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John Nichols

John Nichols

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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

The Vatican's Enforcer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Papal Chase

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FCC to TV: Tell the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Bolton vs. Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Who's a 'Good Catholic'?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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