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John Nichols

John Nichols

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

Calling John Roberts's Bluff

John Roberts, the President's nominee to become the seventeenth Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, says that the 1973 high court ruling that guaranteed a woman's right to choose is "settled as a precedent."

Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination that the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion is "entitled to respect under principles of stare decisis," the legal standard that long-established court rulings should not be casually challenged.

When pressed, Roberts suggested that only in extraordinary circumstances--when the precedent has proved to be "unworkable" or "difficult to apply"--should the Court even consider overturning settled law.

Since the Roe v. Wade precedent has survived basically intact through three decades of legal and legislative assaults, and since it has not proved to be unworkable or difficult to apply, Roberts has effectively promised the Senate--under oath--that he will not seek as the Chief Justice to outlaw abortion or other reproductive rights.

There can be no question that Roberts, who every observer agrees has an impressive awareness of the law and of politics, knows that this was the impression that he sought to convey with his comments.

Did Roberts seek to deceive the committee? Certainly, many Americans--and at least some senators--remain skeptical regarding this nominee. And, considering the sorry track record of the presidential Administration that has advanced his nomination, that skepticism ought not be dismissed casually.

But Roberts has clearly indicated a position with regard to Roe v. Wade. And that position is that, no matter what his personal opinions, he would not serve on the nation's highest court as the sort of conservative judicial activist who sets out to overturn established law.

It appears at this point that a number of senators who support a woman's right to choose will vote to confirm Roberts's nomination, which in all likelihood will gain the approval of the full Senate. It also appears, from the comments of these senators, that many of them were impressed with Roberts's performance before the Judiciary Committee--even if they would have preferred that the nominee be more forthcoming in response to questioning from Democratic and Republican senators.

While your correspondent continues to hold to the view that there are more than enough reasons to reject Roberts--beginning with his record on voting rights issues and certainly including his radical pro-business track record--he also recognizes political reality. In recognizing reality, however, it is important to set basic standards.

If and when senators who are supportive of reproductive rights cast their votes for Roberts, they ought make note of the nominee's statements to the committee with regard to this issue. Get it in the record again. And then add to the record a notation that a nominee who intentionally lies to the Senate must necessarily be subject to impeachment and removal from office.

These senators should also make it clear that, if John Roberts turns out to be the judicial activist that some fear, and if that activism takes the form of an attack on what he has described as "settled" law, then they will support a move to impeach the man and remove him from office.

Accountability 101

Horrified by the realization that a great many Americans see him as an uncaring Herbert Hoover, the president who forgot New Orleans attempted with his address to the nation on Thursday night to remake himself as a Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the 21st century.

The president's speech from New Orleans was full of proposals, promises and pledges. But Americans will be excused if they wait for proof of this conservative's newfound compassion.

After all, the president was not just talking about rebuilding the Gulf Coast. He was talking about rebuilding his own reputation.

Nothing gets the Bush White House's damage control operation moving like declining poll numbers. And so it should come as no surprise that the president is suddenly "Georgie on the spot" in New Orleans.

After days of initially neglecting the humanitarian crisis that followed Hurricane Katrina, and then seeking to assign to others blame for the death and chaos caused by that neglect, the Bush team has suddenly noticed that the American people are upset. The president's approval ratings have dipped below 40 percent -- into what pollsters refer to as the "Nixon during Watergate" range.

So Bush is now positioning himself as the savior of the Gulf Coast. He has even taken what for him is the unprecedented step of accepting a small measure of accountability for his actions -- or, in this case, inactions. "To the extent the federal government didn't fully do its job right, I take responsibility," the president grumbled earlier this week. In his speech on Thursday night, Bush admitted that, "Americans have every right to expect a more effective response in times of emergency."

He'll get no debate there. Nor will he hear many objections to his opening of the federal-aid spiggots to help rebuild New Orleans and other communities along the Gulf Coast.

But there will be some lingering skepticism about whether George W. Bush really understands what it means to take responsibility.

In fairness, while Bush does not have a track record that inspires confidence in his ability to hold himself or his aides to account, his Thursday night address from New Orleans represented progress for an administration that has had a problem with accountability. At least Karl Rove did not dress the boy president up in a search-and-rescue team uniform and pose him in front of a banner, declaring "Mission Accomplished."

But if Bush really wants to be taken seriously when he says that he is willing to accept responsibility for federal failures, he needs to do more than simply tour New Orleans in an open truck, preach to the television cameras from that city's Jackson Square and promise to deliver the aid that any president -- Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal -- would offer in such a circumstance.

If the president is serious, he should:

1.) Make it clear that administration aides who engage in cynical and divisive efforts to discredit state and local officials will be removed immediately from their positions. In a time of national emergency, the White House should not be playing politics in order to shift the blame for the missteps and misdeeds of the president and his appointees.

2.) Support the immediate creation of an independent blue ribbon commission to investigate why the initial response to the crisis was so miserable. The president should recognize that if there are fundamental flaws in the nation's emergency management systems, they must be corrected now -- before the next disaster hits.

3.) Take steps to ensure that the federal response to the crisis and its aftermath will be fiscally responsible and ethical. At a time when massive new expenditures are being made, the administration should abandon its proposal to rob the treasury by cutting estate taxes for the wealthy. Additionally, while federal funding of relief and rebuilding initiatives should be generous, it should also be audited and appropriate.

Major contracts with private corporations should never be awarded without proper bidding, and strict limits should be set on the profits that firms are allowed to take away from those contracts.

One of Bush's predecessors, Woodrow Wilson, put it well when he said, "Big business is not dangerous because it is big, but because its bigness is an unwholesome inflation created by privileges and exemptions which it ought not to enjoy."

If George Bush is really going to take responsibility for the renewal of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, his most serious responsibility in the months and years to come will be to ensure that the hundreds of billions of federal tax dollars that are assigned to that endeavor do not merely enrich corporations that have contributed to his campaign and employed his vice president.

The president broke faith with the American people when, after Hurricane Katrina hit, he lost sight of his responsibility to provide immediate and sufficient aid to those most in need. If he now seeks to redeem himself, he must take personal responsibility for making sure that the promise of renewal is not squandered on profiteering.

"We Can't Make It Here"

Last spring, in an attempt to make President Bush appear to be more of a regular guy, the White House released a list of the tunes the commander-in-chief was listening to on his iPod. The list featured mostly country, alt-country and blues artists, including John Fogerty, John Hiatt, Alan Jackson, George Jones and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Perhaps the most interesting name on Bush's listening list was that of James McMurtry, the brilliant Austin-based songwriter who used his 2004 live CD to poke fun at the president's attempts to fake a Texaser-than-thou accent.

McMurtry responded to the news that Bush's playlist included his song "Valley Road" by politely suggesting that the president might not be the most serious listener of his songs, which frequently detail the damage done to Americans by rampaging corporatists and an uncaring government.

In case there was any doubt about the differences between George W. Bush's worldview and James McMurtry's, the musician posted a savage critique of the president and his pals, "We Can't Make It Here," on his Web site shortly before last year's election. That song, a haunting reflection on corporate globalization and wars of whim, was the highlight of McMurtry's set last month when he played at Camp Casey, the protest vigil organized outside the president's Crawford, Texas, ranch by Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in Iraq.

McMurtry did not write the song to cheer on Sheehan's demand that the president meet with her. Nor did he write it in response to White House neglect of the suffering along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But "We Can't Make It Here" captured the mood of the moment in Crawford, just as parts of this epic song touch on sentiments that run deep among the evacuees from New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile and all the other battered communities of the southeast.

Ultimately, however, "We Can't Make It Here" is about more than the White House's failures with regard to one mother or one crisis. It is about the dismissal of thousands of neglected communities and millions of neglected Americans who -- without the benefit of media attention -- regularly echo the the blunt closing cry of McMurtry's song for attention to the working poor who have lost their jobs to "free trade" and federal neglect and their children to a war founded on lies.

Written in the voice of a textile worker whose job was lost when a factory was shuttered and the production sent overseas, McMurtry closes his opus by asking:

Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin

Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I'm in

Should I hate 'em for having our jobs today

No I hate the men sent the jobs away

I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams

All lily white and squeaky clean

They've never known want, they'll never know need

Their sh- - don't stink and their kids won't bleed

Their kids won't bleed in the damn little war

And we can't make it here anymore

--

Will work for food

Will die for oil

Will kill for power and to us the spoils

The billionaires get to pay less tax

The working poor get to fall through the cracks

Let 'em eat jellybeans let 'em eat cake

Let 'em eat sh- -, whatever it takes

They can join the Air Force, or join the Corps

If they can't make it here anymore

--

And that's how it is

That's what we got

If the president wants to admit it or not

You can read it in the paper

Read it on the wall

Hear it on the wind

If you're listening at all

Get out of that limo

Look us in the eye

Call us on the cell phone

Tell us all why

George Bush refused to look Cindy Sheehan in the eye. He won't do any better by the workers who share the experience James McMurtry portrays. And, while this particular singer may have a place on the presidential iPod, he won't be singing at the White House anytime soon. But he will be singing to America. McMurtry begins touring this week in support of a great new album, Childish Things, which includes the track "We Can't Make It Here." (Readers can find the schedule at www.jamesmcmurtry.com) Don't make the mistake of missing the man whose songs speak more truth about America in five minutes than George W. Bush has in five years.

"Dignified Process"?

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of John Roberts to serve as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court began with an appropriate message from Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold.

A maverick within his own Democratic party and the Senate as a whole, Feingold called upon the committee, the full Senate and all of official Washington -- a city that frequently is more concerned about images than Constitutional duties -- to get serious about the monumental task that lies ahead.

"Some have called for a 'dignified process,'" Feingold said of the confirmation process. "So have I. But at times it sounds like what some really want for the nominee is an easy process. That is not what the Constitution or the traditions of the Senate call for. If by "dignified" they mean that tough and probing questions are out of bounds, I must strongly disagree. It is not undignified to ask questions that press the nominee for his views on the important areas of the law that the Supreme Court confronts. It is not undignified to review and explore the nominee's writings, his past statements, the briefs he has filed, the memos he has written. It is not undignified to ask the nominee questions he would rather not answer should he prefer to remain inscrutable, or, worse yet, all things to all people."

Feingold continued, "This process is not a game. It is not a political contest. It is one of the most important things that the Senate does – confirm or reject nominees to the highest court in the land. And we as Senators must take that responsibility very seriously."

The unfortunate reality is that Roberts is unlikely to face an appropriate level of scrutiny. That's because, in many senses, the process is a game. Most members of the Judiciary Committee wear their responsibilities lightly. They want to appeal to the interest groups that they need to advance their political ambitions, so they will ask some tough questions. But they do not want to appear so "ideological" or "passionate" that the greater mass of voters in their home states might be offended, so they will not push as aggressively -- or vote as courageously -- as they should.

This political calculus has played out for a number of years. For the most part, nominees for lifetime sinecures on the highest and most definitional court in the land are given a free pass. That was certainly the case the last time that the Senate weighed a Supreme Court nomination.

In 1994, a less-than-appealing nominee of then President Bill Clinton, Stephen Breyer, swept through the confirmation process and was approved by an overwhelming Senate vote of 87-9.

Breyer, whose record as a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge displayed an overwhelming bias in favor of corporate interests over those of consumers and workers, should have had a hard time getting on the court. He didn't. Though consumer activists warned that Breyer's confirmation would move the court in "an anticonsumer, antiworker, antienvironmental" direction, only one senator, Ohio's Howard Metzenbaum, challenged Breyer on his pro-corporate proclivities. In the end, even Metzenbaum (and, it should be noted, Feingold) voted for the nominee. Only a handful of conservative Republicans, who were mainly interested in poking at Clinton, rejected Breyer.

That was not as it should have been.

In its failure to scrutinize and effectively challenge Breyer's biases, the Senate let the country down.

Breyer certainly enjoyed a "dignified" confirmation process. But that dignity came as the expense of the Senate's Constitutional mandate to provide not merely "advice and consent" but to serve as a check and a balance upon the executive and his nominees.

Now, for the first time since Breyer was approved more than a decade ago, the Senate is called upon to accept or reject a new nominee to the high court. Again, the nominee has a record of extreme pro-corporate bias -- a record that has received scant notice as the debate over Roberts, such as it is, has tended to focus on so-called "hot-button" issues, such as reproductive rights.

Feingold set the proper standard when he suggested that Roberts must be subjected to the sort of broad, unapologetic scrutiny that Breyer so unfortunately avoided.

"It goes without saying that the Supreme Court is one of the most important institutions in our constitutional system and that the position of Chief Justice of the United States is one of the most important positions in our government," the Wisconsin senator explained. "The impact of this nominee on our country, should he be confirmed, will be enormous. That means our scrutiny of this nominee must be intense and thorough. In my view, we must evaluate not only his qualifications, but also his ability to keep an open mind, his sensitivity to the concerns of all Americans and their right to equal protection under the laws; not only his intellectual capacity, but his judgment and wisdom; not only his achievements, but his fairness, and his courage to stand up to the other branches of government when they infringe on the rights and liberties of our citizens."

This confirmation process will be a test for Roberts. But it will also test the Senate. Hopefully, the chamber's members -- including Feingold, himself -- will challenge John Roberts as aggressively as they should have Stephen Breyer.

Hurricane Halliburton

Having finished the search for a luxury vacation home on the eastern shore of Maryland – which preoccupied him during the critical initial days of what is being called the worst natural disaster in American history – Vice President Dick Cheney jetted south late last week to inspect the damage.

With the wheels rolling for the purchase of his own $2.9 million home on the east coast, the Cheney was more or less ready to commiserate with the folks who had lost their homes on the Gulf Coast. Unfortunately, not all of the locals were prepared to thank the vice president for finally showing up.

Cheney was greeted in Gulfport, Mississippi, by a survivor of the disaster who – recalling the veep's blunt salutation for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy during a visit to Capitol Hill last year – repeatedly shouted: "Go f--- yourself, Mr Cheney."

After Secret Service agents dragged the local man away, Cheney was asked by a reporter: "Are you getting a lot of that Mr. Vice President?"

Cheney answered: "First time I've heard it."

If Cheney had actually interacted with anyone on the ground, however, he would have heard a lot more. But the vice presidential visit was merely the latest in a series of photo opportunities by administration aides who are scrambling to undo the damage done by their plodding and disengaged responseto a catastrophe that was made much worse by initial federal neglect and incompetence.

Gulf Coast coast residents may be in shock. But they haven't lost their sense of outrage. As Cheney posed for the cameras, Gulfport resident Lynn Lofton approached reporters and told them: "I think the media opportunity right here is a complete waste of time and taxpayer money. They should have been here last week."

In fact, Cheney arrived just in time to, as he put it, "make certain that we're doing everything that needs to be done."

The former CEO of Halliburton needn't have worried. As has been the case since the Bush-Cheney administration took office: When trouble hits, Halliburton hits it big.

The firm that has collectedjbv more than $10 billion in Iraq-war related revenues is just

One of the first corporations to be awarded a reconstruction assignment after the hurricane hit was Halliburton's KBR (Kellogg Brown & Root) subsidiary, which has been tapped to repair damaged naval facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi.

KBR, which according to the able watchdogs at HalliburtonWatch.org has an ongoing $500 million contract with the Navy, will be in thick of the reconstruction process. And don't doubt that there may be more work coming KBR's way.

Joe Allbaugh, the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has a new job. He's lobbying for the Halliburton subsidiary in Washington and elsewhere. Conveniently, Allbaugh showed up in Louisiana on the day before Cheney's visit with the purpose, in the words of a Washington Post report, of "helping his clients get business."

Even if Allbaugh drops the ball, Halliburton is well covered.

The vice president can always be counted on to "make certain that we're doing everything that needs to be done."

*****************************************************************

John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, was published by The New Press. Former White House counsel John Dean, the author of Worse Than Watergate, says, "This page-turner closes the case: Cheney is our de facto president." Arianna Huffington, the author of Fanatics and Fools, calls Dick, "The first full portrait of The Most Powerful Number Two in History, a scary and appalling picture. Cheney is revealed as the poster child for crony capitalism (think Halliburton's no bid, cost-plus Iraq contracts) and crony democracy (think Scalia and duck-hunting)."

Dick: The Man Who Is President is available from independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com*****************************************************************

Barbara Bush: It's Good Enough for the Poor

Finally, we have discovered the roots of George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism."

On the heels of the president's "What, me worry?" response to the death, destruction and dislocation that followed upon Hurricane Katrina comes the news of his mother's Labor Day visit with hurricane evacuees at the Astrodome in Houston.

Commenting on the facilities that have been set up for the evacuees -- cots crammed side-by-side in a huge stadium where the lights never go out and the sound of sobbing children never completely ceases -- former First Lady Barbara Bush concluded that the poor people of New Orleans had lucked out.

"Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them," Mrs. Bush told American Public Media's "Marketplace" program, before returning to her multi-million dollar Houston home.

On the tape of the interview, Mrs. Bush chuckles audibly as she observes just how great things are going for families that are separated from loved ones, people who have been forced to abandon their homes and the only community where they have ever lived, and parents who are explaining to children that their pets, their toys and in some cases their friends may be lost forever. Perhaps the former first lady was amusing herself with the notion that evacuees without bread could eat cake.

At the very least, she was expressing a measure of empathy commensurate with that evidenced by her son during his fly-ins for disaster-zone photo opportunities.

On Friday, when even Republican lawmakers were giving the federal government an "F" for its response to the crisis, President Bush heaped praise on embattled Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown. As thousands of victims of the hurricane continued to plead for food, water, shelter, medical care and a way out of the nightmare to which federal neglect had consigned them, Brown cheerily announced that "people are getting the help they need."

Barbara Bush's son put his arm around the addled FEMA functionary and declared, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job."

Like mother, like son.

Even when a hurricane hits, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

Denny Hastert's Dark Calculus

In 1975, when New York City teetered on the brink of financial default, the refusal of then-President Gerald Ford to back an aid package inspired the famous New York Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead."

There was a measure of hyperbole in that headline, and it was at least a little unfair to Ford.

But in light of House Speaker Dennis Hastert's suggestion that rebuilding hurricane-ravaged New Orleans "doesn't make sense to me," it would not be a stretch to headline a report: "Hastert to City: Drop Dead."

Before the bodies had been pulled from the flood waters that have filled the streets of the Crescent City -- at least in part because of the failure of a Hastert-led Congress to allocate the funding needed to modernize the city's levees -- the Illinois Republican was displaying his brand of compassionate conservatism by saying of New Orleans: "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."

Most significantly, Hastert said that Congress ought to ask "some real tough questions" about whether to allocate federal funding for the job of restoring one of America's most beloved cities. The House Speaker's suggestion that "it makes no sense" for Congress to rebuild a city that is seven feet below sea level might sound like a warped version of conservative "tough love" if the man who is is second in the line of succession to the presidency after Vice President Dick Cheney had been similarly dismissive of plans to rebuild coastal areas of Mississippi and Alabama.

Unlike New Orleans, a 300-year-old city with a rich history but not a particularly rich populace, some of the hardest-hit areas of Mississippi and Alabama were upscale waterfront communities that have been built up in recent years, as real-estate developers have claimed more and more coastal wetlands for their oceanview projects.

But those Republican-leaning areas, which are home to people like former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, were spared Hastert's talk of "tough questions."

Could the calculus really be this dark? Could the Speaker of the House really justify dismissing one community while caring for another for purely parisan purposes? Anyone who has watched this Speaker in action knows the answer to that question.

Hastert is about as crass a political player as you will find in Washington. Along with his political godfather, House Minority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, the Speaker has made the House more partisan, and crude, than at any time in its history.

Hastert and DeLay keep vulture eyes on the political map. To the them, New Orleans is little more than a Democratic town full of African Americans, Latino immigrants, gays and lesbians and a few remaining pockets of southern white liberalism. Republican strategists have long been frustrated by New Orleans, a city so blue that it has often tipped the political balance in an otherwise red state. It was New Orleans that gave Democratic U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu her narrow first win in 1996 and her only slightly more comfortable reelection victory in 2002. Votes from New Orleans helped make Louisiana one of the few southern states to back Democrat Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection, and they kept Democrat Al Gore competitive with George W. Bush in 2000. In 2003, overwhelming support from New Orleans gave Democrat Kathleen Babineaux Blanco a come-from-behind win in the state's 2003 gubernatorial contest.

Notably, both Mississippi and Alabama have Republican governors and senators and have voted solidly Republican in presidential contests for decades. While Bush lost New Orleans by a 3-1 margin in his two presidential runs, he carried the Congressional districts that make up southern Alabama and Mississippi by margins of almost 2-1.

Hastert's honest initial statement of his views regarding New Orleans was an embarrassment to Republican Congressional leaders, but who didn't want to be seen as insensitive when they were busy pulling together votes for a face-saving aid package. So Hastert issued a backtracking press release, while his allies circled the wagons and began peddling the line that, "Hey, Denny's just a gruff old wrestling coach with a tendency to be blunt" -- much as they did in 2004 when Hastert announced shortly before the presidential vote that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network was pulling for the election of Democrat John Kerry.

Don't believe it. Hastert and DeLay see everything in political terms. And in the political calculus of the House Republican Leadership, New Orleans and cities like it have for a long time been written off as expendable. That's why New Orleans didn't get the infrastructure assistance it needed when the city's aging levies could have been strengthened to withstand a storm even as powerful as Hurricane Katrina. And that's why, in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, it made no sense to Denny Hastert to give any hope at all to the people of New Orleans.

Don't doubt for a second that, in his heart of hearts, Hastert believes New Orleans and other big cities are expendable, just as he believes that federal dollars should be poured without limit into the reconstruction of the coast-hugging upscale developments of conservative southern Mississippi and Alabama.

In the months and years to come, as questions arise about whether the federal government is caring equitably for all of Hurricane Katrina's victims, people of good will should never forget Denny Hastert's first reaction. If the Speaker is not held to account at every turn, there is every reason to fear that he will return to it -- and that New Orleans and its citizens will be victimized once more.

The Real Gas Gougers

How convenient for the oil industry that Hurricane Katrina hit just before the traditional Labor Day-weekend hike in gas prices. Now, instead of having to fake up some absolutely absurd excuse for jacking up gas prices, the industry can try and dupe Americans into thinking that they are suddenly paying $3.25 a gallon because of a storm.

The oil industry's response to Katrina has provided a reminder of why it is so exceptionally profitable.

Even before a start had been made on assessing the damage caused by the tropical storm, energy corporations were cashing in. And every indication is that they plan to continue doing so--perhaps taking prices over the $4-a-gallon mark, according to James DiGeorgia, editor and publisher of the Gold & Energy Advisor and author of The Global War for Oil.

No one debates the fact that the hurricane has done significant damage to oil rigs, refineries and delivery systems along the Gulf Coast, a region that accounts for roughly 10 percent of US refining capacity. But roughly 90 percent of US refining capacity remains fully functional and, it should not be forgotten, the US has not stopped importing oil.

Additionally, the Bush Administration jumped to the aid of the oil companies long before the relief effort was in full swing.

The Environmental Protection Agency suspended summertime antipollution measures, lifting the requirement that refiners lower fuel volatility and cut sulphur levels. At the same time, the Administration moved to release oil from the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which was created more than three decades ago with the precise purpose of boosting fuel supplies in order to keep a lid on rising wholesale gasoline prices in a circumstance such as the one that has now developed.

Despite all the aid they are getting, however, the oil companies are not giving anything back. There is no evidence of a willingness on the part of these highly profitable corporations to sacrifice in a time of national emergency.

Make no mistake: These corporations should be able to absorb a hit. Over the past year and a half, the four largest oil companies--ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco, Royal Dutch/Shell Group and BP Group PLC--have pocketed close to $100 billion in profits. During the first quarter of 2005 alone, those firms pulled in a cool $23 billion.

But instead of sharing the pain, they appear to be moving to squeeze every cent they can out of the crisis.

With oil-industry friends in charge of the White House and the Congress, don't expect much of a response from the federal level.

But this is one case where states have an ability to intervene.

Three years ago, in a move to protect against gouging, Hawaiian officials enacted legislation that allows state officials to set price caps on gasoline.

Now, as gas prices are skyrocketing in the aftermath of Katrina, a California legislator wants to give a state agency broad authority to regulate the cost of fuel.

State Senator Joe Dunn, a Democrat, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow the state Public Utilities Commission to require mandatory fuel reserves, set profit margins for oil and gas companies and order the construction of new pipelines. The measure would also bar agreements between energy corporations to reduce competition.

Dunn's amendment would allow the California Public Utilities Commission to cap prices, although the senator told reporters that step would only be taken as a last resort.

Dunn brings a refreshing bluntness to the discourse. Speaking to the Associated Press, he accused the oil industry of creating a dysfunctional market in California, in which competition is essentially eliminated. That, he explained, is why states need to step up their use of regulatory powers.

"Two years ago, when gasoline cost $2 a gallon, the industry said to give it time and prices would settle down. Now, we're seeing $3 a gallon," Dunn said. "People in California are no longer believing the excuses of the industry. If they can't fix their market behavior, we'll fix it for them."

It is certainly true that consumers should take steps to reduce their use of petroleum products--not just because of a storm in the Gulf of Mexico but because of the human, economic and environmental tolls this country's reliance on imported petroleum products has imposed. But petroleum companies should sacrifice as well. And if they are not willing to do so, states should remind them of their patriotic duty.

Censor Pat Robertson?

It appears that the only Americans who are not embarrassed by their associations with Pat Robertson, the former presidential contender and longtime host of the Christian Broadcasting Network program The 700 Club who lately has taken to recommending that the United States get back in the business of assassinating foreign leaders, are President Bush and Republican leaders in the House and Senate. Notably absent from the recriminations regarding Robertson's call for the "taking out" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez were statements of condemnation from Bush, House majority leader Tom DeLay, Senate majority leader Bill Frist and the rest of the GOP leadership team.

Despite the fact that the President and his Congressional allies have failed to speak up in any significant way about Robertson's ranting, most responsible players in the national debate have done so. Denunciations have come from the progressive National Council of Churches and the more conservative National Association of Evangelicals--the leader of which said of Robertson: "He does not speak for all Christians or evangelicals"--as well as newspaper editorial pages and broadcast commentators on the right and left.

One of the toughest condemnations came from the Chicago Tribune's conservative editorial page, which declared that "Robertson's remarks should be taken for what they are: the ranting of a TV preacher who relies on controversy to keep the coffers full."

The widespread criticism of Robertson's advocacy for assassination has been heartening, as it suggests that most Americans have not degenerated into the indefensible relativism that would have the world's most powerful country offing critics like some sort of global organized-crime syndicate. The outcry is a reminder that the anger generated by Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chair Frank Church (D-Idaho) and his detailing of five attempts by US operatives to assassinate foreign leaders during the 1960s and '70s was no fluke--and that Robertson is on the wrong side not just of history but of the American mainstream.

At a time when some pundits have suggested that the United States might want to abandon its three-decades-old ban on assassinating presidents and prime ministers, the broad rejection of Robertson's rant has to be seen as a welcome signal. Even if the President and his compatriots do not quite "get it," they have to recognize that Americans would not take kindly to any official effort to sanction state-sponsored "hits."

Now, however, comes the touchier question: Should Robertson be allowed to continue spewing his goofball theories and wrongheaded strategies on national television?

The so-called "Christian broadcaster" initially attempted to lie his way out of a tough corner--he claimed he hadn't brought up assassination, when in fact he had, saying that "if (Chávez) thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it"--did not inspire confidence in him as an credible or honorable individual.

But Robertson finally offered a half-hearted apology in which he said, "Is it right to call for assassination? No..." So it appears that the man who sought the 1988 Republican presidential nomination has not lost all grounding in reality, even if his touchstone is more likely self-interest than recognition that he was wrong.

Still, decisions about who should or should not be heard cannot be made on the basis of the presumed moral failings of a particular broadcaster.

As such, it was right that executives with the "ABC Family" cable television channel rejected a call from Media Matters for America for the network to stop airing The 700 Club. Instead, the network quietly added a disclaimer that reads, "The preceding CBN telecast does not reflect the views of ABC Family"--a clear acknowledgment that the Media Matters folks were making an important point about Robertson's faults that stopped short of bumping his program off a popular cable channel.

Of course, if a progressive player in a similar position had called for killing off the troublesome conservative leader of some foreign land, cries for removing that individual from the public square that cable television has become would have been deafening. But progressives ought not embrace the politics of censorship that is so popular with the right these days.

Misguided as his initial statement may have been, Robertson's apology made talk of canceling the long-running television program of so prominent a figure extreme.

Wrong as he so frequently is, Robertson has a right to be heard until the marketplace of ideas finally rejects the damaged goods he so frequently peddles. Indeed, the outcry over Robertson's remarks reminds us that even right-wing broadcasters are sometimes held to account.

Bush vs. History

The Iraqis are having a hard time pulling together a constitution quickly enough to meet President Bush's public-relations timeline.

As I am not an Iraqi, I have no interest in meddling in the affairs of that troubled land. Of course, I would prefer that the Iraqis establish a system of self-governance that, like ours in the United States, seeks to erect a wall of separation between church and state, preserve the rights of small states and political minorities, protect against military and police abuses, and guarantee freedom of speech, freedom of the press and all the other basics of a functioning democracy.

If I was really writing a wish list, I might also recommend that the Iraqis do a better job than we do of limiting the power of corporate monopolies, keep special-interest money out of their politics, treating healthcare and education as basic rights and establishing reliable electoral systems.

But as an American, I should not be worrying about perfecting the Iraqi constitution before I go about the work of getting things right here at home.

This seems like basic logic to me.

But that logic escapes our President.

It is true that George W. Bush was not born and raised in my home region of the Upper Midwest, where the legacy of Wisconsin Progressive, Minnesota Farmer-Labor and North Dakota Non-Partisan League activism has imparted a rich faith in the perfectability of the American experiment and a keen awareness of the folly of telling the peoples of other lands how to organize their governments. As such, the President has little familiarity with what I happen to think is the healthiest of American political traditions.

But it would be reassuring if the President at least had a passing acquaintance with American history.

As efforts to reach agreement on an Iraqi constitution have stumbled again and again, Bush has sought to comfort in a bizarre analogy.

"We had a little trouble with our own conventions writing a constitution," the President told reporters in Idaho the other day, continuing a pattern of comparing the US and Iraqi experiences of writing a constitution that began several months ago when Bush explained, "[We] must remember the history of our own country. The American Revolution was followed by years of chaos.... Our first effort at a governing charter, the Articles of Confederation, failed miserably--it took several years before we finally adopted our Constitution and inaugurated our first President.... No nation in history has made the transition from tyranny to a free society without setbacks and false starts. What separates those nations that succeed from those that falter is their progress in establishing free institutions. So to help young democracies succeed, we must help them build free institutions to fill the vacuum created by change."

To hear members of the Bush Administration and their amen corner in the media tell it, suicide bombs must have been going off like clockwork in Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Charleston back in the 1780s. But, of course, that was never the case.

While there were rowdy demonstrations and loud dissents during the years following the end of the British occupation of the Empire's former colonies along the Eastern Seaboard of North America, the period was characterized by relative calm as factions within the new nation debated the extent to which states should cooperate with one another.

Try as Bush and his followers may, they will find no historical record of Ayatollah Alexander Hamilton's militia hunting down followers of radical secularist Thomas Jefferson, nor of rival Christian gangs blowing up one another's houses of worship. Nor will they find a record of renegade Green Mountain Boys gunning down foreign troops who were supposedly present to "help young democracies succeed."

In fact, there were no foreign troops prodding the process along. The French, who played a critical role in helping the American revolutionaries throw off British colonial oppression, exited quickly. The Marquis de Lafayette, as good a friend as the American rebels had, did not return to the new republic until 1824.

To be sure, Lafayette had ideas about how the Continentals ought to organize the American experiment. But he was smart enough to recognize that constitutions are organic documents that cannot be written under timelines imposed by foreign powers, just as he recognized that democracies cannot form or flourish under occupation.

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John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books). Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.

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