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John Nichols

John Nichols

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President of Leisure

Often, when an executive faces lingering questions about his skills, he works extra hard to make sure that every "i" is dotted and every "t" is crossed.

Not so George W. Bush.

Indeed, if the "CEO of the USA" who is currently enjoying a five-week sojourn at his ranch in Texas keeps vacationing at the same rate, he will have spent the better part of two years of his presidency away from work.

Bush achieved a leisure landmark this month. The previous record for presidential slacking-off was 335 days. On August 18, Bush surpassed that number of days off, and he still has more than three years left in his second term.

Britain's Financial Times newspaper has dubbed Bush "the best-rested president in U.S. history."

That's a dubious distinction for a man who is not known for his attention to detail. Critics have not hesitated to suggest that the President's rest-ethic has cost the country dearly--after all, it was in August 2001, during the President's first extended stay in Crawford, that a briefing paper crossed Bush's desk detailing Osama bin Laden's intention to launch terrorist attacks within the United States. Instead of putting the country on high alert, the President put the report aside and continued relaxing--returning to Washington only a few days before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

While Bush may not be very good at managing major endeavors--he ran four corporations into the ground and then took a make-work job as a baseball team executive before finally turning to the family business of politics--the President is no slacker when it comes to rest and relaxation.

Now, if only he'd help the rest of us to get a break.

While Bush has been taking almost one week out of every month off since assuming the presidency, a substantial proportion of Americans are lucky if they get one week a year of paid vacation. And millions of workers get no compensated time off.

The United States, unlike other industrialized countries, fails to set a base standard for paid holidays. European countries have long required corporations to provide workers with three, four or even five weeks of paid vacation time. "Even developing countries often force companies to allow employees some time to recharge their batteries," the Financial Times notes. "El Salvador, Indonesia and Mongolia have all established a minimum of 10 to 15 days paid leave a year."

That's hardly a break at all when compared with Bush's annual average of almost ten weeks of vacation. But its a good deal more than most American workers will ever enjoy under the current system. Indeed, Americans are now working almost 500 more hours a year than their Dutch counterparts and thirty-seven hours--almost a full week--more than the average worker in the famously overworked country of Japan.

That's a radical reversal of the circumstance that existed in the 1950s and early '60s, when the Japanese and the Europeans worked more hours than Americans--and when Americans enjoyed greater prosperity and, if polls are to be believed, a greater sense of satisfaction with their lives.

Is it any wonder that Americans now complain that they have less time to spend with their families, less time for volunteering in their communities and less time for recreation and physical fitness than at any point in history? How appropriate then that, when reflecting on Bush's time-off record, economist Phineas Baxandall, of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, observed that "George Bush is one of the few Americans who has time for family values."

Feingold vs. Bush

Los Angeles -- US Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, will turn up the volume on his challenge to the Bush White House's failed approach to national security when he delivers a high-profile address Tuesday in this West Coast city.

The speech on national security, which will be delivered at LA's prestigious Town Hall forum, comes on the heels of Feingold's announcement that he will press for an Iraq "exit strategy" that would see US troops withdrawn from that country by December 2006. With his willingness to discuss a specific timelime for withdrawal, Feingold says, he is "breaking the taboo" that has stymied honest debate about the US mission in the Middle East and the point at which it can be declared complete.

The maverick senator is also drawing attention to a potential--if still decidely uphill--run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination as a progressive alternative to prowar Democrats such as Hillary Clinton and Evan Bayh.

Predictably, Feingold's decision to endorse a timeline has drawn criticism from those who believe that the only way to "support the troops" and "keep America safe" is to maintain an open-ended occupation of Iraq--no matter how deadly it is for Americans and Iraqis, no matter how unstable it makes Iraq, no matter how much it does to stir resentment toward the United States.

The Bush White House dismissed Feingold's plan with a predictable claim that it "would also send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."

Vice President Dick Cheney chimed in as well, declaring that "Iraq is a critical front in the war on terror, and victory there is critical to the future security of the US and other free nations."

Of course, Cheney was the visionary who announced on the eve of the invasion of Iraq that US troops would be "greeted as liberators." And the Bush White House is the operation that decked the President out in flight-suit drag for a "Mission Accomplished" photo opportunity at precisely the point when the occupation of Iraq was starting to go awry. So their credibility is shot.

But that does not mean that Americans will casually endorse Feingold's timeline.

While polls suggest that the citzenry is exceptionally ill-at-ease with Bush's handling of the war--almost two-thirds of those polled now disagree with his approach--they need to hear more about how critics of the war would:

A) Get US troops out of Iraq, leaving a complete disaster behind, and

B) Offer a sounder approach to the national-security concerns that White House political czar Karl Rove has so ably exploited since September 11, 2001.

That will be Feingold's challenge in Los Angeles.

So far, no Democrat who is seriously pondering a 2008 presidential run has offered a coherent statement of opposition to the Bush Administration's misguided strategies. Senators Clinton of New York, Bayh of Indiana and Joe Biden of Delaware are all strong supporters of the war and of the Bush Administration's general approach, while former North Carolina Senator John Edwards has sought to straddle the issues in much the same way that his running-mate on the 2004 Democratic ticket, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, has.

If Feingold can strike the proper balance between sanity and security--grounding his push for a withdrawal timeline and a more thoughtful foreign policy in a clear commitment to do a better job of funding homeland security and developing the nation's intelligence-gathering and international-policing capacities--he could emerge as a serious contender for the 2008 presidential nomination. At the least, he ought to be able to force the debate that must occur prior to the 2008 election onto the higher ground that Clinton, Kerry and other prominent Democrats have so far been unable or unwilling to occupy.

Feingold Tunes in to Antiwar Sentiment

President Bush and US Senator Russ Feingold have taken dramatically different approaches to the traditional August break from Washington intrigues.

Bush has gone into hiding, while Feingold has gone to talk with Americans.

It should not come as much of a surprise that the man who has gotten in touch with the country's grassroots--Feingold--has recognized the need to set a timeline for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq. Nor should it be shocking that aides to the man who has cut himself off from the national discourse--Bush--have trotted out tired old excuses for rejecting Feingold's proposal to set a December 2006 deadline for extracting US troops from the Middle East quagmire.

As he has in the past, Bush is spending August in seclusion, holed up behind the security fences that surround his ranch in rural Texas. According to official accounts, he is attempting to read a book about salt and to learn how to ride a bike without falling off. Unofficially, but quite obviously, he has spent most of his time dodging requests for face time with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of one of the more than 1,800 Americans killed in the President's ill-fated invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Feingold has gone a completely different route from Bush. He has traveled extensively, and made himself available to anyone who wants to talk with him about the Iraq imbroglio at more than fifteen town-hall meetings in his home state. What Feingold has heard during listening sessions with constituents across the heartland state of Wisconsin has emboldened him to become the first senator to call for setting a date to end the occupation and bring the troops home.

"I call what I am doing breaking the taboo," the Democrat who is being boomed as a potential 2008 presidential candidate said. "[Most] senators have been intimidated and are not talking about a time frame. We have to make it safe to go in the water and discuss this. A person shouldn't be accused of not supporting troops just because we want some clarity on our mission in Iraq."

Of course, the Bush Administration--which has resisted all efforts to provide clarity as regards the Iraq mission--dismissed Feingold's call by claiming that "It would...send the wrong message to our troops. We are serious about completing the mission, and they need to know that they have our full support. And it would send the wrong message to the enemy, who, as the President has said many times, would just then have to wait us out."

In fact, there is nothing further from the truth. As Feingold noted, the former chief of Australia's armed forces, General Peter Cosgrove, has been arguing that the foreign troop presence has fueled terrorist activity in Iraq. Noting that Cosgrove has called for foreign troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2006, Feingold said, "Those remarks were constructive, and we need to be having this discussion here at home. I am putting a vision of when this ends on the table in the hope that we can get the focus back on our top priority, and that is keeping America and the American people safe."

While the White House bumbles deeper into the quagmire, it is Feingold who says he wants to take steps to establish an exit strategy that will "undermine the recruiting efforts and the unity of insurgents, encourage Iraqi ownership of the transition process and bolster the legitimacy of the Iraqi authorities, reassure the American people that our Iraq policy is not directionless and, most importantly, create space for a broader discussion of our real national security priorities."

The differences between the Bush and Feingold approaches are easily explained: Bush refuses to listen even to the concerns of the grieving mothers of America's war dead. Feingold, on the other hand, has listened closely enough to recognize that the American people want a way out of the Iraq mess. And while the Wisconsin senator's way may not be the perfect route--as he readily admits--it provides the impetus for a real debate that honest observers of the crisis have been longing for.

Cindy Sheehan's Tragic Critics

While debating conservative pundit David Horowitz on Ron Reagan's MSNBC show the other night, I was struck by the desperation with which supporters of the war have turned their fury on Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier killed in Iraq who has been trying to get an audience with President Bush.

Horowitz, the former left-wing zealot who is now a right-wing zealot, described the woman who has camped out near Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch as "hateful," accused her of dishonoring the memory of her son and promised that if Sheehan and other anti-war activists succeed in bringing an end to the occupation of Iraq then "rivers of blood" will flow in the streets of America. It was a remarkable performance, so much so that even Horowitz admitted that he was "emotional" about the subject.

Of course, Horowitz is wrong, on every point. But it is difficult to get angry with him, or even to take his ranting seriously. When Reagan asked me if I wanted to "dignify" Horowitz's comments with a response, I declined, except to express a measure of sympathy for Horowitz and other true believers who have become so frenzied in their need to defend the Iraq imbroglio that they feel they must attack a grieving mother who wants to make sure that no more parents will have to bury their sons and daughters as a result of the Bush administration's arrogance.

The rapidly dwindling minority of Americans who continue to search for some rationale for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq has been driven to the brink of breakdown by the success of Sheehan's protest. Go to the website of William F. Buckley's National Review magazine and you will find Sheehan described in headlines as "nutty," dismissed by columnists as "the mouthpiece... of howling-at-the-moon, bile-spewing Bush haters" and accused of "sucking up intellectual air" that, presumably, would be better utilized by Condoleezza Rice explaining once more that it would be wrong to read too much into the August 6, 2001, briefing document that declared: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S." Human Events, the conservative weekly newspaper, dismisses Sheehan as a "professional griever" who "can claim to be in perpetual mourning for her fallen son" -- as if there is some time limit on maternal sorrow over the death of a child.

Fox News Channel spinner-in-chief Bill O'Reilly accuses Sheehan of being "in bed with the radical left," including -- horrors! -- "9-11 families" that are still seeking answers about whether, in the first months of 2001, the Bush administration was more focused on finding excuses to attack Iraq than on protecting Americans from terrorism. And Rush Limbaugh was on the radio the other day ranting about how, "(Sheehan's) story is nothing more than forged documents. There's nothing about it that's real..." (Just to clarify for Limbaugh listeners: Cindy Sheehan's 24-year-old son Casey really did die in Iraq, and his mother really would like to talk with President Bush about all those claims regarding WMDs and al-Qaida ties that the administration used to peddle the "case" for war.)

The pro-war pundits who continue to defend the occupation of Iraq are freaked out by the fact that a grieving mother is calling into question their claim that the only way to "support the troops" is by keeping them in the frontlines of George W. Bush's failed experiment. Bush backers are horrified that Sheehan's sincere and patriotic anti-war voice has captured the nation's attention.

What the pro-war crowd does not understand is that Cindy Sheehan is not inspiring opposition to the occupation. She is merely putting a face on the mainstream sentiments of a country that has stopped believing the president's promises with regard to Iraq. According to the latest Newsweek poll, 61 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handing of the war, while just 26 percent support the president's argument that large numbers of U.S. military personnel should remain in Iraq for as long as it takes to achieve the administration's goals there.

The supporters of this war have run out of convincing lies and effective emotional appeals. Now, they are reduced to attacking the grieving mothers of dead soldiers. Samuel Johnson suggested that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But, with their attacks on Cindy Sheehan, the apologists for George Bush's infamy have found a new and darker refuge.

Here's the PLAN

One need not be a student of Tom DeLay's dirty dealings to recognize that the corruption of Washington is very nearly complete. Occupied by a president and vice president who are oilmen first and statesmen last, a Congress where Republicans and Democrats delay their votes until they have checked their campaign fund-raising receipts and a judiciary that is rapidly being packed with "bought" corporate lawyers such as Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, the nation's capital often seems completely beyond redemption.

It is not quite so true in the nation's 50 state capitals, however. Despite the ugliest efforts of corporate America -- via a lobbying frontgroup, the American Legislative Exchange Council -- to warp the process from Augusta (Maine) to Sacremento (California) as thoroughly as it has in Washington, there are still openings for progressive policymaking at the state level. Those openings are the target of the new Progressive Legislative Action Network (PLAN), a coalition developed to provide reform-minded legislators with strategic and research support as they seek to address the pressing economic and social issues that are left untended in a time of corporate hegemony.

"The goal is to bring as diverse a coalition together as possible so that our side has a cohesive agenda in the states," says David Sirota, the veteran progressive activist who has helped organize the network. "For too long, conservatives have been able to use huge sums of money to push the most radical right-wing policies through state legislatures. PLAN is committed to putting together the necessary resources and necessary coalitions to help progressive legislators stop this unchecked extremism, and start passing legislation that makes state governments work for ordinary citizens, not just monied special interests."

PLAN was set to formally launch Tuesday in Seattle, where the National Conference of State Legislatures gathers this week for its 2005 "Strong States, Strong Nation" annual meeting. The launch features appearances by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president who has reemerged as an aggressive advocate for political and economic initiatives aimed addressing the gap between rich and poor in the United States, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who for many years was the most powerful player in the California state Assembly, and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, whose 2004 election proved that progressive Democratic reformers can win in so-called "red states." The launch is being co-sponsored by MoveOn.org, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Steelworkers union, and progressive philanthropists Andy and Deborah Rappaport -- support that provides an encouraging indication of the openness of powerful players on the left to the state-based work that will provide the models for renewal of the progressive movement nationally.

"Starting in the states" is not a new idea. In fact, most significant reform movements in American history have begun at the municipal or state level and built upward. At the dawn of the past century, the state-based progressive movements of the upper Midwest created what Justice Louis D. Brandeis referred to as "laboratories of democracy," where problems were addressed by creative legislators and governors in ways that federal officials eventually chose to mirror -- at first in the form of individual initiatives on issues such as child labor but ultimately with Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.

Sirota, who has worked as an aide to U.S. Representatives Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and David Obey, D-Wisconsin, and his PLAN co-chair, former Montana State Senate Minority Leader Steve Doherty, know that while there are important precedents for state-based work, there are also mighty challenges. ALEC, the corporate-funded legislative network, has been polluting the process for decades, building alliances with both Republican and Democratic legislators; and corporate interests have begun to pour money not only into legislative contests but into races for state judgeships and attorney general and public service commission posts. Additionally, an increasingly corporatized and homogenized media no longer provides the distinct coverage of state politics that was the norm 100, or even 20, years ago.

Previous attempts to develop progressive alternatives to ALEC, in particular, and corporate influence, in general, at the state level have met with mixed success. And there are no guarantees that PLAN will be any more successful. But there are reasons to be encouraged. Sirota and Doherty are smart players with strong track records of progressive activism in challenging settings. They have headquartered their group in Helena, Montana, rather than Washington. And they have chosen an unapologetic approach best evidenced by Sirota's remarks at this month's Steelworkers union convention, where he told delegates, "Washington, DC, today is so overrun by Big Money and so controlled by an entrenched party establishment that there is almost no hope to change things there in the short run. And more important, truly successful movements in American history have always started at the grassroots level, not in the insulated halls of elite power. Why? Because Corporate America has a harder time controlling fifty states than it does controlling one city. It is easier to buy off one set of politicians than it is to buy off fifty separate political arenas. Additionally, state lawmakers are inherently closer to the concerns of their constituents than any Washington politician ever could be."

Sirota's got his history right. And he's got his politics right. Recognizing that "there are literally hundreds of state lawmakers all over America right now ready to fight on behalf of ordinary, hard-working Americans, ready to start helping citizens raise their wages, improve their access to healthcare, protect their pensions and, in general, secure their economic future," he says that with this base of progressive legislators, "Now it is time to fight back."

While the time is right, and the need to begin chalking up victories at the state level is more pressing than at any point since the last progressive movement took form, PLAN's organizers understand that they are in entering a serious fight. Until there is fundamental campaign finance and ethics law reform, corporate interests will always be able to buy legislative influence with campaign contributions and huge lobbying expenditures. Progressive interests must rely on the willingness of honest legislators in both parties to entertain their ideas, and on popular pressure from grassroots groups.

While the task is daunting, the initiative is worth undertaking.As Louis Brandeis noted decades ago, "one of the happy incidents of the federal system (is) that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments." Ultimately, the justice explained, states can lead the nation in a process that will "remould, through experimentation, our economic practices and institutions to meet changing social and economic needs."

So what's PLAN's plan? Hopefully, to prove that the wisdom of Brandeis with regard to state-based activism has carried through to the 21st century.

The President's Vacation From Reality

George Bush is on vacation in Crawford, Texas, taking the same August-long break that he did in the summer before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The appeal of Crawford appears to be that it provides the President with an opportunity to put aside all the troubles of the world and to focus on fixing fences and clearing brush. After all, it was during his previous vacation that Bush ignored an August 6, 2001, briefing document titled: "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S."

Bush's inner circle, a collection of neoconservative ideologues with an agenda of their own rather than an interest in what is best for the United States, made no effort in 2001 to steer the President's attention toward pressing matters of national security. And they remain determined to keep the woefully disengaged chief executive focused on busy work around the ranch rather than life-and-death questions of how this country should position itself in a complex and dangerous world.

But this summer, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq named Cindy Sheehan is making it harder for Bush to ignore the truth that his decisions have led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 1,800 Americans, and tens of thousands of Iraqis, while making both the United States and Iraq more vulnerable to violence.

Sheehan's 24-year-old son, Army Specialist Casey A. Sheehan, died on April 4, 2004--almost a year after Bush was dressed up in flight-suit drag to appear before a banner that declared "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq. Sheehan mourned, as any mother would. But then she organized, helping to found Gold Star Families for Peace, an organization of relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq who are demanding an end to the ill-fated occupation of that land and a redirection of US policy to achieve real security--as opposed to neoconservative misadventuring.

On August 3 of this year, Bush addressed the mounting death toll in Iraq with a pair of declarations:

1. "We have to honor the sacrifices of the fallen by completing the mission."

and

2. "The families of the fallen can be assured that they died for a noble cause."

Sheehan correctly identified Bush's words as "asinine and hurtful." And she headed for Crawford to try and confront the President on the August 6 anniversary of that neglected memorandum on bin Laden's intentions.

Sheehan went to Crawford with a pair of messages for the vacationing president:

1. We want our loved ones sacrifices to be honored by bringing our nation's sons and daughters home from the travesty that is Iraq immediately, since this war is based on horrendous lies and deceptions. Just because our children are dead, why would we want any more families to suffer the same pain and devastation that we are?

and

2. We would like for him to explain this "noble cause" to us and ask him why (presidential daughters) Jenna and Barbara are not in harm's way, if the cause is so noble.

Sheehan's bottom line, and that of Gold Star Families for Peace, is a blunt truth that the President has failed to consider: that the best way to honor the sacrifices of those who have died in Iraq is to end the occupation and bring the troops home now.

So far, the President has refused to listen to Cindy Sheehan, who says, "The sound I do want to hear is the sound of a nation waking up." But that wake-up call is being heard by the majority of Americans. In the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, 54 percent of Americans surveyed said the US made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq. That number is up eight points from July. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said the Bush Administration deliberately misled the public about the reasons for going to war. Fifty-eight percent said that, no matter how long US troops remain in Iraq, they will not be able to establish a stable, democratic government there.

George Bush has been listening for too long to Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condi Rice. He should take a real vacation from the neocon fantasy factory of his misguided aides and sit down with someone who can introduce him to the reality of what is going on in Iraq and the world. The President should meet with Cindy Sheehan. And he should listen to this woman, who has sacrificed more than he or anyone in his inner circle ever has for America.

Hillary Clinton Lucks Out

New York Senator Hillary Clinton has always looked like a good bet to win re-election in 2006--probably by a margin wide enough to jumpstart the 2008 presidential campaign that many Democrats want the former First Lady to make.

With the decision of Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro to seek the Republican nomination to challenge her, however, Clinton's fortunes have taken a dramatic turn for the better.

Pirro, a hyper-ambitious publicity hound who frequently turns up on the Fox News Channel as a "legal affairs" commentator, had been weighing races for governor, attorney general or Clinton's Senate seat. With the fortunes of the state Republican Party in decline (even the conservative New York Post says that "New York's GOP is withering--fast"), Pirro was unlikely to win any of those posts. So she opted for the showcase contest: a challenge to the woman Republicans around the country love to hate. Pirro's announcement garnered homestate headlines, enthusiastic coverage on Fox and conservative talk radio and promises of hefty campaign contribution checks from Hillary-haters nationwide.

But, as the Post admitted, the Pirro campaign is "not one (Clinton's) likely to lose sleep over."

Here's why:

Pirro supports abortion rights and reproductive freedom. She's for civil unions and other gay rights measures. She favors affirmative action and opposes the strict immigration quotas favored by Congressional conservatives. She's a big backer of gun control. And she's been enthusiastic about precisely the sort of "big-government" solutions to child-welfare and community issues that Republicans condemn Clinton for promoting.

In other words, Pirro is more of a Rockefeller Republican than a Reaganite. Yet, in an era of sharper-than-ever partisan divisions, Pirro will attract few if any votes from moderate-to-liberal New Yorkers who have sent clear signals that they do not want to give aid and comfort to President Bush and Congressional Republicans. Don't forget that Bush lost New York state by more than 1,350,000 votes in 2004. In the same year, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote and the GOP suffered a rare loss of a House seat in the Buffalo area while several of its House incumbents, such as upstater Tom Reynolds, saw their victory margins slashed.

It is comic to suggest that Clinton will lose many moderate-to-liberal votes to Pirro just because, in the words of the the King of the Hillary Haters, Dick Morris, "Hillary will have to end up running against someone who is quite like herself in her public positions." New Yorkers are savvy enough to know that, if Pirro wins, she will vote to put right-wing Republican opponents of choice, gay rights and gun control in charge of the Senate, and that will disqualify Pirro with precisely the sort of voters she would need to mount a serious challenge to Clinton.

Morris suggests that Pirro might be able to draw support as a "tough-on-terror" candidate, playing the national security card against Clinton as have other Republicans in other states. But that is an even more comic claim. There is nothing progressive, nor even liberal about Hillary Clinton's stance on national security issues--she wants to "stay the course" in Iraq, she's backed even the most over-the-top spending allocations for the war, she's been a supporter of the Patriot Act and other assaults on civil liberties and she's frequently more in line with the Bush Administration's approach on national security issues than a number of Senate Republicans.

When all is said and done, Clinton could end up benefitting from the "name" Republican challenge posed by Pirro, as it will reinforce the Democrat's position with base voters who might otherwise have problems with her centrist stances.

Indeed, if there is a candidate who is going to have a problem with her base, it's Pirro.

Several more conservative candidates are in the Republican race, including Ed Cox, a prominent New York lawyer who is the son-in-law of former President Richard Nixon, former Yonkers Mayor John Spencer and attorney Bill Brenner. Pirro may beat the three of them for the GOP nod. But one member of that trio is likely to be the nominee of the Conservative Party, a New York state institution that refused to back Schumer's moderate Republican challenger in 2004 and gained 220,960 votes for a little-known candidate running on its party line in the race. (In the presidential vote, the Conservatives backed Bush, who obtained 155,574 votes, more than 5 percent of his state total, on its line.)

If Pirro loses hundreds of thousands of votes to a Conservative Party nominee, she could well run a weaker race than Clinton's 2000 foe, former US Representative Rick Lazio, who had the Republican and Conservative endorsements. (Lazio got 43 percent of the vote that year, while polls currently put Pirro at around 29 percent.)

That may not be the worst of it for Pirro. While there is no question that Hillary Clinton suffers among some voters because of her association with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, Pirro has a husband problem of her own. As the Post's able politcal scribe, Fredric U. Dicker, gently notes, "Pirro's strength as a candidate is handicapped by her husband Albert's conviction in 2000 on federal income-tax fraud charges, an earlier revelation that he fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter, as well as the recent allegation by a Mafia informant that Al Pirro leaked confidential material from an ongoing Westchester DA's probe."

Plenty of ink will be spilled over the next fifteen months on the Clinton-Pirro race, and talk-TV and radio will love the fight. But if there was any cheering heard after Pirro announced on Monday, it was coming from Clinton's headquarters.

Robin Cook's Conscience

Words such as "conscience" and "honor" have pretty much disappeared from the American political lexicon in this age of Bush Administration lies and leaks. But when the histories of this time are written, it will be remembered that those precious characteristics were not wholly absent.

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair was maneuvering Britain into Bush's Iraq War coalition, one of the most prominent leaders of his Labour Party--a former foreign minister who then served as the party's leader in the House of Commons--resigned from the government and took a place on the back benches to deliver a blistering condemnation of the irrational arguments that Bush and Blair were making for an unwise and unnecessary war.

Robin Cook, who made international headlines with that act of conscience, died Saturday at age 59. To his last days, he remained an ardent foe of the war. Britain's Observer newspaper called him "the most incisively potent of the war's opponents."

Cook's resignation speech remains one of the most noted parliamentary addresses of the contemporary age. And rightly so, as Cook's words have proven to have been remarkably prescient.

Here is a portion of what he said on March 17, 2003, shortly after he left Blair's government to cast a historic vote against the invasion and occupation of Iraq:

I have chosen to address the House first on why I cannot support a war without international agreement or domestic support.

The present Prime Minister is the most successful leader of the Labour Party in my lifetime. I applaud the heroic efforts that the Prime Minister has made in trying to secure a second resolution [at the United Nations]. I do not think that anybody could have done better than the Foreign Secretary in working to get support for a second resolution within the Security Council.

But the very intensity of those attempts underlines how important it was to succeed. Now that those attempts have failed, we cannot pretend that getting a second resolution was of no importance.

The reality is that Britain is being asked to embark on a war without agreement in any of the international bodies of which we are a leading partner--not NATO, not the European Union and, now, not the Security Council.

Only a year ago, we and the United States were part of a coalition against terrorism that was wider and more diverse than I would ever have imagined possible. History will be astonished at the diplomatic miscalculations that led so quickly to the disintegration of that powerful coalition.

Our interests are best protected not by unilateral action but by multilateral agreement and a world order governed by rules. Yet tonight the international partnerships most important to us are weakened: The European Union is divided; the Security Council is in stalemate. Those are heavy casualties of a war in which a shot has yet to be fired.

I have heard some parallels between military action in these circumstances and the military action that we took in Kosovo. There was no doubt about the multilateral support that we had for the action that we took in Kosovo. It was supported by NATO; it was supported by the European Union; it was supported by every single one of the seven neighbors in the region. France and Germany were our active allies. It is precisely because we have none of that support in this case that it was all the more important to get agreement in the Security Council as the last hope of demonstrating international agreement.

Our difficulty in getting support this time is that neither the international community nor the British public is persuaded that there is an urgent and compelling reason for this military action in Iraq.

None of us can predict the death toll of civilians from the forthcoming bombardment of Iraq, but the US warning of a bombing campaign that will "shock and awe" makes it likely that casualties will be numbered at least in the thousands.

For four years as Foreign Secretary I was partly responsible for the Western strategy of containment. Over the past decade that strategy destroyed more weapons than in the Gulf War, dismantled Iraq's nuclear weapons program and halted Saddam's medium- and long-range missiles programs.

Iraq's military strength is now less than half its size than at the time of the last Gulf War. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam's forces are so weak, so demoralized and so badly equipped that the war will be over in a few days. We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat.

Iraq probably has no weapons of mass destruction in the commonly understood sense of the term--namely a credible device capable of being delivered against a strategic city target. Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for twenty years, and which we helped to create?

It has been a favorite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics.

Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this House to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support.

I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government.

"Energy's on the Anti-Iraq Side"

It is not often that this column pays tribute to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But the man who in 1994 played a pivotal role in putting the Republican Party in control of both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years -- and in developing the strategies that have kept the GOP in control -- has a sharp political mind. And he used it this week to analyze the unexpectedly strong showing of Democrat Paul Hackett in a special election to fill the southern Ohio U.S. House seat vacated by U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

Hackett won 48.3 percent of the vote in a district where no Democrat had ever gotten more than 28 percent against Portman. In the most Republican House district in the state of Ohio, the Democrat, a Marine veteran of the Iraq war, lost by barely 3,000 votes. And he did that after a campaign in which he said the U.S. should not have invaded the Iraq in the first place and condemned the administration's approach to the occupation. Unlike more cautious Democrats, Hackett was unapologetic about calling President Bush an "SOB" whose actions endangered Americans, and about referring to members of the administration as "chickenhawks."

Of course,most Republicans and their media allies were quick to dismiss the significance of Hackett's showing -- despite the fact that it was the best finish for a Democrat in the district since the Watergate election of 1974. The rules of spin these days are such that reality is rarely allowed to intrude on discussions of politics.

But Gingrich decided to ditch the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee's talking points and recognize the significance of Hackett's near win. Speaking to the Washington Post on the day after the Ohio vote, the former Speaker of the House said, "It should serve as a wake-up call to Republicans. Clearly, there's a pretty strong signal for Republicans thinking about 2006 that they need to do some very serious planning and not just assume that everything is going to be automatically okay."

With a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll showing that President Bush's overall approval rating has fallen to 42 percent, with 55 percent disapproving -- and 50 percent of Americans surveyed saying the nation's top Republican is not honest -- the evidence that the GOP has a potential problem extends well beyond the results from one special election in Ohio.

But the Ohio vote telescoped the significance of concern about the Iraq imbroglio as a factor in the governing party's declining fortunes -- a point confirmed by the new poll's finding that only 38 percent of Americans now approve of Bush's handling of the occupation.

Gingrich acknowledges this reality, saying that, ''There is more energy today on the anti-Iraq, anti-gas price, anti-changing Social Security, and I think anti-Washington (side of the debate). I think the combination of those four are all redounding to weaken Republicans and help Democrats... I don't think this is time to panic, but I think it's time to think. If we don't think now, then next September, people will panic when it's too late."

Gingrich's warning is a wise one for Republicans, and you can bet that it will be taken seriously by at least some leaders of a party that has mastered the art of maintaining power. As such, the real question is this: Will Democrats be smart enough to recognize that Gingrich is right when he speaks about the energy being on the anti-Iraq side?

So far, indications are not encouraging. An analysis of the strong showing by Hackett distributed to Democratic House after the election by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee failed to make any mention of the significance of Iraq as an issue.

Cheney's Deadly 'Last Throes'

Vice President Dick Cheney, who predicted on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, that Americans would be "greeted as liberators," has in recent weeks been peddling a new line of spin.

If Cheney was not in charge of U.S. foreign policy, he could be dismissed as a ranting lunatic. But, because of his title, and because the former Secretary of Defense is the dominant player in the Bush administration when it comes to military policy, Cheney has to be taken seriously -- as seriously, that is, as his bizarro worldview permits.

Unfortunately, the primary reason to take Cheney seriously is the fact that Americans and Iraqis are dying because of the policies he has promoted. And, of course, because those same policies are emptying the U.S. Treasury into the quagmire that is Iraq.

So it is appropriate to try and hold Cheney accountable.

And it is not difficult to do so.

Here is what Cheney said during a June 20, 2005, interview on CNN's Larry King Live:

Hailing what he described as "major progress" in Iraq, Cheney said, "I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

Here is what the Associated Press reported from Iraq on August 3, 2005, less than two months after Cheney asserted that the insurgency was fading away:

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Fourteen U.S. Marines and a civilianinterpreter were killed Wednesday in western Iraq, theU.S. command said.

The Marines, assigned to Regimental Combat Team 2, 2ndMarine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force(Forward), were killed in action early Wednesday whentheir vehicle was hit by an improvised explosivedevice, the military said. One Marine was also woundedin the attack.

The Associated Press report goes on to note that:

The latest losses come on the heels of the deaths ofseven U.S. Marines in combat two days ago in thevolatile Euphrates Valley of western Iraq. TheAmerican deaths come as the Bush administration istalking about handing more security responsibility tothe Iraqis and drawing down forces next year.

At least 39 American service members have been killedin Iraq since July 24 - all but two in combat. Inaddition, the Iraqi Defense Ministry said that sincethe beginning of April, more than 2,700 Iraqis - abouthalf of them civilians - had been killed ininsurgency-related incidents.

It looks as if the last throes that Cheney was discussing with Larry King have turned out to be death throes for the young American men and women who are serving in Iraq, as well as for the Iraqi people.

Any attempt to address Cheney's rhetorical excesses brings to mind the words of a young veteran from another misguided and unnecessary war.

"How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" young John Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971. "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

Cheney has come up with a contemporary answer for that question.How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Iraq? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

For Cheney, that's simple: Just keep telling the young men and women who are marching to their deaths that they will be greeted as liberators and that the enemy is so weak that it is in its "last throes."

In other words, just keep spinning a slurry of fantasy and lies into U.S. policy.

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

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