Quantcast

John Nichols | The Nation

  •  
John Nichols

John Nichols

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

Bad Deal on Judges

As the showdown on the so-called "nuclear option" approached, polls showed that the American people opposed scheming on the part of Senate GOP leaders to eliminate judicial filibusters by an overwhelming 2-to-1 margin.

Even among grassroots Republicans, there was broad discomfort with the idea of creating a tyranny-of-the-majority scenario in which the minority party in the Senate would no longer be consulted regarding lifetime appointments to the federal courts.

So there were plenty Republican senators who were looking for a way out of the corner into which Senate majority leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had maneuvered them. Democrats simply needed to hold the line, while attracting Republicans who were uncomfortable with Frist's machinations, and they could have secured the will of the people.

Unfortunately, the Democrats buckled. So Republicans will get the votes they want on at least three federal appeals court nominees who should not be allowed on the bench.

Under a compromise worked out by moderate Republicans and Democrats, the "nuclear option" has been averted for the time being -- and perhaps permanently.

But in return for that concession by the Republicans, the Democrats have agreed to allow confirmation votes on three judicial nominations that had been blocked: Janice Rogers Brown, William Pryor Jr. and Priscilla Owen. The trio were among the ten appeals court nominees whose records of judicial activism, ideological rigidity and ethical misdeeds were so troubling that a substantial number of senators felt they ought not be given lifetime tenures on key appellate court benches.

It now appears that confirmation is all but certain for the nominees: That's bad news for Americans in general and, in particular, for low-income citizens, people of color and women who look to the nation's highest courts for a measure of protection against discrimination and other forms of government-sanctioned abuse.

Brown, who has been nominated to serve on the powerful US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, has condemned the New Deal, which gave the United States Social Security, the minimum wage and fair labor laws. She has expressed doubts about whether age discrimination laws are a good idea. And she has made it clear that she is no fan of affirmative action or other programs designed to help minorities and women overcome centuries of oppression.

Pryor, while serving as attorney general of Alabama, fought to undermine the authority of Congress to prohibit discrimination and to protect the environment, to maintain separation of church and state, to protect reproductive freedom and to guarantee equal protection under the law for gay men and lesbians. He has been nominated to serve on the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Owen, who has been nominated to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, established a record on the Texas Supreme Court of unswerving loyalty to corporate interests. She has, in addition, adopted such extreme antiabortion rights stances that even her fellow conservatives, including Alberto Gonzalez, who was then a Supreme Court justice but now servers as US Attorney General, have distanced themselves from her.

All three nominees have drawn broad opposition from civil rights, women's rights, public interest, religious, environmental and labor groups. None of them should ever be allowed anywhere near an appeals court bench. Yet it is likely that, as a result of the deal worked out by the moderate senators, all three will soon be donning the robes of the federal judiciary.

This "compromise" may have averted the "nuclear option" for a time. But it will saddle the federal bench with more bad judges.

That's a bad deal, especially when there is such overwhelming public sentiment for maintaining the right of senators to block inappropriate judicial nominees. Democrats were right to oppose Brown, Pryor and Owen. They will come to regret cutting the deal to let these unacceptable nominees -- and the others who are now sure to be nominated by the Bush Administration -- to be approved.

Limbaugh vs. Moyers

Bill Moyers says that journalists have a responsibility to question those in power.

Rush Limbaugh, speaking for the economic and political elites that currently occupy positions of authority, responds by charging that Moyers is "insane."

A debate has opened regarding the role of reporting in George W. Bush's America. But this debate is about a great deal more than one president or one moment in history. At the most fundamental level, it is about whether the American experiment as imagined by the most visionary of its founders can long endure.

Moyers set the stage at the National Conference for Media Reform last week, where he delivered a call for the redemption of American journalism. Though he was appearing less than a week after it had been revealed that the Bush administration ally who chairs the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had waged a secret campaign to drive him off the air, the former host of PBS's "NOW" program was calm and collected. The winner of thirty Emmy Awards reflected upon his own work and that of his colleagues on "NOW." But his real purpose was to defend the craft of journalism against the battering it has taken from those who believe reporters should be little more than stenographers to power. At a time when too many prominent journalists have accepted the diminished standards that their critics would impose upon them, Moyers raged against the dying of the light -- not so much for himself as for the Republic that will not stand without a free, skeptical and courageous press.

"We're seeing unfold a contemporary example of the age-old ambition of power and ideology to squelch and punish journalists who tell the stories that make princes and priests uncomfortable," Moyers explained to the 2,300 journalists, academics and activists who had gathered in St. Louis.

Moyers proceeded to describe the behind-the-scenes pressure that CPB board chair Ken Tomlinson and other White House allies exerted in a campaign to get the NOW team to trim its sails. The "crime" committed by Moyers and his crew was not one of liberal bias, as became evident when the former host of the program described the ideological diversity of the guests on NOW, read a letter praising the show from conservative Congressman Ron Paul, R-Texas, and recalled the support it had received from the widow of a New York City firefighter who died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Rather, Moyers explained, "One reason I'm in hot water is because my colleagues and I at NOW didn't play by the conventional rules of Beltway journalism. Those rules divide the world into Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, and allow journalists to pretend they have done their job if, instead of reporting the truth behind the news, they merely give each side an opportunity to spin the news."

The former White House aide, newspaper publisher, author and documentary filmmaker committed the cardinal sin of the contemporary moment: he practiced the craft of journalism as the authors of the "freedom of the press" protection in the Bill of Rights intended -- without fear or favor, unbought and unbossed, and in the service of the public interest rather than the private demands of the economically and politically powerful. Such trangressions are punished as severely in George W. Bush's America as they were in the America that was ruled by another, equally regal George 230 years ago. And just as King George III had henchmen who attacked the rebels against his rule, so the contemporary King George has his Tories. Chief among them is Limbaugh, the bombastic radio personality whose microphone is always at the ready for a denunciation of those who dare suggest that the emperor has no clothes.

No one polices the discourse more aggressively than Limbaugh.

So when word got out that Moyers was telling the American people that they should expect more from their media than a slurry of celebrity gossip and propaganda, there was hell to pay.

Typically, Limbaugh did not attack the substance of Moyers's remarks. Rather, the viscount of viciousness devoted a substantial portion of his nationally-syndicated radio program Thursday to claiming that Moyers had come "unhinged" and that, "The things coming out of his mouth today are literally insane." The most self-absorbed personality in America media -- who regularly declares that he's got "talent on loan from God" and says, "I'm doing what I was born to do. That's host. You're doing what you were born to do. That's listen." -- even went so far as to suggest that Moyers had a messiah complex.

So agitated was Limbaugh that he attacked another speaker at the media-reform conference, Newspaper Guild President Linda Foley -- in Limbaugh parlance, "this Linda Foley babe" -- for expressing concern about the killing of journalists in Iraq. And, for good measure, he closed off his rant by claiming that the millions of Americans who are demanding a more civic and democratic media are "off their rockers" and dismissing the notion of reforming the media as "an oxymoron."

It would be easy to counter Limbaugh by climbing down into the gutter of character assassination and recycled Washington spin with the nation's No. 1 peddler of those commodities. Whole books been written regarding Limbaugh's personal and professional foibles.

But this is not about Limbaugh. After all, it's not as if he speaks for himself. When the economic and political elites of the nation says "Jump!" Limbaugh response has always been an enthusiastic, "How high?" And never does he jump higher or quicker than when he is going for the throat of someone who has committed the sin of telling the American people that there is more to a broadcast than talking points and cheerleading for those who refuse to play fair. Of course, Limbaugh thought Moyers was nuts. Limbaugh has been bending the facts for so long that he, undoubtedly, believes that trying to get them straight is madness.

This places him very much at odds with Moyers, who wants the American people to know that there is a reason why they get so little useful information from their radio programs and the nightly reports on network television.

Thus, the best counter to Limbaugh is not an attack on the radio babbler, but rather a return to the high ground with Moyers.

Let Limbaugh bellow, like the Wizard of Oz when he was trying to keep his machinery hidden. Moyers is pulling the curtain away and telling the American people what is wrong with the "rules of the game" by which so much of today's so-called "journalism" is practiced.

"These 'rules of the game' permit Washington officials to set the agenda for journalism, leaving the press all too often simply to recount what officials say instead of subjecting their words and deeds to critical scrutiny. Instead of acting as filters for readers and viewers, sifting the truth from the propaganda, reporters and anchors attentively transcribe both sides of the spin, invariably failing to provide context, background or any sense of which claims hold up and which are misleading," Moyers explained last week.

"I decided long ago that this wasn't healthy for democracy. I came to see that 'news is what people want to keep hidden and everything else is publicity.' In my documentaries -- whether on the Watergate scandals 30 years ago or the Iran-Contra conspiracy 20 years ago or Bill Clinton's fundraising scandals 10 years ago or, five years ago, the chemical industry's long and despicable cover-up of its cynical and unspeakable withholding of critical data about its toxic products from its workers -- I realized that investigative journalism could not be a collaboration between the journalist and the subject. Objectivity is not satisfied by two opposing people offering competing opinions, leaving the viewer to split the difference. I came to believe that objective journalism means describing the object being reported on, including the little fibs and fantasies as well as the Big Lie of the people in power. In no way does this permit journalists to make accusations and allegations. It means, instead, making sure that your reporting and your conclusions can be nailed to the post with confirming evidence. This is always hard to do, but it has never been harder than today. Without a trace of irony, the powers-that-be have appropriated the newspeak vernacular of George Orwell's 1984. They give us a program vowing 'No Child Left Behind,' while cutting funds for educating disadvantaged kids. They give us legislation cheerily calling for 'Clear Skies' and 'Healthy Forests' that give us neither. And that's just for starters."

The difference between Limbaugh and Moyers is as profound as the difference between FOX and PBS. One man plays by the "rules of the game," the other sticks to principle. One man defends a corrupt status quo, the other seeks to expose it. One is a master propagandist, the other wants to break the stranglehold of "The Big Lie." One fears the damage done by the practice of journalism, the other knows that great journalism is the essential element in the making of great nations. One is a Tory who serves his King George, the other is a rebel against the throne.

It is not a fair fight. On one side are Limbaugh and his Tories, with all of their economic and political might. On the other are Moyers and his media reformers, with only the truth -- and the echo of Tom Paine crying across the centuries: "O Ye that love mankind! Ye that dares oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth!"

Mr. Galloway Goes to Washington

Norm Coleman is a fool.

Not an ideological nut case, not a partisan whack, not even a useful idiot -- just a plain old-fashioned, drool-on-his-tie fool.

The Minnesota Republican senator who took Paul Wellstone's seat after one of the most disreputable campaigns in American political history has been trying over the past year to make a name for himself by blowing the controversy surrounding the United Nations Oil-for-Food program into something more than the chronicle of corporate abuse that it is. The US media, which thrives on official sound bites, was more than willing to lend credence to Coleman's overblown claims about wrongdoing in the UN program set up in 1996 to permit Iraq -- which was then under strict international sanctions -- to buy food, medicine and humanitarian supplies with the revenues from regulated oil sales. Even as Coleman's claims became more and more fantastic, he faced few challenges from the cowering Democrats in Congress.

But when Coleman started slandering foreign politicians, he exposed the dramatic vulnerability of his claims that the supposed scandal was much more than a blatant example of US corporations taking advantage of their powerful connections in Washington to undermine official US policy, harm the national interest and profit off the suffering of the poor.

The Senate investigation that Coleman sought regarding the Oil for Food program has already revealed that the Bush Administration failed to crack down on widespread abuse of the Oil for Food program by US energy companies, and that US oil purchases accounted for the majority of the kickbacks paid to Saddam Hussein's regime in return for sales of inexpensive oil. Indeed, the report concludes, "The United States (government) was not only aware of Iraqi oil sales which violated UN sanctions and provided the bulk of the illicit money Saddam Hussein obtained from circumventing UN sanctions. On occasion, the United States actually facilitated the illicit oil sales."

Instead of forcing the President, his aides and the executives of Bayoil, the Texas oil company that the report shows paid "at least $37 million in illegal surcharges to the Hussein regime" -- money that helped the Iraqi dictator solidify his grip on power -- Coleman started to make wild charges about European officials such as British parliamentarian George Galloway.

The problem for Coleman is that Galloway is not a standard-issue American politician -- the kind who has nothing to say and says it poorly. He is a veteran of the rough-and-tumble politics of Glasgow and the equally rough-and-tumble politics of the British Parliament. In other words, Galloway comes from places where voters and politicians do not suffer fools. And anyone who has ever followed British politics knows that George Galloway has beaten every political challenge he has faced -- even those posed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Galloway called Coleman's bluff and flew to Washington for a remarkable appearance before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. "I am determined now that I am here, to be not the accused but the accuser," Galloway announced as he stood outside the Capitol Tuesday. "These people are involved in the mother of all smokescreens."

The member of Parliament tore through Coleman's flimsy "evidence," issuing an unequivocal denial that began, "Mr. Chairman, I am not now, nor have I ever been an oil trader, and neither has anyone been on my behalf. I have never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf." He accused Coleman of being "remarkably cavalier with any idea of justice" and pointed out error after error in the report the senator had brandished against him.

For instance, Galloway noted that he had met Saddam twice -- not the "many" times alleged by the report. "As a matter of fact I have met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times that [Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld met him," said the recently re-elected British parliamentarian. "The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns."

For good measure, Galloway used the forum Coleman had foolishly provided to deliver a blistering condemnation of Coleman's war.

"Now, Senator, I gave my heart and soul to oppose the policy that you promoted. I gave my political life's blood to try to stop the mass killing of Iraqis by the sanctions on Iraq which killed one million Iraqis, most of them children, most of them died before they even knew that they were Iraqis, but they died for no other reason other than that they were Iraqis with the misfortune to born at that time. I gave my heart and soul to stop you committing the disaster that you did commit in invading Iraq. And I told the world that your case for the war was a pack of lies," Galloway informed the fool on Capitol Hill.

"I told the world that Iraq, contrary to your claims, did not have weapons of mass destruction. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to Al Qaeda. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that Iraq had no connection to the atrocity on 9/11, 2001. I told the world, contrary to your claims, that the Iraqi people would resist a British and American invasion of their country and that the fall of Baghdad would not be the beginning of the end but merely the end of the beginning.

"Senator, in everything I said about Iraq, I turned out to be right and you turned out to be wrong, and 100,000 people paid with their lives; 1,600 of them American soldiers sent to their deaths on a pack of lies; 15,000 of them wounded, many of them disabled forever on a pack of lies.

"If the world had listened to [UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan, whose dismissal you demanded, if the world had listened to [French] President Chirac, who you want to paint as some kind of corrupt traitor, if the world had listened to me and the antiwar movement in Britain, we would not be in the disaster that we are in today. Senator, this is the mother of all smokescreens. You are trying to divert attention from the crimes that you supported, from the theft of billions of dollars of Iraq's wealth," argued Galloway.

Then the Brit turned the tables on Coleman and steered the committee's attention toward "the real Oil for Food scandal."

"Have a look at the fourteen months you were in charge of Baghdad, the first fourteen months when $8.8 billion of Iraq's wealth went missing on your watch. Have a look at Halliburton and other American corporations that stole not only Iraq's money but the money of the American taxpayer," Galloway said.

"Have a look at the oil that you didn't even meter, that you were shipping out of the country and selling, the proceeds of which went who knows where. Have a look at the $800 million you gave to American military commanders to hand out around the country without even counting it or weighing it. Have a look at the real scandal breaking in the newspapers today, revealed in the earlier testimony in this committee. That the biggest sanctions busters were not me or Russian politicians or French politicians. The real sanctions busters were your own companies with the connivance of your own Government."

(John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books), was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the time when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift -- a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from throughout American history -- that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappé calls Against the Beast "brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com.)

Bill Moyers Fights Back

Bill Moyers is not taking attacks by Bush Administration allies on public broadcasting in general and his journalism in particular sitting down.

"I should put my detractors on notice," declared the veteran journalist who stepped down in January as the host of PBS's NOW With Bill Moyers, who recently turned 70. "They might compel me out of the rocking chair and into the anchor chair."

Moyers closed the National Conference on Media Reform in St. Louis on Sunday with his first public response to the revelation that White House allies on the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have secretly been holding PBS in general -- and his show in particular -- to a partisan litmus test.

"I simply never imagined that any CPB chairman, Democrat or Republican, would cross the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out for the White House. And that's what (CPB chair) Kenneth Tomlinson has been doing."

Recalling former President Richard Nixon's failed attempt to cut the funding for public broadcasting in the early 1970s, Moyers said, "I always knew that Nixon would be back -- again and again. I just didn't know that this time he would ask to be the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting."

That was a pointed reference to Tomlinson, a Republican Party stalwart, who contracted with an outside consultant to monitor Moyers's weekly news program for signs of what Tomlinson and his allies perceived to be liberal bias. Moyers ridiculed the initiative first by reading off a long list of conservatives who had appeared on NOW, then by reading a letter from conservative US Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) praising the show, and finally by noting that Tomlinson had paid a former Bush White House aide $10,000 to do the monitoring.

"He spent $10,000 of your money to hire a guy to watch NOW to find out who my guests and stories were, $10,000!" Moyers exclaimed. "Gee, Ken, for $2.50 a week you can pick up a copy of TV Guide on the newsstand. A subscription is even cheaper, and I would have sent you a coupon that can save you up to 62 percent! Or for that matter, Ken, all you had to do was watch the show! You could have made it easier with a double Jim Beam -- your favorite -- mine too! (We had some things in common.) Or you could go online where the listings are posted. Hell, Ken, you could have called me collect and I would have told you who we were having on the show!"

Moyers said he wasn't buying Tomlinson's claim that the results of the monitoring were not being released to protect PBS's image. "Where I come from in Texas, we shovel that stuff every day," said the man who came to Washington as a press aide to former President Lyndon Johnson and was present when the Public Broadcasting Act was written in the 1960s.

Moyers revealed to the crowd of 2,000 media reform activists that he had written Tomlinson on Friday, suggesting that the pair appear on a PBS program to discuss the controversy. He also revealed that he had tried three times to meet with the full CPB board but had been refused. Expressing his sense that the board had "crossed the line from resisting White House pressure to carrying it out," Moyers said, "I would like to give Mr. Tomlinson the benefit of the doubt, but I can't."

The man who has won thirty Emmy Awards for his hosting of various PBS programs was blunt about his critics. "They've been after me for years now and I am sure they will be stomping on my grave after I'm dead," he said. As the laughter from the crowd of 2,300 media reform activists quieted, however, he added, "I should remind them that one of our boys made it out 2,000 years ago."

Moyers was even blunter about why he thought Tomlinson and other allies of the Administration were so determined to knock his groundbreaking news program off the air and to replace it with more conservative fare such as a weekly roundtable discussion featuring Wall Street Journal editorial page staffers, joking that "I thought public television was supposed to be an alternative to commercial media, not a funder of it." Speaking of the investigative reporting NOW did on everything from the war in Iraq to offshore tax havens and ownership of the media, Moyers said, "Our reporting was giving the radical right fits because it wasn't the party line."

"The more compelling our journalism, the angrier the radical right of the Republican Party gets," he explained. "That's because the one thing they loathe more than liberals is the truth. And the quickest way to be damned by them as liberal is to tell the truth."

The broadcasting giant was greeted with cheers when he declared that "the quality of our media and the quality of our democracy are intertwined." But the loudest applause of the day came in response to his invitation to the crowd to join him in the fight to "take public broadcasting back from threats, from interference."

"It is," Moyers said, "a worthy goal."

Moyers has endorsed a call by Free Press, Common Cause, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Media Access Project for town hall meetings nationwide that would allow Americans to speak directly to PBS station managers and policymakers.

That call came in the context of a broader appeal for media reforms and a fight against manipulation of the news not just by this administration but by all of the forces that would use the media to lull Americans into civic unconsciousness.

"Hear me," Moyers said, "An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight -- ask questions and be skeptical. And just as a democracy can die of too many lies, that kind of orthodoxy can kill us, too."

Click here to read the speech in its entirety.

A video of Bill Moyer's speech is available at http://www.freepress.net/conference/audio05/freepress-closing40515.mov

An audio recording can be downloaded at http://www.freepress.net/conference/audio05/moyers.mp3

(John Nichols is a co-founder of Free Press, the national media reform network that organized the National Conference on Media Reform.)

Fight for Media Reform

The first National Conference on Media Reform was held 18 months ago in Madison, Wisconsin. That conference, which drew 1,800 people from across the country and around the world, was a remarkable event in itself. But it was even more remarkable for the movement it helped advance to a new and dramatically more muscular stage.

After years of complaining as the media of the country consolidated and conglomerated into a corporate whole that was less than the sum of its parts, and where civic and democratic values were replaced by the commercial and entertainment demands of a corporate bottom line, twin streams of media critique and media activism exploded into a media reform movement that demanded fundamental changes in the way our media companies operate.

Suddenly, as journalist Bill Moyers suggested at that conference in November 2003, the fight was on "for a media system that serves as effectively as it sells – one that holds all the institutions of society, itself included, accountable."

Moyers urged the activists who gathered in Madison in 2003 to "reach out to regular citizens."

"We have to raise an even bigger tent than you have here," he told the crowd that packed a downtown theater on that Saturday night. "Those of us in this place speak a common language about the 'media.' We must reach the audience that's not here –- carry the fight to radio talk shows, local television, and the letters columns of our newspapers. (We) must engage the mainstream, not retreat from it. We have to get our fellow citizens to understand that what they see, hear, and read is not only the taste of programmers and producers but also a set of policy decisions made by the people we vote for."

That has begun to happen. Reformers are winning real battles: blocking moves by the Federal Communications Commission to allow big media companies to grow even bigger, successfully challenging efforts by telephone companies to prevent communities from developing low-cost broadband internet services, forcing the federal government to stop pouring taxpayer dollars into the production of "fake news" video releases.

But the real work of opening up the media to more voices, and to the sort of discourse that is worthy of a great democracy, has only just begun.

This weekend, in St. Louis, the second National Conference on Media Reform will convene with more activists, more energy and more focus. Moyers will be back, along with Patti Smith, Al Franken, Naomi Klein, Amy Goodman, Phil Donahue, U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Diane Watson, D-California.

These are exciting times for a movement that, while young, is showing signs of the strength that Moyers said it would have to develop.

The struggle to repair the dangerously dysfunctional media system that tells us more about Michael Jackson's trial than about the truth of what is going on in Iraq will be a long and difficult one.

But this fight is on, and it is a fight we dare not lose -- as it is a struggle for nothing less than the future of freedom of the press and our very democracy.

_____________________________________________________________

(John Nichols is a co-founder with Robert W. McChesney of Free Press, the media reform network that has organzied the national conferences.)

Warrior for Workers

The labor movement is not about one individual or one moment in time. It goes on, regardless. But there are some individuals who rise through the ranks of the movement at the right moment and define it – or, as was the case with Miguel Contreras, redefine it. The tireless chief of Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, whose death Friday from a heart attack at age 52 shocked union activists in California and across the country, transformed a struggling local coalition into a dynamic force for economic justice and political change.

At a time when the national AFL-CIO was only beginning to recognize the need to reach out to the immigrant workers who were fast becoming the backbone of the hotel, restaurant, health care and construction industries, Contreras put the Los Angeles federation in the forefront of campaigns to organize Latino and Asian-American workers. And he turned those newly-organized workers, and their families and neighbors, into a voting bloc with the potential to change not just Los Angeles county but California.

The son of migrant laborers who was drawn into the union movement by Cesar Chavez, Contreras took over the Los Angeles County Federation in 1996, when its member unions had about 650,000 members. Today, they have more than 800,000. The incredible growth of the LA Fed under Contreras's leadership was noticed quickly, and his ideas about organizing immigrants and flexing political muscle inspired activists nationwide. "People across the country look at LA as a model of success," Anna Burger, of the Service Employees International Union, a key ally of Contreras, told the Los Angeles Times.

Contreras took his hits at home – most recently when the LA Fed endorsed Mayor James Hahn, a centrist Democrat, for reelection over City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer and long-time ally of the labor leader. Other politicians objected when Contreras backed a successful challenge by progressive Hilda Solis to incumbent US Representative Marty Martinez in a 2000 Democratic primary. Unions usually back Democratic incumbents, but Martinez had broken with labor on trade issues and Contreras made no apologies. "We're sick and tired of Democrats who come in and tell us they want our endorsement and then go off to Sacramento or Washington and vote against the interests of our members," Contreras told me in 2000. "We've lifted the bar for endorsements. It's not enough to say you're for a minimum-wage increase and expect our backing. We want candidates who make a commitment to be with us on every vote, and to be with us on the picket lines."

Members of Congress who accept labor's backing needed, Contreras said, "to be warriors for workers."

At a time when many Democrats were still voting with the Republican leadership of the House and the corporate lobbies in favor of free-trade legislation, the willingness of Contreras and the LA Fed to punish a veteran House member who did so was important. Equally important was Contreras's willingness to come to Capitol Hill and explain to Democrats and Republicans that Latinos did not want them backing free-trade deals that harmed workers in the US and in Latin American countries. His presence on the hill helped to dispel the corporate spin that suggested Latino workers in the US were enthusiastic about free-trade deals with Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

When US Representative Jane Harmon, a Los Angeles County Democrat whose record on trade issues has sometimes been shaky, announced last month that she would oppose the Central American Free Trade Agreement now being considered by Congress, Contreras was at her side. He explained that the trade deal would hurt workers, family farmers and the environment in the US "while enriching and empowering corporate elites."

Contreras was in the forefront of the campaign against CAFTA, explaining that, "Ten years of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) has proven a complete failure for workers and the LA economy, destroying 30,000 manufacturing jobs here in LA and more than 200,000 jobs statewide. A vote for CAFTA shows contempt for working people and their families. Clearly we must forge ahead with a new approach to international trade."

When the fight over CAFTA is decided by Congress, more than a few of the "no" votes will come from members who were personally lobbied by Miguel Contreras. Indeed, if CAFTA is beaten, as it may well be, that will be one of the many legacies of this "warrior for the workers."

"Pork-Laden" Iraq Bill

Just when you thought it might be impossible for the Bush administration and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to stoop any lower, they have sunk to a new depth. They are now, in the well-chosen words of one member of the U.S. House, "using America's fighting men and women as human shields to pass pork-laden legislation."

The administration and its chief congressional ally hijacked the resolution for supplemental funding of the U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and added to the measure a laundry list of giveaways to special interests and bad policies. In addition to packing in all sorts of new immigration rules and expenditures, which should have been dealt with on their own merits rather than buried in an "emergency" spending bill, they also included money for a "wish-list" of Pentagon boondoggles that have nothing to do with helping the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan -- let alone getting them home alive.

Unfortunately, most Democrats went along with this abuse of the legislative process, making themselves partners in an ugly and unwarranted diversion of taxpayer dollars. The final House vote in favor of the $82 billion package was 368-58. Supporting the "emergency" bill were 225 Republicans and 143 Democrats; opposing it were 54 Democrats, three Republicans and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders.

Why did so many Democrats and so many thinking Republicans back this "pork-laden legislation"?

"Republicans in Congress have stacked the deck on today's fiscally irresponsible supplemental spending bill: forcing members to either appear unpatriotic or support a cash-cow bill stuffed with pork projects that fail to either help our troops or meet any ‘emergency' need," explained U.S. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, D-Cal. "Rather than taking their Pentagon colleagues to task for not budgeting for the needs of the troops in the regular defense budget request, the Majority has endorsed a fiscally irresponsible ploy used since the start of the war in Iraq: Pass ‘emergency' supplemental after supplemental that Congress has limited or no ability to review."

Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Pentagon has made annual requests for "emergency funding," and the latest request for $82 billion is unlikely to be the last. Why can't the Pentagon -- with an annual budget in excess of $400 billion -- budget properly? Because doing so would require Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his aides to justify expenses.

"(The) supplemental bill is chock full of projects that could easily be planned and budgeted within the Pentagon's annual request. To call them emergency, last-minute needs is misleading, fiscally irresponsible, and prevents Congress from exercising proper oversight over vital programs and efforts. And now, in order to placate members who see through this costly tactic, the supplemental bill has swelled with unnecessary spending," says Tauscher. "This additional $82 billion measure brings total ‘emergency' supplemental funding for the war to $272 billion. The Administration's policy of irresponsibly budgeting for the Iraq war as a temporary, incremental involvement demonstrates its lack of a comprehensive plan to stabilize the country, internationalize the ground forces, and begin to withdraw American forces. I believe that our troops deserve better than a piecemeal plan."

Tauscher read the bill right. Unfortunately, like most Democrats and almost all Republicans, she did not vote right. For all her fine words, and solid insights, Tauscher did not have the courage to cast a vote against the "pork-laden" bill.

This is the frustrating thing about Congressional Democrats. They are willing to point out the fundamental flaws in the Bush administration's agenda, but most of them still vote with the Republicans to implement that agenda.

Only three Republicans voted "no" -- Texan Ron Paul, North Carolina's Howard Coble and Tennessee's John Duncan. They were joined by the House's only independent, Sanders, and 54 Democrats.

The Democrats who had the wisdom and the courage to object were:

Neil Abercrombie (HA)Tammy Baldwin (WI)Xavier Becerra (CA)Earl Blumenauer (OR)Mike Capuano (MA)Julia Carson (IN)Bill Clay Jr. (MO)John Conyers (MI)Danny Davis (IL)Bill Delahunt (MA)Sam Farr (CA)Bob Filner (CA)Barney Frank (MA)Bart Gordon (TN)Raul Grijalva (AZ)Luis Gutierrez (IL)Maurice Hinchey (NY)Rush Holt (NJ)Mike Honda (CA)Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX)Stephanie Tubbs Jones (OH)Dennis Kucinich (OH)Barbara Lee (CA)John Lewis (GA)Carolyn Maloney (NY)Ed Markey (MA)Betty McCollum (MN)Jim McDermott (WA)Jim McGovern (MA)Cynthia McKinney (GA)Marty Meehan (MA)Gregory Meeks (NY)George Miller (CA)Grace Napolitano (CA)Jim Oberstar (MN)John Olver (MA)Major Owens (NY)Frank Pallone (NJ) Ed Pastor (AZ)Donald Payne (NJ)Charles Rangel (NY)Sánchez, Linda T. (CA)Jan Schakowsky (IL)Jose Serrano (NY)Pete Stark (CA)Mike Thompson (CA)John Tierney (MA)Ed Towns (NY)Nydia Velázquez (NY)Maxine Waters (CA)Mel Watt (NC)Anthony Weiner (NY)Robert Wexler (VL)Lynn Woolsey (CA)

The Ditch Blair Project

In Britain, the leader of the government is not elected by a national vote. Rather, the prime minister is the head of the dominant party caucus in the parliament.

It is probably a good thing that the United States decided against going with a parliamentary system, as the boss of the largest partisan caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives is a fellow named Tom DeLay.

But the parliamentary system does force British leaders to campaign on a more human scale -- and to face more poignant and powerful questions.

To retain his post as prime minister, Tony Blair must lead his Labour Party to a national win Thursday. But he also must be reelected by the voters of his parliamentary riding -- the equivalent of a congressional district -- in the north of England.

In all likelihood, Blair will prevail. His riding, Sedgefield, has for generations sent Labour Party members to parliament.

But he faces a tougher fight than ever before because of his decision to march British troops into George Bush's "coalition of the willing" for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Blair's most aggressive challenger in Sedgefield is a man whose passionate opposition to the Iraq war is rooted in personal experience.

Reg Keys, a retired ambulance driver who is running as an independent candidate against Blair, is distributing a simple letter to voters in the Sedgefield riding. It reads:

"Dear Friends. You may ask why I have decided to stand against the Prime Minister. I am not a politician. I am an ordinary family man.

"The last time I saw my son, Tom, was at a railway station when he marched off down the platform with his head held high, proud to do his duty for his country. He believed what he was told. But the Prime Minister misled the country, and Tom and eighty four other soldiers who had their oath of allegiance betrayed came home in coffins - having died for a lie.

"It is time to bring the accountability back in to politics. People in this constituency need an MP they can trust to speak and act honestly on their behalf.

"If you would like a poster, are willing to deliver leaflets or help the campaign in any other way or just want to tell me what you think, please do contact me at the address below

"Yours sincerely, Reg Keys"

The campaign that Keys has waged to hold Blair accountable has drawn national attention and support. The Sedgefield vote has become a referendum on the war, and on the question of whether those who lie in order to launch an invasion ought to be rewarded with another term in office. That is the choice that Americans should have been presented in 2004, but they were denied it by the miserably inept campaign of John Kerry and by a media that has generally shies away from applying standards of "truth" and "accountability" to our politicians.

Britain is seeing a more honorable campaign, particularly in Sedgefield.

Among those who traveled to Sedgefield to campaign for Reg Keys was the novelist Frederick Forsyth, the author of The Odessa File and The Dogs of War.

"So why again did we invade Iraq?" asked Forsyth, in a speech delivered before the memorial to local men who dies in World War I and World War II. "The answer was because one man -- and it was at the time one man, the sitting MP for this constituency -- decided, in secret conclave with the American President, that the American president intended to invade and would not be persuaded from that ambition, and that he, the British premier, would send British troops in to assist the Americans, come what may."

Unfortunately, explained Forsyth, there was no justification for war. So, the author said of Blair, "He made it up... And that is why Tom Keys had to die. He did not -- I'm sorry, I'm sorry for his father -- he did not die because his country was genuinely under threat. He died so that a man could have a standing ovation in Washington..."

Then, with a passion rarely seen or heard in American politics, Forsyth declared, "I ask you: think of Tom Keys in his grave. I ask you to think what he would say. What he would say I think is clear: 'Give your votes to my Dad. Send my Dad down to the palace by the Thames.' I concur with that. If you send him there he will represent you well, and more, he will give you your honour back."

Words such as "honor" are rarely heard in America politics these days. Perhaps that is why it is so refreshing to catch their echo from across the sea.

-----------------------------------------------------------------

John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Making Iraq the Issue

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

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

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

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

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

Other headlines read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-----------------------------------------------------------------

John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Fight for the Filibuster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-----------------------------------------------------------------

John Nichols's new book, Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) was published January 30. Howard Zinn says, "At exactly the when we need it most, John Nichols gives us a special gift--a collection of writings, speeches, poems and songs from thoughout American history--that reminds us that our revulsion to war and empire has a long and noble tradition in this country." Frances Moore Lappe calls Against the Beast, "Brilliant! A perfect book for an empire in denial." Against the Beast can be found at independent bookstores nationwide and can be obtained online by tapping the above reference or at www.amazon.com

Syndicate content