John Nichols | The Nation

John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Is Israel Making Itself Irrelevant to the Iran Debate?

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at the Likud party headquarters in Tel Aviv. (Reuters/Nir Elias)

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, having somehow secured the last speech on the week-long agenda, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did his best to serve as a human wrecking-ball against the unfolding US-Iran rapprochement that is underway. But his extreme rhetoric, unfounded statements and hyperbole simply undermined his case.

From the opening lines of the speech, Netanyahu dove into the deep end. Israel, he said, is “challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction”—even though no one, perhaps except Netanyahu himself, would argue that Iran is “nuclear-armed.” Not an ounce of Iran’s enriched uranium is close to the level at which it could be used in a bomb, and Iran has not demonstrated that it has the ability to create a nuclear weapon even if it had enough highly enriched uranium. So, needless to say, Iran has no nuclear weapons and it is not nuclear-armed.

Netanyahu also accused Iran of leading “wild chants of ‘Death to the Jews!’” Again, this is nonsense. If anything like that happened in Iran in the decades since 1979, it’s the equivalent of tattooed rednecks in Texas shouting, “Nuke the ayatollahs!” Netanyahu’s silly charge is particularly ironic, coming after President Hassan Rouhani and his government have reached out to Jews worldwide, sending greetings and best wishes for the recent Jewish holidays, acknowledged that the Holocaust was a terrible crime and taken other steps to signal that Jews are not the enemy. Rouhani even traveled to New York last week accompanied by the Jewish member of Iran’s parliament—a parliament which, incidentally, filled with hardliners and conservatives, yesterday endorsed Rouhani’s outreach to the United States and his commitment to nuclear diplomacy.

Netanyahu, wildly mixing metaphors filled his speech with phrases such as calling Rouhani “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” who can’t “have his yellowcake and eat it, too.” And he said: “A nuclear-armed Iran in the Middle East wouldn’t be another North Korea. It would be another fifty North Koreas!” I’m not even sure what that means.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Gary Sick, a former senior aide to President Jimmy Carter and an expert on Iran, told The New York Times that Netanyahu didn’t exactly help himself:

“He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility. It really is jarring to see that, the extreme element, and how far he was willing to push it. He did himself harm by his exaggerations.”

It isn’t clear whether Netanyahu’s unchained rhetoric will have any effect at all, either at home, in regard to the US Congress, or with the White House. The Senate, in particular, has backed away from imposing new sanctions on Iran as long as the US-Iran talks proceed, which means Netanyahu didn’t have much success on that front. And, indeed, it might be argued that it is in Israel’s own interest for the talks to go forward. As Trita Parsi points out in Foreign Affairs, if the United States can succeed in bringing Iran back into the world community, ending sanctions and allowing Iran to play a constructive role in the region, it can only benefit Israel:


This is precisely why diplomacy serves Israel better than Netanyahu’s naysaying: Iran’s position on Israel is far more likely to change in the direction Israel desires if U.S.-Iranian relations improve and the first tangible steps are taken to rehabilitate Iran into the region’s political and economic structures.


So Netanyahu may be isolating Israel and making both it and the US Israel lobby irrelevant to the debate. As the Associated Press reports:

Despite some tough rhetoric in a speech to the U.N. by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it will be all but impossible for Israel to take military action once negotiations between Iran and world powers resume. As a result, Israel could find itself sidelined in the international debate over how to handle the suspect Iranian nuclear program over the coming months.

Chris Hayes discusses the costs of the government shutdown on his MSNBC show. 

Dukakis and the Myth of Democratic Extremism

Former Massachusetts Governor and Democratic Party presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 2009. (AP Photo/Angela Rowlings)

There will be many lessons to learn from the government shutdown, however it ends. Here is one of them: from the punditocracy, Democrats will never, ever, ever get moral credit for “moderating” their ideology. To the guardians of our political discourse, their leaders will always represent but one of the “extreme” poles in the false-equivalence game.

Here’s Joe Nocera in The New York Times this past Monday, affecting to call out “those Banana Republicans,” which according to the rules means he has to say something mean about Democrats too: “A party controlled by its most extreme faction will ultimately be forced back to the center. The Democrats learned that when Walter Mondale was losing to Ronald Reagan, and Michael Dukakis to George H.W. Bush. Now it is the Republicans who don’t seem to understand that their extreme tactics are pleasing a small percentage of their countrymen but alienating everyone else.”

Leave aside Walter Mondale, who actually lost because the incumbent Republican enjoyed an economic boom that had much more to do with Jimmy Carter’s actions than his own. Let’s talk about Michael Dukakis, that poor hapless fellow who saved Massachusetts from fiscal perdition but ended up as one of history’s pathetic losers, the mousy man in a military helmet on the tank. What was the entire rationale for his successful 1988 nominating campaign? That he was anti-ideology, all the way down. The signature line from his acceptance speech was, “This election isn’t about ideology; it’s about competence. It’s not about meaningless labels; it’s about American values.” The son of Greek immigrants, absent an iota of ethnic color, he was mocked as “Zorba the Clerk.” (I learned from Wikipedia that composer John Williams wrote a “Fanfare for Michael Dukakis,” which is too funny for words—like “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dishrag,” or “Dimanche apres midi sur l’Île de Rikers.)” He forced the second-place candidate, Jesse Jackson—the ideological guy, the guy whom the party actually would have nominated if it had been “controlled by its most extreme faction”—to wait in the convention parking lot before he would meet with him. (Even his praise for Jackson in his acceptance speech was anti-ideological: “a man whose candidacy says…to every American, you are a full shareholder in our dream.” A shareholder!) His campaign slogan was “good jobs at good wages”—aux armes, citoyens!

His governorship certainly seemed to qualify him to make the argument. He first won, in 1974, campaigning from the right, against a Republican incumbent, Francis Sargent, best known for aggressively pushing racial integration of Boston’s schools. A UPI political reporter analyzed his victory: “In the upside down world of Massachusetts politics it makes sense that Republicans are liberals, Democrats are conservatives, and that Michael S. Dukakis of the New Deal and Great Society party is going to run the state like a bank.” He made a “lead pipe guarantee” of no new taxes; his win, said UPI, was “a statement by the voters that they were tired of the Sargent administration’s emphasis on costly human service programs which caused the state’s budget to triple during his tenure in office….While he will be committed to implementing the social welfare programs of the Sargent years, Dukakis will do so with the bottom line in mind—how much is it going to cost and can we get by without it?” And so he did, at least in his second chance in the office, from 1983 to 1991 (he lost the first time in a primary in 1978). This time, he prospered as the consummate “technocrat,” winning recognition in 1986 from the National Governor’s Association as the most effective state executive in the country, presiding over an economic boom nicknamed the “Massachusetts Miracle.” Some extremist.

Then Lee Atwater successfully painted him on behalf of George H.W. Bush as a flag-hating, rapist-loving Bolshevik, which is apparently all the likes of Joe Nocera, disgracefully, cares to believe of him.

Don’t count on historical memory from the guardians of our political discourse—leastwise concerning Democratic presidents and presidential candidates. Remember the reaction when Bill Clinton declared, “The era of big government is over?” What news! What novelty! What Democratic president had ever before said such a thing? The answer, of course, was: the last Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, who in his 1978 State of the Union said, almost identically, “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty or provide a bountiful economy or reduce inflation or save our cities or cure illiteracy or provide energy.” Of course government can eliminate poverty and reduce inflation and provide energy—but that’s not the point.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

My point is that each new Democratic president and presidential nominee who tries to roll that same mossy old rock up the hill will get bonked by some dumbass columnist hurling it back—and the tragic figure here won’t be the columnist, who’s just doing his job as assigned by America’s ideological fates, as predictable as the sun and the moon and the sand. It will be the next Democrat who tries, confident in his or her belief that this time the job can finally get done once and for all. Their tragedy will be that, in aiming to get that job done, he or she won’t do the real job, one that is actually much more attainable, the task appointed to Democrats by history: making America a more fair and decent and sustainable place, via unapologetically liberal policies—which are the only ones that ever actually work, no matter what some dumbass columnist says.

Zoe Carpenter draws attention to the real victims of the government shutdown.

An Absence of Ideology: Why We Need More Partisanship

Demonstrators protest the second anniversary of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

The dewy foliage adorning the slopes of the Hudson Palisades swayed in the calm summer-night breeze. It was July of 1804 in Weehawken, New Jersey, a small township just across the river from Manhattan. Alexander Hamilton, former Secretary of the Treasury, founding father of the United States, and founder of the Federalist Party, lay just paces from the rocky bank in a pool of his own blood. Standing above him was his pistol-wielding assassin, loyal Democratic-Republican and sitting Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. The two high-profile statesmen had just participated in a duel, punctuating years of bitter political, ideological, and personal rivalry between them. Hamilton would die the next day, and Burr’s reputation would be forever tarnished. Imagine if Joe Biden had shot Timothy Geithner to death! It would be no different.

There is a lesson to be learned from that bloody brawl between the Vice President and the Secretary: argument and disagreement are a good thing in a republic such as ours, but only if the argument and disagreement are genuine. American democracy is being crippled by a lack of true ideology, not a surplus of it. We have been paralyzed by having too few constructive policy arguments. It has become common practice for Americans to dismiss politicians as hyper-partisan, and too rigidly committed to certain aspects of their respective party platforms. However, the opposite is actually true. Not only has the exchange of ideas dried up in recent decades, but we have also seen on a whole host of critical issues that the government is being run by two parties largely in agreement, and who show allegiance not to their beliefs, but to money and power. This has been the root cause of our governmental dysfunction in recent decades.

On budgetary issues, both parties agree: spending must be greatly reduced, even though we have seen the disastrous effects of austerity in Europe. On gun control, members of both parties fall over themselves trying to prove their support of the second amendment. On entitlements, both parties agree there must be aggressive “reform” of Medicare and Social Security or else the fiscal apocalypse will be upon us. Both parties believe that Israel can do no wrong, that NSA surveillance is necessary to protect the Homeland, and that the legalization of marijuana would be detrimental to our society. Not only do these ideas enjoy broad political consensus, but they are also largely out of step with what the majority of Americans believe. 

Many may say that more partisanship in Washington would be a recipe for continued dysfunction and ineffective governing. Though this concern is certainly valid, the discord in our nation’s capital is less about genuine differences in opinion, and more about an effort by the far right to block the agenda of President Obama. If members of the ultra-conservative Tea Party caucus were actually committed to slashing budgets, they would have taken Obama’s offers to cut entitlements years ago. But instead, we have no real debate in our Legislative bodies. What we have instead are two-dimensional theatrics with no substance. However, the problem goes deeper still.  

In politics, what you believe no longer matters. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in a typical election year the Candidate who spends the most money will win a seat in Congress 90% of the time. How much money a candidate spends in an election is generally the most accurate way to predict who wins in any given race, not party affiliation or core beliefs. Money rules. In a democracy, citizens should choose their representatives based on a set of shared ideas about how to steer the ship of state. Not only that, but the floors of the Senate and the House should serve as the great laboratories of democracy, where debate is carried out, and where ideas are exchanged. Instead, we have one party who would rather engage in political spectacle and obstructionism than provide ideas for the good of the country. Meanwhile, Democrats have refused to show any solidarity with the Progressive movement. Where are the big ideas? Where are the real arguments? The tradition of debate that has always defined American democracy seems to have escaped us.

Before he met his ill-starred fate, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “…The clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism.” In Washington, what many perceive as clamorous debate is, in reality, anything but. Instead, what we have is meaningless noise. Americans should begin demanding substantive yelling matches in the House Chamber and Statuary Hall. It’s time our politicians draw their pistols at ten paces, so that policy—not money or the promise of power—can once again drive our lawmaker’s decisions. 

The Hidden Costs of the American Way of Healthcare

(Reuters/Jose Luis Magana)

I grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota, which had one small hospital and one anesthesiologist—my father. Thus, I grew up watching him being called away from dinner for emergency c-sections, chainsaw accidents, appendix ruptures, you name it. This instilled in me a very real sense of how ill health or a catastrophic accident could be just around the corner—for anyone.

It seemed a bit at cross purposes that I planned as a child to be a novelist and wanted an employment situation that was stable and provided insurance. I also wanted to live in New York City, because that’s where the writers and publishers were.

I started planning early; in college, for my major, I deliberately chose economics because I felt that would give me the most flexibility in terms of job choices and make me the most marketable for a “real” (i.e., insurance-paying) job that would be remunerative enough for me to live in New York.

I worked first at Data Resources, Inc., an econometric forecasting firm that was part of McGraw-Hill. They specialized in the kind of multiple regression analyses that I used to write my honors thesis, “Economic Development and Women’s Labor Force Participation in the Third World,” and, as I did while writing my thesis, I more or less hated every minute of it.

Later, I moved to Goldman Sachs for a position in equity research, and also hated more or less every minute of that job, too, but not only was I paid well, including annual bonuses (which allowed me to squirrel away money for my eventual escape), I was also treated to the kind of gold-plated corporate health insurance that even we peons got a taste of. My McGraw-Hill medical insurance had been pretty standard, including some encouragement to join an HMO as a cost-saving measure. But at Goldman, not only could we see any doctor we wanted, we even had a full-time office to facilitate health-related issues: they handed out lists of near-to-the-office doctors who were recommended, they had preventive health resources, such as regular in-office skin cancer screenings, and it was as close to a frictionless, moneyless, paperless system as could be—no out-of-pocket premiums, no deductibles, no co-pays.

I also hadn’t had dental coverage at DRI, but now when I visited my East Side dentist not only was everything covered, including every-six-month cleanings and thousands of rads worth of X-rays, a couple of times I received money back because my dentist had somehow been overpaid by my luxurious plan.

During those years, I wrote by getting up at 4 am to get in a few good hours before my subway commute to work—for which I had to get in early and often did not leave until very late at night. By basically jettisoning most of my social life, I completed an entire novel, but efforts to find an agent and sell it were coming to naught. So I started on another novel and dreamed of a time when I could write full time. Goldman had a generous vacation policy, and I used one of my weeks to write—and ended up happily working on new my novel for the entire time. Clearly, I was ready to be a full-time writer, but the mechanics my life weren’t ready for me. Without health insurance, I didn’t know what I would do.

Sure, I rationalized, it’s soul-killing to force yourself to do a job you hate, but being at such a large, successful firm meant I could write and not have to live with the precariousness of a starving artist. One year, my boyfriend and I decided to go to Belize, and the Goldman nurse not only gave us free gamma globulin shots to protect against some kind of Belizean disease (and checked me for melanomas when I got back), but she sent us to the Stock Exchange, where they had a travel clinic for banking employees, and we received matching dengue fever shots. My boyfriend, who worked at an independent publisher, just took it all in, gawping.

Eventually, despite my lack of publication, my desire to write became more important than my full-time job and the security of its lavish benefits. A small fellowship for my novel-in-progress eventually was psychically all it took for me to launch Plan B. I took my accumulated savings and started myself on COBRA, which lets you pay out-of-pocket for your insurance for twelve months—but because this had always been an invisible benefit, I remember being shocked by the monthly amount. Further, Goldman has a separate plan for its top executives for which it pays about $40,500 in annual premiums per family—compare this with the median family income of $51,000 with 48 million Americans lacking insurance at all.

When I was on my own, I wasn’t able to afford any insurance that would allow me to choose my own doctors (or see any of my previous ones), so I joined an HMO, which was terrible—interminable waits in a waiting room that itself looked infectious, a doctor who was allotted five minutes to examine me and ascribed my headaches and fatigue (Epstein-Barr) to sinus infections and kept prescribing useless antibiotics. But after writing full-time with little to show for it, even that became unaffordable for me.

Eventually, I drifted to a “catastrophic” plan, which cost me about $5,000 a year, the money I earned by, well, doing freelance work for a different investment bank. That plan gave me some mental serenity—I’d be covered up to a million dollars if I was hit by a bus or had cancer. But being young and healthy, I didn’t realize that cancer or an accident could easily breach the million-dollar mark, and luckily I stayed healthy. Penny wise and pound foolish, I also skipped routine screenings and physicals, toughed out illnesses because I didn’t want to pay the money. If I were still at Goldman, I’d probably be happily having my mole screening done right in my office.

But here’s the rub: if I’d stayed at Goldman, I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now, either. And if the Affordable Healthcare Act had been around, I probably would have run out of there even sooner—maybe a novel or two’s sooner.

The GOP’s obstruction of Obamacare is cruel and illogical. Senator Ted Cruz and others keep insisting that what is more important is not to make healthcare accessible but to grow the economy so there will be better jobs.

However, that entrepreneurial and job-creating spirit they so cherish is stultified by our odd (the only industrialized country—with dozens of choices—that decides to do it this way) employer-based system. The most innovative and creative types tend not to fit well within the traditional corporate model. But if their healthcare depends on hewing to this model, it’s logical that they’ll stay put as a wage-earner instead of going out and starting a new company. Or creating the kind of art that 1 percenters will pay good money to see or acquire.

It would take me too long to catalog the myriad ways creative people I know have been compromised by our system. A diabetic friend has to shop for jobs not by the work but by the insurance coverage. A friend’s daughter wants to be a musician, but can’t afford the medicines she needs to take for a hormonal condition on her waitress’s salary. A number of friends’ kids can’t even find jobs, no less one that they find fulfilling and with adequate insurance coverage. We need to ask ourselves: How many Steve Jobs—who himself had very complex health problems—might we be losing because of our healthcare system?

I myself am now a full-time novelist and essayist beholden to no employer, so how did I achieve health insurance equilibrium? Senator Cruz famously and proudly announced that he doesn’t take any government handouts and that he opted out of the rather lavish congressional health insurance (one that doesn’t quit during furloughs and sequesters). I also worked hard and got my insurance coverage the old-fashioned way, just like Senator Cruz: I got married. Although, sadly, my spouse is an academic while Senator Cruz’s wife is a top-level executive at—wait for it!—Goldman Sachs. My spouse and I have pretty big co-pays. I surmise the Cruzes do not have to ever open their wallets at a doctor’s office.

Instead of focusing on taking and keeping healthcare away from people, perhaps we should take a minute to feel what having accessible healthcare can be. An American poet friend, New Yorker–published, had, for whatever reason, stopped writing for the last five years. She recently moved to Canada and recounted to me how amazed she was at how quickly and efficiently she was seen by the list of medical specialists that, in true American fashion, she had put off for years because of the costs. There was no six-month wait, she received excellent care, and she mentioned how strange and then how freeing it was to have no insurance paperwork or money changing hands. It almost seemed like healthcare was a right. Who knows if lifting this mental burden of worrying about healthcare made a material change in her life? But after she moved to Canada, she did start writing again.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

When I quit my job at Goldman, my colleague, Anne, an aspiring poet, had shared dreams of us leaving together. Poetry, of course, is even more of a financially perilous career than prose, and I understand why she stayed. Years later, she attended my first book signing. Still at Goldman, but I expected her imminent departure. I left New York to go on a Fulbright, and we lost touch shortly after that.

Recently, while going through some papers, I found some lovely, old-fashioned letters Anne had written me, as well as the drafts of a few poems she’d shared. Moving back to New York plus seeing the documentary Inside Job, which included many Goldman characters that populated our world, spurred me to try get back in touch with her. Google was my first stop, and I hoped it would reveal that some of her poetry had made it out into the world. Instead, I found her obituary. After she’d left Goldman, it said, she’d gone on to work for a pharmaceutical company. Insurance, I thought immediately. She was a responsible woman—her father was a doctor, too—the Obamacare obstructionists would say, see? She had healthcare, that was great. Is anyone but me going to mourn for the poems that went unwritten?

Read more from Marie Myung-Ok Lee on how Prabhjot Singh is breaking the cycle of hate.

The End of Majority Rule

Texan Senator Ted Cruz argues against the proposed ban on guns like the Remington 750, a popular hunting rifle, during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun control reform. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

What happens to a democracy when the voice of the majority is no longer heard? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is unfolding before our eyes. Tools enabling the elite to block legislative actions backed by the American people has all-but-paralyzed Congress. This, coupled with a dangerous proliferation of inflexible ideologues within our governing body, has made for a dysfunctional political system—for decisions that in no way reflect the desires of the people. And, of course, what many politicians seem to forget—an impossible luxury for ordinary citizens—is that when a political system is in gridlock, ordinary citizens suffer the consequences.

In many cases, filibustering has been used to bring democracy to a standstill. It is to this tactic of delaying and obstructing legislative action—by indefinitely prolonged speech-making, for instance—that we owe at least partial thanks for the Senate’s recent rejection of Obama’s amendments to the gun control bill, supported by 90 percent of Americans. Background checks for gun-owners were supported, also, by 74 percent of gun owners in the NRA, and by 55 Senators—55 to 45. Why did the amendment backed by a majority of Senators not get passed? Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the hard decision to opt for the 60-votes to end filibuster rule known as invoking cloture, rather than accept the majority vote threshold for this amendment, because if all that was needed was majority vote, it is likely that other radical amendments backed by gun control advocates would have also been passed. The gun advocate-backed amendments would have negated any possible advancements towards stricter gun control, so perhaps this route really was the lesser of two evils. In any event, in an effort to avoid filibustering, the majority vote was not enough, and the gun control amendments our country so sorely needs were blocked by the Senate. And so it seems, in this instance, at least, that the extreme ideologies of an uncompromising minority were allowed to prevail against the interests of the majority of this country’s citizens.

Of course, it was not just rigid ideology that prevented some of the political elite from acting in the best interest of the people. Many of the Senators who hindered the gun control amendments did not do so because of their passionate belief in the right to bear arms, but because they had something to gain from their states’ gun advocates. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” said the writer Upton Sinclair—and there’s a lot of hard truth to that statement. Corrupt lobbying, the exchange of “political gifts,” and other forms of veiled bribery in the upper echelons of government have all contributed to the felt unbalance and helplessness we—the governed—experience today; they are tools for putting disproportionate power and influence into the hands of an elite minority and distorting our democratic system founded on the rule of the majority.

It wasn’t always this way in our country. There was a time when politicians of opposite parties worked hard to find compromises that generally reflected the needs and desires of America at-large. In September 1982, for instance, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act was signed into law, thanks to the rigorous efforts of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a liberal Democrat, and President Reagan, a Republican, to find a ratio of spending cuts to tax increases that was acceptable to both parties. We have cooperated with each other for the greater good in the past, and we can do it again. In the words of John F. Kennedy, “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

The Sliming of Josh Freeman

Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano talking to quarterback Josh Freeman at a recent game against the New Orleans Saints. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their head coach Greg Schiano leak confidential information that implied one of their own players was on drugs as a way to deflect attention from another wretched season? Schiano says “absolutely not.” But the facts point in the direction of him or his staff, and the facts are ugly as hell.

Quarterback Josh Freeman is officially in “stage one” of the NFL’s drug testing program. That means he voluntarily entered. He did so as a way to show league officials that the one time he tested positive for a banned substance, a prescription medication for ADHD, it was a one-time mistake. By electing for stage one, Freeman’s involvement is supposed to be confidential. So confidential in fact that even his team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is not supposed to know that he had entered the program. It means he had been tested forty-six times over the last eighteen months for every possible substance and passed every time.

But Josh Freeman, in high-profile fashion, is on the outs in Tampa Bay. After a dazzling beginning to his career, Freeman has withered in recent years. Following a 0-3 start in which he didn’t complete 50 percent of his passes, Freeman’s relationship with head coach Schiano would be best described as “cyanogenic.” But it is hard to think of any quarterback, or any human who could mesh with the tyrannical, browbeating former Rutgers coach.

Schiano is the sort of person who thinks heading up a football team means you need to act like an amalgam of General Patton and Chet from Weird Science. He is not only barely holding onto his job. He is barely holding onto a team that has had multiple meetings about how much they hate his style, his play-calling and pretty much everything short of his haircut. Benching Freeman is a way to deflect attention from his own epic failure as coach and be given time to break in Freeman’s backup, a raw rookie third-round draft pick named Mike Glennon.

After his benching, Freeman demanded a trade, and the team clearly wants to oblige and get as much as they can in return. But alas, there is a tension. While upper management wants to maximize Freeman’s value, those in tenuous positions of power on the Bucs—like the gobsmacking twenty-six assistant coaches on staff—have an incentive to make Josh Freeman to look as cancerous as possible. Someone connected to the team released information to ESPN’s “NFL insider” Chris Mortensen, who, in a manner far closer to Judith Miller than Glenn Greenwald, dutifully reported the leak that Freeman was in “stage one” of the drug program, while leaving out that he was reporting confidential information or the nature of the drugs involved. Immediately the rumors started to swirl and the sliming was underway.

This is exactly why sports unions take such pains—despite all the slings and arrows from the media, politicians and owners that they are “soft” on drugs—to protect players from abuses in how drug testing is administered. It is why they fight for ironclad confidentiality clauses for first offenders and an independent appeals process. They do it to protect players from having their reputations tarred from false positives. But even more significantly, they simply do not trust those in management to not use drug testing as a form of leverage against players. In other words, they believe that, left to their own devices, owners and coaches will treat players the way the Bucs are treating Josh Freeman.

I was able to get through to NFL Player’s Association executive director DeMaurice Smith after he visited Tampa Bay in an already scheduled visit as part of the routine rounds of the union. He said, “We always protect player rights with vigilance. A breach of confidentiality is one of those instances where the league should agree with us on a zero tolerance policy.” Smith is clearly challenging NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to treat this as a serious league violation. Goodell, who has liked to present himself as a Eastwood-esque sheriff when dealing with player misconduct, should treat this with the same seriousness. The smart money says he will not. When it comes to players, Goodell is Eastwood. When it comes to disciplining management, he is more like the empty chair.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

As for Josh Freeman, he had to issue a hastily composed comment last night addressing the rumors that he was in some sort of rehab. He describes the vague leaking of confidential information as a case of being “publicly violated.” People should read his full statement. This is someone who has been grievously wronged.

Whether or not you are a fan of Tampa Bay, the Bucs or even football, you should care about this issue. Drug testing and a complete absence of what can now quaintly be called “privacy” has become normalized in the American workplace. The idea that someone with a union contract that guarantees some basic protections can have his confidentiality treated like toilet paper is alarming. The idea that the Bucs could get away with this on the largest possible media platform is enraging. The idea that Greg Schiano can plead ignorance and only say, “I know what I’ve done, and I’m 100% comfortable with my behavior” and when pressed, “I’m not at liberty to comment on that,” is a joke. He should be saying that he will find out who violated his player’s privacy and discipline them. Anything short of that are grounds for dismissal. If the Bucs owners won’t do it, the league should step in. If the league won’t step in, an already angry Bucs team should just walk out. The Tampa Bay organization under Schiano has become the worst kind of laughingstock: the kind that isn’t funny.

Dave Zirin looks at how some ill chosen words from Dick Vitale have snowballed into NCAA players taking a stand for change.

The Many Meanings of Being Selfish

(Reuters/Jim Bourg)

Writing Contest Finalist

We’re delighted to announce the winners of The Nation’s eighth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to answer this question in 800 words: It’s clear that the political system in the US isn’t working for many. If you had to pick one root cause underlying our broken politics, what would it be and why? We received close to 700 submissions from high school and college students in forty-two states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Jim Nichols (no relation to The Nation’s John Nichols), an undergraduate at Georgia State University; and Julia Di, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Darnestown, Maryland, and Bryn Grunwald, a recent graduate of the Peak to Peak Charter in Boulder, Colorado, who were co-winners in the high school category. The three winners receive cash awards of $1,000 and the finalists $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. Read all the winning essays here.   —The Editor

Three weeks ago, I thought I knew what it meant to have an “out-of-body experience.” It took me a while to realize that I was going to have a much more literal one, with more dire consequences, if I didn’t stop looking around at my surroundings before thinking about where I was placing my feet. I didn’t blame myself, however; everywhere I turned I could see white buildings and old pillars, aesthetic aids to help place me in a state that reeked of tourist-like awe amidst a few square miles of presidents, progress and politics. This was where history was made. I was taken by the illusion of something profoundly thrilling in the otherworldliness of Capitol Hill, as if it wasn’t pavement and grass that I was walking on, but a place imbued with the power to change lives.

I didn’t truly recognize the people I passed, the staffers I conversed with, and even the Congressmen and Senators I met until I had a moment to sit down with a legislative aide and I realized—

They looked tired.

In that moment, I felt myself reconciling ideals with reality. These people were made out of the same stuff we all were, from the tourists to the bus drivers to the senators themselves. They have no inhuman powers, and what I took for otherworldly, was anything but; simply the work of human beings running on coffee and lack of sleep—not that they didn’t have the power to change lives.

As I listened to the aide talk about the bill he was currently concerned about, an agricultural bill that I knew little about before walking into that conference room, I wondered. Imagining the rest of the world, I wondered how their feelings fell on the spectrum between the the two sides of Capitol Hill I had seen in the last five hours: a student’s textbook fairytale, and an adult’s reality. Were they entranced by the mere idea, or disillusioned to government’s wiles? Even the tourists, who populated the galleries and crowded the security lines—did they believe in their government officials, or in old buildings and white pillars? I once believed that government was the hero in the story of our nation. Then I grew up.

But too many have taken the idea of growing up to mean distancing themselves. With the illusion gone, who wants to deal with the ugly truth of politics, or to even go beyond pointing fingers and blame from afar, to come up close and confront the underlying issues plaguing our system of government? It’s easy to sit hidden by television screens and newspaper headlines, to care more about how the outcomes affect you than about what you can do to affect the outcomes. To choose the path of least resistance, they say, is a form of selfishness. As President John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

To tell you the truth, I began this essay thinking that I was going to confront selfishness as the cause of our broken politics; the unfailing ability of self-interest to come before even the good of the nation in a world where politicians would rather see programs fail and opportunities pass than to cooperate, compromise, or calm down. At the same time, America itself was founded on the principles of individual liberty and pursuit of happiness—a blatant call, in some lights, for citizens to pursue their own good. Standing there on Capitol Hill, I discovered yet another facet to the ever-complex idea of selfishness: though our system of government was founded as a government “by the People, for the People,” so many of us have chosen the path of least resistance, to the point that doing our part in monitoring government has come to mean choosing sides and hoping that the prizefight will fall in our favor.

Selfishness, I realized, is more complicated than can be summed up in one dictionary definition, or even one essay. Fittingly, government is the same way; it is multi-facted and difficult to fully understand or to control. There is no secret solution to solve all our troubles, because our troubles are as complex as the system they are troubling. But the important thing is that we are willing to try. Perhaps, at the heart of selfishness itself, what is even more important is that we as citizens never lose hope.

The next day, as I boarded my plane back to Seattle with a heavy heart and a handful of regrets, I glanced at the headlines loading on my phone: the bill didn’t pass.

Bill de Blasio Hits Back at Joe Lhota’s ‘Commie’ Charge

Left, New York City Republican mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota, and right, Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio. (AP Photo)

After more than a week of being painted as a commie and worse, Bill de Blasio hit back yesterday against his opponent in the NYC mayor’s race with: TOP 10 FACTS ABOUT JOE LHOTA’S ICON, EXTREME CONSERVATIVE BARRY GOLDWATER. Those include Goldwater’s infamous vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, wanting to use nukes in Vietnam, and his maxim: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” And the de Blasio camp didn’t even get to the John Birch Society championing Sen. Goldwater in his presidential run against LBJ in 1964.

The ugly tit-for-tat began last week, when The New York Times detailed de Blasio’s support of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in the 1980s. That spawned an outbreak of innuendo—that he somehow supported the Sandinistas’ alleged anti-Semitism (a charge designed to cut into the Democrat’s Jewish vote), that he was a “bleary, dreary”-eyed druggie in college, that he was an unreconstructed commie symp. “Mr. de Blasio’s class warfare strategy in New York City,” Lhota himself said, “is directly out of the Marxist playbook. Now we know why.”

It took a while, but yesterday the Times ran a profile of the young Joe Lhota. In college, he spent “nights in the gallery of the United States Senate, where he sat rapt as Mr. Goldwater, his boyhood hero, orated on the floor.” Lhota, the Times noted, was also accepted into “a right-leaning summer boot camp for undergraduates” that was “the brainchild of a group of conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr.”

(De Blasio could as well have run the Top 10 Facts about Buckley, including his support for Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom he called “a prophet,” his admiration for dictators, like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, and his notion of the “cultural superiority of white over Negro.”)

Yes, this sort of guilt by association is absurd. Because even though Lhota says, “I still am a virulent anti-communist,” and de Blasio still finds elements of democratic socialism appealing, in truth Lhota is no more a Bircher or white supremacist than de Blasio is a fellow traveler or anti-Semite.

And at first de Blasio shunned the whole approach. “It’s 2013. I’d like to note, I’m not going to stoop to Joe Lhota’s level here,” he said. “I am a progressive who believes in an activist approach to government. You can call it whatever the heck you want.”

But de Blasio has been forced to hit back; the media was keeping him on the defense, chasing him, asking did he ever agree with Marxism, why’d he honeymoon in Cuba? Even allies in the press wanted to know, was his support for the Sandinistas merely a “youthful indiscretion,” as someone at a New Yorker lunch asked him. “No, it’s not a youthful indiscretion,” he said, refusing to take the cowardly way out. “The reason I got involved, was because of United States foreign policy.”

But for some reason, the press isn’t on Lhota’s tail to explain his adulation of Goldwater, much less are they grilling him on if we should we nuke Syria or whether he’d vote against the Civil Rights Act (not a far-fetched question given the Supreme Court’s gutting of section 4 of the Voting Rights Act). The Times certainly didn’t ask him such questions, nor would it occur to most reporters to do so.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

This is a case of the media not making false equivalencies but habitually failing to notice actual equivalencies. Politicians’ involvement in left-wing causes stimulates media hormones more than the right-wing ones do. Partly that’s because the center has moved rightward. But even if it hadn’t, America’s red-baiting, McCarthyite past still has the power to taint.

For whatever reason, ventures into lefty world are treated like a dirty bad act, and they produce a kind of slut-shaming. Maybe the body politic needs to believe that it contains something just too awful to fully accept.

De Blasio may become not just NYC’s most progressive mayor but the first big-name pol to break that bleary, dreary mindset.

Read John Nichols’s post on the ideological differences between de Blasio and current mayor Mike Bloomberg.

‘NYT’ Fingers McClatchy for ‘Terror’ Leak—and Now McClatchy Hits Back

(AP/Mark Lennihan)

UPDATE  NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan critiques paper on this.   For further updates and frequent posts every day see my blog Pressing Issues.

Yesterday morning the top story at the New York Times site reported on US analysts feeling that the early-August leak to the media on how Al Qaeda communicates had done more to harm our anti-terrorism effort than anything revealed by Edward Snowden. You remember: we briefly closed some of our embassies, for starters.

And the Times quickly recounted how it refused to publish the names that were key in the information, at the request of the government, and only did so after our security folks had given them clearance—after the McClatchy news outlet went with it.

The communication intercepts between Mr. Zawahri and Mr. Wuhayshi revealed what American intelligence officials and lawmakers have described as one of the most serious plots against American and other Western interests since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It prompted the closing of 19 United States Embassies and consulates for a week, when the authorities ultimately concluded that the plot focused on the embassy in Yemen.

McClatchy Newspapers first reported on the conversations between Mr. Zawahri and Mr. Wuhayshi on Aug. 4. Two days before that, the New York Times agreed to withhold the identities of the Qaeda leaders after senior American intelligence officials said the information could jeopardize their operations. After the government became aware of the McClatchy article, it dropped its objections to the Times’s publishing the same information, and the newspaper did so on Aug. 5.

This was a rather serious claim against rival McClatchy, so I awaited some kind of response. Now McClatchy hits back at the Times in this report.

For example: “McClatchy Washington Bureau Chief James Asher said: ‘We believe that if the Yemenis knew that the United States had intercepted conversations between two al Qaida honchos, Americans should as well.’” More:

Ever since that report, the Times article said, terrorists had stopped using “a major communications channel” that U.S. officials had been monitoring and that intelligence officials “have been scrambling to find new ways to surveil the electronic messages and conversations of Al Qaida’s leaders and operatives.”

Asher, in a statement, said that in the nearly two months since McClatchy had published its story, no U.S. agency has contacted the newspaper company about the article or has asked any questions about the origins of the story.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

“Multiple sources inside and outside of the Yemeni government confirmed our reporting and not one of them told us not to publish the facts,” Asher said.

Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen expert and the author of “The Last Refuge,” a book on al Qaida in Yemen, backed Asher’s assessment, saying that he had been told before the McClatchy report that Zawahiri and Wuhayshi were the two men who’d been monitored and that many people in Yemen knew the details of the communication. Johnsen had made a similar statement to McClatchy in early August.

“The idea that the identities of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri are responsible for the difficulties the U.S. is having in tracking al Qaida and AQAP is laughable,” Johnsen said Monday, referring to the Yemen al Qaida affiliate by its initials. “The U.S. publicly closed 19 embassies, the participation of Wuhayshi and Zawahiri was well known in Yemen. I was told about it prior to McClatchy publishing it. And once the leaks start from the U.S. government they can be hard to stop or to control.”

Robert Scheer explores the differences between state-sanctioned leaks and those from whistleblowers like Edward Snowden.

Sorry, Putin and Kucinich: Assad Did It

Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich speaks at a union-sponsored event in 2011. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

It’s right to be skeptical of American claims about weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, given the duplicity of the George W. Bush administration in Iraq. It’s right to be concerned that the United States is planning to bomb Syria, if the current accord over destroying Syria’s chemical weapons stocks breaks down.

But here’s what’s not right: it’s not right to deny the overwhelming evidence that Syria used poison gas in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21. I’m talking to you, Vladimir Putin. And to you, Dennis Kucinich. And to all of those on the left who’ve speculated that the horrific incident on August 21 was the work of Syria’s rebels. It wasn’t. The Syrian government did it. Let’s put that one to rest.

Putin, scrambling to defend an ally and anxious over the possibility that President Obama would carry out what, by all accounts, would be a useless, strategically incompetent, and lethal and dangerous attack, is the leading serial denier of the obvious. In doing so, Putin and his government—including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations—have made themselves look foolish. The same goes for Dennis Kucinich, the liberal former Democratic member of Congress from Ohio who, unaccountably, has joined forces with Fox News and who conducted a sycophantic interview with Assad in Damascus.

Russia has stood firm against an attack on Syria, and Putin and Lavrov have been instrumental in pushing for a Geneva II peace conference in search of a political settlement of the civil war in Syria, which has left tens of thousands dead. But Putin’s absurd whitewashing of the Syrian government for its obvious use of poison gas should not be part of the picture.

Let’s recap: in an op-ed in The New York Times, Putin blithely cited invisible evidence that the rebels were responsible for the gas use, and he even managed to work into his ridiculous defense mention of a threat to Israel:

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack—this time against Israel—cannot be ignored.”

In a news conference in Russia, Putin went so far as to say that the rebels slyly used old Russian-made artillery shells to disguise its origin:

Speaking at a conference, Putin said “we have every reason to believe that it was a provocation, a sly and ingenious one.” He added, however, that its perpetrators have relied on “primitive” technology, using old Soviet-made ammunition no longer in the Syrian army’s inventory.

Taking his case even further, Putin suggested—no doubt with a smirk of irony—that the United States might have to consider fighting the rebels when it turns out that it was the opposition who used the gas:

“If it is determined that these rebels used weapons of mass destruction, what will the United States do with the rebels? What will the sponsors of the rebels do? Stop the supply of arms? Will they start fighting against the rebels?”

Many critics pointed out that Putin cited various dubious sources in trying to cast Assad as blameless, including discredited reports in Turkish newspapers and the comments of a Syrian nun loyal to the Assad government.

Kucinich, a valiant crusader against war now weirdly affiliated with Fox, managed to interview Assad in September. Writing on The Huffington Post, Kucinich created a Top Ten list of “Unproven Claims” about Syria’s use of poison gas, drawing on sources both mainstream and conspiratorial. And while his intention may be good—namely, to undermine President Obama’s case for war—nowhere does he cite the weighty evidence that has accumulated that points to the almost certain conclusion that it was, indeed, the Syrian army which used the gas.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

To believe that it was indeed the government of Syria—whether ordered by Assad himself, his brother, a senior military commander or someone else—it isn’t necessary to take on faith the White House intelligence summary that was released on August 30, although that memo makes a convincing case. There’s also the report from Doctors Without Borders, which said that more than 3,600 people were hospitalized in just three hospitals supported by international humanitarian groups, proving that the attack was so massive that it’s highly unlikely that the ragtag oppositionists could have struck with such deadly force. Or the conclusion of Richard Lloyd and Theodore Postol, who studied the rocket attacks and the payloads of those rockets to determine that the rockets held up to fifty liters of gas, a massive payload that suggests only government capabilities.

And, of course, there is the report from the United Nations itself, an annex of which provided important clues about where the rockets came from, as The New York Times noted:

One annex to the report also identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin. When plotted and marked independently on maps by analysts from Human Rights Watch and by The New York Times, the United Nations data from two widely scattered impact sites pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.

None of thus justifies a US attack on Syria. Still, that’s no reason to concoct far-fetched theories with no basis in fact.

Katrina vanden Heuvel looks into Oliver Stone’s documentary series, The Untold History of the United States. 

Syndicate content