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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Making Iraq the Issue

The US media barely covers the world anymore – except stories that involve those countries that the administration is actively considering attacking and, of course, those lands that have already been invaded and occupied. As a result, many Americans have no idea that a critical election is taking place in Britain, where George W. Bush's closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, is taking a battering on the issue that should have been central to last year's US presidential election: the lies that led to the war in Iraq.

Blair's Labour party is unlikely to be voted out of office in Thursday's voting, in part because the main opposition party – the Conservatives – also supported the war, and in part because a third of the Labour Party's members of parliament opposed Blair's efforts to sign Britain on for Bush's war.

But while his party remains viable, the prime minister's personal approval ratings have tanked. A number of recent polls show that a majority of British voters believe Blair lied to the British people--and his own Cabinet--in order to get Britain on board for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. And when Britain's MORI polling agency asked voters whether they approve of how Blair is handling the current situation with Iraq, 63 percent of those surveyed indicated that they disapproved while only 28 percent supported the approach of the man who is derisively referred to as "Bush's poodle."

And as election day draws near, the headlines in the British press, which, unlike the US media, does not take its cues from the spin machines of the various campaigns, has kept the focus firmly on Iraq.

The headline in Tuesday morning's Independent newspaper dismissed Blair's attempts to dismiss the war as a primary issue: "48 hours to go: Iraq, the issue that won't go away"

Other headlines read:

"Widow of soldier says Prime Minister to blame for his death"

"Mother plans court action over Blair's 'war crimes'"

"Iraq war 'will haunt Blair's legacy like Suez'"

"Revealed: documents show Blair's secret plans for war"

British political campaigns are blunt and to the point. They also include a multitude of parties -- including the Liberal Democrats, the nation's third party, and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, all of which are anti-war. Even the Conservatives have sought to exploit the popular feeling that Blair deceived the country on the eve of the Iraq invasion. An anti-Blair poster seen throughout Great Britain last week featured an image of Blair and the declaration: "If he's prepared to lie to take us to war, he's prepared to lie to win an election." Another deliberately misspells the prime minister's name as "Bliar."

But the critical factor in the focus on Iraq is the fundamental difference between British and U.S. media. In Britain, major media does not report from an "on bended knee" position, as most U.S. media does. British newspapers and the BBC are dramatically more willing to challenge the statements and actions of political leaders than U.S. press and broadcast outlets.

The debate about Blair's integrity heated up last week, as leading British newspapers revealed that Britain's Attorney General expressed serious doubts about the legality of going to war against Iraq, but Blair did not share that information with his Cabinet, Parliament or the British people.

The Independent newspaper editorialized that, "The revelations of the Attorney General's initial reservations on the legality of going to war in Iraq have rightly pushed Iraq into the centre of this election and appear to have dealt a fresh blow to Tony Blair's version of events." A Guardian newspaper article by Robin Cook, who was so opposed to the rush to war that he resigned from Blair's Cabinet, was headlined, "We all now know the war would not stand up in court."

Imagine how different the final stages of the 2004 presidential election campaign in the U.S. might have been if the media had actually made an issue of Bush's integrity, particularly with regard to the lies that led this country into a war that has now taken the lives of more than 1,500 of our sons and daughters.

But, of course, that is merely a fantasy. Just before the U.S. election CBS News and the New York Times both spiked major stories on President Bush's integrity. The censored CBS report was an investigation into how the Bush administration manipulated intelligence and played upon fears in order to make the case for war with Iraq. Why was it killed? A CBS statement announced, "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election."

Apparently, that's the difference between the British media and the U.S. media. In Britain, newspapers and broadcast networks are still in the business of giving citizens the information they need to make informed decisions. In the U.S., they are merely stenographers to power.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the 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

Fight for the Filibuster

Never underestimate the determination of Washington Democrats to try and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Just as it was reported Tuesday that Americans strongly support the Democratic campaign to preserve the judicial filibuster -- and with it their ability of responsible senators to prevent the most rabid extremists from joining the federal bench -- so it was also reported that Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, was seeking a compromise on what ought to be a matter of principle. The compromise that Reid was advancing would have seen Republicans back off their push for a "nuclear option" to shut down filibusters in return for Democratic acquiescence to the GOP's demand that some of the White House's most objectionable judicial nominations be allowed to advance.

The good news is that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, rejected the compromise. Frist, who is desperate to get in bed with the religious right in order to promote his 2008 presidential campaign, recognized that his political ambitions would be thwarted if he was seen to be compromising with the demonized Democrats. He also heard the message loud and clear from the White House, where political (and now domestic policy) czar Karl Rove indicated in an interview with USA Today that there is no taste for deal making on judicial nominees.

Forced out his compromising position by the Republican right, Reid can now scramble back to the high ground, where the vast majority of Americans stand. Amazingly, considering the minority leader's missteps of the past few days, Reid and his fellow Democrats might yet win the fight to preserve the system of checks and balances that the founders of the republic established. But no one should forget that, at precisely the wrong moment, Reid wanted to surrender rather than fight. Nor should anyone miss the point here: Reid is not a bad man. He simply suffers from a bad condition: insideritis.

Reid has spent so much time inside the Capitol, and so little time in America, that he does not trust his own rhetoric. Even though he is absolutely right when he says that Frist and the religious right are attempting to force legally-inept judicial activists into positions where they do not belong, Reid succumbed to fears that the American people might not be with him on the question of whether the rule of law ought to prevail in America.

Reid's failure of faith was misguided. As it turns out, the American people overwhelmingly oppose changing the rules of the Senate to make it easier for the Republican majority in that chamber to confirm Bush's court nominees. According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, Americans disapprove of Frist's "nuclear option" by a 66-26 margin. While eight in 10 Democrats opposed the move to undermine one of the essential elements of the Senate's traditional "advice and consent" role, as did seven in 10 independents, the most interesting numbers were those from members of Frist's own party. Almost half of the Republicans who were surveyed said they opposed the majority leader's scheming to make it harder for Democratic senators to prevent final action on the president's most inept and ideologically-extreme judicial nominees.

Those numbers add up to a clear conclusion: Instead of seeking a compromise, Reid and the other Democrats should be going for a win. And the way to do so is by reaching out to the rational Republicans in the Senate. Two Republicans, John McCain of Arizona and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, have indicated that they will side with the Democrats on any vote to eliminate the judicial filibuster. Another Republican, moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine, has said she has "deep concerns about this approach.," and Maine's other Republican senator, Susan Collins , is expected by many to join Snowe in voting with the Democrats.

That means that, to block the "nuclear option," Reid needs just two more Republicans. (Opponents must secure 51 votes in favor of maintaining the right to filibuster, as a 50-50 tie would be broken by Vice President Dick Cheney, who favors going nuclear.) Are there two more Republicans who might be convinced? Conservatives think so. Their blogs are buzzing with concern that John Warner of Virginian, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, among others, might vote reject Frist's "tyranny of the majority" strategy.

Far from being a time for compromise, this is a time for fighting -- not just to score partisan points, nor even to represent the clear will of the American people, but to preserve the system of legislative checks and balances that is so essential to the American experiment.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the 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

The Vatican's Enforcer

The Sacred College of Cardinals is supposed to be one of the world's great deliberative bodies.

Yet, despite the many challenges faced by the Catholic church, the deliberations regarding the selection of a successor to the late Pope John Paul II put more of an emphasis on speed and continuity than creative consultation or soul searching.

Barely 24 hours into the first conclave of its kind in more than a quarter century -- and after only a handful of votes -- the cardinals settled on the frontrunner for the job: German Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger.

Past popes have often confounded expectations, so it difficult to say with certainty that Cardinal Ratzinger represents a poor choice to lead the world's largest Christian church.

But all indications suggest that the cardinals have opted for the most cautious and conservative candidate.

Cardinal Ratzinger, who will now be identified as Pope Benedict XVI, has for a quarter century been the church's heavy.

As the prefect since 1981 of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy that was formerly known as the Holy Inquisition, he has been more responsible than anyone except John Paul II for the church's rejecting of reform and its persecution of progressive thinkers. The group Catholics for Free Choice notes that, "The cardinal's historic role as a disciplinarian means the tradition of the punitive father is maintained within the Roman Catholic church."

As The National Catholic Reporter reported several years ago, many serious observers of contemporary Catholicism believe that, "Ratzinger will be remembered as the architect of John Paul's internal Kulturkampf, intimidating and punishing thinkers in order to restore a model of church -- clerical, dogmatic and rule-bound -- many hoped had been swept away by the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 assembly of bishops that sought to renew Catholicism and open it to the world. Ratzinger's campaign bears comparison to the anti-modernist drive in the early part of the century or Pius XII's crackdown in the 1950s, critics say, but is even more disheartening because it followed a moment of such optimism and new life."

It was Ratzinger who laid the groundwork in the early 1980s for the crackdown of the Liberation Theology movement, which sought to identify the church more closely with the struggles of the poor. And it was Ratzinger who, in 1985, silenced Franciscan Father Leonardo Boff, arguably the most prominent proponent of efforts to put the church on the side of the Latin American workers and farmers who were seeking a fairer distribution of the region's resources, a fuller democracy and a brighter future for their children.

Ratzinger's modern-day inquisition against Boff and his followers moved a church that had seemed to be entering a new era back toward its most reactionary roots. And it did not end when Boff disappeared into a Franciscan monastery in Brazil.

Over the years that followed, Ratzinger led drives to punish moral theologians who embraced religious pluralism and encouraged dialogue within the church. Liberal Catholics in the U.S. well remember Ratzinger's moves to undermine American bishops who sought to find a place in the church for gays and lesbians such as Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, who was also a leading critic of the Reagan administration's support for military juntas and death squads in Latin America.

As the National Catholic Reporter's John Allen Jr. noted in 1999, in an article on Ratzinger headlined, "The Vatican's Enforcer": At the most basic level, many Catholics cannot escape the sense that Ratzinger's exercise of ecclesial power is not what Jesus had in mind."

It was his awareness of Ratzinger's record that led Father Andrew Greeley, one of the American church's most prominent thinkers, to observe before the Cardinals began Monday voting that, "I'd be dismayed if Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's official heresy hunter for a long time, is the next pope."

Now, it seems that the best hope is that papal tendency to defy expectation -- that the Vatican's enforcer will pull a "Nixon goes to China" and become the church's modernizer.

Father Greeley says, "Maybe a Papa Ratzinger can change, too." For the sake of the church, and the world that is so frequently influenced by it, let us pray that Greeley's words prove to be more than wishful thinking.

The Papal Chase

When hundreds of thousands of global justice campaigners flocked to Genoa in the summer of 2001 to protest at the G-8 summit of major industrialized nations, the found an unlikely ally in the powerful and respected cardinal of Milan.

While many influential figures in the Italian political and business spheres sought to dismiss the labor, farm, environmental and human rights activists who confronted authorities in Genoa with mass demonstrations that mirrored the protests two years earlier at the World Trade Organization ministerial in Seattle, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi wrote in a widely-circulated Catholic newspaper that, "There is a clear conflict between capital and labor, and the ones who are suffering aren't the industrialists but the men and women who are working."

As the 115 elector cardinals of the church gather this week to choose a successor to Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Tettamanzi has emerged as a leading contender. He is not the frontrunner – most observers assign that designation to German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a far more conservative player on issues of church doctrine and economics – but Tettamanzi is very much in the running. (Some observers have identified him as the chief rival to Ratzinger.) So, too, are several other cardinals who have been in the forefront of raising economic justice issues.

Though the electorate is small and uniquely homogenous in character, the competition to succeed John Paul II is in many senses like any other election campaign for a coveted position. It is beginning with a wide field, which will eventually be winnowed to a few candidates. Those candidates will, as is true in any campaign, be judged on the basis of a variety of factors, including their personal attributes and their ideology.

Considering the makeup of the College of Cardinals, which was defined by the appointments of the socially-conservative late pope, there can be no more than faint hope for the election of a modernizing liberal reformer who will move the church toward the ordination of women or more moderate stances regarding contraception and gay rights.

But on the economic justice front – which, along with opposition to preemptive war is a zone where the church was frequently at odds with the world's most powerful leaders and nations – the competition becomes more intriguing.

For instance, Cardinal Tettamanzi is no more liberal than the man he hopes to succeed when it comes to social issues; indeed, he helped put together "The Gospel of Life," a papal encyclical that spelled out the church's opposition to birth control, abortion and euthanasia. But the son of a northern Italian factory worker has been an outspoken and generally progressive voice in debates about globalization.

That stands him in stark contrast to Cardinal Ratzinger, who appears to be a bit more conservative than John Paul II on issues of church doctrine and is dramatically more conservative on economic issues. Ratzinger helped to organize and carry out the Vatican's the purge of the left-wing Liberation Theology movement in the late 1970s and 1980s – going so far as to shut progressive seminaries that were teaching priests to actively take the side of the poor in struggles with corporate and political power.

Even more progressive than Tettamanzi on these issues is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras, who at 62 is one of the youngest and most dynamic contenders. The son of a Honduran political activist who was jailed and tortured by that country's U.S.-backed dictatorship, Cardinal Rodriguez has maintained a long a close friendship with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez., the Peruvian theologian who was an architect of the Liberation Theology philosophy and movement.

Well regarded by John Paul II, Cardinal Rodriguez has often been the Vatican's point man on economic justice issues. As the leader of the church's drive for debt relief for the world's poorest nations, the Honduran cardinal delivered petitions demanding the easing of the debt burden, which contained 17 million signatures, to the 1999 G-8 meeting in Moscow. The decision of the G-8 to cancel $70 billion in international debts owned by poor countries was seen by many as a response to the lobbying of Cardinal Rodriguez and his allies in and out of the church hierarchy.

Somewhat more moderate than the other contenders on issues such as contraception, Cardinal Rodriguez is seen as something of a long shot, as is Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo of Portugal, another moderate.

But, it is important to note, Cardinal Rodriguez is no more of a long shot than was Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1978. And Cardinal Rodriguez is every bit the intellectual powerhouse and dynamic personality that Cardinal Wojtyla was when he made the move from Krakow to the Vatican.

FCC to TV: Tell the Truth

Most television viewers don't know it, but a huge portion of what they watch on the local news programs aired by their favorite stations is not actually "news." Rather, local television stations around the country have in recent years been taking "video news releases" from the federal government and major corporations – particularly the big pharmaceutical companies – and airing them as if they were news reports.

Video news releases (VNRs) are so common these days that they actually dominate some newscasts, blurring the lines between advertising and news more blatantly than product placements in movies do the lines between advertising and entertainment.

But, from now on, VNRs will be identified as productions of the corporations that developed them, rather than pawned off as part of the news.

The Federal Communications Commission has called on television stations to disclose the origin of VNRs used on their news programs. "Listeners and viewers are entitled to know who seeks to persuade them with the programming offered over broadcast stations and cable systems," reads the FCC statement issued Wednesday, which was unanimously approved by all four FCC commissioners.

The FCC has instructed newscasters that they must abide by FCC sponsorship identification rules when they air VNRs and called for comments from license holders and cable operators about their use of the public-relations and advertising videos – including those produced by the government.

"Today's Public Notice… reminds broadcast stations, cable operators, and others of their disclosure obligations under our rules, if and when they choose to air VNRs, and to reinforce that we will take appropriate enforcement action against stations that do not comply with these rules," explained FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.

The decision of the FCC came after a campaign organized by the Center for Media and Democracy and the media reform group Free Press, which filed a joint complaint regarding the issue on March 21. Accompanying the complaint was a petition signed by more than 40,000 Americans expressing concern about what the groups refer to as news fraud and that the Government Accounting Office has labeled "covert propaganda."

In the statement from the FCC, the commissioners cited the "large number of requests" for an investigation that had been received by the agency. "Citing the complaints, one commissioner urged the agency to aggressively investigate the use of VNRs that, according to the New York Times, have been produced using taxpayer funds by at least 20 federal agencies seeking to promote Bush administration policies.

"Recently, tens of thousands of citizens contacted the FCC demanding an investigation into the failure of broadcasters to disclose their use of government-generated ‘news' stories. They were right to do so," said FCC Commissioner Michael Copps. "This Commission should investigate each such case. And it should strenuously enforce the rules against inadequate sponsorship identification."

That's the hope of John Stauber, the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, who said after the decision, "Not labeling VNRs constitutes news fraud and violates the most basic ethical standards of journalism. It's now time for TV news producers to own up their responsibility to the viewing public and fully disclose their use of fake news."

(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, which, along with the Center for Media and Democracy, is helping community groups around the country to develop "citizen agreements" with local television stations. The agreements commit broadcasters to label VNRs produced by corporations and the government. For more on the campaign, visit www.freepress.net/propaganda)

John Bolton vs. Democracy

"Im with the Bush-Cheney team, and I'm here to stop the count."

Those were the words John Bolton yelled as he burst into a Tallahassee library on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2000, where local election workers were recounting ballots cast in Florida's disputed presidential race between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Bolton was one of the pack of lawyers for the Republican presidential ticket who repeatedly sought to shut down recounts of the ballots from Florida counties before those counts revealed that Gore had actually won the state's electoral votes and the presidency.

The December 9 intervention was Bolton's last and most significant blow against the democratic process.

The Florida Supreme Court had ordered a broad recount of ballots in order to finally resolve the question of who won the state. But Bolton and the Bush-Cheney team got their Republican allies on the U.S. Supreme Court to block the review. Fearing that each minute of additional counting would reveal the reality of voter sentiments in Florida, Bolton personally rushed into the library to stop the count.

Bolton was in South Korea when it became clear that the Nov. 7, 2000, election would be decided in Florida. At the behest of former Secretary of State James Baker, who fronted the Bush-Cheney team during the Florida fight, Bolton winged his way to Palm Beach, where he took the lead in challenging ballots during that county's recount. Then, when the ballots from around the state were transported to Tallahassee for the recount ordered by the state Supreme Court, Bolton followed them.

It was there that he personally shut down the review of ballots from Miami-Dade County, a populous and particularly contested county where independent reviews would later reveal that hundreds of ballots that could reasonably have been counted for Gore were instead discarded.

Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor David Leahy argued at the time that 2,257 voters had apparently attempted to mark ballot cards for Gore or Bush but had not had them recorded because they had been improperly inserted into the voting machines. A hand count of those ballots revealed that 302 more of them would have gone for Gore than Bush. That shift in the numbers from just one of Florida's 67 counties would have erased more than half of Bush's 537-vote lead in the state.

But attempts to conduct a hand count were repeatedly blocked by the Bush-Cheney team, culminating with Bolton's December 9 announcement that, "I'm here to stop the count." A few days later, the U.S. Supreme Court would stop the count permanently, with a pro-Bush ruling in which five Republican-appointed justices, in the words of noted attorney Vincent Bugliosi, "committed the unpardonable sin of being a knowing surrogate for the Republican Party instead of being an impartial arbiter of the law."

Bolton was a key player in the fight to delay the Florida count long enough to allow for the Supreme Court's intervention, and he got his reward quickly. Despite his record of making controversial and sometimes bizarre statements regarding international affairs, he was selected by the Bush administration in 2001 to serve as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control. And he is now in line to become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

Before he is given that position, and charged with the job of promoting the spread of democracy around the world, however, senators would do well to consider the disregard John Bolton showed for democracy in Florida.

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John Nichols is the author of Jews for Buchanan (The New Press), a review of the Florida recount fight that was hailed by Studs Terkel as "the best thing anyone has written on that whole damn election." The book is available in independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com)

Who's a 'Good Catholic'?

Among the members of Congress who attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II last week was U.S. Rep. David Obey.

It would be difficult to identify a more appropriate representative than the Wisconsin Democrat who has served in Congress for the better part of four decades.

As the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Obey is one of the most prominent and powerful members of the Congress. He is, as well, one of the most thoughtful and outspoken members of the Catholic faith in Washington. Indeed, the veteran congressman has credited his Catholic upbringing with helping to shape his values and his commitment to public service. "I was raised a Catholic," says Obey. "I know in my bones that I would not hold the views I hold today if it were not for the values I learned in Catholic school."

Yet, there are some who object to the suggestion that a progressive such as Obey is a "good Catholic."

Last year, Archbishop Raymond Burke published a public notice in the La Crosse, Wisconsin, diocesan newspaper that told Catholic legislators in the diocese who support abortion rights or euthanasia not to attempt to receive Communion and ordered priests not to give it to them. Burke, a moral hardliner who occupies the right fringe of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Biships, was then the Bishop of La Crosse; he is now the Archbishop of St. Louis.

Obey, who was widely believed to be one of the targeted legislators, responded with an opinion piece that appeared in America, a weekly Jesuit magazine that is one of the U.S. church's most well-regarded publications.

In it, Obey wrote that he would not let Burke "coerce" him into imposing the church's teachings on abortion upon America's pluralistic society. The piece, "My Conscience, My Vote," noted that, "In my view, Bishop Burke attempted to use his interpretations of theology to coerce me into taking specific positions on matters that I believe are matters of constitutional law. The difference between us is that I am not trying to force him to agree with my judgments, but he is attempting to force me to agree with his. That in conscience I cannot do."

Obey also urged that "the full texture and context of all my legislative actions" -- which includes many courageous votes to promote social and economic justice goals that parallel priorities of church leaders -- be reviewed before judging him.

Obey's bold statement was broadly circulated, and greeted with a great deal of relief by members of the faith who objected to the whole debate -- stirred by conservatives looking to derail the presidential campaign of John Kerry, who is also a practicing Catholic -- about whether politicians who did not follow the church line on abortion were "good Catholics."

Unfortunately, as the group Media Matters has noted, some in the media continue to perpetuate the "good Catholic" line.

Last week, on CNN's Inside Politics, CNN host Wolf Blitzer discussed the pope's funeral with Crossfire co-hosts Paul Begala and Robert Novak, both of whom are Catholics. Blitzer opened the segment by announcing that, "While they were united today in mourning the death of the pope, U.S. Catholics are a diverse group, as illustrated by two of our Crossfire co-hosts, the conservative Robert Novak, the liberal Paul Begala. Both good Catholics -- I don't know 'good' Catholics, but both Catholics. I'm sure Bob is a good Catholic, I'm not so sure about Paul Begala."

Noting that his son is named John Paul, after the late pope, Begala, a Democratic campaign aide, objected and, when Blitzer seemed to dismiss him, said, "I'm serious, that annoys me. I don't think anybody should presume that a liberal is not a good Catholic."

Begala continued, "The Holy Father is liberal. And in fact, when [CNN contributor] Carlos [Watson] was speaking [earlier in the program], I was in the green room. Underneath, some producer had written, 'Many Catholic doctrines are conservative.' Absolutely correct. Many are liberal as well. The Holy Father bitterly opposed President Bush's war in Iraq. He came to St. Louis -- and I was there -- and he begged America to give up the death penalty. President Bush strongly supports it, as did President Clinton and others. Many of the Holy Father's views -- my church's views -- are extraordinarily liberal. The Pope talked about savage, unbridled capitalism..."

Begala was right to challenge the casual use of the "good Catholic" label. When the national media joins the most extreme church hardliners and conservative ideologues in casting judgements about the faith of individual Catholics, they do damage to discussions about both religion and politics. And they foster the fallacy that the only issue of concern to Catholics is abortion.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) is drawing great reviews. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the 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 booksellers nationwide and at www.amazon.com.

The Anti-War Pope

Expect to see a lot of George W. Bush over the next day or so, as he attends the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The White House is going out of its way to hype the fact that Bush is the first U.S. president ever to attend the funeral of a pope. And don't be so naive as to think that White House political czar Karl Rove and his minions -- all of whom are deeply concerned about the president's declining poll numbers -- have failed to calculate the political advantage that might be gained by associating the president with a pontiff whose passing has drawn unprecedented attention in the U.S. and around the world.

As Bush and other global leaders pay their final respects to John Paul II on Friday, however, it is important to remember that the Catholic pontiff was not a fan of this American president's warmaking.

John Paul II was an early, consistent, passionate and always outspoken critic of the president's scheming to invade Iraq. The Pope went so far as to meet with world leaders who were close to Bush, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in a high-profile attempt to prevent the war. Finally, the Pope sent a special envoy to Washington -- Cardinal Pio Laghi, who has long been close to the Bush family -- to try and derail the administration's rush to war.

When the war began, aides said that the Pope was "very disappointed and very sad" that Bush had ignored appeals to give peace a chance.

The Pope remained a critic of U.S. actions in Iraq, especially after it was revealed in May, 2004, Iraqi prisoners had been abused by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison.

"From all continents come endless, disturbing information about the human rights situation, revealing that men, women and children are being tortured and their dignity being made a mockery of. ... It is all of humanity which has been wounded and ridiculed," John Paul II said.

Those who are honoring the Pope's memory this week frequently refer to him as a man of peace. They would do well to recall that this is more than just a phrase. While the Pope was not a pacifist, he was an ardent foe of unjust and unwise wars. And hisopposition to the war in Iraq -- and to all forms of preemptive war -- is at the very heart of the legacy he has left with regard to international relations.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the 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

The Pope's 'Seismic Shift'

Many of the most devout followers of the most famous of all victims of capital punishment, the Nazarene who was crucified on the Calvary cross, took a long time to recognize that state-sponsored execution is an affront to their history and their faith. For close to 1,500 years, the Catholic Church taught that the state had a right to punish criminals "by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."

For centuries, that line in the Catechism of the Catholic Church was used by Catholic politicians--and others who sought a moral justification for their actions--to place a veneer of legitimacy on even the most cavalier executions of the young, the mentally handicapped and the innocent. Even as Pope John Paul II moved the church closer and closer to explicit opposition to the death penalty during his long tenure, the loophole in the Catechism remained.

Then, in 1997, Sister Helen Prejean, the American nun and death penalty abolitionist who authored the book Dead Man Walking, asked Pope John Paul II to close the loophole. Later that year, the Pope removed the reference to the death penalty from the Catechism and, when he visited the United States two years later, he denounced the death penalty as "cruel and unnecessary." Referencing moves by countries around the world to ban capital punishment, the Pope declared in St. Louis that, "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."

So pointed and passionate was the Pope's message on the issue that the then-governor of Missouri, Mel Carnahan, a Baptist and a supporter of capital punishment, commuted the sentence of a condemned man who was scheduled to be put to death by the state several weeks after the Papal visit.

It is to be expected that the death of a pope will be attended by hyperbole. And the passing on Saturday of John Paul II has proven to be no exception to the rule. The late pontiff has been credited with everything from defeating communism to healing the age-old rift between Catholics and Jews, just as he faces legitimate criticism for everything from undermining the fight against AIDS by preaching against the use of condoms to consigning the women of the church to second-class citizenship.

The legacy of a pope who served twenty-six years, five months and seventeen days--longer than all the popes in history, save St. Peter and the nineteenth-century pontiff Pius IX--will, of course, be subject to debate. Wise souls will for centuries ponder the accomplishments and the missteps of the man who began his earthly journey as a Polish boy named Karol Jozef Wojtyla and ended it as one of the most recognized and respected figures in the world.

But one aspect of this pope's legacy is not up for debate. During John Paul II's pontificate, the Catholic Church closed the loophole that had served as all-too-many justifications for the taking of the lives of prisoners of the state. New Orleans Archbishop Francis Schulte said the change opened up "a whole new area (of consideration) for many Catholics." Sister Helen Prejean described it as a "Seismic shift" in church teaching. That shift had a profound influence on former Illinois Governor George Ryan, who declared the capital punishment system in Illinois "broken," and commuted the sentences of all 167 inmates sitting on death row in Illinois jails in 2003. And it continues to be felt today, as the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wages a newly launched national campaign to end the use of the death penalty in the United States.

There will be many grand eulogies to mark the passing of Pope John Paul II. But none will be more eloquent than the ongoing campaign to bar the barbaric practice of state-sponsored execution. Perhaps John Paul II was not the most modern pope, but he recognized the progress of society and moral teaching when he preached that, "Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform."

Now Bush Is Picking on Kids

Think of Ann Veneman as the Paul Wolfowitz of food policy.

Just as Wolfowitz used his position as the Bush administration's deputy secretary of defense to spin whacked-out neoconservative theories into the justification for an illegal and unnecessary war, so Veneman used her position as the administration's secretary of agriculture to spin equally whacked-out theories about the genetic modification of food and free trade into disastrous policies for farmers and consumers.

And, just as Wolfowitz is being rewarded for his missteps and misdeeds with a prominent new position as president of the World Bank, so Veneman is also moving onto the world stage, as the likely nominee to be the next executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

When Veneman was nominated to serve as George W. Bush's first secretary of agriculture, this column detailed the many reasons why that was a horrible idea. A militant advocate for the genetic engineering of food and an unblinking proponent of the North American Free Trade Agreement, U.S. entry into the World Trade Organization, and other trade policy moves that were designed by agribusiness conglomerates to benefit agribusiness conglomerates, Veneman was on the wrong side of every issue that mattered to working farmers in the United States and abroad. And as a veteran beneficiary of agribusiness largesse - as a lobbyist, corporate board member and industry insider - she was not about to start listening to reason simply because she was briefly leaving the private payroll to take a government check.

Veneman lived up to the most dire expectations regarding her nomination, creating a record of service to the interests of multinational corporations at the expense of farmers and consumers. She drew the boos of farmers on her rare visits to rural America. And for good reason. She turned the Department of Agriculture into an echo chamber for the advocates of free trade agreements that have dramatically undermined the income and long-term viability of U.S. farmers, and for Monsanto and other firms that are seeking to force farmers to plant genetically modified crops and inject cows with bovine growth hormones.

Worst of all, on issues such as the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States and Canada, she seemed at every turn to be more interested in the business and trade impacts of those revelations than the very real public health issues that they raised.

Veneman has stepped down as secretary of agriculture but, in what has now become a pattern for the Bush administration, her years of disservice have been rewarded with selection to serve as the new executive director of UNICEF, the U.N. agency that is responsible for protecting children's health, welfare and rights.

Veneman is expected to get the job because of the defining role that the Bush administration plays in the selection process, just as U.S. pressure set up Wolfowitz for the World Bank position.

The notion that Veneman would be placed in a position to decide how to feed and care for the planet's most destitute children is every bit as alarming as the notion that Wolfowitz would be charged with providing aid to developing countries.

Indeed, as Ravi Narayan, coordinator for the global secretariat of the People's Health Movement, wrote in a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the members of the executive board of UNICEF: "Ms. Veneman's training and experience as a corporate lawyer for agribusiness do not qualify her for the substantial task of leading the agency most responsible for the rights of children worldwide. There is no evidence in her tenure as U.S. secretary of agriculture, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, or deputy undersecretary for international affairs of the USDA of her interest in the world's children or their health and well-being.

"Indeed, her performance in these positions has been characterized by the elevation of corporate profit above people's right to food (U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25). Such a philosophy and practice would reverse almost six decades of UNICEF's proud humanitarian history and prove disastrous for the world's children."

Just as it is vital for responsible Americans to object to the selection of Paul Wolfowitz to serve as president of the World Bank, so it is equally vital that we object to the selection of Ann Veneman to lead UNICEF.

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John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the 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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