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John Nichols

John Nichols

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The Race Right Now

On the eve of the final presidential debate of the 2004 campaign, everything has changed -- again. And it could all change once more tonight. But here is where the race stands right now:

READING THE POLLS: The race for the presidency is as close as it has been at any time during this long campaign. Neither Bush nor Kerry has opened a consequential lead in recent days. No matter what survey you look at -- those with Bush in the lead or those with Kerry out front -- the two men are within the margin of error. That's a notable improvement for Kerry, who was clearly behind in a number of national surveys before the first presidential debate. Kerry's trajectory has been an upward one since that initial face-off with Bush. All the polling suggests that the Democrat benefitted not only from his own performance in the first debate but also from public reaction to the vice presidential debate and the second presidential debate.

Beneath the top line numbers that show Kerry and Bush essentially tied, there are powerful trends at work. They tend generally to favor the Democrat, although he still faces serious challenges heading toward November 2. Kerry's personal and issue-by-issue approval ratings have risen dramatically since the first debate. According to the CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll released 10/12, Americans surveyed now say Kerry would do a better job than Bush on virtually every major domestic issue: protecting the environment (29 point advantage), improving access to health care (19 point advantage), preserving Medicare (15 point advantage), eliminating deficits (13 point advantage), preserving Social Security (9 point advantage), aiding education (7 point advantage), shoring up the economy (4 point advantage), maintaining a woman's right to choose (4 point advantage) and promoting stem cell research (20 point advantage). Only on the question of taxes did Bush have an advantage, with those surveyed favoring the president by a 51-44 margin.

Where Bush maintains an advantage is on a pair of critical foreign policy issues: handling the mess in Iraq and pursuing the war on terrorism. On Iraq, Bush has a 51-44 advantage. On the war on terror, the Republican outpaces the Democrat by a whopping 56-39. While it is clear that Bush benefits most from the meticulously-nurtured impression that he would be a stronger defender of the US than Kerry, even this advantage is vulnerable. Forty-six percent of Americans now say it was a mistake to send US troops to Iraq. And the percentage of Americans who believe it was worth going to war in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since the invasion of that country in March 2003. Only 44 percent of Americans now believe the war was worth doing. That's down from 59 percent at the start of the year, and from 49 percent just one month ago.

Notably, Bush's overall job approval rating is at the lowest level so far this year. Where 60 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling his job in January, and 52 percent gave the president their O.K. as recently as September 5, only 47 percent now approve.

Going into Wednesday night's final presidential debate, Kerry has an format advantage. The focus is supposed to be on domestic issues, his greatest area of strength. But watch for Bush to try and stall the Democrat's momentum by turning the discussion toward national security issues. For Kerry, the challenge is to use his last unfiltered appearance before the American people to focus on his areas of strength while addressing his vulnerabilities on those terrorism-security-safety issues. The Democrat needs to make linkages that are difficult, but certainly not impossible. It is a good bet that Kerry will focus on flaws in Bush's approach to homeland security with an emphasis on how a proper level of investment in programs and infrastructure will make the United States safer and might reasonably be expected to expand access to health care and create some new jobs. It is an even better bet that Bush will avoid that kind of nuance. The phrase "tax-and-spend liberal" -- or some variation on that line -- will be Bush's preferred response to Kerry's thrusts -- setting the theme for the post-debate period of the campaign.

BATTLEGROUND STATES: Before the first debate, Kerry was in serious trouble in a number of the competitive "battleground" states where the election is likely to be decided. For the most part, the improvement in the Democratic candidate's fortunes has been reflected at the state level. In New Hampshire, which went for Bush in 2000, Kerry now leads by a 49-42 margin, according to a new Manchester Union-Leader/Franklin Pierce College Poll. In New Jersey, which went solidly for Gore in 2000 but seemed close for a time this year, two new polls have Kerry with a decent if not comfortable lead -- 47-40 for the Democrat in the Newark Star-Ledger/Rutgers University survey; 49-41 for the Democrat in a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University survey. In Wisconsin, a state Gore narrowly won in 2000, Kerry had trailed by as much as 10 points in some September polls; he is now back within the margin of error -- a new CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup poll has it: Bush 49, Kerry 46. In Missouri, where Kerry had fallen well behind, he is now just two points away from Bush, according to a new KSDK-TV/Survey USA poll. On the other hand, North Carolina, which had seemed to be in play, now appears to be solidly in Bush's column. Florida also seems to be moving slowly into Bush's column. That drift is offset by Ohio, a Bush state in 2000 where polls show Kerry well ahead of where Gore was four years ago. Registration patterns in Ohio favor the Democrats but GOP numbers are also up, meaning that this state will be ground zero for Get-Out-the-Vote efforts by both parties.

Most interesting new development: Colorado, which went big for Bush in 2000, appears to have become a battleground state. The CNN/USA TODAY/Gallup Poll has Kerry and Bush tied at 49 each. Other recent polls put Bush ahead, but with Kerry competitive. Watch for both campaigns to shift resources and campaign schedules Colorado's way.

NEWSPAPER ENDORSEMENTS: The Portland Oregonian newspaper, which in 2000 gave a strong endorsement to George W. Bush, on Sunday endorsed John Kerry. "When George W. Bush took office in a deeply divided nation, he promised to reach out to unite the country. If anything, he has helped make the rifts deeper. That may be his real failure as president," the editors of the Oregonian explained. "John Kerry can do better." The Oregonian followed the lead of another large west-coast paper, the Seattle Times, which backed Bush in 2000 but this year came out strong for Kerry, declaring, "The election of Kerry would sweep away neoconservative war intellectuals who drive policy at the White House and Pentagon." So far, according to Editor & Publisher, Kerry has been endorsed by newspapers with a combined circulation of 2,534,377 to newspapers with a combined circulation of 637,187 for Bush. No major newspaper that backed Gore in 2000 has endorsed Bush this year.

SENATE RACES: The race for control of the Senate, while largely neglected by national media, remains competitive.

Democrats could to pick up as many as four US Senate seats that are currently held by Republicans: Polls have Democratic candidates ahead in Illinois, Alaska, Oklahoma and Alaska. Illinois appears to be a certain pick-up state, with Democrat Barack Obama leading Republican Alan Keyes by 30 to 40 points in the polls. The rest of the states are much closer but clearly competitive. Perhaps the most amazing upturn in Democratic fortunes has been in Oklahoma, where the party's nominee, US Rep. Brad Carson, has received a big hand from his Republican foe, former US Rep. Tom Coburn. The Republican seems to go from crisis to crisis. Coburn has been caught up in scandals regarding sterilizations he performed as a physician and his frequently bizarre statements. Most recently he announced that "lesbianism is so rampant in some of the schools in southeast Oklahoma that they'll only let one girl go to the bathroom." Newspaper interviews with school superintendents found not a one who could confirm Colburn's report.

Democrats light up when they start talking about Oklahoma. But they get nervous when the talk turns to Senate contests in the south. Democrats are likely to lose at least two of the five southern seats that are being vacated by members of their party. In Georgia, where Democrat-in-name-only Zell Miller is exiting, party nominee Denise Majette trails far behind Republican Johnny Isakson in all polls. In South Carolina, where Democrat Fritz Hollings is stepping down, the party's nominee to replace him, Inez Tenenbaum, has run a tepid campaign that has left her well behind Republican Jim DeMint. But in three other seats where Democratic seats are open -- Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina -- Democratic nominees are running even or ahead.

If Democrats win the four currently Republican-held seats where they are running well, and if they hold at least three of the five southern seats, the next Senate could end up split between a 51-member Democratic caucus (50 party members and one independent, Vermont's Jim Jeffords, who caucuses with them, and a 49-member Republican caucus.)

Of course, that is the best scenario for Democrats. For a variety of reasons-- including a late rise in the fortunes of Florida Republican Senate candidate Mel Martinez and the continued vulnerability of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, who is running no better than even in most South Dakota polls – the better bet is for a 50-50 split. Of course, if Kerry wins the presidency, John Edwards will be breaking the ties.

Even that scenario could fall apart of Bush turns out to have coattails in western and southern states where he will win by wide margins. But few observers expected the Senate to be in play at this point, and it is. And there may even be a sleeper race where another Democrat could come into contention.

In Kentucky, Dr. Dan Mongiardo, a state senator who is the Democratic nominee, has according to several polls narrowed the gap in the race with Republican US Sen. Jim Bunning. The contest wasn't supposed to be close. But Bunning has engaged in such bizarre behavior that he has sparked discussion about whether he might be suffering from dementia. Bunning has compared Mongiardo, a respected physician, to the sons of Saddam Hussein. During a visit to Paducah, Bunning requested additional police protection because he said he feared he might be attacked by al-Qaeda while visiting a Quilters' Museum. Then, this week, Bunning refused to appear in person for a long-scheduled debate, instead demanding that he be allowed to take part via satellite from Washington. Bunning aides were so concerned about the impression their boss might make in the debate that they demanded that Mongiardo's campaign agree not to use images of the Republican senator from it. At the same time, Bunning has been airing commercials that falsely suggest that a luxurious home and private jet featured in the ad belong to Mongiardo. The Louisville Courier-Journal editorial page refers to the Bunning ad as "despicable," while the Lexington Herald-Leader described the Bunning ad as so "offensive and unfair" that a voter watching them "might well conclude that politics is an amoral wasteland into which only a masochist would venture."

The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has ramped up support for Mongiardo. Smart move; they need to open at least one new front between now and November 2.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released 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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Cheney's Lamest Excuse Yet

What do you do when the excuses you used to "justify" an unwise and unnecessary war are completely discredited.

If you're Vice President Dick Cheney, you make up a new one.

Cheney's favorite excuse, the claim that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had significant ties to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network, was never credible. But the vice president's attempts to peddle the theory became absurd after it was rejected by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States. Cheney kept trying to spin the fantasy for weeks after 9 11 Commission reported that there was no working relationship between Hussein and al Qaeda. But he finally had to acknowledge during last Tuesday night's debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards that he has no evidence to sustain the claim.

Cheney's second favorite excuse, the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that might threaten its neighbors and the United States, was never any more credible than the al Qaeda fantasy. But Cheney knew as he debated Edwards Tuesday night that it would be completely obliterated by a report scheduled for release the following day. That report, compiled by Charles A. Duelfer, chief arms inspector for the Central Intelligence Agency, confirmed what honest observers had known for years: that Iraq had under pressure from the United Nations eliminated its capacity to develop illicit weapons by the mid 1990s.

In a bind, Cheney grabbed during the debate for one of his most ridiculous "justifications": the claim that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was harboring Abu Nidal, a Palestinian charged with masterminding acts of terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s. The problem with this claim is that Nidal died in August, 2002, two months before the Bush administration sought and received permission from the U.S. Congress to use force against Iraq.

Stuck for an excuse, Cheney hit the campaign trail the day after the debate with a new claim: The war has been necessary because Saddam Hussein and other Iraqi leaders were abusing the United Nations "Oil-for-Food" program. Dismissing the Duelfer report's confirmation that Iraq had no stockpiles of WMDs, Cheney seized on the reports mention of "Oil-for-Food" program abuses to declare, "The suggestion is clearly there by Mr. Duelfer that Saddam had used the program in such a way that he had bought off foreign governments and was building support among them to take the sanctions down." Then the vice president made the leap for a new justification for the invasion and occupation of Iraq: "As soon as the sanctions were lifted, he had every intention of going back" to his weapons program, the mind-reading vice president declared. Thus, said Cheney, "delay, defer, wait, wasn't an option."

There is little doubt that Hussein diverted money from the program, which was set up in 1996 to ease the burden on Iraqis who were suffering from hunger and lack of medical care as a result of the U.N. sanctions against the country. But as an excuse for invading and occupying a country, it is Cheney's lamest excuse yet.

After all, "Oil-for-Food" program abuses did not merely benefit Saddam Hussein and his cronies. They also, according to the report produced by CIA chief arms inspector Duelfer, benefitted a number of U.S. corporations that rushed into Iraq to siphon off money funds for themselves.

Duelfer found that Chevron, Mobil, Texaco and Bay Oil had received lucrative vouchers that allowed them to buy Iraqi oil and sell it abroad for big profits.

Additionally, Cheney's old company, Halliburton, the top oil services corporation in the U.S., filled its coffers with Iraqi money during the heyday of the Oil for Food program. When Cheney's was Halliburton's CEO, the company did not collect vouchers; rather, its subsidiaries took advantage of the opening created by the "Oil-for-Food" program to cut deals with Saddam Hussein's government that allowed it to take money directly from Iraq. During 1998 and 1999, Halliburton's Dresser Rand and Ingersoll Dresser Pump subsidiaries signed contracts to provide roughtly $73 million in oil production equipment and spare parts to Iraq.

The services provided by Halliburton's subsidiaries during the period when Cheney was chairman and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based company helped rebuild Iraq's oil production and distribution infrastructure. That work, which got Iraqi oil flowing, was, of course, necessary for the implementation of the "Oil-for-Food" program -- and, presumably for the abuses about which Cheney is now so concerned.

Under Cheney's leadership, the contracts obtained by Halliburton subsidiaries were among the most substantial awarded any U.S. firm doing business with Saddam Hussein. But they were not as ambitious as the company would have liked. A scheme to have Halliburton subsidiaries repair an Iraqi oil terminal that had been destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War was blocked by the U.S. government because it was determined to violate the sanctions regime.

Might Cheney have been unaware of the Halliburton Iraq tie -- as he tried to claim in one 2000 interview? Not likely. James Perrella, former chairman of Ingersoll Rand told the Washington Post that based on his knowledge of how Halliburton and its subsidiaries worked, Cheney had to have known. "Oh, definitely," Perrella said of Cheney, "he was aware of the business."

Only on the eve of the 2000 presidential election campaign, in which Cheney would secure a position on the Republican ticket by manipulating the vice presidential selection process in his favor, did Halliburton cut the business ties with Iraq that had been made so lucrative by the "Oil-for-Food" program.

But, now, as he searches for a new excuse to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Cheney is suddenly concerned about abuses of the "Oil-for-Food" program.

What excuse is next? Perhaps Cheney will suggest that the occupation must be maintained in order to prevent war profiteering by companies such as, er, well, Halliburton.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released 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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Cheney KO'ed...by GOP

To hear Vice President Cheney tell it in Tuesday night's debate, Democrats like John Edwards and John Kerry are the only Americans foolish enough or unpatriotic enough to complain about the administration's management of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

"You're not credible on Iraq," a scowling Cheney told Edwards minutes into this year's only vice presidential debate. The man whose imprint on the planning and implementation of the administration's Middle Eastern military misadventure has been far firmer than that of President Bush ripped into Kerry and Edwards repeatedly in the heated first half hour of the debate. "These are two individuals who have been for the war when the headlines were good and against it when their poll ratings were bad," Cheney said of the Democratic ticket, after speculating that pressure from Democratic primary rival Howard Dean -- as opposed to mounting death tolls and a general sense that the occupation had degenerated into a quagmire -- offered the only real explanation for why the Democratic ticket is now critical of the administration's approach to the war.

But, this time, the vice president had trouble peddling the big lie.

Edwards trumped Cheney's spin by unleashing what may well be the most powerful weapon in the Democratic arsenal this year: Republicans.

"(It's) not just me that sees the mess in Iraq. There are Republican leaders, like John McCain, like Richard Lugar, like Chuck Hagel, who have said Iraq is a mess and it's getting worse," Edwards said, referencing three senior Republican senators. "And when they were asked why, Richard Lugar said because of the incompetence of the administration."

Edwards hit Cheney where it hurts. Just as Cheney warps the truth beyond recognition when he spins his fantasies about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and supposed links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, so he also misleads when he claims that debates about Iraq break down along partisan lines.

There is no longer any credibility to the vice president's constant claim that partisanship is the sole -- or even the substantial -- motivation of those who have criticized the administration's multiple missteps in the prosecution of this unwise and unnecessary war.

Indeed, none of the criticisms that Edwards tossed Cheney's way in Tuesday night's debate between the Democratic and Republican contenders for the vice presidency was so devastatingly on target as the observation made several days ago by Lugar, the Indiana Republican who chairs of the Senate Foreign Committee.

"Our committee heard blindly optimistic people from the administration prior to the war (say) that we just simply will be greeted with open arms," Lugar complained last month. "The lack of planning is apparent."

By his choice of words, Lugar left little doubt about the identity of the most impaired of the administration's blind optimists. Appearing on "Meet the Press" the Sunday before the war began, it was Cheney who declared, "We will be greeted as liberators."

Perhaps the most broadly respected Republican specialist on foreign policy in the Congress, Lugar is one of a growing number of Republicans who have stepped up to criticize Cheney and the administration in language that is far more aggressive than that employed by Edwards on Tuesday night.

US Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran who is broadly regarded for his international affairs expertise, has ridiculed the cheerleading claims by Cheney and other administration insiders regarding progress on the warfront.

Those claims, Hagel said, do not "add up... to a picture that shows that we're winning." But the Nebraskan said, "It does add up to this: an acknowledgment that we're in deep trouble."

How bad are things in Iraq? To Hagel's view, it is "beyond pitiful and embarrassing, It is now in the zone of dangerous."

Imagine Cheney's reaction if Edwards had been so blunt during Tuesday night's debate?

And just imagine Cheney's reaction if the Democrat had echoed the assessment of US Representative John Duncan, a Tennessee Republican, who has suggested that the deceptive manner in which the administration made its "case" for war with Iraq has sewn seeds of distrust that will make it harder to take even necessary military action in the future. "A very small minority of very powerful Neo-Cons have apparently dreamed of war with Iraq for many years. They got their wish. But what they may have thought would be their crowning achievement may instead lead to their downfall," Duncan argued last month. "So many people in the US and around the world feel they were misled about the need to go to war in Iraq that they almost certainly will be much harder to convince the next time around."

When Edwards reviewed the challenges that exist in Iraq and Afghanistan Tuesday night, Cheney dismissed him as an uninformed, patriotically-challenged doomsayer. Yet, Cheney heard nothing from his Democratic challenger that could rival the withering assault he has faced from prominent Republicans. Much has been made of recent deviations from the official spin by key players in the administration -- particularly Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's observation that there was no evidence of the connection between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network. But the real heat on Cheney has come from elected Republican members of the Congress who, like John Kerry and John Edwards, have dealt with war-and-terrorism issues since September 11, 2001.

Bush and Cheney have ripped their Democratic foes for proposing to address the crisis in Iraq by working with other nations. Yet, Lugar said recently in a speech at the Fletcher School of Tufts University that: "(The) war on terror will not be won through attrition, particularly since military action will often breed more terrorists and more resentment of the United States. Unless the United States commits itself to a sustained program of repairing and building alliances, expanding trade, pursuing resolutions to regional conflicts, supporting democracy worldwide, and controlling weapons of mass destruction, we are likely to experience acts of catastrophic terrorism."

Those acts of terrorism could kill thousands, perhaps millions, Lugar argued.

Unfortunately, says the Republican senator, "The United States, as a nation, simply has not made this commitment (to address all the terrorist threats in a realistic manner.) We are worried about terrorism, but the evolution of national security policy has not kept up with the threat. We have relied heavily on military options and unilateral approaches that have weakened our alliances."

Remarkably, when Edwards offered far more tepid critiques of the administration's approach to the war on terrorism, Cheney crawled down the Democrat's throat. "We have not seen the kind of consistency that a commander in chief has to have in order to be a leader in wartime and in order to be able to see the strategy through to victory," the vice president claimed.

As Bush did in last Thursday's presidential debate, the vice president attacked Edwards and Kerry for voting to authorize the use of force against Iraq and then criticizing the president for his inept prosecution of the war. But buyer's remorse about this war is not merely a Democratic phenomenon.

Former U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter, a veteran member of the House International Relations Committee and the vice chair of the House Intelligence Committee, voted in favor of the use-of-force resolution in 2002. Yet, the Republican who departed Congress this year to become the president of the Asia Foundation now says the war has become "a dangerous, costly mess." And, unlike Kerry and Edwards, Bereuter freely admits he was wrong.

"I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things are being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action," he explains.

That's not the only place where the Republican, who served 13 terms in the House, has been blunter than Kerry or Edwards. "Knowing what I know about the reliance on the tenuous or insufficiently corroborated intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD (weapons of mass destruction) arsenal, I believe that launching the pre-emptive military action was not justified."

When Cheney talked Tuesday night about what the administration used to refer to as "the coalition of the willing" that has supported the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Edwards offered a more sober assessment of this country's isolation. But Bereuter leaves no room for debate, saying, "our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened."

Elected Republicans are not only noting the degeneration of international alliances. They point, as well, to the decay of civil liberties at home.

"We must take effective measures to protect ourselves from a terrorist attack. That does not mean rushing to embrace legislation that in the long run will do little to stop terrorism, but will do a great deal to undermine the very way of life we should be protecting," says U.S. Representative Ron Paul, a Texas Republican who voted against authorizing the president to use force against Iraq and against the Patriot Act. "Just as we must not allow terrorists to threaten our lives, we must not allow government to threaten our liberties."

The Republican dissent against Cheney's line on Iraq and homeland security has drawn scant attention from the chattering classes of cable television -- far less than was accorded the attacks on Kerry by Georgia Democratic Senator "Zigzag Zell" Miller. But Miller is not the only senator who is rejecting his party's ticket this year.

U.S. Senator Lincoln Chafee, the moderate Republican from Rhode Island, has indicated that he will not vote for Bush's reelection. Chafee, the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the 2002 use-of-force resolution, is straight forward about why. The senator describes himself as an "anti-war Republican." That's phrase may not fit into Dick Cheney's lexicon. But, whether the vice president wants to admit it or not, the skepticism about this administration's Iraq imbroglio is not just a Democratic indulgence.

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released 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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Ten Questions for Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney, who spent most of his administration's first term in a secure undisclosed location, has been campaigning this fall in the Potemkin Villages of Republican reaction. As such, he has not faced much in the way of serious questioning from his audiences of party apparatchiks. Nor has he been grilled by the White House-approved journalistic commissars who travel with the Vice President to take stenography when Cheney makes his daily prediction of the apocalypse that would befall America should he be removed from power.

On Tuesday night, however, Cheney will briefly expose himself in an unmanaged setting – to the extent that the set of a vice presidential debate can be so identified. In preparation for this rare opportunity to pin down the man former White House counsel John Dean refers to as "the de facto president," here is a list of ten questions that ought to be directed to Dick Cheney:

1.) When you appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, you announced that, "We will be greeted as liberators." In light of the fact that more than 1,000 young Americans have been killed, while more than 20,000 have been wounded, in the fighting in Iraq, do you think you might have been a bit too optimistic?

2.) Why were maps of Iraqi oil fields and pipelines included in the documents reviewed by the administration's energy task force, the National Energy Policy Development Group, which you headed during the first months of 2001? Did discussions about regime change in Iraq figure in the deliberations of the energy task force?

3.) When the administration was asking in 2002 for Congressional approval of a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, you told the national convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that Saddam Hussein had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons." You then claimed that, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail." Several months later, when you appeared on "Meet the Press" just prior to the invasion of Iraq, you said of Saddam Hussein, "We know he has reconstituted these (chemical weapons) programs. We know he's out trying once again to produce nuclear weapons, and we know that he has a long-standing relationship with various terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda organization." As it turned out, you were wrong on virtually every count. How did you misread the signs so completely? And why was it that so many other world leaders, who looked at the same intelligence you had access to, were able to assess the situation so much more accurately?

4.) Considering the fact that your predictions about the ease of the Iraq invasion and occupation turned out to be so dramatically off the mark, and the fact that you were in charge of the White House task force on terrorism that failed, despite repeated and explicit warnings, to anticipate the terrorist threats on the World Trade Center, what is it about your analytical skills that should lead Americans to believe your claims that America will be more vulnerable to attack if John Kerry and John Edwards are elected?

5.) Speaking of intelligence, were you or any members of your staff involved in any way in revealing the identity of Valerie Plame, a CIA operative who was working on weapons of mass destruction issues, after her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, angered the administration by revealing that the president made claims about Iraqi WMD programs that he and his aides had been told were unreliable?

6.) During your tenure as Secretary of Defense, you and your staff asked a subsidiary of Halliburton, Brown & Root Services, to study whether private firms could take over logistical support programs for U.S. military operations around the world. They came to the conclusion that this was a good idea, and you began what would turn into a massive privatization initiative that would eventually direct billions of U.S. tax dollars to Halliburton and its subsidiary. Barely two years after you finished your service as Secretary of Defense, you became the CEO of Halliburton. Yet, when you were asked about the money you received from Halliburton -- $44 million for five year's work -- you said, "I tell you that the government had absolutely nothing to do with it." How do you define the words "absolutely nothing"?

7.) No corporation has been more closely associated with the invasion of Iraq than Halliburton. The company, which you served as CEO before joining the administration, moved from No.19 on the U.S. Army's list of top contractors before the Iraq war began to No. 1 in 2003. Last year, alone, the company pocketed $4.2 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars. You said when asked about Halliburton during a September 2003 appearance on "Meet the Press" that you had "severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interest." Yet, you continue to hold unexercised options for 233,000 shares of Halliburton stock, and since becoming vice president you have on an annual basis collected deferred compensation payments ranging from $162,392 to $205,298 from Halliburton. A recent review by the Congressional Research Service describes deferred salary and stock options of the sort that you hold as "among those benefits described by the Office of Government Ethics as 'retained ties' or 'linkages' to one's former employer." In the interest of ending the debate about whether Halliburton has received special treatment from the administration, would you be willing to immediately surrender any claims to those stock options and to future deferred compensation in order to make real your claim that you have "severed all my ties with the company."

8.) You have been particularly aggressive in attacking the qualifications of John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, to serve as commander-in-chief. Yet, you received five draft deferments during the 1960s, which allowed you to avoid serving in Vietnam. In 1989, when you were nominated to serve as Secretary of Defense, you were asked why you did not serve in Vietnam and you told the Senate that you "would have obviously been happy to serve had I been called." Yet, in an interview that same year, you told the Washington Post that, "I had other priorities in the sixties than military service." Which was it -- "proud to serve" or "other priorities"?

9.) Nelson Mandela says he worries about you serving in the vice presidency because, "He opposed the decision to release me from prison." As a member of Congress you did vote against a resolution expressing the sense of the House that then President Ronald Reagan should demand that South Africa's apartheid government grant the immediate and unconditional release of Mandela and other political prisoners. You have said you voted the way you did in the late 1980s because "the ANC was then viewed as a terrorist organization." Do you still believe that Mandela and others who fought for an end to apartheid were terrorists? If so, are you proud to have cast votes that helped to prolong Mandela's imprisonment and the apartheid system of racial segregation and discrimination?

10.) Mandela has said that, to his view, you are "the real president of the United States." Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said of the first years of the Bush presidency that, "Cheney and a handful of others had become 'a Praetorian guard' that encircled the President." O'Neill has also argued that the White House operates the way it does "because this is the way that Dick likes it." Why do you think that so many people, including veterans of this administration, seem to think that it is you, rather than George W. Bush, who is running the country?

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John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released 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

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

DEBATE: Whiner-in-Chief

It appears that George W. Bush is tired of being president.

His weariness and frustration with the job was evident throughout last night's first presidential debate of the 2004 campaign. Whenever the discussion turned to questions about his management of the occupation of Iraq, Bush said, "It's hard work." Why didn't he anticipate the disaster? "It's hard work." Considering the mounting death toll, was the Iraq invasion worth it? "It's hard work."

By the end of the night, the sullen president had repeated the "hard work" line at least nine times, using it as frequently as he did those stock talking points about "progress" in Iraq and Democrat John Kerry's "mixed messages." And, in contrast to his rote recitation of the talking points, Bush's grumbling about how difficult it is to do his job did not seem at all insincere. At least on this point, Bush was speaking the truth. For George W. Bush, serving as president at this time in history is very hard work.

What was striking last night was the marked distinction between the world-weary performance of the president and the engaged presence of John Kerry. The Democratic challenger did not suggest that the challenges of cleaning up the mess in Iraq would be easily met. But his answers to questions about the quagmire suggested that he did not find the notion of tackling those challenges nearly so daunting as does the current occupant of the Oval Office.

The night should have belonged to Bush. National security is supposed to be the president's strong suit. Yet, Bush only arrived with 30 minutes of material for a 90 minute debate. And he had a very hard time stretching.

For the most part, it was Kerry who did the heavy lifting when it came to defining the issues. And, in so doing, he controlled the course of the debate.

Kerry was especially effective in arguing that the invasion and occupation of Iraq had diverted troops and resources from the fundamental fights of the war on terror. But the Democrat also made the failure of the president to build a genuine global coalition in support of the war more of an issue. And he was devastating when he suggested, after detailing the flaws in the administration's strategy, that the president's promise for the next four years was: "more of the same."

Kerry was weaker when it came to explaining what his "less of the same" would actually look like. But he trumped Bush on what should have been one of the president's strong points: homeland security. Kerry did this by laying something of a trap for Bush. The Democrat suggested that tax cuts for the wealthy should be rolled back to pay for homeland security initiatives such as securing bridges and tunnels, checking containers coming through US ports and assuring that all cargo on airplanes is inspected before it is loaded onto planes. "We didn't need the tax cut," Kerry said. "America needed to be safe." Bush's response was to grumble about how Kerry was going to pay for "all these promises."

From an issue standpoint, it was the most telling moment of the debate. Kerry was promising to keep America safe. Bush was promising to keep cutting taxes for the rich.

Bush should have seen that one coming. But to do that he would have had to be paying attention. As he slumped against the podium through much of the debate, however, the president seemed every bit as anxious as his father--when the elder Bush got caught checking his watch during a 1992 debate--to be done with this painful 90-minute political exercise. And he gave the impression of not being all that much more excited about the four-year political exercise to which reelection would doom him.

When Bush complained that the job of being president is "hard work," he was entirely believable. Yet, when Kerry bragged about how he'd "get the job done," he was equally believable--and a good deal more appealing.

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

John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released 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

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

CBS: No News, Just Stenography

The decision of CBS News to delay the broadcast of an investigation into how the Bush administration manipulated intelligence and played upon fears in order to make the case for war with Iraq is the most unsettling development yet in a political year that has beem defined by unsettling moments.

CBS News officials, rocked by the controversy surrounding the journalistic missteps of veteran anchor Dan Rather and "60 Minutes" staffers in putting together what should have been an easy report on President Bush's troubled tenure in the Texas National Guard, have announced that they will wait until after the November 2 election to broadcast a much-anticipated investigation of the steps the administration took to warp the debate about whether to go to war.

The fear, at least as it is officially expressed by CBS, is that revealing the extent of the administration's misdeeds might influence the outcome of the election by letting the American people in on what has really been going on in Washington. Thus, a CBS statement announced, "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election."

Critics of CBS will, of course, speculate that the decision had less to do with a desire to be fair and balanced than with a fear on the part of corporate honchos that the airing of the expose would lead to new charges that the network is displaying an anti-Bush bias. After the fiasco involving doctored documents regarding Bush's time in the Guard, CBS insiders admit that they are afraid to broadcast reports about the doctored documents the Bush administration used to make its "case" for war.

Critics also note that Sumner Redstone, CEO of CBS's parent company Viacom, has now repeatedly suggested in public statements and interviews that "from a Viacom standpoint, we believe the election of a Republican administration is better for our company."

But let's put these legitimate concerns aside and accept CBS at its word.

Let's accept that the network does not want to air the report before the election because of genuine concerns on the part of CBS News professionals and CBS corporate officials about the impact of sharing the truth with the American people might have on voting patterns.

But let's also be clear about what has happened here: CBS News has ceased to be a news organization.

A network that worries about whether its reports will offend the people who are in power is no longer practicing journalism. And a network that is so worried about being accused of bias that it will not reveal the truth to its viewers is no longer in the business of distributing news.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other founders of this country created the framework for a free press, and fought mightily to defend the rights of dissident editors in the first years of the republic, because they feared the abuses of power that would result if presidents went unchallenged. They knew that democracy would only function if independent watchdogs were forever barking at the powerful from the columns of the partisan newspapers of their day. Jefferson may have put it best when he wrote in 1816 that, "The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe."

By extension, when powerful media outlets censor themselves, the safety to which Jefferson referred is threatened.

The notion that a journalist would sit on a story because he or she fears being accused of bias, or because an expose might have an impact on a presidential election, would have shocked and offended Jefferson, Madison, Tom Paine and the others who fought at the start of this American experiment to forge the way for a free press.

If ever there was a time when a bold and unyielding free press was needed, Jefferson argued, it was in the weeks before a national election. At the point when the American people are preparing to determine who will lead their country, they need more than just stenography. They need news outlets that seek, without fear or favor, to speak truth to power.

Without a free flow of information, especially controversial and shocking information about the most pressing issues of the day, citizens cannot make informed choices. And when citizens cannot make informed choices, democracy ceases to function.

With their decision to sit on a story of how the Bush administration manipulated this country into war, CBS News officials have chosen to block the free flow of information. As such, they have broken faith with the promise of a free press. They are now merely stenographers to power, and impediments to democracy.

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

John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released 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

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

Debate Halliburton

George W. Bush is ready to debate John Kerry.

The chronically underestimated president, who invariably prevails in face-to-face showdowns with his general election opponents, has been cramming for weeks. According to Bush aides, the president listens to tapes of Kerry's past debate performances and speeches while he is traveling and during his daily workouts. He has imported a lanky, boring New Englander, New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, to play the role of Kerry during practice debates at the ranch in Crawford, Texas. And he is now memorizing poll-tested one liners crafted to devastate the Democratic challenger and capture the headlines on the day after Thursday's debate in Coral Gables, Florida.

For his part, Kerry is prepping at a resort in Wisconsin. After two weeks of honing an increasingly aggressive message regarding the crisis in Iraq and the mismanaged war on terrorism, he will go into the first of three critical debates feeling confident. But if all Kerry does is wrestle Bush for the tough-on-terror mantle, that confidence will prove misplaced.

In a foreign policy debate that plays out within the lines defined by White House political czar Karl Rove, the best Kerry can hope for is a draw. Predictable punches will not upset Bush's delivery of the simple basic themes -- "battling against evil," "taking the fight to the terrorists," "safer now than on Sept. 11" -- that have allowed him to maintain relatively broad support in the face of increasingly awful news from around the world.

To knock Bush off message, Kerry will need to come into the debates with a message for which Bush is unprepared. And Kerry will have to hammer away on that message until it supplants Bush's mantras in the mind of the voting public.

So what should Kerry talk about? One word: Halliburton.

Kerry should make the crony capitalism that has allowed Vice President Dick Cheney's corporation to become the dominant player in the management of the botched occupation and reconstruction of Iraq a part of every answer to every question. The Democrat should explain to Americans, again and again and again, that one of the primary explanations for the fact that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has turned out badly is the determination of this administration to assure that Halliburton be the primary profiteer in the region.

No corporation has gained more from the invasion of Iraq than Halliburton. Since the war began, it has moved from No.19 on the U.S. Army's list of top contractors to No. 1. Last year, the company pocketed $4.2 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars. And that's merely the take so far; the company's Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) subsidiary has collected what the Washington Post describes as "one of the contracting plums of the war: a classified no-bid deal worth up to $7 billion to do the restoration work."

Yet, by any measure, Halliburton and KBR have done a horrible job of managing the occupation and the reconstruction. The company has been investigated and fined for wrongdoing, and few days go by without new evidence surfacing to suggest that Halliburton either is massively corrupt or massively inept--or, and this is the most likely explanation, a messy combination of the two. Things are so bad that Halliburton officials are now talking about spinning off KBR in order to try to salvage what is left of the parent corporation's reputation.

Kerry has promised that, "As president, I will stop companies like Halliburton from profiting at the expense of our troops and taxpayers." Referencing that fact that Cheney continues to receive money from Halliburton--$178,437 in 2003 alone--Kerry adds, "I will stop companies from receiving no-bid contracts from the government when the president or vice president is still receiving compensation from that company."

That's a message Kerry should take into the debates. Bush wants to talk about "fighting against evil." Kerry should oblige him by forcing the president to address the evil of war profiteering -- and the crime of handing no-bid contracts to a company that is funneling money into the vice president's bank account.

*****************************************************************John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released 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*****************************************************************

Rather Ridiculous

Just about the only sensible voice in the whole controversy over the documents CBS News used in its ham-handed attempt to raise questions about George W. Bush's "service" in the Texas National Guard came from retired typist Marian Carr Knox. As a former assistant to Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander who allegedly suggested that officers had been pressured to "sugar coat" their evaluations of the politically-connected young Guardsman, Knox was in a position to know more than just about anyone else about the authenticity of the documents and of the sentiments expressed in them.

In interviews with several news outlets, including CBS, Knox suggested that the Killian memos were forged but accurate.

Now that CBS News anchor Dan Rather has acknowledged that he made a "mistake in judgment" when he relied on what now appear to have been bogus documents for a "60 Minutes" report that detailed some of the favorable treatment Bush received, Knox's seemingly strange statement offers one of the few realistic routes out of the thicket of spin the Bush administration has erected to avoid a serious discussion of the president's Vietnam-era "service" in the Guard.

Knox said she did not think the memos that were purported to have been written by Killian were genuine. But, she said, they reflected sentiments the National Guard commander expressed at the time. Thus, the documents that have caused such a stir as this year's presidential campaign enters its final weeks could indeed be both forged and accurate.

So where should Knox's insight lead us?

First, anyone who wants to know the truth about Bush's pampered "service" should be furious with Rather and the CBS crew. When they refused to follow basic fact-checking standards, they failed their viewers and the broader American public that would, for the first time, be exposed by the September 8 "60 Minutes" broadcast to a seemingly serious review of irregularities related to Bush's entry into the guard, his ignoring of direct orders, his failure to show up for duty and a pattern of reassignments that seemed always to benefit the son of a then-congressman from Texas rather than the country he was supposed to be serving.

After more than a month of virtually round-the-clock assessment of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam service, major media has a responsibility to reexamine the president's controversial service record.

Yet, by doing a haphazard job of reporting and then rushing to broadcast the supposed "blockbuster" story, Rather and his crew played into the hands of a Bush spin machine that is now expert at peddling the lie that a liberal media is out to distort the president's record. While their intent may have been to shed light on an interesting and potentially significant story of the special treatment accorded this son of privilege, Rather and CBS, in their search for a "scoop," created a fog so thick that it could well obscure the story for the rest of the campaign.

By relying on a few documents that were not adequately verified, CBS handed White House political czar Karl Rove exactly what he needed to steer attention away from the real story. Of course it remains true that, as Rather says, "Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it... that George Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and, once there, failed to satisfy the requirements of his service."

Unfortunately, the "heart" of the story has been largely obscured by the controversy over the doctored documents.

As such, Rather and CBS are guilty of undermining not just their own story but the truth. That's particularly tragic because it was never really their story in the first place. The basic story of the machinations that George Herbert Walker Bush performed to help his son avoid serving in Vietnam, and the dirty details of the son's failure to do his duty as a Guardsman, was well reported almost five years ago by Texas columnist Molly Ivins and Texas investigative reporter Lou Dubose in their still-essential assessment of young Bush's path to power, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Vintage). That book's chapter regarding Bush's Vietnam-era Guard duty is exceptionally well-reported, compelling and, ultimately, more damning of the Bush family and the current president than anything produced since its publication.

So why didn't Rather and the CBS crew simply invite Ivins and Dubose, both experienced Texas reporters with long histories of sorting fact from fiction when dealing with the Bush family, to help produce a "60 Minutes" report that would have told the story accurately and thoroughly? Perhaps CBS executives thought that, because Ivins and Dubose write with a point of view, rather than feigning journalistic impartiality, they could not be trusted to get the straight story. That, of course, is the common bias of the elite broadcast media in the United States.

Unfortunately, that bias led Rather and CBS to produce a story that has done severe damage to the prospects that the great mass of Americans will ever learn the truth about their president's Vietnam-era actions. There is a lesson to be learned here: There was never any need for Rather and CBS to go searching for a "scoop" regarding Bush's time in the Guard. The story has already been reported and written by Ivins and DuBose. What there was a need for was a network with the courage to take that story, attach some pictures and broadcast it. Unfortunately, CBS proved incapable to performing that simple task. And, in so doing, CBS put the truth a little further out of reach for most Americans.

Vice President of the Apocalypse

For those who feared that the speakers at last week's Republican National Convention had failed to adequately impress upon the American electorate the view that death and grief and sorrow would be the predictable byproducts of John Kerry's election to the presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney has spelled out the threat in excruciating detail.

"It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney grumbled to a gathering of the ceaselessly-nodding Republican party faithful in Des Moines.

Cheney's claim that the replacement of the administration he runs -- with an assist from George W. Bush -- by a Kerry administration would call down the wrath of global terrorism on the homeland is easily the most irresponsible statement of a campaign that has not exactly been characterized by moderation.

The Democratic response was to condemn Cheney in the bizarrely tepid fashion that has come to characterize the opposition party's dysfunction attempt to retake the White House. "Protecting America from vicious terrorists is not a Democratic or Republican issues, it's an American issue and Dick Cheney and George Bush should know that," whined Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

Let it be recorded that, despite the firm slap on the wrist that was administered by Mr. Edwards, Mr. Cheney did not choose to retract his remarks. And he won't.

Edwards and other Democrats make a mistake when they assume, as Edwards did, that the vice president is merely playing politics. When Edwards suggested that Cheney was employing "scare tactics," and that the Republicans "will do anything and say anything to save their jobs," he gave Cheney far too much credit.

It is true, of course, that the vice president would say anything and do anything in order to maintain his grip on power. But it does not necessarily follow that Cheney is simply carrying out a political hit. Indeed, if the past is prologue, there is every reason to assume that the vice president believes what he is saying about the damage that will befall the land if he and his minions are not working the levers of authority.

Few figures in American politics maintain a world view that is so consistently apocalyptic as does Cheney. Fewer still have allowed petty fears and profound ignorance to so dramatically warp their actions and public pronouncements.

Cheney's Cold War obsessions have frequently placed him on the wrong side of history, causing him to misread the geopolitical realities of regions around the world -- and of the key players within them. This is the man who was so certain that the African National Congress was a dangerous group that he regularly voted, as a member of Congress in the 1980s, against House resolutions calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in South Africa. While leading conservative Republicans such as Jack Kemp were hailing Mandela as an iconic fighter for freedom and racial justice, Cheney continued to decry the ANC as "a terrorist organization" and to dismiss its leaders as threatening radicals.

During the same period that Cheney was championing the imprisonment of Mandela, the Republican representative from Wyoming was one of the most prominent Congressional advocates for the Reagan administration's illegal war making in Central America. When the administration's crimes were exposed as the Iran-Contra scandal, former White House counsel John Dean notes, "Cheney became President Reagan's principle defender in Congress." Cheney argued that those who sought to hold the Reagan administration accountable for illegal acts in Latin America were "prepared to undermine the presidency" and the ability of future presidents to defend the United States.

When he left the House to become George Herbert Walker Bush's Secretary of Defense, Cheney struggled to maintain the Pentagon's Cold War footing even as the Berlin Wall was crumbling. Obsessed with the notion that the United States should retain the capacity to launch preemptive wars against nation's that were perceived even as possible threats, Cheney was a hyperactive advocate for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Unfortunately for Secretary of Defense, whose passion for deposing Saddam Hussein reached surreal levels, the "Operation Scorpion" scheme he and his aides developed for imposing "regime change" upon Iraq was so ineptly plotted that it was scrapped after a cursory review by General Norman Schwarzkopf. "I wondered whether Cheney had succumbed to the phenomenon I'd observed among some secretaries of the army," observed Schwarzkopf, the commander on the ground in the region. "Put a civilian in charge of professional military men and before long he's no longer satisfied with setting policy but wants to outgeneral the generals."

When Cheney and a self-selected Praetorian Guard set up the new Republican administration that took charge of the White House after the 2000 election, the vice president could not be bothered to address real threats to the country because he remained obsessed with what turned out to be a ridiculously hyped Iraqi threat. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill noted, Cheney and his aides were in the first days of 2001 "already planning the next war in Iraq and the shape of a post-Saddam country."

On the issue of Iraq, Cheney has allowed his tendency toward apocalyptic fantasies to go unchecked. When the vice president was peddling the "case" for invasion, he made far more remarkable claims than did Bush. Charging that Saddam had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," Cheney warned a 2002 Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."

Whew! Scary stuff!

Even scarier, however, is the fact that, as Cheney's claims were proven wrong, the vice president continued to repeat them -- long after Bush had backed off, and long after there was any political advantage to be gained.

This, of course, is where assessing Cheney gets difficult. It is no longer clear where Cheney is deliberately deceiving the American people and where he has deliberately deceived himself. It is easy to call Cheney a "liar," -- and there is no question that the vice president has been caught more than once twisting the truth. But Dick Cheney's biggest lies are almost certainly the ones he tells himself. As such, he will never back away from his charge that changing administrations would be a "wrong choice."

A man who so frequently anticipates the apocalypse is likely to fall into the habit of believing that he alone recognizes that true dangers facing his country.

But why would anyone else treat Cheney seriously? Why would the press repeat his over-the-top charges without noting that Dick Cheney has a track record of reading the world wrong, imagining threats where they do not exist and neglecting real dangers? Why would it go unmentioned that the man who is questioning John Kerry's judgement thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist?

That's what John Edwards should be talking about.

Instead of complaining that the vice president is engaging in "scare tactics," the Democrat should be suggesting that Americans ought to be afraid, very afraid, of Dick Cheney.

(John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. It's available in independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com)

GOP to UN: Drop Dead

NEW YORK -- John Kerry has taken his hits at this year's Republican National Convention. But the Democratic presidential nominee came off easy compared with the United Nations.

Not since the convention that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 has a gathering of the Republican faithful featured so much UN bashing from so many prominent players in the party. What once was the extremist line of John Birch Society cadres and their allies -- "Get US out of the UN," read the society's billboards in the 1960s -- has become a popular position within the Republican party.

The anti-UN sentiment was stoked by Vice President Dick Cheney in his unilateralism then, unilateralism now, unilateralism forever address to the convention on Wednesday night.

Among the vice president's many sneering references to Kerry's internationalism was the declaration that, "History has shown that a strong purposeful America is vital to preserving freedom and keeping us safe, yet time and again Senator Kerry has made the wrong call on national security. Senator Kerry began his political career by saying he would like to see our troops deployed 'only at the directive of the United Nations.'"

In contrast, Cheney thundered, "George W. Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people."

That turned out to be one of the biggest applause lines for a speech that formed the centerpiece of the convention's foreign-policy message.

It was not, however, the biggest anti-UN applause line.

That came from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope for democracy, then you are a Republican," the actor who once played Conan the Barbarian told the convention.

The dig at the UN was greeted with thunderous and sustained applause from the delegates gathered in Madison Square Garden, which is located just across the island of Manhattan from the international agency's headquarters.

Schwarzenegger's remarks were not so warmly greeted by the Bush administration's new ambassador to the UN.

Former US Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, has been trying to patch up relations between the United States and the UN. Those relations soured last year, after the the UN Security Council declined to approve Bush's plans for invading Iraq. But Bush has been trying to ease tensions since the UN helped the US to install Iraq's interim government – and, notably, he avoided engaging in explicit UN bashing in his acceptance speech on Thursday night.

Just as notably, however, was the president's avoidance of any defense of the United Nations.

That task was left to Ambassador Danforth. To his credit, Danforth left little doubt of his view that the UN-bashing at the Republican convention is going to make the job of patching up relations between the US and the UN more difficult.

Responding to a question about Schwarzenegger's criticism of the UN, and the convention's enthusiastic response to it, Danforth explained that, "I can only say that when President Bush asked me to do this job, he said that the United Nations is very important, and that this was a very important job."

The ambassador said that "working through the UN and working with other countries and working on a multilateral basis is clearly the strategy that we have in our country and it is very important."

Though he is a senior Republican political figure, who in 2000 was seriously considered as a contender for the party's vice presidential nomination, Danforth was not asked to address the convention.

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