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President Bush threw what was left of his influence on Capitol Hill behind the move by social conservatives to amend the Constitution to discriminate against gays and lesbians. But when the votes were counted Wednesday, the president was not even able to muster a majority in the Senate.
When the critical test came on the election-year proposal to amend the Constitution to essentially ban same-sex marriage -- along with a number of other basic protections for gay and lesbian families -- only 49 senators voted to move the amendment forward.
That was far short of the 60 votes needed to invoke cloture, close off debate and force a vote on the actual amendment. And it was a full 18 votes short of the 67 needed for the Senate to approve a Constitutional amendment.
On a more politically pragmatic level, Wedesday's tally put the ban one short of a majority in a Senate that is supposedly on the side of the president who has gone out of his way to make same-sex marriage an issue. So significant was the failure that White House press secretary Tony Snow felt compelled to report that Bush was not "despondent" over the result.
Perhaps he should be, as Bush's inability to keep even his own partisans in line on an issue he has chosen to make something of a focal point of his second-term agenda was striking.
Seven Republicans -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, John McCain of Arizona, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John Sununu of New Hampshire -- voted with 41 Democrats to block cloture. [Two of the Republicans who opposed cloture, Gregg and Specter, had previously been amendment supporters but switched to the opposition Wednesday.] Only two Democrats who happen to be up for reelection this year in socially-conservative states, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, voted with 47 Republicans to end debate.
Notably, the three senators who did not vote Wednesday -- Democrats Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- have all expressed opposition to amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. Hagel has been particularly blunt, telling a Nebraska newspaper in 2005, "I'm a conservative. I believe the sanctity of the Constitution of the United States is very important, I don't think you need a constitutional amendment defining marriage. That's a state issue."
The amendment, which Senator Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, correctly identified as "an instrument of bigotry and prejudice" will continue to rattle around the Capitol -- look for a meaningless House vote on the issue next month -- as Republicans try to use it as a tool to energize the party's increasingly listless base. Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, explained during the cloture debate, "This is not about the preservation of marriage. This is about the preservation of a [Republican] majority. I think, sadly, most people realize there's political motivation here."
Wednesday's vote cannot provide much inspiration for the GOP, however. With so many of its own senators voting to block the amendment's progress -- including incumbents such as Chafee and Snowe who are up for election this year -- the Republicans are going to have a hard time suggesting that expanding their party's majority in the Senate will move the country any closer to a federal ban on same-sex marriages, civil unions and other protections for gay and lesbian families.
Indeed, there has been a good deal of grumbling within the Republican Senate caucus -- as evidenced by the seven dissenting votes that were cast Wednesday -- about the wisdom of trying to gin up a debate on social issues when the attention of the American public seems to be so firmly fixed on the war in Iraq and concerns about the strength of the economy and health care costs.
That won't stop social conservatives from pushing their discrimination amendments. They'll win in some states, as they did Tuesday in Alabama, where voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday to ban same-sex marriage. But a similar amendment is on the ballot in Wisconsin this fall, and polls and pattersn suggest that it could be the first such state-based proposal to lose. More significantly, the high-profile, high-spending amendment fight in Wisconsin is expected to stir interest in the fall election on the part of young people and other traditionally low-turnout populations that Democratic strategists think will be drawn to the polls to oppose the amendment but stay around to vote for Democrats.
There's no question that playing the discrimination card has helped Republicans by drawing socially-conservative voters to the polls in recent years. But the low-road approach seems to be wearing thin, even for Republicans. McCain, who some had predicted would vote for cloture and the marriage ban in order to improve his prospects among the social-conservative voters who will be key players in the 2008 Republican presidential nomination process, cast a firm "no" vote and then took a swing at the core argument for the amendment, telling the Senate, "Most Americans are not yet convinced that their elected representatives or the judiciary are likely to expand decisively the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples."
That is true. It is also true that support for discrimination against gays and lesbians is waning in America, especially among younger voters. Time and experience are moving citizens toward what the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, referred to as "the better angels of our nature" -- and away from the notion that sowing devisions and encouraging discrimination will somehow make either families or the Republic stronger.
In states across the country Tuesday, primary elections named candidates for Congress, governorships and other important offices. But the most interesting, and perhaps significant, election did not involve an individual. Rather, it was about an idea.
In Northern California's Humboldt County, voters decided by a 55-45 margin that corporations do not have the same rights -- based on the supposed "personhood" of the combines -- as citizens when it comes to participating in local political campaigns.
Until Tuesday in Humboldt County, corporations were able to claim citizenship rights, as they do elsewhere in the United States. In the context of electoral politics, corporations that were not headquartered in the county took advantage of the same rules that allowed individuals who are not residents to make campaign contributions in order to influence local campaigns.
But, with the passage of Measure T, an initiative referendum that was placed on the ballot by Humboldt County residents, voters have signaled that they want out-of-town corporations barred from meddling in local elections.
Measure T was backed by the county's Green and Democratic parties, as well as labor unions and many elected officials in a region where politics are so progressive that the Greens -- whose 2004 presidential candidate, David Cobb, is a resident of the county and a active promotor of the challenges to corporate power mounted by Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County and the national Liberty Tree Foundation -- are a major force in local politics.
The "Yes on T" campaign was rooted in regard for the American experiment, from its slogan "Vote Yes for Local Control of Our Democracy," to the references to Tuesday's election as a modern-day "Boston Tea Party," to the quote from Thomas Jefferson that was highlighted in election materials: "I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country."
Just as Jefferson and his contemporaries were angered by dominance of the affairs of the American colonies by King George III and the British business combines that exploited the natural and human resources of what would become the United States -- and wary of the machinations of those who would establish an American economic royalism -- so Humboldt County residents were angered by the attempts of outside corporate interests to dominate local politics.
Wal-Mart spent $250,000 on a 1999 attempt to change the city of Eureka's zoning laws in order to clear the way for one of the retail giant's big-box stores. Five years later, MAXXAM Inc., a forest products company, got upset with the efforts of local District Attorney Paul Gallegos to enforce regulations on its operations in the county and spent $300,000 on a faked-up campaign to recall him from office. The same year saw outside corporations that were interested in exploiting the county's abundant natural resources meddling in its local election campaigns.
That was the last straw for a lot of Humboldt County residents. They organized to put Measure T on the ballot, declaring, "Our Founding Fathers never intended corporations to have this kind of power."
"Every person has the right to sign petition recalls and to contribute money to political campaigns. Measure T will not affect these individual rights," explained Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a resident of Eureka who was one of the leaders of the Yes on T campaign. "But individuals hold these political rights by virtue of their status as humans in a democracy and, simply put, a corporation is not a person."
Despite the logic of that assessment, the electoral battle in Humboldt County was a heated one, and Measure T's passage will not end it. Now, the corporate campaign will move to the courts. So this is only a start. But what a monumental start it is!
Sopoci-Belknap was absolutely right when she portrayed Tuesday's vote as nothing less than the beginning of "the process of reclaiming our county" from the "tyranny" of concentrated economic and political power.
Surely Tom Paine would have agreed. It was Paine who suggested to the revolutionaries of 1776, as they dared challenge the most powerful empire on the planet, that: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation similar to the present hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of the new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the events of a few months."
It is time to renew the American experiment, to rebuild its battered institutions on the solid foundation of empowered citizens and regulated corporations. Let us hope that the spirit of '76 prevailed Tuesday in Humboldt County will spread until that day when American democracy is guided by the will of the people rather than the campaign contribution checks of the corporations that are the rampaging "empires" of our age.
Gore Vidal, the grandson of a senator who stood himself for the House and Senate and then played a senator in Tim Robbins' brilliant film "Bob Roberts," has been campaigning this spring -- almost as hard as if he was once again on the ballot.
The author, resident in Los Angeles, has thrown himself into the campaign of Marcy Winograd, the teacher and progressive activist who is mounting a spirited challenge to Bush-friendly Democratic Representative Jane Harman for an L.A.-area House seat in today's California Democratic primary.
Harman, who voted to authorize President Bush to order the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and who has supported the administration repeatedly in divisions on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to warrantless wiretapping and domestric surveillance, is trying to sell herself as a generally solid Democrat who should be forgiven her lapses.
Vidal, displaying the knowing skepticism that is his greatest contribution to the American political discourse, is unwilling to accept the incumbent's election-season spin.
"The all important issues are the war and civil liberties," says the social critic who has appeared at a number of Winograd fund-raising events and rallies, including an election-eve gathering in Venice. "I'm not even interested in Harman's other issues. She has been wrong on the war, and the war is such a fundamental issue."
In fact, Harman's been wrong on a host of other issues. For instance, she's been such a disappointing player on trade policy and related economic concerns that the United Auto Workers [Western Region] has joined several other unions -- including the United Farm Workers of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles and the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers -- in taking the rare step of endorsing a challenge to a Democratic incumbent in a primary election. But Vidal's right that the distinction on the war is fundamental; as Winograd says: "I will vote to end the war in Iraq and to bring our troops home. Harman will not."
Vidal is not merely anti-Harman, however. He is pro-Winograd. Noting the challenger's clear vision with regard to foreign policy, her consistent critique of the domestic eavesdropping programs so favored by the current administration, and her pledge to hold Bush accountable -- using all the means available to a member of Congress, up to and including the option of impeachment -- the author labels her "a real Democrat" and suggests that she is the sort of candidate who might inspire the party's broad if frequently disenchanted base.
"Marcy Winograd's election would teach a lesson all around," Vidal told me the other day. "The Democratic Party is theoretically a minority but in reality is always the majority in the country. When Democrats vote, and when their votes are actually counted, which is of course an issue of some concern with these Diebold [voting] machines, they prevail. But we have been in a rough period where that has not been the case. Now, we are told that this is about to change, that this will be a good year for Democrats. Perhaps. But it does no good that a Jane Harman will benefit from a Democratic year -- which it looks like this is going to be -- when we can dump her and get a real Democrat to take her place."
Cultural conservatives, who have been busy of late trying to claim that the rebellious songs of The Who are other rock groups are really right-wing anthems, have misread America's tastes in a major way when it comes to the Dixie Chicks.
Conservative politicians, pundits and political writers -- from Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston to Media Research Council president L. Brent Bozell and bloggers by the dozen -- couldn't wait to trash Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison for releasing a new album that refused to make nice with President Bush and the thought police who screech "shut up and sing" every time a musician expresses an opinion.
The Dixie Chicks have for the past three years taken more hits than any other musicians because, ten days before Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Maines told a cheering crowd at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire theater: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas."
For the "crime" of prematurely voicing a sentiment that is now close to universal in the US--with more than two-thirds of Americans expressing disapproval of Bush--the Dixie Chicks were hit with a full-frontal assault by right-wing media. Talk radio and television labeled them the Ditzy Chicks and their popular songs suddenly were yanked from country-music playlists. Boycotts were announced.
The word "traitor" was tossed around as if Maines and her mates had been conspiring with Osama bin Laden -- as opposed to expressing appropriate concern about a president who was about to take actions that would significantly increase the appeal of al-Qaeda internationally. Bush even weighed in, declaring that, "I ... don't really care what the Dixie Chicks said." That was mild compared with the nightly blisterings from Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly.
It was clear that a neoconservative blood oath had been sworn against the most successful female group not just in the history of country music, but of all musical genres--having sold more than 30 million albums and CDs prior at the time the assault began.
Conservatives may not keep all their promises, but they kept this one. With the approach of the late May release date for Taking The Long Way, the group's first album since Maines spoke up in London, the trashing began. At an Academy of Country Music awards ceremony in March, singer Reba McEntire read a scripted line about how she could host the event because, "[If] the Dixie Chicks can sing with their foot in their mouth, then I can do anything!" Rush Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest of the right-wing ranters picked up the chorus and, by the time of the CDs finally hit the stores the official line was that the Chicks were finished as major stars. Country fans would abandon them. Country radio would not play unapologetic tracks such as the single "Not Ready to Make Nice." Congressman Kingston --who, it should be said, maintains the most entertaining offical blog of anyone in Washington--used his "Jack's Blog" to muse that Maines and her compatriots made a big mistake when they started talking politics.
Er, maybe not...
Taking the Long Way has shot to Number 1 on Billboard's country music chart and the overall Billboard 200 chart. In its first full week of availability, the latest release from the Dixie Chicks sold 526, 000 units. That's a way better entry into the charts than the latest release from Toby Keith, the country star who has been lionized by conservatives for his bombastic songs and his rhetoric cheapshots at the Chicks. Keith's White Trash With Money mustered sales of 330,000 in its first week.
Indeed, Taking the Long Way had the second-best first-week sales of any album on the country charts this year.
In the autobiographical single that references the controversy, "Not Ready to Make Nice," Maines in unapologetic. "I'm not ready to make nice," she sings. "I'm not ready to back down."
The Dixie Chicks answer the cultural conservatives on "Not Ready to Make Nice," when Maines sings that she: "Can't bring myself to do what it is you think I should." America is echoing that sentiment, rejecting the right's "shut-up-and-sing" assault with a warm embrace of an album that has them singing and speaking up.
California Congressman Darrell Issa is one of the most conservative Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee. So it should come as no surprise that he offered an appropriately cautious and responsible solution for the Constitutional conflict created when members of the Bush administration ordered federal agents to raid the Capitol Hill office of a sitting member of Congress.
"We have the power to impeach the attorney general," Issa told Tuesday's Judiciary Committee hearing titled: "Reckless Justice: Did the Saturday Night Raid of Congress Trample the Constitution?"
Much of the Washington press corps, which maintains a familiarity with the Constitution that is roughly equivalent to its acquaintance with the truth, dismissed Issa's suggestion that the committee might want to consider the ultimate political sanction for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Washington Post's lamentable Dana Milbank, who stands ever ready to ridicule any defense of the Constitution, huffed that the California congressman was being "dramatic."
Dramatic? Let's hope so, because the times are dramatic, and the concerns that have been raised by the raid on Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson's office demand a response that is equal to them.
There is no question that Gonzales, a champion of executive overreach since his days as White House counsel, used the Constitution as a doormat when he ushered FBI agents into Jefferson's office. The investigation of Jefferson, a Tom DeLay-sleazy member of the House who conveniently for the ever-political Gonzales happens to be a Democrat, had already yielded more than enough evidence of wrongdoing. The raid was, as George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley described it: a "gratuitous insult" motivated not by necessity but by "raw arrogance."
The raid was, as well, what former Reagan Justice Department aide Bruce Fein said it to be during the Judiciary Committee hearing: "Unconstitutional."
The whole concept of a separation of powers between equal branches of government demands that Congress respond aggressively and appropriately to the raid – not in defense of William Jefferson, but in defense of the principle that the executive branch does not have the authority to send its foot soldiers into the offices of the legislative branch.
If the precedent of the raid on Jefferson's office stands, this administration – which has already signaled its intention to track down and prosecute whistleblowers and others who might dissent from its imperial impulses – will not stop in the office of one ethically-challenged congressman from Louisiana. And future administrations will retain, rather than return, the powers that have been seized.
When he denounced the raid at the hearing, Texas Republican Louie Gohmert said, with rather more flourish than has come to be expected from a member of this Congress: "I'm not defending any Jefferson except for Thomas Jefferson."
The fact is that Thomas Jefferson would have approved Issa's resort to talk of impeachment, the Constitutional remedy that the founders intended to be used to maintain the integrity of the federal government, especially at times when the executive branch began to mirror the regal excesses of the monarchy they had so recently been discarded.
To be sure, it was a bit absurd for Issa and other Republicans to be calling the administration to account on this particular abuse when there are so many others worthy of impeachment. As Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen reminded the committee on Tuesday, it is possible to point to a "number of examples of overreaching by the executive branch where there's been a total lack of oversight by this Congress: the torture memorandum, detainees, enemy combatants, signing statements, domestic surveillance, data-mining operations."
Fein, the former Reagan Justice Department official, echoed Van Hollen, suggesting to the committee that the raid on Jefferson's office was merely "an additional instrument of the Bush administration to cow Congress" – in keeping with what he described as the administration's regularly expressed "claim of inherent presidential authority to flout any statute that [the chief executive] thinks impedes his ability to gather foreign intelligence, whether opening mail, conducting electronic surveillance, breaking and entering, or committing torture."
Add to that bill of particulars clear evidence that the president, the vice president and administration aides employed deceit and chicanery to organize the invasion and occupation of two foreign countries without a Declaration of War – or a plan – and the outline for articles of impeachment begins to take shape.
But let us not get ahead of ourselves here. Most members of Congress are only beginning to recognize their oversight responsibilities – and the awesome powers that go with them.
As Gohmert of Texas told the committee: "I've been so much more concerned about the judiciary overreaching in power, and I really had not looked at the executive." Only since it was recently revealed that the president has ordered a massive program to monitor and review the phone calls made by Americans on American soil – what the congressman referred to as the "phone logs and things" – has he "become more concerned."
Yes, of course, that's an embarrassing admission for a member of the Judiciary Committee to make. But at least Gohmert and other Republicans are expressing concern. And, at long last, a Republican member of Congress has dared to suggest that a member of a lawless Republican administration might rightly be the subject of impeachment.
That is a small measure of progress. But it is progress that the founders would have celebrated and encouraged. Indeed, as George Mason reminded the Constitutional Convention 219 years ago this summer: "No point is of more importance than that the right of impeachment should be continued."
The favorite spin of the Bush administration and its amen corner in the media in recent weeks has been the line that: Aside from quagmire in Iraq, things are going great -- especially with the economy.
Apart from the fact that Iraq is a mighty big "aside," the whole pitch about how "the economy is going gangbusters" is a ridiculous simplification of circumstances that are far more complicated and far less positive than the White House would have Americans believe.
As part of the administration's campaign to convince the American people that don't know how good they have it, the president announced last week that, "America's economy is on the fast track."
That was an echo of recent comments from the man they call "Bush's Brain," Karl Rove, who has emerged as spin-doctor-in-chief for the administration's "It's the economy, stupid!" argument. ``The president's tax cuts, trade liberalization and spending restraint helped strengthen the economy's foundation and added fuel to our economic recovery,'' Rove declared in a recent speech. ``Not a bad record!''
Actually, the record is pretty bad. That's why Treasury Secretary John Snow is exiting.
The fine hands of Rove and new White House chief of staff Josh Bolten -- who shares the White House political czar's faith in the "big-lie" brand of politics -- are exceptionally evident in the administration's latest attempt to spin its way out of the approval-rating ditch in which the president has been sinking in recent months.
The abrupt conclusion of the long political death watch for Snow is a merely the lastest of many desperation moves for an administration that is longer on wishful thinking that actual accomplishments.
Snow, who campaigned harder and more visibly for the president's reelection than any other Cabinet member, has been on the way out almost since Bush's second term began. Why? The American people have not for some time been of the impression that the president and his aides are doing enough to "strength the economy's foundations." A Gallup Poll of 1,002 Americans, conducted May 8-11, found that that they were growing ever more ill-at-ease with the state of the economy. Seventy percent of those surveyed said the economy was in poor or only fair condition; that was up from 63 percent a month earlier.
Administration insiders are now trying to sell the line that the president's pick to replace Snow, Goldman Sachs Group CEO Henry Paulson, will be a better cheerleader. With Paulson, a Bush campaign fund-raising "pioneer," selling the White House's economic "success story," the line goes, the president's fortunes are sure to rise.
It's a bad bet.
Americans understand that Cabinet members don't quit when things are going great; and, certainly, treasury secretaries are not elbowed out of their positions when the economy is going gangbusters.
The fact is that Paulson's an able man, as was Snow, as was Snow's predecessor, Paul O'Neill. But it is absurd to think that this wizard of Wall Street will be able to relieve fears that the economy is headed in an unsettling direction.
Those fears are grounded in the reality that even those sectors of the economy that experienced the growth spurt so loudly trumpeted by Bush and Rove are now showing signs of a slowdown.
And much of the economy never really got going in the first place.
The "success story" the administration has been trying so hard to sell was always uneven -- benefiting some regions and industries far more than others. For instance, workers in the auto manufacturing and auto parts sectors are not enjoying their rides on the "fast track" as some of the biggest names of those industries spiral downward into bankruptcy or painful cycles of plant closings and "restructuring."
For Americans who are paying attention -- and the polls suggest that a lot of them are -- there is the even more troubling reality that the United States has in recent years been living far beyond her means.
The U.S. trade deficit is at a record level, as this country imports far more than it exports month after month. Federal deficits and debts are skyrocketing. Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates regularly warns that the widening U.S. budget and trade deficits are undermining the dollar, saying in one recent interview, ``It is a bit scary. We're in uncharted territory when the world's reserve currency has so much outstanding debt.'' Investment guru Warren Buffett has been warning for the past several years that "unless we have a major change in trade policies," the U.S. economy is going to take a hit.But, of course, Bush is not betting on a change in trade policies. Nor is he embracing fiscal responsibility when it comes to federal budgeting.
All he is doing is hiring a new cheerleader. And cheerleading is not going to relieve the anxiety of Americans who are paying $3 a gallon for gas, facing the end of a period of artrificially-low interest rates and relatively easy money, trying to keep track of plant-closing notices, fretting about whether their pensions will survive the next corporate restructuring, and coming to recognize that record-high trade deficits and mounting federal debts are nothing to celebrate.
The wisdom of wars can be debated on any day, and this column has not hesitated to question the thinking -- or, to be more precise, the lack of thinking -- that has led the United States to the current quagmire in Iraq.
But on Memorial Day, it is well to pause from the debate to remember those whose lives have been lost, not merely to the fool's mission of the contemporary moment but to all those battles – noble and ignoble – that have claimed the sons and daughters of this and every land.
After the bloodiest and most divisive of America's wars, the poet Walt Whitman offered a dirge for two soldiers of the opposing armies -- Civil War veterans, buried side by side. His poem is an apt reminder that, when the fighting is done, those who warred against one another often find themselves in the same place. It is appropriate that we should garland each grave, understanding on this day above all others that wars are conceived by presidents and prime ministers, not soldiers.
It is appropriate, as well, and perhaps a bit soothing, to recall Whitman's wise words:
The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,
Down a new-made double grave.
Lo, the moon ascending,
Up from the east the silvery round moon,
Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,
Immense and silent moon.
I see a sad procession,
And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,
All the channels of the city streets they are flooding,
As with voices and with tears.
I hear the great drums pounding,
And the small drums steady whirring
And every blow of the great convulsive drums,
Strikes me through and through.
For the son is brought with the father,
(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,
Two veterans son and father dropt together,
And the double grave awaits them.)
And nearer blow the bugles,
And the drums strike more convulsive,
And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,
And the strong dead-march enwraps me.
In the eastern sky up-buoying,
The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,
('Tis some mother's large transparent face,
In heaven brighter growing.)
O strong dead-march you please me!
O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!
O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!
What I have I also give you.
The moon gives you light,
And the bugles and the drums give you music,
And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,
My heart gives you love.
The man who paid many of the biggest bills for George Bush's political ascent, Enron founder Kenneth Lay, has been found guilty of conspiracy and fraud almost five years after his dirty dealings created the greatest corporate scandal in what will be remembered as an era of corporate crime.
On the sixth day of deliberations following the conclusion of a long-delayed federal trial, a Houston jury found Lay guilty on six counts of fraud and conspiracy. In a separate decision, US District Judge Sim Lake ruled that Lay was guilty of four counts of fraud and making false statements.
The same jury that convicted Lay found Enron's former chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, guilty on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, making false statements and engaging in insider trading.
Lay, who President Bush affectionately referred to as "Kenny-boy" when the two forged an alliance in the 1990s to advance Bush's political ambitions and Lay's business prospects, contributed $122,500 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in Texas. Lay would later explain to a PBS "Frontline" interviewer that, though he had worked closely with former Texas Governor Ann Richards, the Democrat incumbent who Bush challenged in 1994, he backed the Republican because "I was very close to George W."
Needless to say, once Bush became governor, Lay got his phone calls returned. A report issued by Public Citizen in February, 2001, months before the Enron scandal broke, identified Lay as "a long-time Bush family friend and an architect of Bush's policies on electricity deregulation, taxes and tort reform while Bush was Texas governor."
No wonder Lay had Enron give $50,000 to pay for Bush's second inaugural party in Austin in 1999 -- a showcase event that was organized by Karl Rove and others to help the Texas governor step onto the national political stage.
After Bush gave Enron exactly what it wanted in 1999, by signing legislation that deregulated the state's electrical markets, Lay knew he had found his candidate for president.
When Bush opened his campaign, Lay opened the cash spigots.
As a "Bush Pioneer" in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, Lay was a key member of the Bush campaign's fund-raising inner circle.Under Lay's leadership, Enron ultimately gave Bush $550,025, making the corporation the Texan's No. 1 career patron at the time the 2000 election campaign began, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Lay personally pumped almost $400,000 into Republican hard- and soft-money funds, while Enron slipped another $1.5 million into the GOP's soft-money cesspool.
But that was just the beginning. Lay sent a letter to Enron executives urging them to contribute to Bush's campaign. More than 100 of them -- including Skilling, a major Bush giver since 1993, when he cut his first $5,000 check to GW's gubernatorial campaign -- did just that. Dozens of spouses wrote, including "homemaker" and frequent $10,000 donor Linda Lay, gave as well, making the Enron "family" a prime source of the money that gave Bush his early advantage over Republican rivals such as Arizona Senator John McCain.
All told, it is estimated that, over the years prior the company's bankruptcy, Lay, his company and its employees contributed close to $2 million to fund George W. Bush's political rise.
Lay found other ways to help, as well. He put Enron's corporate jets at the disposal of the Bush campaign in 2000. He kicked in $5,000 to pay for the Florida recount fight, while a top Enron "consultant," former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, ran the Republican's recount effort. He even paid for his own bookkeeping, chipping in $1,000 to help the Bush-Cheney campaign comply with campaign-finance laws. And Lay and Enron gave $300,000 to underwrite the Bush-Cheney inauguration festivities in 2001.
Did all that giving pay off? You bet!
Lay cashed in even before Bush was sworn in as president, entering into the inner circles of the new administration and using the access he had paid for to craft its agenda on the issues that mattered most to Enron.
Bush took good care of his contributor-in-chief, appointing the Enron founder as one of five members of the elite "Energy Department Transition Team," which set the stage for the Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and administration policies designed to benefit corporations such as Enron. A report on "Bush Administration Contacts with Enron," compiled at the request of Congressman Henry Waxman, D-California, by the minority staff of the Special Investigations Division of the House Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, found evidence of at least 112 contacts between Enron and White House or other Administration officials during the month prior to the corporation's very-public collapse in late 2001. At least 40 of those contacts involved top White House officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential advisor Karl Rove, White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey, White House personnel director Clay Johnson III, and White House energy task force director Andrew D. Lundquist.
As Waxman explained in a 2001 interview, "The fact of the matter is that Enron and Ken Lay, who was the Chief Executive Officer of Enron, had an extraordinary amount of influence and access to the Bush Administration. Lay was called a close friend by both the President and the Vice President. When the Vice President chaired an Energy Task Force, Ken Lay had an opportunity to meet privately with the Vice President and to have a great deal of influence in their recommendations."
Bush and his aides have worked hard since the Enron scandal broke to suggest that Lay was just another generous Texan. But the attempts to deny linkages to the now-convicted corporate criminal never cut water with Lone Star-state watchdog Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice.
"President Bush's explanation of his relationship with Enron is at best a half truth," McDonald said after Bush first tried to distance himself from Lay and other Enron executives. "He was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office."
As governor and president, Bush maintained that intimate relationship.
Now that his strange bedmate have been convicted of fraud, isn't it time for the president to end the fraud of claiming that he was ever anything less than a political partner of Lay and the Enron team?
If there actually was an opposition party in Washington, the nomination of Air Force General Michael Hayden to serve as director of the Central Intelligence Agency would have been doomed from the start.
Hayden's involvement as head of the National Security Agency with the illegal warrantless wiretapping program initiated by the Bush administration, his role in the secret accumulation of the phone records of tens of millions of Americans for surveillance purposes, his unapologetic rejection of the rule of law and his limited acquaintance with the Constitution would surely have stalled his nomination. And the fact that a member of the military should not head the civilian intelligence agency that is charged with provided unbiased information to elected officials – as opposed to the Pentagon line – would have finished Hayden off.
In the face of a united Democratic opposition, a sufficient number of Senate Republicans, ill at ease with the administration's reckless approach and increasingly concerned about the damage President Bush and his aides are doing to their party's credibility and political prospects, would have abandoned Hayden.
Unfortunately, there is no opposition party in Washington.
There is, instead, a Democratic Party that, when push comes to shove regularly allows itself to be shoved.
So it come as little surprise that Hayden's nomination has sailed through the Senate, winning approval Friday by a 78-15 vote. Most Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, joined the vast majority of Republicans in rubberstamping George W. Bush's poke-in-the-eye pick to head the CIA.
The die was cast when the Hayden nomination was considered by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Four Democrats who should know better – California's Dianne Feinstein, West Virginia's Jay Rockefeller, Michigan's Carl Levin and Maryland's Barbara Mikulski -- voted with the united Republican majority to approve the appointment. Then, the Senate Armed Committee casually voted to reappoint Hayden as a four-star general, a move that effectively signaled surrender in the debate over whether the CIA should be headed by a military man.
In this disappointing scenario, it should be noted that a handful of Democrats did attempt to check and balance a lawless president by refusing to support his equally lawless nominee. Voting against Hayden's nomination were Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Hillary Clinton of New York, Mark Dayton of Minnesota, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama of Illinois, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Intriguingly, the dissident Democrats were joined in their opposition to Hayden by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, who has been increasingly restive regarding the administration's assault on basic freedoms.
Predictably, the Senate's most diligent critic of the administration's reckless disregard for the rule of law was the most outspoken objector to Hayden's nomination.
"I voted against the nomination of General Michael Hayden to be Director of the CIA because I am not convinced that the nominee respects the rule of law and Congress's oversight responsibilities," explained Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who bluntly declared that, "as Director of the NSA, General Hayden directed an illegal program that put Americans on American soil under surveillance without the legally required approval of a judge."
"Our country needs a CIA Director who is committed to fighting terrorism aggressively without breaking the law or infringing on the rights of Americans. General Hayden's role in implementing and publicly defending the warrantless surveillance program does not give me confidence that he is capable of fulfilling this important responsibility," explained Feingold, who cast one of the three dissenting votes when the Hayden nomination was considered by the intelligence committee.
Noting that Hayden had failed in his testimony before the Intelligence Committee to express any reservations about the administration past misdeeds, that the general had evidenced little respect for congressional oversight and that he gave misleading testimony to the Intelligence Committee in 2002, Feingold concluded that, "The stakes are high. Al Qaeda and its affiliates seek to destroy us. We must fight back and we must join this fight together, as a nation. But when Administration officials ignore the law and ignore the other branches of government, it distracts us from fighting our enemies. I am disappointed that the President decided to make such a controversial nomination at this time. While I defer to Presidents in considering nominations to positions in the executive branch, I cannot vote for a nominee whose conduct raises such troubling questions about his adherence to the rule of law."
If there actually was an opposition party in Washington, Feingold's position would be its official stance. Instead, the man who has fought a lonely battle to censure the president for initiating and maintaining an illegal domestic surveillance program, is still dismissed by most of his fellow Democrats as too aggressive, too principled, too committed to the Constitution. So it goes, as the majority of Feingold's Democratic colleagues continue to promote the nominations and the policies of a failed president who polls tell us now has the approval of less than one-third of Americans.
Jimmy Carter has been blunt: Despite the fact of a Palestinian election result that was not to their liking, the former president says, "it is unconscionable for Israel, the United States and others under their influence to continue punishing the innocent and already persecuted people of Palestine."
Since the political wing of the militant group Hamas swept parliamentary elections in Palestine, the U.S. and Israel have been trying to use economic pressure to force a change of course. Disregarding the democracy that President Bush says he wants to promote in the Middle East, the U.S. has sanctioned policies that have fostered chaos on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and created increasingly harsh conditions for people who have known more than their share of suffering.
"Innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with the presumption that they are guilty of some crime," argues Carter, a Nobel Peace Prize winner whose involvement in the Middle East peace process has extended across three decades. "Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life."
Instead of checking and balancing the president's misguided approach to an election result that displeased him, Congress has added fuel to the fire.
By a lopsided vote of 361 to 37, the House voted Tuesday for the so-called "Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act," a measure so draconian that even the Bush administration has opposed it.
The legislation, which still must be reconciled with a similar measure passed by the Senate, would cut off all assistance to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, and place conditions on humanitarian assistance delivered directly to the Palestinians by non-government organizations. Presidential spokesman Tony Snow, in restating the White House's opposition to the measure says that it "unnecessarily constrains" the flow of essential assistance – food, fresh water, medicine – in a manner that does, indeed, "tie the president's hand" when it comes to providing humanitarian aid.
It also has the potential to encourage, rather than restrain, violence.
Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who was one of the few members of the House to argue against the legislation, correctly explained that the approach endorsed by most of his colleagues will strengthen the hand of Palestinian extremists.
"It does little to prioritize on the basis of our strategic interests, and provides no prospect for Palestinian reform coming through the process of negotiations," Blumenauer said of the legislation. "In so doing, it weakens the hands of those who advocate for peace negotiations, and supports those extremists who believe in violence."
Debra DeLee, President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now, which works closely with Israeli groups seeking a peaceful settlement of tensions with the Palestinians, calls the bill "an exercise in overreaching that will undercut American national security needs, Israeli interests, and hope for the Palestinian people, if it's ever signed into law."
"We urged the House to craft legislation that was focused and flexible enough to allow the U.S. to respond to Hamas' election victory in a firm, yet responsible, manner," explained a frustrated DeLee. "But by failing to provide the president with a real national security waiver, by failing to include a sunset clause for draconian performance requirements that will stay on the books regardless of who is running the Palestinian Authority, and by failing to distinguish between Hamas and Palestinians who support a two-state solution, the supporters of this bill have missed that opportunity for now."
Despite its dramatic flaws, the bill drew bipartisan support, with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, lining up their respective caucuses behind it.
Of the 37 "no" votes, 31 came from Democrats, including senior members such as Michigan's John Conyers and John Dingell, Californians George Miller and Pete Stark and Wisconsin's David Obey. Ohio's Dennis Kucinich, a contender for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, also opposed the measure, as did California's Barbara Lee, a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus
The six Republican "no" votes came from Maryland's Wayne Gilchrest, North Carolina's Walter Jones, Arizona's Jim Kolbe, Illinois' Ray LaHood and Texans Ron Paul and Mac Thornberry.
As is frequently the case on votes involving Israel and Palestine, dozens of members did not participate. Nine House members, all of them Democrats, voted "present" Tuesday. Twenty-five members, eleven of them Democrats, fourteen of them Republicans, registered no vote.
Americans for Peace Now's DeLee says that, as the House and Senate seek to reconcile differing bills, her group will continue to work to alter the legislation so that it will not encourage extremism or worsen a humanitarian crisis. But there is no question that the task has been made more difficult by the overwhelming House vote in favor of this misguided measure.