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U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, who four years ago stood alone in the Senate to defend the Bill of Rights, finished this year by scoring a dramatic win in his fight to preserve civil liberties.
The Senate's decision to block a Bush administration push for long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act -- which would have enshrined in law for years, and in some cases permanently, assaults on basic rights contained in the measure -- came after Feingold threatened a filibuster and then organized a bipartisan coalition of senators to back him up.
The fight grew increasingly intense last week, after Senate Republican leaders fell seven votes short of the total they needed to thwart a filibuster.
As the December 31 deadline for reauthorization of the act approached. Feingold and his allies offered to accept a short-term extension, so that the Patriot Act could remain in force while senators of both parties address Constitutional concerns.
But President Bush was not in the mood to compromise.
To the very end, the president -- doing his best King George immitation -- attacked Democratic and Republican senators for seeking to reform the act, which was hastily approved after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Dismissing attempts to reconcile the need for security with the requirements of the Constitution, Bush attacked the Senate's refusal to reauthorize the act in the form he demanded as "inexcusable" and said that Feingold and his allies were endangering America.
"The senators who are filibustering the Patriot Act must stop their delaying tactics, and the Senate must vote to reauthorize the Patriot Act. In the war on terror, we cannot afford to be without this law for a single moment," grumbled Bush in one of a series of public rejections of any talk of a temporary renewal.
But, for all his bluster, Bush had to back down.
The Senate deal that ended the filibuster threat extends the act only for six months and provides critics with clear openings to debate contentious provisions, particularly those that permit the FBI to conduct "sneak-and-peak" searches of private homes and businesses, to wiretap telephones and examine of emails, and to obtain secret warrants for library, medical, business and personal records of Americans who are not suspected of committing crimes. (On Thursday, the House voted for an even shorter extension of one month, a move Feingold applauded. The two chambers must now reconcile their different measures before the end of the year.)
The opportunity that has now been created to debate components of the act -- rather than merely pass the law in its entirety -- is what Feingold has been demanding since 2001, when he cast the sole Senate vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. And so it came as no great surprise that the senator was celebrating a win Wednesday -- not just for his own political crusade of the past four years, but for the Constitution that he and his fellow senators have sworn to uphold.
"Today is a victory for the American people and the bipartisan group of Senators who have been fighting against efforts to extend the Patriot Act permanently without protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens," Feingold announced Wednesday evening, after the Senate Republican leadership abandoned Bush's line."I am pleased that the Republican leadership backed down from their irresponsible threat to let the Patriot Act expire and agreed to a six-month extension of the provisions that would have sunset at the end of this year," the senator said. "This will allow more time to finally agree on a bill that protects our rights and freedoms while preserving important tools for fighting terrorism. Those of us who stood up to demand modest and reasonable protections of our liberties never wanted to stop Patriot Act reauthorization. We just want to get it right this time around."
Feingold also took an appropriate swipe at Bush and his allies for creating a false crisis as the deadline for reauthorization approached.
"We could have avoided these last-minute negotiations if the House had just adopted the Senate version of the Patriot Act that passed unanimously earlier this year," explained the Democrat. "As we move forward, I hope that the Republican leadership in the Senate and the administration will continue down the path they started on tonight so that we don't find ourselves in this same situation six months from now. One thing is clear - what happened in the Senate over the past few weeks shows that (long-term reauthorization of the Patriot Act in the version favored by Bush) is dead."
And the Bill of Rights is alive and kicking.
As President Bush and his aides scramble to explain new revelations regarding Bush's authorization of spying on the international telephone calls and emails of Americans, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, has begun a process that could lead to the censure, and perhaps the impeachment, of the president and vice president.
U.S. Representative John Conyers, the Michigan Democrat who was a critical player in the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations into presidential wrongdoing, has introduced a package of resolutions that would censure President Bush and Vice President Cheney and create a select committee to investigate the Administration's possible crimes and make recommendations regarding grounds for impeachment.
The Conyers resolutions add a significant new twist to the debate about how to hold the administration to account. Members of Congress have become increasingly aggressive in the criticism of the White House, with U.S. Senator Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, saying Monday, "Americans have been stunned at the recent news of the abuses of power by an overzealous President. It has become apparent that this Administration has engaged in a consistent and unrelenting pattern of abuse against our Country's law-abiding citizens, and against our Constitution." Even Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, are talking for the first time about mounting potentially serious investigations into abuses of power by the president.
But Conyers is seeking to do much more than schedule a committee hearing, or even launch a formal inquiry. He is proposing that the Congress use all of the powers that are available to it to hold the president and vice president to account – up to and including the power to impeach the holders of the nation's most powerful positions and to remove them from office.
The first of the three resolutions introduced by Conyers, H.Res.635, asks that the Congress establish a select committee to investigate whether members of the administration made moves to invade Iraq before receiving congressional authorization, manipulated pre-war intelligence, encouraged the use of torture in Iraq and elsewhere, and used their positions to retaliate against critics of the war.
The select committee would be asked to make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment of Bush and Cheney.
The second resolution, H.Res.636, asks that the Congress to censure the president "for failing to respond to requests for information concerning allegations that he and others in his Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq, misstated and manipulated intelligence information regarding the justification for the war, countenanced torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of persons in Iraq, and permitted inappropriate retaliation against critics of his Administration, for failing to adequately account for specific misstatements he made regarding the war, and for failing to comply with Executive Order 12958." (Executive Order 12958, issued in 1995 by former President Bill Clinton, seeks to promote openness in government by prescribing a uniform system for classifying, safeguarding, and declassifying national security information.)
A third resolution, H.Res.637, would censure Cheney for a similar set of complaints.
"The people of this country are waking up to the severity of the lies, crimes, and abuses of power committed by this president and his administration," says Jon Bonifaz, a co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, an alliance of more than100 grassroots groups that has detailed Bush administration wrongdoing and encouraged a Congressional response. Bonifaz, an attorney and the author of the book, Warrior King: The Case for Impeaching George Bush (Nation Books), argues that, "Now is the time to return to the rule of law and to hold those who have defied the Constitution accountable for their actions."
Bonifaz is right. But it is unlikely that the effort to censure Bush and Cheney, let alone impeach them, will get far without significant organizing around the country. After all, the House is controlled by allies of the president who have displayed no inclination to hold him to account. Indeed, only a few Democrats, such as Conyers, have taken seriously the Constitutional issues raised by the administration's misdeeds.
Members of Congress in both parties will need to feel a lot of heat if these improtant measures are going to get much traction in this Congress.
The grassroots group Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), which has had a good deal of success organizing activists who want the Democrats to take a more aggressive stance in challenging the administration, will play a critical role in the effort to mobilize support for the Conyers resolutions, as part of a new Censure Bush Coalition campaign. (The campaign's website can be found at www.censurebush.org)
PDA director Tim Carpenter says his group plans to "mobilize and organize a broad base coalition that will demand action from Congress to investigate the lies of the Bush administration and their conduct related to the war in Iraq."
Getting this Congress to get serious about maintaining checks and balances on the Bush administration will be a daunting task. But the recent revelations regarding domestic spying will make it easier. There are a lot of Americans who share the view of U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, that Bush and Cheney have exceeded their authority. As Feingold says of Bush, "He is the president, not a king."
It was the bitter experience of dealing with King George III led the founders of this country to write a Constitution that empowers Congress to hold presidents and vice accountable for their actions.
It is this power that John Conyers, the senior member of the House committee charged with maintaining the system of checks and balances established by those founders, is now asking the Congress to employ in the service of the nation that Constitution still governs.
An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols' biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president's use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher's Weekly describes the book as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."
Even as President Bush was trying, once more on Sunday, to spin the fantasy that the Iraq invasion and occupation are some kind of success, Vice President Dick Cheney's visit to Iraq confirmed the truth of the mess that this military misadventure has created.
The vice president's "surprise" visit to Iraq -- which, coming shortly after voting in the latest of the country's quickie elections had finished, was about as surprising as Cheney's repetition of the administration's "stay-the-course" mantra -- was a public-relations disaster.
Because the vice president actually came into contact with the people his fantasies regarding Iraq -- remember Cheney's pre-war promise that U.S. troops would be "greeted as liberators" -- had put in harm's way.
Cheney's cheerleading during a whirlwind trip through the battlezone was challenged by men who are actually doing the fighting.
The first words Cheney heard during a roundtable discussion with several dozen troops were those of Marine Cpl. Bradley Warren, who said, "From our perspective, we don't see much as far as gains. We're looking at small-picture stuff, not many gains."
Cheney responded with warmed-over rhetoric about how the media is not showing the true picture of what is going on in Iraq. "I think when we look back from 10 years hence, we'll see that the year '05 was in fact a watershed year here in Iraq. We're getting the job done," claimed the vuice president, who was making his first visit to the warzone. "It's hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don't pay that much attention to the news."
The vice president did not seem to recognize the irony of complaining about media coverage presenting the war as something less than a success when he was responding to the concerns of a Marine -- who is actually serving on the ground in Iraq -- about the fact that he and his fellow troops "don't see much as far as gains."
Cheney's attempt to put a positive spin on the occupation does not appear to have found many takers among those who are dodging the bullets and bombs in a war that has killed more than 2,100 of their comrades and maimed tens of thousands more.
According to an Associated Press report, "When (Cheney) delivered the applause line, 'We're in this fight to win. These colors don't run,' the only sound was a lone whistle."
It is no wonder the troops were lacking in enthusiasm.
They know something that Cheney does not know, or at least does not admit.
They know that, at the close of this "watershed year," not nearly enough has changed for the better in Iraq.
They know, as well, that the administration's talk about how the U.S. will stand down as the Iraqis stand up remains an empty promise.
Consider a line buied deep in the AP report of the vice president's visit to Taji Air Base in Iraq: "U.S. forces guarded Cheney with weapons at the ready while Iraqi soldiers, who had no weapons, held their arms out as if they were carrying imaginary guns."
For all of Cheney's cheerleading about how well things are going, those carrying the real guns recognize that they will not soon be coming home from a country where their "replacements" are carrying imaginary guns.
The truth is that the president and vice president refuse to level not just with the troops and American people but with themselves. Wiser observers recognize that only when the U.S. leaves Iraq will the Iraqis begin to take responsibility for policing their own country. As U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, wrote last week in a letter to his House colleagues, "It is time that the over 200,000 Iraqis who have received military and police training over the past three years take over the hard job of providing domestic security themselves and stop using American forces as a crutch to lean on. It is time for U. S. forces to redeploy out of the country in an orderly but rapid way..."
Murtha, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has spent far more time than Cheney ever will speaking frankly with troops in Iraq and with honest military strategists, says, "I believe that the policy of the president -- total victory -- is not a policy. I believe that is a flawed policy wrapped in an illusion."It should come as no surprise that the troops Cheney encountered appeared to have been as frustrated with the illusion as Jack Murtha. After all, Murtha, the old soldier who earned a chest full of medals in Vietnam, is one of them. Cheney, the guy who got five deferments to avoid serving in Vietnam, is not.
An expanded paperback edition of John Nichols' biography of Vice President Dick Cheney, The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Most Powerful Vice President in American History (The New Press: 2005), is available nationwide at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com. The book features an exclusive interview with Joe Wilson and a chapter on the vice president's use and misuse of intelligence. Publisher's Weekly describes the book as "a Fahrenheit 9/11 for Cheney" and Esquire magazine says it "reveals the inner Cheney."
Four years ago, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold distinguished himself as the Senate's premier defender of the Constitution, when he cast the chamber's sole vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. As a time when every other senator – even liberal Democrats with long records of championing the Bill of Rights -- joined the post-September 11 rush to curtail basic liberties, Feingold stood alone in defense of the principle that it was possible to combat terrorism and protect the rights of Americans.
But Feingold no longer stands alone. On Friday, he led a bipartisan group of senators that successfully blocked the administration's concerted effort to renew the Patriot Act in a form that maintains its most abusive components. A move by Republican leaders of the Senate to prevent Feingold from mounting a filibuster fell seven votes short of the number needed.A remarkable 47 senators – including Democrats and Republicans – backed the Wisconsin Democrat's stance. That's far more than the 40 needed to prevent a filibuster, and it means that Feingold now heads a coalition that should be able to force significant changes in the Patriot Act before the December 31 deadline for its renewal.
The Senate coalition that the maverick senator has assembled is made up of members from across the political spectrum – from Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, the dean of Senate liberals, to Idaho Republican Larry Craig, one of the chamber's most right-wing members – who have joined Feingold in calling for reform of the Patriot Act.
This coalition did not just form overnight.
It is the result of four years of hard work by Feingold and others who recognized that the fight to fix the Patriot Act would have to be a long-term struggle.
Some members of Congress were swayed by Feingold's constant pressure on Patriot Act issues, and by the fact that the senator was easily reelected in 2004 after a campaign in which he highlighted his opposition to the measure and his concern for the Constitution.
Others were influenced by the diligent efforts of U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and his allies in organizations of librarians and independent booksellers, who campaigned for three years to alert Americans to the fact that the Patriot Act allowed federal agents to collect information on the reading habits of law-abiding citizens.
Others, still, were convinced by the success that the Bill of Rights Defense Committee had in getting seven states and close to 400 communities across the country to go on record expressing concern about the damage done by the Patriot Act to Constitutional protections against illegal searches and other abuses.
"It's an example of public pressure reaching through to their elected representatives," Feingold said of the grassroots campaign to reform the Patriot Act. "It's a unique chapter in the history of civil liberties in this country."
So popular did the movement become that this week, with the December 31 deadline for reauthorizing the Patriot Act looming, the Bush administration and its Congressional allies were forced to use a backdoor maneuver to thwart reforms that had been unanimously agreed to by the Senate. A conference committee report that was supposed to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the reauthorization measure instead was turned into a vehicle to maintain the most controversial and unpopular components of the Act.
The White House and its Congressional allies thought they could secure reauthorization of the act in a form that allowed the Justice Department and other federal agencies to continue running roughshod over the Bill of Rights by bringing the measure up on the eve of the Holiday recess and then spinning up the usual hyperventilated talk about how it is necessary to crush the Constitution in order to keep the American people safe.
The maneuver worked in the House, where the report was approved Wednesday by a 251-174 vote. (The administration won that vote only because 44 Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel and Ben Cardin, a candidate for Maryland's open Senate seat in 2006 – voted with the vast majority of House Republicans for a measure that the American Civil Liberties Union condemned as lacking "needed safeguards to protect the privacy and constitutional freedoms of innocent Americans.")
But, even as the House fell in line with the administration's scheme, Feingold refused to back down. He met the White House onslaught with a promise to do everything in his power to block reauthorization of the act in a form that does not sufficiently address concerns about federal agencies entering the homes of citizens of innocent Americans, reviewing library and medical records as part of "fishing expeditions" and secretly subpoenaing information without following standard legal procedures.
Going into Friday's fight in the Senate, Feingold assembled an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans to press his case against reauthorization in the manner demanded by the administration. The coalition came together around the premise that freedom need not be sacrificed in order to maintain security.
While he had allies this time, it was still Feingold who took the lead – and who took the heat.
When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lobbied the Senate on behalf of the conference report, claiming that the version under consideration was respectful of civil liberties and pleading with senators to "trust" the administration to do the right thing, Feingold took to the floor of the Senate with a blistering response.
"Trust of government cannot be demanded, or asserted, or assumed, it must be earned," the senator said. "And this government has not earned our trust. It has fought reasonable safeguards for constitutional freedoms every step of the way. It has resisted congressional oversight and often misled the public about its use of the Patriot Act. And now the Attorney General is arguing that the conference report is adequate ‘protection for civil liberties for all Americans.' It isn't."
In the end, every Democratic senator except South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson (who voted with the Republicans), and Connecticut's Chris Dodd (who did not vote) sided with Feingold. So, too, did Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords and four conservative Republicans: Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Idaho's Craig, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and New Hampshire's John Sununu. (Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, an ally of the administration, also voted against cloture in order to maintain his ability to reopen the issue.)
The failure of the Senate to block Feingold's filibuster threat does not doom the Patriot Act. The likelihood is that it will be renewed in some form. But the version that is eventually approved should be significantly more respectful of the Bill of Rights than the version the administration wanted.
That's all that Russ Feingold has been asking for since he began his lonely challenge to the Patriot Act back in 2001. The only difference is that, now, Feingold's voice is part of a bipartisan chorus that is demanding that Constitutional rights be defended by the members of Congress who have sworn to uphold that document.
As Feingold said Friday, "Today's vote proves that this is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue and a constitutional issue. Now is the time to come together to give the government the tools it needs to fight terrorism and protect the rights and freedoms of innocent citizens."
George W. Bush has a new favorite senator: Joe Lieberman.
As part of his "I've-Got-a-Secret-Plan-That's-Just-As-Good-As-Nixon's" stump tour to shore up sagging support for his war in Iraq, the president has been talking up the Connecticut Democrat as just about the only official outside the administration who "gets it."
In his December 7 speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, Bush was quoting Lieberman -- a Vietnam war foe who eluded military service every bit as efficiently as did Vice President Dick Cheney -- as if the senator was a modern-day Carl von Clausewitz. Recalling Lieberman's most recent pro-war outburst -- "What a colossal mistake it would be for America's bipartisan political leadership to choose this moment in history to lose its will, and, in a famous phrase, 'to seize defeat from the jaws of the coming victory'" -- the president declared: "Senator Lieberman is right."
Lieberman's over-the-top cheerleading for a war gone wrong has been just about the only good news that Bush has gotten on the domestic political front in recent weeks, and the president and his supporters are playing the senator's support for everything that it is worth. There is even speculation that Bush might pluck Lieberman from the Senate and award him a Cabinet post -- perhaps as Donald Rumsfeld's replacement at the Department of Defense.
Whatever Lieberman's poliutical trajectory may be, there is no question that it is being the cheered from the right.
Rare is the afternoon when Rush Limbaugh does not mention Lieberman's "courageous" support for the war on his radio show. Rarer still is the evening when the Democratic senator is not giggling along with Sean Hannity as Fox's propagandist-in-chief derides war critics as dupes, cowards and traitors. Hannity has gone so far as to announce that he will support Lieberman for reelection. And it is a reasonably safe bet that Lieberman will not face a serious challenge from the Republican right when he seeks reelection in 2006.
After all, this Democratic senator has a long track record of delivering for the conservative movement. Elected to the Senate in 1988 with the support of William F. Buckley and Buckley's National Review magazine, Lieberman has regularly sided with the Republican establishment on everything from trade policy to military misadventures. He has, as well, been Joey-on-the-spot when George W. Bush has needed an election ally.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Lieberman, who was then the party's vice presidential nominee, parted company with his running mate, Al Gore, to tell the Wall Street Journal that Gore's populist rhetoric wasn't serious. Don't take Gore seriously, Lieberman promised, Democrats could be counted on to deliver for corporate America.
During the Florida recount fight of that year, Lieberman told Democrats to back off their challenges to Republican efforts to count votes that were cast late or illegally.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, after Democrats had overwhelmingly rejected Lieberman's candidacy for their party's nomination, the senator traveled to the battleground state of Florida three weeks before the election and told a predominantly Jewish crowd in Delray Beach that criticism of Bush's Middle East policies were "unjustified." "We are dealing with a president who's had a record of strong, consistent support for Israel," Lieberman argued. "You can't say otherwise."
It's a safe bet that Bush will return the favor next year, making friendly statements about Lieberman at appropriate moments during the senator's reelection race.
Presumably, in a state that voted 54-44 for Democrat John Kerry in 2004, and where the president's approval rating has fallen to an abysmal 32 percent in recent polling, Bush's enthusiasm for Lieberman is something less than a plus for the Democrat.
But for Lieberman to be beat, he will have to have an opponent.
Despite a good deal of grumbling from Connecticut Democrats, as well as some national prodding from MoveOn,org, Democracy for America and other groups that want the Democrats to offer a choice rather than an echo, Lieberman does not face a serious Democratic primary challenge going into the 2006 election season. And, since Connecticut is not a state with a strong tradition of intraparty fights, Lieberman could well dodge the primary defeat he so richly deserves.
But that does not mean that the president's favorite senator will go without a serious anti-war challenge.
Former U.S. Senator Lowell Weicker, the Republican incumbent Lieberman narrowly beat in 1988, is talking seriously about taking the senator on next year. And Weicker would run as an anti-war candidate.
"I disagree 100 percent with the position (Lieberman''s) taken on this war. It mirrors that of the president, and obviously I disagree with the president," says Weicker, who adds, "I am interested in the war. I am interested in putting heat on people that continue to put us in the position that we're in in Iraq."
To be clear, Weicker, who is 74 and serves as president of the Trust for America's Health, would prefer to see someone else take on Lieberman. But, he says, he'll run if no one else does because he thinks it is so essential to challenge the senator's support of the war.
It would be wrong to see a Weicker campaign as a protest vehicle, however. Weicker remains a respected and potentially viable political player in Connecticut -- and nationally. After he was defeated in 1988, he turned around and won the governorship as the candidate of his independent "A Connecticut Party" in 1990. And, as recently as 2000, he was encouraged to run for the presidency on the Reform Party line.
What makes Weicker so appealing is that he is genuine maverick. As a Republican senator, he was a leading critic of Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He supported civil rights and civil liberties, stood up for abortion rights and gay rights, backed campaign finance and ethics reforms, voted against right-wing judicial picks, condemned Nixon as the Watergate scandals were revealed and aggressively attacked Reagan and his aides for their Iran-Contra crimes.
When Weicker served in the Senate during the 1970s and 1980s, there were a good many moderate Republicans, and even some liberal members of the Grand Old Party. It is a measure of how far American politics has moved to the right that, without changing his politics at all, Weicker felt most comfortable in 2004 backing Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
But Weicker is no Democrat. Indeed, as Hartford Courant columnist Colin McEnroe explains, "I think it's almost impossible to overstate the degree to which, psychologically, Weicker has identified himself as a third party, independent guy. When you get him talking about that stuff, you realize it's really at the heart of how he sees himself these days."Weicker's independence -- and the fact that he has already won a statewide election without the benefit of major-party backing -- makes him all the more attractive as a challenger to Lieberman.
Make no mistake, it would still be an uphill challenge.
Lieberman retains an appeal to at least some Democrats -- he's got a strong record on the environment and a pretty good one on domestic labor issues -- and, of course, to Republicans who appreciate what he's done for Bush. But a genuine independent who challenges the incumbent on the most fundamental questions of war and peace will have appeal across the political spectrum.
Done right, a Weicker campaign could telescope the debate about Iraq and expose Lieberman for what his is: a politician whose moralizing has always been a mask for his overaching ambition.
A Lieberman-Weicker race could well give Connecticut the most interesting, issue-based Senate race in the country.
And it might just give George Bush the jolt he needs. After all, losing a favorite senator would be a blow to any president -- even a president as disengaged as this one.
So Weicker should run. Indeed, he must run.
Run, Lowell, run!
In the latest of his speeches on the Iraq imbroglio, President Bush did something that is highly unusual for him.
He acknowledged personal responsibility for actions taken by his administration.
No, the president's carefully worded speech did not feature an admission that he and his aides deliberately inflated the supposed "threat" posed by Iraq in order to convince the Congress to authorize the invasion and occupation of that country. But Bush did, on Wednesday, finally state the obvious when he said: "It is true that much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong,"
What was far more remarkable was the next line in the speech, the one where he said: "As president, I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq."
While the president's aides and allies in Congress, along with a sycophantic Washington press corps now claim that there was a broad bipartisan consensus in favor of the war, the fact is that a majority of Democrats in Congress -- amd a handful of brave Republicans -- voted against authorizing the invasion and the American people poured into the streets of communities across the country to oppose Bush's rush to war.
When the president now says that he is "responsible" for the war, he is, of course, trying to appear strong and decisive – in order to claim credit for whatever small "victories" his public relations machine will try to spin out of the Iraqi parliamentary elections and other developments of the moment.
But if Bush really wants to take responsibility for this war, then he must accept it in its totality.
And that totality is an ugly one, indeed.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who has been far more consistently right about this war than anyone in the administration, is correct when he says that there is more misery than glory in this military misadventure.
"The President now says he is responsible for the war in Iraq," Kucinich said, after listening to Bush's speech. "I agree with the President. He is responsible. He is responsible for attacking a nation that did not attack us. He is responsible for the 2,151 American troops killed in Iraq. He is responsible for the 15,881 US troops injured in the war. He is responsible for at least 30,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the start of the war. He is responsible for draining $250 billion from US taxpayers to pay for the war. And he is responsible for the failed reconstruction and for the continued occupation."
Sometime in the mid-1990s, after it had become quite clear that Bill Clinton's presidency would deliver rather less than had been hoped, and when it was becoming clear that Newt Gingrich's control of the House would deliver rather more than had been feared, I penned a review of a then-recently published collection of former Sen, Eugene McCarthy's poems. In it, I lamented the lack of poetry in the politics of the moment and suggested that America would be far better served by politicians with a literary bent than by the dim-witted technocrats and self-absorbed plotters to whom power had fallen.
A few weeks later, a modest package with a Virginia postmark arrived at my office. In it was a lovely note from McCarthy, along with a thin volume of his poetry, Other Things and the Aardvark, which had been published in a limited edition of 250 almost three decades earlier. The senator had given copies of the book to friends and supporters of his anti-war campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. In the book's preface, McCrathy noted that "ancient mapmakers used the term 'terra terribilia' to identify what was beyond their knowledge of the earth" and he then paid tribute "to poets who have gone beyond the 'known' and the 'certain' into the 'terra terribilia' in the search for truth."
What did not need to be noted, of course, was that McCarthy had journeyed, in 1968 and over the decades that followed, across the terra terribilia of American politics, earning the enmity even of his onetime supporters and the affection of some who had once dismissed him as a dangerous radical. As I would learn over the years of our acquaintance that began with the arrival of that package, McCarthy was in most senses a very conservative man. He studied religion and the classics, he saw the value of tradition, he embraced standards of duty and responsibility that are so rarely followed today that they do indeed seem radical.
But, at the most fundamental level, all that Eugene McCarthy tried to do during his political lifetime -- with an unfortunate lack of success -- was drag America back to the best of its values.
We spoke about that struggle when I was preparing my book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire, before its publication this year. The premise of the book was that those founders who wanted America to lead by example rather than force -- as "a city upon a hill," to quote John Winthrop -- had imparted a wisdom worthy of recollection in these times. This appealed to McCarthy. Indeed, we found a quotation from a 1967 essay of his that updated the principle rather nicely: "A nation has prestige according to its merits. America's contribution to world civilization must be more than a continous performance demonstration that we can police the planet."
In that essay, which appeared only a few months before he launched his primary challenge to President Lyndon Johnson, with the argument that the United States should cease its policing of souytheast Asia and other far destinations, McCarthy wrote, "Many of our problems today are the result of our unwillingness or inability in the past to anticipate what may be the shape of the world 20 years in the future.... There is never a totally painless way to pull back from either unwise, ill-advised, or outdated ideas or commitments. But throughout history, mighty nations have learned the limit of power. There are lessons to be learned from Athens, from Rome, from 16th-Century Spain."
McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign is often remembered as a simplistic initiative, an attempt to turn the anti-draft and anti-war enthusiasms of protesting students into a political force. In fact, it was something far deeper, and far more significant.
In that 1968 run, and to an even greater extent in his 1976 independent campaign for the presidency, McCarthy argued for an American role in the world that owed much more to George Washington, James Madison and John Quincy Adams than it did to Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon or more recent presidents.
Living in the Virginia countryside, not far from the homes of the founders he favored, McCarthy remained steady across the years in his embrace of a Madisonian vision. He raged as only an American prophet could, about how George Bush, Dick Cheney and their neoconservative allies had, with their advocacy for an unprovoked attack on Iraq, "introduced new concepts about preventing war that are wholly unacceptable in our tradition."
"There are things you do in a war which are preventive, but to just announce it as a general proposition that you're justified in starting a whole war is another question," McCarthy explained in a 2003 interview. "I don't think Bush understands what he's doing."
Weeks after Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, McCarthy dismissed the endeavor as "a faith-based war" but he warned that its consequences would be agonizingly real for America. Indeed, he suggested, they was already evidence of those consequences to be found in a loss of liberty about which observers of the American experiment had long warned.
Referring to the Patriot Act and related assaults on domestic liberties, the former senator explained that, "de Tocqueville said you'll find you'll lose the freedoms you're supposed to be defending by setting up your defenses against losing them, and that's what's involved in the stuff that Bush is doing. We haven't lost any of our liberties to the Iraqis yet, but we've had our own liberties curtailed."
It remains true that America has suffered from a lack of poetry in our politics, but it is surely also true that we have suffered from a slow disconnection with the best of our values and traditions. With McCarthy's death, that disconnect grows a little more severe, and America's circumstance a tad more perilous.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), a book that historian Howard Zinn says "reminds us that our opposition to empire has a long and noble tradition in this country."
Even the poets are restless now. They¡¦re not content to go along with Shelley and be the unacknowledged legislators of the world. They want to be acknowledged just a little bit.
Eugene McCarthyMarch, 1968
Eugene McCarthy, who has died more quietly than he lived at the venerable age of 89, will be remembered first and foremost as the courageous Minnesota senator who, when the anti-Vietnam War movement needed a champion in the political arena, took up the fight and deposed one of the most powerful presidents in history.
But of McCarthy, to a greater extent than any contemporary political figure except perhaps former President Jimmy Carter, it can fairly be said that he was much more than maverick senator and an epic presidential contender.
He was, as well, a literary contender -- a poet whose determination to leap from the role of truth teller and angry scold that Percy Bysshe Shelley envisioned when he dubbed poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world" into the actual legislature and leadership of a global superpower.
It was the poetic impulse that served to explain the most inspired and the most frustrating aspects of McCarthy's long and often quixotic journey across the American political landscape. Indeed, it was in the thick of the 1968 campaign, when his more prominent foes were declining to debate McCarthy that the senator suggested "a poetry contest" where the battle would could down to "who can develop the best rhymes or the best lines -- if we leave it that open..."
McCarthy did not win the presidency. But he would have won his poetry contest hands down.
And if Walt Whitman celebrated his own life as the great poem of America in its questing 19th century moment, then surely Gene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign was -- in its brief shining moment -- the great poem of the American political experience.
In these darker days of that experience, it is difficult to imagine a lyrical politics.
Politics and poetry are infrequently associated -- to the detriment of both endeavors.
But four decades ago, in a different and more hopeful America, politics and poetry had a brief acquaintance.
In the fall of 1967, millions of Americans had come to the conclusion that the only way to get U.S. troops out of the quagmire that was Vietnam was to depose President Lyndon Johnson. No small maneuver this -- as Johnson had been elected in a 1964 landslide and retained an air of invincibility. But a small band of anti-war Democrats determined to find a U.S. senator brave --or foolish -- enough to take on his own president and party.
They found an unlikely candidate in a senator from Minnesota who was at least as serious about literature as he was about politics. McCarthy was a radical anomaly in American politics even then, a former college professor who began one of the most important speeches of that 1968 campaign - an address to a great rally in the Dane County Coliseum in Madison Wisconsin -- by quoting, from memory, a long section of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
McCarthy's literary bent tended to put off fellow senators, who sometimes dismissed him as too prone to rumination and independent thinking for the game of politics. But it sat well with the ragtag band of political dreamers who dared believe they could defeat a sitting president, end a foolish war and set right a nation.
Their slogan was: "To begin anew... ."
His supporters were the sort of romantic radicals who maintained that it was not merely possible, but in fact necessary, to turn the wheel of politics and governance further than more restrained activists of their day -- and the days since -- would imagine it might go.
Several years ago, when we were talking about our mutual friend Midge Miller, who played a pivotal role in the Wisconsin primary campaign that would yield the great victory of his crusade, McCarthy explained what distinguished Miller and so many of the others who helped him turn the wheel in 1968.
"Midge had been active before my campaign. She knew politics. That made her invaluable, because most people who 'knew' politics were certain that our campaign was doomed to fail," McCarthy said of the woman who would go on to be a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus and to serve many years as a Wisconsin legislator. "She was that rare combination: someone with experience who still believed that great things were possible."
McCarthy and his supporters achieved that which older and "wiser" liberals deemed impossible. They built a campaign so strong that a stunned Johnson responded with an eve-of-the-primary announcement that he was ending his re-election effort. In Wisconsin that spring, McCarthy wrote a poem that well captured the ironic, insurgent and, above all, romantic character of that campaign:
Whose foot is on the treadle
That turns the burning stars
Has spun the world half way round
Since last I called
Come down, come down.
That stars that in September
Looked through the mournful rain
Now set their sight again
Upon a world half night, half light
Men of distant years have said
That much depends on change of seasons
On solstices and equinox
And they have given reasons.
Too much turns on inadvertence
On what seems to be
An accident of hand and knee
A chance sunrise
A glance of eyes
Eugene McCarthy and his followers put their feet to the treadle in 1967 and 1968, challenged the men of distance years, betting on the inadvertence of a poet-senator, and changing the course of their party and their nation. For a moment, all too brief, they found a common ground between poetry and politics -- and they inspired a nation, or at least a few of its more adventurous states, to take a leap of faith.
Even if McCarthy sometimes gave up the ground over the years, many of those who were with him in that distant campaign have stood it ever since - calling the rest of us to believe in the prospect that an inspired few can spin the world half way round.
McCarthy always recognized that it was not just he who had the poetry in him.
"We proved something in that 1968 campaign," McCarthy explained to me a few years ago, during that conversation about Midge Miller and the others who drew him into the race and who sustained him through its unimagined triumphs and its bitter disappointments. "We showed that you could challenge the two political parties and all the powerful institutions in that country, and we did so with some success. (The backers of that 1968 campaign believed), when few others did, that we could take on all the institutions of politics - the parties, the media, the pollsters, the military-industrial complex. You had to have something of the poet in you to believe that."
The poet is gone now. But something of him lingers, on a shelf of finer books than we have much right to expect of a politician and in the memory of a campaign more lyrical than all but the luckiest of of us have since experienced.
Four years ago, when U.S. Senator Russ Feingold stood alone in the Senate to oppose the Bush administration's Patriot Act, he was portrayed as a political fringe dweller whose determination to defend basic liberties was out of touch with the realities of the post-9/11 era.
This year, as Feingold leads the fight to block a flawed proposal to reauthorize the Patriot Act, he does so as the voice of a national movement that includes conservatives and liberals, Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and independents, and residents of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. And he has enough Senate allies to speak seriously about launching a filibuster to block the measure.
What has changed since 2001?
For one thing, almost 400 communities across the United States and seven states -- Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana and Vermont -- have passed resolutions condemning the assaults on civil liberties and the rule of law contained in the Patriot Act and calling upon Congress to address those concerns before reauthorizing the measure that was approved with minimal debate in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Rarely in American history has a single law drawn such ideologically, politically and geographically diverse opposition.
The message was heard by the Senate which, during this year's reauthorization debate, addressed many of the most serious civil liberties concerns. The bipartisan reauthorization measure, which added basic privacy protections that had been proposed by Feingold and others, was approved unanimously by the Senate.
Unfortunately, the U.S. House, which under the hard-line partisan leadership of Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, and his lieutenants no longer operates as an independent legislative chamber but instead rubber stamps the requests of the Bush administration, failed to respond to the public outcry. Instead, it produced a reauthorization of the Patriot Act that was actually more draconian in some senses than the original legislation.
That set up what was supposed to be a clash between House and Senate conferees, who were required to reconcile the differing proposals.
But, rather than accept the Senate's balanced bill, the conference committee opted to advance a version of the legislation that, like the House bill, extends most of the Patriot Act permanently while failing to address the flaws that have inspired so much opposition to the law. Of particular concern to civil libertarians is the fact that the conference committee's proposal extends several of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions by authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting allowing the government to seize the records of libraries, hospitals and businesses in "fishing expedition" searches.
"The conference committee had the opportunity to fix many of the provisions of the Patriot Act to which Americans across the political spectrum have voiced their opposition over the last four years," explained U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, the leading Congressional critic of the Patriot Act. "Unfortunately, they decided not to listen."
Feingold's objections were echoed by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that seek to defend Bill of Rights protections. "This sham compromise agreement fails to address the primary substantive concern raised by millions of Americans, as well as civil liberties, privacy and business organizations and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and in both chambers," argued Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.
The Bill of Rights Defense Committee, which has played a critical role in organizing opposition to the Patriot Act nationwide, is particularly worried by the decision of the conference committee to disregard language that would have protected against the abusive use of so-called "National Security Letters" -- the documents used to federal agents to demand the records of libraries and businesses. Civil libertarians wants Congress to set a baseline standard requiring that there be a connection between records sought and a suspected terrorist or foreign agent.
Without such protections, Feingold says, the conference committee's proposal lacks "adequate safeguards to protect our constitutional freedoms."
As such, the Wisconsin Democrat says, "I will do everything I can, including a filibuster, to stop this Patriot Act conference report." The filibuster threat is a significant one, as the act will expire if it is not reauthorized by the end of the year.
Unlike in 2001, Feingold has Senate allies. On Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators joined him in signing a letter that declared, "We believe that this conference report will not be able to get through the Senate, while the Senate bill would easily pass the House if its leadership would bring it to a vote. We call on our House colleagues to reject this conference report, and to take up and pass the Senate compromise bill. We still can - and must - make sure that our laws give law enforcement agents the tools they need while providing safeguards to protect the constitutional rights of all Americans."
That's the balance that Feingold sought to strike in 2001. He's doing so again in 2005. The difference is that, this time, Feingold will not have to stand alone.
Former National Writers Union president Jonathan Tasini, one of the most outspoken progressive activists in the U.S. labor movement, is expected this week to launch a Democratic primary challenge to New York Senator Hillary Clinton on a progressive platform that features a call for bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq.
Tasini has scheduled an announcement for Tuesday morning in New York City, setting up a campaign that could put unexpected pressure from the left on Clinton, the unannounced frontrunner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination who until recently has been one of the strongest Democratic backers of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Tasini plans to campaign in support of the call by U.S. Representative John Murtha, D-Pennsylvania, for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from that Middle Eastern country.
"Senator Clinton is out of step with the values of a majority of New Yorkers. While a majority of New Yorkers support an end to the war, Senator Clinton has repeatedly voiced her support for a war that continues to accumulate unacceptable costs, in terms of American and Iraqi lives and our own government spending," explained Tasini, decribing a central theme of a campaign that is also expected to advocate for fair trade, economic reforms and universal health care.
Clinton has felt little heat so far from her most prominent Republican challenger, Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro, whose campaign so far has been so hapless that some top Republicans are now calling for her to quit the race and instead run for state Attorney General.
But Tasini, who served for more than a decade as head of a national union and has since worked as president of the Economic Future Group, poses a far different and potentially more interesting challenge to Clinton. An author and frequent guest on television public affairs programs, Tasini runs a well-regarded progressive blog, Working Life, at his www.workinglife.org website, where his reviews of trade, health care and labor policy issues have drawn a broad following.
Unlike Pirro, Tasini understands the issues, he's quick on his feet, he knows his way around the state's union halls and he recognizes that Clinton's greatest vulnerability is a cautious centrism that has frequently put her at odds with grassroots Democrats.
Striking a chord that may well resonate with Democratic activists, Tasini says, "My candidacy will borrow a phrase from the late Senator Paul Wellstone, asking New Yorkers to'vote for what you believe in.'"
Even in liberal New York, a Tasini win in next September's Democratic primary would be a huge upset.
Clinton has a deep-pockets campaign treasury, a solid Senate record and an appeal to many Democrats who see her as both an heir to her husband Bill Clinton's legacy and potentially the best candidate to carry that legacy forward as a 2008 presidential contender. She also has an approach to even the most critical issues of the day that might charitably be referred to as "flexible."
In 2002, Clinton broke with more progressive Democrats such as Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, to support authorizing President Bush to use force in Iraq. And during the 2004 presidential campaign, she echoed the sentiments of the most hawkish Republicans when she criticized Bush for not sending enough troops to Iraq.
But, as the war has lost popular appeal, Clinton has begun to blur her position. In a November 30 letter to constituents, the senator seemed to back away from her support of the 2002 resolution, writing, "I voted for it on the basis of the evidence presented by the Administration, assurances they gave that they would first seek to resolve the issue of weapons of mass destruction peacefully through United Nations sponsored inspections, and the argument that the resolution was needed because Saddam Hussein never did anything to comply with his obligations that he was not forced to do. Their assurances turned out to be empty ones, as the Administration refused repeated requests from the U.N. inspectors to finish their work. And the 'evidence' of weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda turned out to be false. Based on the information that we have today, Congress never would have been asked to give the President authority to use force against Iraq. And if Congress had been asked, based on what we know now, we never would have agreed, given the lack of a long-term plan, paltry international support, the proven absence of weapons of mass destruction, and the reallocation of troops and resources that might have been used in Afghanistan to eliminate Bin Laden and al Qaeda, and fully uproot the Taliban."
Clinton stopped short of admitting that her 2002 vote was "wrong," which is what former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, another prospective candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, did in a recent Washington Post opinion piece.
She has also refused to side with another backer of the 2002 resolution, Murtha, who is now pushing for a quick exit strategy. Clinton claims that, "I do not believe that we should allow this to be an open-ended commitment without limits or end." But, she adds, "Nor do I believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately." And a close read of her letter reveals that, while the senator is quick to criticize Bush, she is still in the camp that says America has "a big job to do" in Iraq.
That's the opening that Tasini will attempt to exploit. It will not be easy -- even some of his old allies in the labor movement will be slow to officially embrace his challenge to one of the most prominent and powerful Democrats in the country.
But frustration with Clinton runs deeper among activist Democrats than is often noted in the media.
Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier in Iraq whose August protest outside George Bush's ranchette in Crawford, Texas, made her one of the country's most prominent anti-war advocates, has been almost as vocal in her criticism of the senator as she has been of the president. "Hillary Clinton is the leader of the pack" of pro-war Democrats, says Sheehan, who recently joined the board of the anti-war Progressive Democrats of America group. In an open letter posted in October on filmmaker Michael Moore's web site, Sheehan wrote of Clinton: "I think she is a political animal who believes she has to be a war hawk to keep up with the big boys."
Sheehan added that, "I will resist (Clinton's) candidacy with every bit of my power and strength."
That line led some New York activists to suggest that Sheehan should move to the state -- as Clinton did before her 2000 Senate run -- and run against the incumbent.
That's not going to happen. Rather, Sheehan has issued a letter of support for Tasini's challenge to Clinton, which you can read on Tasini's website.