosponsors of the Conyers resolution, Maurice Hinchey, is calling for an aggressive Congressional inquiry into the issue, arguing that, "[The] revelation in National Journal that Vice President Cheney and other White House superiors authorized Scooter Libby to disclose classified information to the news media in order to defend the Administration's use of pre-war intelligence on Iraq is alarming. That the vice president would put his own political gain before the safety and security of the American people by approving the release of classified information to the press warrants a full congressional investigation, including testimony from the vice president himself."
Hinchey has been dogged in demanding that Cheney come clean about his role in the scandal that has arisen with regard to the administration's leaking of classified information in an attempt to discredit Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had raised damning questions with regard to the administration's pre-war claims about the threat posed by Iraq.
In a statement released after the latest revelations about Cheney, Hinchey said, "While many of us in Congress had long suspected that Vice President Cheney played a central role in the leaking of Valerie Wilson's name to the press, today's news report confirms that there is merit to that belief. The leaking of Valerie Wilson's identity as a covert CIA agent is a very serious crime that jeopardized national security and everyone who was involved must be held accountable and brought to justice. No one, including, Vice President Cheney, should be shielded from prosecution."
Hinchey, who actually believes in a system of checks and balances where the legislative branch embraces its responsibility to hold the executive branch to account, argues that Cheney -- who began his career as a White House aide in the administration of former President Richard Nixon -- can no longer be allowed to stonewall this investigation.
"On November 3, 2005, I, along with Congressmen Conyers and Waxman, sent a letter to Vice President Cheney asking that he come to Congress to testify about his involvement in the CIA leak case. The vice president disregarded that letter and never responded. Congress and the American people deserve more than silence from the vice president about such a serious matter. Now is the time for the Vice President Cheney to step forward and answer questions, under oath, as to what his involvement was in the CIA leak case and whether he ever authorized the disclosure of classified information to the press in order to justify going to war in Iraq," says Hinchey.
"I also renew the call I made in September with 40 House members for Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald to closely examine the motive behind the White House's disclosure of Valerie Wilson's name, which I believe was to discredit her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who was refuting the White House's claim that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. The National Journal article reports that Libby testified to the grand jury in the CIA leak case that he worked closely with Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove to determine what information the White House should leak to the press in order to gain support for the war in Iraq. It is clear that Libby, Hadley, and Rove worked together to twist, manipulate, and selectively release the intelligence on Iraq in order to gain public approval for the war. All those who leaked classified information and deliberately misled the American people and Congress into thinking Iraq had weapons of mass destruction must be brought to justice so the world can see that the United States holds those accountable who break the law."
John Nichols' 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. The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney includes an interview with Joseph Wilson and details the inner workings of the vice president's office at the time of the Plame-Wilson leak.
Few figures have contributed more to the debate about corporate globalization than Jose Bove, the French farmer whose dismantling of a McDonald's restaurant that was under construction near his sheep farm was something of a "shot-heard-round-the-world" in the struggle against the homogenization of food, culture and lifestyles.
While his assault on the local manifestation of the restaurant chain that has come to symbolize the one-size-fits-all character of globalization was a blunt act, Bove is known in France and abroad as a thoughtful theorist and strategist whose critique of the World Trade Organization's pro-corporate agenda has done much to alert activists around the world to the threats posed to workers, farmers, communities and democracy by WTO moves that allow multinational firms to disregard the laws and traditions of countries in which they operate.
But Bove, who has been a frequent visitor to the United States since he played an important part in the 1999 anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle, is no longer welcome in George W. Bush's America.
When he arrived Wednesday at New York's JFK Airport on a trip that was supposed to take him to Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations for events sponsored by Cornell's Global Labor Institute, Bove was stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who told him he was suddenly "ineligible" to enter the U.S.Before the night was done, Bove was hustled onto an Air France flight that returned him to his homeland.
Why can't Bove, one of the most influential political activists on the planet, speak in the U.S.?
According to Bove, the agents told him he was being denied entry because of his past prosecutions for "moral crimes."
The French activist's "crimes" may have been motivated by a deep sense of morality. But they were, more precisely, political acts, usually involving nonviolent civil disobedience or symbolic gestures meant to raise the awareness of the French regarding globalization -- most notably the 1999 dismantling of the restaurant McDonald's was developing in Millau, a community in southern France that is not far from the cooperative farm where Bove has lived and worked for decades.
And Bove's political views are not in synch with those of a president who used his recent State of the Union address to talk up his commitment to globalization with a corporate face.
Bove does not for a second believe that the U.S. officials who blocked his entry were concerned about morality, or particular "crimes." Rather, he suggested to reporters on Wednesday evening, the militantly pro-free trade Bush administration has found a new avenue to constrain the debate about its policies.
"I think this administration is crazy," Bove explained. "They don't want any discussion that can affect all the things going on with globalization. They don't want people coming from outside to discuss it."
Coming at a time when the Bush administration faces scrutiny for warrantless wiretapping and other assaults on basic liberties, when new evidence of domestic spying on dissidents surfaceson a regular basis, and when we just witnessed the removal of anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan from the Capitol before the president delivered his State of the Union address, that's hardly an unreasonable claim.
Certainly, it is a matter that merits a Congressional inquiry -- not just into this incident but into the whole question of whether customs and border operations have, like so many other functions of the federal government, been abused for political purposes by an administration that is far more committed to advancing the agenda of its corporate contributors that it is to respecting the rule of law.
Just as they did following the memorial service for Senator Paul Wellstone in 2002, Republican operatives and their acolytes in the media are now claiming that there was something inappropriate about the manner in which those who knew Coretta Scott King best mourned her passing. So great is the determination of the spin doctors for a White House that seeks to protect George Bush from even the mildest expressions of dissent that commentators rushed Tuesday to television studios even before the service for Mrs. King was done to denounce former President Jimmy Carter, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin for expressing sentiments not usually heard by this protected president.
But don't think that anything untoward actually took place in the Atlanta suburb where thousands gathered to celebrate the life, the work and the politics of Mrs. King. The service provided the president with a healthy -- if all too rare -- dose of reality. Bush's policies are not popular, particularly with the African-American community, and the president needed a gentle reminder of the fact. Indeed, the president was far more graceful in the receipt of the dissenting messages that were uttered at the service for Mrs. King than were those who rushed to condemn his critics.
What got the Republican spin machine humming Wednesday?
The see no evil, hear no evil, acknowledge no evil crowd was furious that several speakers used their brief portions of the six-hour remembrance service for the widow of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to pointedly echo the anti-war, anti-poverty and anti-racist themes that were so central to Mrs. King's life and work. The event featured no direct attacks on President Bush, who seated himself prominently on the stage of the vast New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in an Atlanta suburb. Instead, there were the sort of knowing, sometimes serious, sometimes lighthearted, prods that often are heard at memorial services of this kind.
Atlanta Mayor Franklin, whose address followed that of the president, made reference to Mrs. King criticism of "the senselessness of war" and recalled, correctly, that the late civil rights activist's voice was heard "from the tin-top roofs of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad."
That did not sit well with those who believe the president's precious ears must be protected from the sound of any and all dissents with regard to the quagmire that is Iraq.
Even more unsettling to the critics were the words of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference who worked for decades with the Kings. Of Mrs. King, Lowery recalled, "She extended Martin's message against poverty, racism and war. She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now that there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we know, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here." As the crowd cheered, Lowery boomed: "Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war, billions more, but no more for the poor."
Ultimately, however, it was not Lowery but Carter who took the hardest hits for daring to dissent. Noting the slow and inept response to Hurricane Katrina, Carter pointed out that, "We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."
For this comment, and for recalling the historical fact that the Kings were victims of "secret government wiretapping and surveillance" -- a sore point for a president who is under fire for ordering warrantless wiretaps -- Carter was denounced as "shameless" by the New York Post and ridiculed by Republican commentators.
To his credit, Bush seemed to take the criticism is stride, even shaking hands with and embracing Lowery, Carter and other speakers. And that may be the most important point that can be made about this rare moment in which the president heard actual dissent -- as opposed to the manufactured applause that usually accompanies his stage-managed public appearances. As someone who covered Bush long before he took office in 2001, I have always believed him to be a more gracious and thoughtful man than his presidency has made him out to be. Bush and his presidency suffer from having been placed in the bubble to which his neoconservative handlers have consigned him. Indeed, despite the ranting and raving of the spin doctors who would have us believe that it was wrong to honor Mrs. King by echoing the dissents she made during her lifetime, both President Bush and the American discourse surely benefitted from a real moment in these surreal times.
It is no secret that Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman is President Bush's favorite Democrat. With his see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, admit-no-evil defense of the administration's frequent betrayals of public trust before the U.S. invaded Iraq, with his refusal to recognize that the occupation of that country has degenerated into disaster, and with his regular repetition of neoconservative spin on every foreign-policy concern that arises, the man Democrats nominated for vice president in 2000 is a more loyal ally of the president than are many Republicans.
But Lieberman's lapdog act is not playing well in his home state, where grassroots Democrats are furious about the fact that their senator is propping up a failed Republican president. "I think it is one thing to be an independent thinker. It's another thing to be a Democratic senator who is acting as a lobbyist for King George and his Chancellor Cheney," Dorothy Brindamour of Manchester told a meeting of Democrats that gathered last month to take the senator to task.
Since the start of the year, Democratic town committees in two communities have officially chastised Lieberman for providing bipartisan cover for Bush's policies. Town committees are the backbone of Democratic political activism in Connecticut, and these rebukes of Lieberman -- an embarrassing development in a year when he is seeking reelection -- are making 2006 a more contentious year than anyone had expected for the veteran pol.
In January, Democrats in Manchester overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution that declared: "We, the Manchester Democratic Town Committee, do not believe that Sen. Joseph Lieberman is acting in the best interest of the American public or the Democratic Party by supporting President Bush in the handling of the Iraq conflict."
The resolution, which questioned whether Lieberman "fully appreciates the human cost of war" and expressed concern that the Iraq war has "served to galvanize the Arab world against the United States," was blunt in its demand.
"We respectfully ask Sen. Lieberman to reconsider his unconditional support of President Bush," the committee announced.
The censure of Lieberman by Manchester Democrats has now been echoed by the Windsor Democratic Town Committee, which on February 2 voted 34-2 for a resolution expressing frustration with Lieberman's support of the Bush administration in general and his support of the war in particular.
"My goal is to seek a pattern -- a groundswell -- of Democratic town committee motions in Connecticut that will really get the senator's attention," explained Len Swade, a committee member in Windsor, who sponsored the resolution there.
Lieberman does seem to be paying attention. His aides have been trying to promote him as a progressive in communications to town committee members that note the senator's support for abortion rights and environmental protection. And Lieberman has volunteered to discuss the issue of the war with his critics on key town committees.
None of this means that Lieberman is preparing to change his position. But it does suggest that he is feeling the heat in an election year when he might yet face an anti-war foe in his Democratic primary or a general election challenge from Lowell Weicker, a former Connecticut senator and governor, who has entertained the prospect of challenging Lieberman as an anti-war independent.
Newly-selected House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, is getting some remarkably good press, considering his remarkably sordid political pedigree.
ABC News referred to the grizzled veteran of Capitol Hill, who was elected to the House when George Bush the Dad was president and Democrat Tom Foley was the Speaker of the House, as a "fresh face." The network's report on the House Republican Caucus vote to select a replacement for the indicted Tom DeLay was headlined: "New Leader, Ohio Rep. John Boehner, Campaigned as a Reformer."
The Los Angeles Times announced, with no apparent sense of irony, that: "By choosing Boehner to fill DeLay's shoes in the House, the party hopes to move past scandals."
Newsday just went for it, declaring above its report on Boehner's election: "A promise of reform wins vote."
As they say in the newsroom: Don't believe everything you read in the headlines.
Boehner is an old-fashioned shakedown artist whose promise of "change" amounts to little more than a pledge that he won't get caught like DeLay did. The Ohioan may be smoother than the Texan, but only a fool, or a Washington pundit looking to cozy up to the new boss, would mistake a better haircut and the absence of the stench of bug spray as evidence of ethics.
The best take on Boehner's elevation to the top of the Congressional food chain comes not from the Washington press corps but from one of the city's more watchdogs: Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook.
Referring to Boehner victory over the presumed favorite, Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Missoui, in the House leadership contest as "a selection of Tweedle Dum over Tweedle Dee," Claybrook explained that, "The rejection of Representative Blunt shows that rank-and-file Republicans are aware the corruption scandal that has shaken Washington could put their majority status at risk. But the elevation of Representative Boehner, himself a product and proponent of the systemic problem of cronyism and influence-peddling that afflicts our nation's capital, is not a sign that business as usual will end."
Claybrook invites Americans to consider these facts about the man who, because of Speaker Dennis Hastert's obvious limitations, will now be the most powerful player in the House of Representatives:
* Boehner recently characterized Hastert's plan to ban privately funded travel as "childish" and dismissed the need for a ban on gifts from lobbyists to members of Congress. "If some members' vote can be bought for a $20 lunch, they don't need to be here," he said. Later, Boehner backed away from his characterization of the travel ban as "childish," but not the sentiment underlying his remark.
* Boehner's political action committee collected nearly $300,000 from private student lending companies and for-profit academic institutions from 2003-2004. Boehner has used his chairmanship of the Education and the Workforce Committee to promote their pet causes - legislation that would make it more difficult to cut the fees on government student loans, which would cut into the private lenders market share, and legislation that would provide millions in subsidies to for-profit colleges and trade schools. (For more details on this, see a report in the Washington Post of January 28, 2006.)
* Boehner has taken more than $157,000 in free trips, placing him seventh among 638 current and former members of Congress, including senators, in the value of privately funded travel accepted between 2000 and 2005, according to American Radioworks. These included a $4,869 trip to Scotland in 2000 and a $9,050 trip to Rome in 2001, both of which were sponsored by the Ripon Educational Fund, a nonprofit group largely run by business lobbyists. Family members traveled with him for free on both trips.
* An exceptional number - at least 24 - former Boehner staff members have passed through the revolving door from government service to find work in the private sector as lobbyists or corporate public affairs specialists. (For more details on this, see a report in The Hill newspaper of February 1, 2006.)
* Boehner preceded indicted former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay as the head of the "K Street Operation," the Republicans' efforts to coordinate policy and fundraising with well-heeled lobbyists, which since has been dubbed the "K Street Project." But the Ohioan lost the job to DeLay in 1998 after he was voted out as head of the Republican Conference. (For more details on this, see a report in the Baltimore Sun of December 21, 1998.)
* Boehner caught a large amount of flack for handing out checks to his colleagues from tobacco company PACs on the floor of Congress in 1995. Although not illegal, it certainly showed poor judgment but was consistent with his role at the time as the party's chief liaison with K Street. (For more details on this, see a report in the New York Times of May 10, 1996.)
The indictment of Boehner that Claybrook has advanced explains why principled Republicans in both the conservative and moderate camps backed a third candidate for the Majority Leader post, Arizona Representative John Shadegg, who promised to "clean up" the House. Shadegg described his race against Boehner and Blunt as "a choice between real reform and the status quo."
With Boehner's election, the status quo has prevailed. And as Claybrook notes with her usual bluntness -- and accuracy -- that is an ugly result not just for House Republicans but for America.
"Elevating a leader of the current broken system to be majority leader is an affront to voters and a stain on the Republican Party," Claybrook argues. "If the past is any guide, Boehner will now use this key position to undercut ethics and lobbying reforms in the House of Representatives."
President Bush may have tried to claim a little bit of the legacy of Coretta Scott King with a warm and generous reference to her passing at the opening of his State of the Union address this week, but it should be remembered that Mrs. King was a foe of this president and a frequent critic of his abuses of power.
On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Mrs. King celebrated the anniversary of birth of her late husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., by recalling that the slain civil rights leader had been outspoken in his opposition to unnecessary and unwise wars.
"We commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. as a great champion of peace who warned us that war was a poor chisel for carving out a peaceful tomorrow. We must pursue peaceful ends through peaceful means. Martin said, 'True peace is not just the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice,'" Mrs. King told a crowd that had gathered at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church. She continued, "May his challenge and his example guide and inspire us to seek peaceful alternatives to a war with Iraq and military conflict in the Middle East."
Mrs. King continued to speak out against the Bush administration's policy of preemptive warmaking during the last years of her life, and she always made it clear that she disagreed passionately with this president.
When Bush showed up to lay a wreath at Rev. King's grave in January, 2004, Mrs. King was polite but pointed in her remarks. Before greeting Bush, she told another event at Ebenezer Baptist that she sided with opponents of the war, and she lamented the fact that, "Those people are not in charge of making the policies of their nations."
"If they were," she added, "I think we would have more peace and more justice."
There will be many celebrations of Coretta Scott King's brave and inspiring life, as well as her rich legacy of activism.
But none will be so appropriate as those that recall her absolute opposition to this president's illegal and immoral warmaking.
Minutes before the President of the United States would tell the Congress how much he appreciates "responsible criticism and counsel," the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq was dragged from a gallery overlooking the House chamber where Bush would speak, handcuffed and arrested for the "crime" of wearing a T-shirt that read: "2245 Dead. How many more?"
Cindy Sheehan, who had been invited to attend George Bush's State of the Union address by Representative Lynn Woolsey, the California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, did not put the "dangerous" shirt on for the event. The woman whose protest last summer outside the President's ranchette in Crawford, Texas, drew international attention to the antiwar movement, had been wearing it at events earlier in the day.
Indeed, as Sheehan, who had passed through Capitol security monitors without incident, noted, "I knew that I couldn't disrupt the address because Lynn had given me the ticket and I didn't want to be disruptive out of respect for her."
No one has suggested that Sheehan was in any way disruptive.
So why was she arrested?
Because, as Sheehan recounts, she was identified as a dissident.
Before the arrest, media reports buzzed about official concern regarding Sheehan's presence. And, as she was being dragged from a room where the President would shortly extol the virtues of freedom and liberty, police explicitly told Sheehan that she was being removed "because you were protesting."
Capitol Police and other security officials, whose rough treatment of Sheehan was witnessed by dozens of people who attended the State of the Union event, said she was arrested for "unlawful conduct." Conveniently, she was held until after the President finished speaking.
Is there really a law against wearing a political T-shirt to the State of the Union address?
The Capitol Police, who on Wednesday dropped the charges against Sheehan, have acknowledged in an official statement that: "While officers acted in a manner consistent with the rules of decorum enforced by the department in the House Gallery for years, neither Mrs. Sheehan's manner of dress or initial conduct warranted law enforcement intervention."
What they have not acknowledged, and what is truly troubling, is the evidence that Sheehan was singled out for rough justice.
Beverly Young, the wife of Representative C.W. Bill Young, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Defense Appropriations subcommittee, showed for the State of the Union address up sporting a T-shirt that read, "Support the Troops--Defending Our Freedom." When Capitol Police asked her to leave the gallery because she was wearing clothing that featured a political message, Mrs. Young says, she argued loudly with officers and called one of them "an idiot."
But Mrs. Young was not handcuffed. She was not dragged from the Capitol. She was not arrested. She was not jailed.
Sheehan, who caused no ruckus, was arrested not because she engaged in "unlawful conduct." Rather, by every evidence, she was arrested because of what her T-shirt said--and, by extension, because of what she believes.
That makes this a most serious matter. Representative Pete Stark, the California Democrat who is one of the senior members of the House, is right when he says that Sheehan's arrest by officers he refers to as "the President's Gestapo," tells us a lot more about the George Bush and the sorry state of our basic liberties in the midst of the President's open-ended "war on terror" than anything that was said in the State of the Union address. "It shows he still has a thin skin," Stark says of the President who claims to welcome dissent.
It also shows that the father of the Constitution, James Madison, was right when he warned that, in times of war, the greatest danger to America would not be foreign foes but Presidents and their minions, who would abuse the powers of the executive branch with the purpose of "subduing the force of the people."
This one incident involving one T-shirt is a minor matter. But seen in the context of the mounting evidence of constraints on legitimate protest, warrantless wiretaps and the abuses of the Patriot Act, it reminds us of the the truth of Madison's warning that: "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare."
The truly tragic thing about George W. Bush's fifth State of the Union address was the president's refusal to acknowledge that anyone might remember what was said in his previous speeches to Congress and the nation.
Three years ago, Bush laid out a vision for developing democracy in the Middle East that at least sounded relatively realistic. Echoing statements he had made during the 2000 presidential debate with Al Gore -- when he decried the doomed work of "nation building" -- the president admitted that elections in developing democracies might not turn out the way that his neoconservative "brain trust" had promised they would. And he seemed to be O.K. with that.
"Time after time," Bush warned, "observers have questioned whether this country, or the people, or this group, are 'ready' for democracy -- as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress."
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, it is now clear that the president did not begin to understand, let alone appreciate, the consequences and responsibilities inherent in those words.
Bush, a man whose awareness of the world and its complex politics was scant at the time of his election and who has learned little in the ensuing years, appears to have genuinely believed that if polling stations were set up, Palestinians, Iraqis, Iranians, Egyptians and others would elect the local equivalents of Bill Frist, Denny Hastert, George Allen and Jim Sensenbrenner. Maybe, in his worst nightmares, Bush imagined the prospect that a Palestinian Russ Feingold or an Iranian Howard Dean might prevail. But that would be as scary as his cloistered consciousness allowed things to get.
Then the voting began. And Bush found himself confronted with an Iranian government that seems to be interested in developing a nuclear deterrent to U.S. meddling in its affairs, an Iraqi government that has yet to embrace pluralism, an Egyptian government that maintains its hold on power by denying the most viable opposition party its place on the ballot and a Palestinian government led by a party with a campaign strategy that includes armed struggle.
Speaking last night after a series of elections where voters in fledgling democracies placed their faith in extremist parties that are unenthusiastic about "western standards of progress," Bush had a responsibility to at least attempt to reconcile the new realities created by the results of recent voting. He ranted against "radical Islam" but would not acknowledge its popular appeal. He said Middle East democracies must be allowed to reflect the values and ideals of Middle Easterners, but then proceeded to tell newly elected governments what they must do to meet his -- decidedly western -- standards.
The address raised more questions than it answered.
Does the president still believe that the United States should not act "as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own western standards of progress." If so, should he not take the appropriate, if politically and personally difficult step of accepting the choices of the Iranian and Palestinian peoples? And should he not decry moves in Iraq, Egypt and other countries to control and constrain the democratic experiment in a manner that denies the majority of citizens an opportunity to select the extremist government of their choice?
Or has the president's commitment to democracy been shaken by election results that were not to his liking?
Bush needed to resolve those contradictions last night with an honest discussion of recent developments.
Instead, he delivered an irrational address that maintained an almost childlike certainly in the prospect that, someday soon, voters in Gaza City, Tehran, Baghdad and Cairo will begin casting ballots according to the same "western standards of progress" as voters in Grand Rapids, Toledo, Baltimore and Carson City.
Everyone knows that Bush has trouble admitting his own mistakes. But how can he fail to recognize that his ungrounded idealism of the past -- as evidenced by last year's State of the Union address, in which the president declared that, "The beginnings of reform and democracy in the Palestinian territories are now showing the power of freedom to break old patterns of violence and failure" -- has crashed into the harsh reality of a Hamas win at the Palestinian polls?
Bush introduced the term "faith-based solutions" to American politics. Faith is appropriate at times. But when the unwelcome developments challenge assumptions, faith must be tempered with realism -- and perhaps even a measure of humility. Last night was the point at which Bush needed to get real. Instead, the president asked the American people to embrace his unresolved contradictions and to cling with him to increasingly dangerous delusions.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.