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As the 229th anniversary of the founding of the American experiment approached, President Bush provided a painful reminder of how far the United States has drifted from the ideals of her youth.
Speaking to soldiers who would soon be dispatched to occupy Iraq, Bush sounded an awfully lot like the King George against whom George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other revolutionaries of 1776 led their revolt.
America was founded in opposition to empire. The Declaration of Independence was a manifesto against colonialism. And the wisest of the founding generations abhorred imperialism.
Their opposition to empire was not merely rooted in their own bitter experience. It was, as well, rooted in a faith that American freedoms and democracy would suffer if the nation embarked upon a career of empire.
So, while Bush suggests that other lands must be occupied to preserve liberty at home, the patriots of our time recall will do well to recall words spoken on another July 4.
When America was younger and truer to her ideals, on Independence Day, 1821, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams appeared before the US House of Representatives and declared:
And now, friends and countrymen, if the wise and learned philosophers of the elder world, the first observers of nutation and aberration, the discoverers of maddening ether and invisible planets, the inventors of Congreve rockets and Shrapnel shells, should find their hearts disposed to enquire what has America done for the benefit of mankind?
Let our answer be this: America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government. America, in the assembly of nations, since her admission among them, has invariably, though often fruitlessly, held forth to them the hand of honest friendship, of equal freedom, of generous reciprocity.
She has uniformly spoken among them, though often to heedless and often to disdainful ears, the language of equal liberty, of equal justice, and of equal rights.
She has, in the lapse of nearly half a century, without a single exception, respected the independence of other nations while asserting and maintaining her own.
She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart.
She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right.
Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be.
But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.
She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all.
She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.
She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom.
The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force....
She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit....
[America's] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.
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
"A nation's success or failure in achieving democracy is judged in part by how well it responds to those at the bottom and the margins of the social order.... The very problems that democratic change brings--social tension, heightened expectations, political unrest--are also strengths. Discord is a sign of progress afoot; unease is an indication that a society has let go of what it knows and is working out something better and new."
Those are not the thoughts of a great civil rights leader, nor of a prominent progressive reformer.
They are the words of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the "swing" vote on the US Supreme Court, who on Friday announced that she is stepping down.
O'Connor joined the Court as an ideological conservative and, for the most part, served as such. But, as the above quote from her 2003 memoir, The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, suggests, the first woman to serve on the nation's highest court was a conservative of the modern age.
Her nuanced stances on issues such as abortion rights--she defended the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion as "a rule of law and a component of liberty we cannot renounce"--distinguished her from the Court's conservative judicial activists, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. (To get a full sense of what is at stake, see the list of 5-to-4 decisions where O'Connor cast the deciding vote, which follows this piece.)
With O'Connor's exit, the Court will move in one of two directions. No, not right or left. With O'Connor out, the Court will either go backward or forward.
If President Bush nominates and the Senate confirms an activist soul mate for Scalia and Thomas, the Court will not simply become more conservative.
It will move back toward the days before Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower used their nominations in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s to wrench the judicial branch out of a dark and undistinguished past. Those selections made the Supreme Court a functional branch of government, rather than an obstructionist defender of an often corrupt old order.
People for the American Way President Ralph Neas put it best when he said Friday, "A Scalia-Thomas majority would not only reverse more than seven decades of Supreme Court legal precedents but could also return us to a situation America faced in the first third of the twentieth century, when progressive legislation, like child labor laws, was adopted by Congress and signed by the President but repeatedly rejected on constitutional grounds by the Supreme Court."
Neas understands his history well. The contemporary image of the Supreme Court as a defender of civil liberties and civil rights, and an ally of progress, is one that developed over the course of the twentieth century. It was not always so. And there are no guarantees that it will remain so.
As such, this is not merely a battle over a Court vacancy, nor even over the balance on the bench.
If the Court moves backward to the bad old days, so too will the nation.
With a Court guided by a majority determined to reverse the progress made on issues ranging from reproductive freedom to privacy rights, affirmative action, church-state separation, environmental protection, consumer safeguards and worker rights, Neas warns, America would return to a time when the judicial branch took as its mandate the preservation of the status quo against the march of social progress.
"A Supreme Court with additional justices who do not meet consensus standards could radically rewrite our nation's fundamental definitions of justice," says Neas.
In so doing, it could also rewrite our sense of time. Instead of living in 2005, Americans could find themselves dragged backward to those nineteenth-century days when the Supreme Court was the nation's primary barrier to social and economic justice.****************************************************************
People for the American Way has compiled a list of 5-to-4 rulings in which Sandra Day O'Connor was the decisive Justice. Here are some of the decisions that the group says are in danger of being overturned:
1. Grutter v. Bollinger (2003): Affirmed the right of state colleges and universities to use affirmative action in their admissions policies to increase educational opportunities for minorities and promote racial diversity on campus.
2. Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation v. EPA (2004): Said the Environmental Protection Agency could step in and take action to reduce air pollution under the Clean Air Act when a state conservation agency fails to act.
3. Rush Prudential HMO, Inc. v. Moran (2002): Upheld state laws giving people the right to a second doctor's opinion if their HMOs tried to deny them treatment.
4. Hunt v. Cromartie (2001): Affirmed the right of state legislators to take race into account to secure minority voting rights in redistricting.
5. Tennessee v. Lane (2004): Upheld the constitutionality of Title II of the Americans With Disabilities Act and required that courtrooms be physically accessible to the disabled.
6. Hibbs v. Winn (2004): Subjected discriminatory and unconstitutional state tax laws to review by the federal judiciary.
7. Zadvydas v. Davis (2001): Told the government it could not indefinitely detain an immigrant who was under final order of removal even if no other country would accept that person.
8. Brentwood Academy v. Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (2001): Affirmed that civil rights laws apply to associations regulating interscholastic sports.
9. Lee v. Weisman (1992): Continued the tradition of government neutrality toward religion, finding that government-sponsored prayer is unacceptable at graduations and other public school events.
10. Brown v. Legal Foundation of Washington (2003): Maintained a key source of funding for legal assistance for the poor.
11. Morse v. Republican Party of Virginia (1996): Said key antidiscrimination provisions of the Voting Rights Act apply to political conventions that choose party candidates.
12. Federal Election Commission v. Colorado Republican Federal Campaign Committee (2001): Upheld laws that limit political party expenditures that are coordinated with a candidate and seek to evade campaign contribution limits.
13. McConnell v. Federal Election Commission (2003): Upheld most of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, including its ban on political parties' use of unlimited soft-money contributions.
14. Stenberg v. Carhart (2000): Overturned a state ban on so-called partial birth abortion.
15. McCreary County v. ACLU of Kentucky (2005): Upheld the principle of government neutrality toward religion and ruled unconstitutional Ten Commandments displays in several courthouses.
"We've had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with the September 11th attacks."
George W. Bush -- September 17, 2003
To the extend that George Bush had retained the slightest shred of dignity through the whole ugly Iraq imbroglio, it was found in his refusal to fully embrace the biggest of the Big Lies told by his aides: The claim that the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein had played a role in the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The president was never honorable in this regard. He did not go out of his way correct the confusion among the American people, a majority of whom believed around the time of the March, 2003, invasion of Iraq that Hussein's regime was somehow linked with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network. Nor did he step up to challenge the misinformation being spread by members of his administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney, about a supposed connection between Iraq and al-Qaida. And, early on, he actually tried to defend Cheney's statements.
But, even before the the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States established that there was no collaboration between Iraq and al-Qaida, Bush was a good deal more cautious than Cheney. And when the president was directly confronted this spring by reporters and asked whether he shared the vice president's view that a connection had been established, Bush detached himself fully from his vice president's mad ranting and made it clear that he knew of no evidence to support the charge.
In other words, Bush made at least some effort to avoid echoing Cheney's Big Lies.
On Tuesday night, however, the president abandoned the narrow patch of high ground that he had staked out and dove into the raging flood of deceit that his administration had unleashed.
In what was billed as a major address regarding Iraq, Bush mentioned the September 11 attacks no less than five times.
Before 750 members of the 82nd Airborne Division and the Army's Special Operations unit, who had been assembled at Fort Bragg, N.C., to give Bush a respectful and unquestioning audience, the president declared, "The troops here and across the world are fighting a global war on terror. This war reached our shores on September 11, 2001. The terrorists who attacked us -- and the terrorists we face -- murder in the name of a totalitarian ideology that hates freedom, rejects tolerance and despises all dissent. Their aim is to remake the Middle East in their own grim image of tyranny and oppression, by toppling governments, driving us out of the region and exporting terror."
Bush went on to claim that, "After September 11, I made a commitment to the American people: The nation will not wait to be attacked again. We will defend our freedom. We will take the fight to the enemy. Iraq is the latest battlefield in this war."
By suggesting that the invasion and occupation of Iraq should be seen as part of a legitimate and necessary response to September 11, as he clearly did on Tuesday, Bush made a deliberate break with reality -- not so complete a break, perhaps, as that of Cheney and the wingnut faction of the administration, but a break all the same.
The president speech was written and delivered with the intent of deceiving the American people into believing things that were never true.
Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, to be sure, but he ruled as a militant secularist, who gave Christians and members of other religious and ethnic minorities positions of power and authority within the governments he assembled. Hussein saw the rise of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida as a threat, and he meticulously -- sometimes violently -- kept that threat out of Iraq. To the extent that elements of al-Qaida are now on the ground in that country, it is not as a result of Hussein's invitation but as a result of his removal.
The point here is not to defend Hussein. The point is to recognize reality: The invasion and occupation of Iraq did not control the spread of terrorist activity in the Middle East. It handed the terrorists new opportunities for recruitment, and it gave them new territory in which to operate. Until the president acknowledges these fundamental realities -- and his own responsibility for making things worse -- it will be impossible to undo the damage.
George Bush set out to deceive to the American people Tuesday. That was morally wrong, and tactically foolish.
But George Bush also deceived himself, by engaging in the fantasy that some new spin will allow him to avoid taking responsibility for making the world a more dangerous place. Ultimately, that is the bigger, and far more dangerous lie.
In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, then-President Thomas Jefferson made it clear that the intent of the founders was to maintain a "wall of separation between church and state." It was for that reason, Jefferson explained, that the First Amendment to the Constitution barred the government of the new nation from engaging in the promotion of a particular religion.
Jefferson and the other founders had no doubts about the need to prevent any mingling of the affairs of church and state. They had seen the damage done to government and religion by the state religions of Europe -- particularly, though not exclusively, King George III's Church of England -- and they wanted to assure that the United States would avoid the patterns of hatred, discrimination and violence that arise when one faith is officially sanctioned. They also recognized the advantages that came with keeping politicians out of pulpits and preachers out of policymaking. Though many of the founders were Christians, they held dramatically different views regarding the practice of religion. And, as George Washington and others made clear, they respected the contributions made to the new Republic by Jews and other non-Christians.
History has proven the concerns of the founders to have been well placed. When Jefferson's wall has been maintained, the American experiment has been at its best: welcoming, tolerant, open to new ideas and respectful of science, reason and progress.
When the wall has been undermined, however, the country has often degenerated into bitterness and dysfunction.
Fights over religion have caused divisions so serious that they have warped not just politics but basic human interactions at the hometown level.
Certainly, that has been the case in recent years in several southern states.
The highest profile fight has been seen in Alabama, where a local judge named Roy Moore began stirring controversy in the late 1990s by ordering the display of the Ten Commandments in his DeKalb County courtroom. Moore argued that the United States was founded on Christian principles such as those contained in the list of Biblical injunctions, and that it thus was appropriate to display them in a prominent location as a set of guiding principles.
But Moore's true intent, which was obvious from the start, was to stir up support among Christian fundamentalists for his political ambitions. He tried to undermine the wall of separation between church and state in order to provoke a high-profile fight that would identify him as a "defender of the faith" against the "threats" posed by secularism that Jefferson, Madison and other founders clearly believed was essential to the success of the Republic.
To be sure, Moore is a sly politician. He parlayed the Ten Commandments controversy into a successful run in 2000 for the state Supreme Court, where as that body's chief justice he ordered the display of the Ten Commandments in front of the court building.
The ensuing fight made national news, and created fierce tensions in Alabama. Moore, who was forced to step down as chief justice, entertained the notion of seeking the presidency as a "Christian" challenger to President Bush in 2004 and is now talking about running for governor of Alabama in 2006.
But, while Moore may be a sly politician, he is a poor reader of the Constitution.
That fact was confirmed Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed by government agencies in a manner intended to suggest a church-state connection.
The decision in a case involving the display of framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses saw the high court's majority -- which included Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- signal that the Biblical document cannot be so showcased by a government agency when there is a "predominantly religious purpose" in doing so. A second decision, in a related case from Texas, maintained the flexibility that has traditionally been seen in debates about such matters -- with the court permitting reasonable displays of the Ten Commandments in historical and educational contexts.
Make no mistake, however, about the Supreme Court's clear intent.
The majority's overall message was clear: It is unconstitutional for politicians to use the Ten Commandments, or any other statement of religious principle, as battering ram against the Mr. Jefferson's wall.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) and has written extensively about religion and politics.
Rarely in recent years has Washington seen so dramatic a clash between the legislative and executive branches as was witnessed Thursday, when U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy, D-Masschusetts, went after Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on the question of whether the Pentagon chief should resign for mismanaging the war in Iraq.
"This war has been consistently and grossly mismanaged. And we are now in a seemingly intractable quagmire. Our troops are dying. And there really is no end in sight," Kennedy said, as the Secretary of Defense sat opposite him during an appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Arguing that "the American people, I believe, deserve leadership worthy of the sacrifices that our fighting forces have made, and they deserve the real facts," Kennedy told Rumsfeld, "I regret to say that I don't believe that you have provided either."
Rumsfeld was clearly shocked by the aggressiveness of the senator's comments.
"Well, that is quite a statement," huffed the Secretary of Defense, who pointedly told Kennedy, "The suggestion by you that people -- me or others -- are painting a rosy picture is false."
But the Massachusetts senator, who has been one of the most ardent Congressional critics of the war, wasn't buying the secretary's line. Nor was Kennedy cutting Rumsfeld any more slack.
"In baseball, it's three strikes you're out," Kennedy told Rumsfeld. "Isn't it time for you to resign?"
Rumsfeld, who was evidently shaken by the question, paused briefly before saying, "Senator, I've offered my resignation to the president twice."
President Bush rejected Rumsfeld's offers, which came at the height of the scandal over the abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The Secretary of Defense told the committee he would defer to the president on the question of when he should step down. "That's his call," Rumseld said of Bush.
The intensity of Kennedy's questioning illustrated a shift that has begun to take place in Congress in recent weeks, as more and more Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, have begun to bluntly challenge the administration's inflated claims about the "success" of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In fact, even Rumsfeld distanced himself from Vice President Dick Cheney's absurd assertion that the insurgency in Iraq is in its "last throes."
After General John Abizaid, the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, told members of the committee that he believed "more foreign fighters (are) coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Rumsfeld was asked whether it sounded to him like the insurgency has entered the "last throes" stage.
Noting that he had not uttered the "last throes" line, an obviously exasperated Rumsfeld said of Cheney's choice of words: "I didn't use them, and I might not use them."
Perhaps Kennedy should have asked Rumsfeld if Cheney ought to resign.
Alternatively, the Wisconsin Democratic Party, at its state's convention earlier this month, passed a resolution that would seem to cover all the bases.
The delegates called for immediate steps to be taken to impeach Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush.
There is painful irony in the fact that, during the same month that the confirmation of "Deep Throat's" identity has allowed the Washington Post to relive its Watergate-era glory days, the newspaper is blowing the dramatically more significant story of the "fixed" intelligence the Bush Administration used to scam Congress and US allies into supporting the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Last week, when the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Michigan Democrat John Conyers, chaired an extraordinary hearing on what has come to be known as the "Downing Street Memo"--details of pre-war meetings where aides to British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the fact that, while the case for war was "thin," the Bush Administration was busy making sure that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy"--the Post ridiculed Conyers and the dozens of other members of Congress who are trying to get to the bottom of a scandal that former White House counsel John Dean has correctly identified as "worse than Watergate."
Post writer Dana Milbank penned a snarky little piece that, like similar articles in the New York Times and other "newspapers of record," displayed all the skepticism regarding Bush Administration misdeeds that one might expect to find in a White House press release.
To his credit, Conyers hit back.
In a letter addressed to the Post's national editor, the newspaper's ombudsman and Milbank, the veteran House member was blunt.
"Dear Sirs," Conyers began, "I write to express my profound disappointment with Dana Milbank's June 17 report, 'Democrats Play House to Rally Against the War,' which purports to describe a Democratic hearing I chaired in the Capitol yesterday. In sum, the piece cherry-picks some facts, manufactures others out of whole cloth, and does a disservice to some 30 members of Congress who persevered under difficult circumstances, not of our own making, to examine a very serious subject: whether the American people were deliberately misled in the lead up to war. The fact that this was the Post's only coverage of this event makes the journalistic shortcomings in this piece even more egregious.
"In an inaccurate piece of reporting that typifies the article, Milbank implies that one of the obstacles the Members in the meeting have is that 'only one' member has mentioned the Downing Street Minutes on the floor of either the House or Senate. This is not only incorrect but misleading. In fact, just yesterday, the Senate Democratic Leader, Harry Reid, mentioned it on the Senate floor. Senator Boxer talked at some length about it at the recent confirmation hearing for the Ambassador to Iraq. The House Democratic Leader, Nancy Pelosi, recently signed on to my letter, along with 121 other Democrats asking for answers about the memo. This information is not difficult to find either. For example, the Reid speech was the subject of an AP wire service report posted on the Washington Post website with the headline 'Democrats Cite Downing Street Memo in Bolton Fight.' Other similar mistakes, mischaracterizations and cheap shots are littered throughout the article.
"The article begins with an especially mean and nasty tone, claiming that House Democrats 'pretended' a small conference room was the Judiciary Committee hearing room and deriding the decor of the room. Milbank fails to share with his readers one essential fact: the reason the hearing was held in that room, an important piece of context. Despite the fact that a number of other suitable rooms were available in the Capitol and House office buildings, Republicans declined my request for each and every one of them. Milbank could have written about the perseverance of many of my colleagues in the face of such adverse circumstances, but declined to do so. Milbank also ignores the critical fact picked up by the AP, CNN and other newsletters that at the very moment the hearing was scheduled to begin, the Republican Leadership scheduled an almost unprecedented number of 11 consecutive floor votes, making it next to impossible for most Members to participate in the first hour and one half of the hearing.
"In what can only be described as a deliberate effort to discredit the entire hearing, Milbank quotes one of the witnesses as making an anti-semitic assertion and further describes anti-semitic literature that was being handed out in the overflow room for the event. First, let me be clear: I consider myself to be a friend and supporter of Israel and there were a number of other staunchly pro-Israel members who were in attendance at the hearing. I do not agree with, support, or condone any comments asserting Israeli control over US policy, and I find any allegation that Israel is trying to dominate the world or had anything to do with the September 11 tragedy disgusting and offensive.
"That said, to give such emphasis to 100 seconds of a 3 hour and five minute hearing that included the powerful and sad testimony (hardly mentioned by Milbank) of a woman who lost her son in the Iraq war and now feels lied to as a result of the Downing Street Minutes, is incredibly misleading. Many, many different pamphlets were being passed out at the overflow room, including pamphlets about getting out of the Iraq war and anti-Central American Free Trade Agreement, and it is puzzling why Milbank saw fit to only mention the one he did.
"In a typically derisive and uninformed passage, Milbank makes much of other lawmakers calling me 'Mr. Chairman' and says I liked it so much that I used 'chairmanly phrases.' Milbank may not know that I was the Chairman of the House Government Operations Committee from 1988 to 1994. By protocol and tradition in the House, once you have been a Chairman you are always referred to as such. Thus, there was nothing unusual about my being referred to as Mr. Chairman.
"To administer his coup-de-grace, Milbank literally makes up another cheap shot that I 'was having so much fun that [I] ignored aides' entreaties to end the session.' This did not occur. None of my aides offered entreaties to end the session and I have no idea where Milbank gets that information. The hearing certainly ran longer than expected, but that was because so many Members of Congress persevered under very difficult circumstances to attend, and I thought--given that--the least I could do was allow them to say their piece. That is called courtesy, not 'fun.'
"By the way, the 'Downing Street Memo' is actually the minutes of a British cabinet meeting. In the meeting, British officials--having just met with their American counterparts--describe their discussions with such counterparts. I mention this because that basic piece of context, a simple description of the memo, is found nowhere in Milbank's article.
"The fact that I and my fellow Democrats had to stuff a hearing into a room the size of a large closet to hold a hearing on an important issue shouldn't make us the object of ridicule. In my opinion, the ridicule should be placed in two places: first, at the feet of Republicans who are so afraid to discuss ideas and facts that they try to sabotage our efforts to do so; and second, on Dana Milbank and the Washington Post, who do not feel the need to give serious coverage on a serious hearing about a serious matter-whether more than 1700 Americans have died because of a deliberate lie. Milbank may disagree, but the Post certainly owed its readers some coverage of that viewpoint.
"Sincerely, John Conyers, Jr"
The years of the Bush presidency will be remembered as a time when American media, for the most part, practiced stenography to power --and when once-great newspapers became little more than what the reformers of another time referred to as "the kept press."
The Conyers letter, like the thousands of communications from grassroots activists to media outlets across this country pressing for serious coverage of the "Downing Street Memo" and the broader debate about the Bush Administration's doctoring of intelligence prior to the launch of the Iraq war, is an essential response to our contemporary media crisis. That it had to be written provides evidence of just how serious that crisis has grown.
Michael Jackson has been acquitted on the ten charges of child molestation and related wrongs that were brought against the self-proclaimed "King of Pop."
That's right, "So what!"
Jackson's trial was certainly of consequence to the 46-year-old poster boy for arrested development. And it undoubtedly mattered to his accuser and the boy's family. It was also a big deal for the legal team that got Jackson off, and for the man who brought the prosecution, Santa Barbara County District Attorney Tom Sneddon, whose bizarre career of headline-grabbing has taken a definite turn for the worse.
But nothing about the Michael Jackson trial mattered to the rest of America. It was merely a soap opera that served -- for 18 long months -- to distract the citizenry from the serious business of electing a president, protecting their retirement security from Wall Street raiders and following the degeneration of the war in Iraq into the quagmire it was destined to be.
Make no mistake: Big media corporations loved the Jackson trial because it was cheap to cover -- set up a camera in front of a California courthouse and the hard work is done -- and because it had a lowest-common-denominator appeal that could always be relied on to titillate audiences trained to believe that celebrity gossip is "news."
The problem with big media's cynical game of feeding the American people a junk-food diet of movie-star romances and showbiz scandals is that eventually perspective starts to get lost. On Monday, a breathless CBS radio news announcer described the Jackson verdict as "the lead story of the day, perhaps the month, perhaps the year."
If that announcer was even remotely right, then America is in serious trouble, because despite what much of the media may choose to make of the Jackson story, this tired little tabloid report is not the story that matters. It is, however, the story that keeps on giving to the powerful players in Washington who would prefer to avoid the sort of scrutiny that is directed at the Michael Jackson of the moment.
Notably, on the day that the story of Jackson's acquittal dominated the national news, Vice President Dick Cheney was cheerfully handing out journalism awards at the National Press Club in Washington. While the reporters who received the "Gerald Ford Journalism Awards" from the vice president were officially the ones being honored, it was Cheney who had the most to be thankful for.
So long as the so-called "news" media continues to use most of its might -- and most of the public's airwaves -- to distract the American people from the real lead stories about the misdeeds of a government that has sent almost 1,700 of this country's sons and daughters to needless death in Iraq and about war profiteering by corporations such as Cheney's former employer, Halliburton, the vice president and his cronies have even more to celebrate than Michael Jackson.
It is not often that this column finds itself in agreement with Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O'Connor, three of the High Court's more conservative members. But Rehnquist, Thomas and O'Connor were right to dissent from the Court's wrongheaded decision to permit the federal government to prosecute sick people who use marijuana as a painkiller--even in states where voters and legislators have determined that such use is lawful.
The three dissenters are to be applauded for their refusal to be buffaloed by the drug warriors who peddle the fantasy that marijuana should continue to be viewed as a dangerous drug that is unacceptable for any use.
O'Connor's dissent was particularly significant. While she indicated that she would not have voted in favor of the state initiatives or legislative bills that have legalized medical marijuana in Alaska, Colorado, California, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington, the Justice explained that it was wrong for the federal government to seek to undermine "an express choice by some states, concerned for the lives and liberties of their people, to regulate medical marijuana differently."
O'Connor's dissent is important because it makes clear where distinctions ought to be drawn. Of course, the federal government has a right--indeed, a responsibility--to intervene when the lives and liberties of Americans are threatened by the states, as has been the case when federal authorities have acted to protect the rights of racial minorities, women and people with disabilities. But to intervene with the express intent of denying Americans with serious diseases a generally well-regarded treatment option represents the worst sort of meddling by the federal government.
The Supreme Court's 6-3 ruling suggests that there are few judicial options left for supporters of medical marijuana. But John Walters, the Bush Administration's director of national drug control policy, was wrong when he claimed on Monday that "today's decision marks the end of medical marijuana as a political issue."
The High Court's majority made it clear that federal legislative avenues remain open. Congress has the power to remove all legal barriers to the distribution and use of medical marijuana. While such a bold step may be unlikely in the short term, Congress also has the power to create exemptions for states where voters and legislators have decided to, in the words of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, respect "the rights of patients to have access to the medicine they need to survive and lead healthier lives."
Noelle Davis, executive director of Austin-based Texans for Medical Marijuana, is right when she says, "This gives the opportunity to Congress to step up and do something."
Will it happen? Representative Ron Paul, R-Texas, a physician who has co-sponsored legislation to allow states to decide without federal involvement whether people can use marijuana with a doctor's approval, says, "I think support is strong, but (members of Congress) are still frightened a little bit by the politics of it. If you had a secret vote in Congress, I'll bet 80 percent would vote for it."
That figure is roughly parallel to the sentiments expressed by Americans in polling with regard to medical marijauna. What's needed now is for citizens to let their members of Congress know that the federal government has no business taking people's medicine away from them.
They can do so by urging support for the States' Rights to Medical Marijuana Act (HR 2087). Sponsored by Representative Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, it has thirty-six co-sponsors, ranging from conservative Representative Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, to progressives such as Representatives Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, and John Conyers, of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislation gets to the heart of the matter addressed by the court, declaring that:
"No provision of the Controlled Substances Act shall prohibit or otherwise restrict--
(A) the prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use,
(B) an individual from obtaining and using marijuana from a prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use by such individual, or
(C) a pharmacy from obtaining and holding marijuana for the prescription or recommendation of marijuana by a physician for medical use under applicable State law
in a State in which marijuana may be prescribed or recommended by a physician for medical use under applicable State law."
They came to hear Howard Dean.
But they got the message that matters from Arianna Huffington.
That's because, while the chairman of the Democratic National Committee delivered a tepid and predictable address to the Campaign for America's Future's "Take Back America" conference on Thursday, the columnist and author who not that many years ago identified as a Newt Gingrich conservative was the speaker who showed up with a road map for renewal of the Democratic Party.
Where Dean made no direct mention of the war in Iraq during a lengthy address to the morning plenary that kicked off the fullest day of the annual gathering of progressive activists, Huffington went to the heart of the matter.
"We cannot continue to ignore the debacle in Iraq if we are going to have any hope of [Democrats] ever again being a majority party," said Huffington, the conservative who came in from the cold and has recently lent her name and energy to the Huffington Post.
At a conference where the schedule was heavy with domestic-policy discussions but short on discourse regarding foreign policy, Huffington bluntly told the crowd, "We cannot have a solution on the domestic front without addressing what is happening in Iraq."
After a quick tour of the quagmire ("Ahmed Chalabi is the oil minister -- this is like something out of Saturday Night Live") and of the Bush Administration's steady pattern of misdeeds and missteps, Huffington asked the fundamental question of Congressional Democrats and party leaders: "Where is the oversight?"
"There is no oversight going on in this most corrupt and most immoral Congress that we have right now," she said, adding that, "I'm very troubled by the way our Democratic leaders go on television and sound like spineless Republicans." (Later in the day, at the one conference session that was devoted to foreign policy issues, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern recalled Dean's recent "now that we're there, we're there" comment regarding the "need" to remain in Iraq and then said, "That sounds like Rumsfeld to me.")
Noting that, in a recent television appearance, US Senator Hillary Clinton said she was not comfortable talking about developing an "exit strategy" to withdraw US troops from Iraq, Huffington said, "With respect to Senator Clinton, if you are not comfortable setting an exit strategy, please point us to someone who is."
Clinton is much discussed as a potential Democratic presidential nominee in 2008. But Huffington drew some of the loudest applause of the conference when she said of the 2008 race, "I want a Democratic presidential candidate who can give a straight, unambiguous answer on Iraq."
It was deserved applause; if Democrats do not come to understand this message, they will doom themselves to an agonizing repetition of the electoral debacles of 2002 and 2004.
"There is no way in a time of war that you can be a majority party without having a policy position [that is distinct from the Republicans]," explained Huffington, who suggested that, instead of avoiding the debate about national security, Democrats need to turn the debate on its head.
"The Democratic leaders need to make it clear that these men running our foreign policy are dangerous," she said. "There is no way Democrats can win an election unless they make it clear that these Republicans are not making this country safer."
The remarkable thing about the revelation of the identity of the Watergate-era tipster known as "Deep Throat" is that nothing about the news seems particularly remarkable.
In hindsight, we should have known that Washington Post writer Bob Woodward's source for the investigative reports he and Carl Bernstein wrote about Nixon-era illegality would not be an idealist who sought to expose a corrupt presidency -- nor even a Nixon aide experiencing a rare bout of conscience. Rather, like so many of Woodward's sources over the years, W. Mark Felt was a consummate Washingtion insider playing the sort of games that consumate Washington insiders play.
Far from being someone who feared for the Republic, Felt was a zealous protégé of a man who menaced the Republic for decades, longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation director J. Edgar Hoover.
It is difficult to buy the line that Felt was all that worried about Nixonian skulduggery, as the tipster himself would eventually be convicted of authorizing federal agents to illegally break into the homes of suspected anti–Vietnam War radicals.
Indeed, it appears that "Deep Throat" was less concerned about defending democracy than about getting back at then–President Richard Nixon for refusing him the directorship after Hoover's death in May 1972.
So Watergate ends up as another story of powerful men undercutting one another in a squabble over turf and bruised egos.
But, of course, there is more to the Watergate story than that. Despite the fact that Felt comes off as something less than a hero, he was a necessary player in a national drama that had a happy ending: A dishonest and dishonorable president was exposed and forced from office.
Perhaps this is why there is so much fascination with Watergate. It reminds us that the American experiment really can yield positive results, especially when the Fourth Estate prods Congress to police an out-of-control Executive Branch.
Considering the current circumstances of the nation, when Woodward and so many other members of the Washington press corps act as little more than stenographers to power, this week's renewed attention to the Watergate story ought to inspire an aching nostalgia in Americans who still take their citizenship seriously. It is inspiring to think that the system did once work; but it is painful to recognize the reality that Richard Nixon would never have been forced from office by today's major media organizations or today's Congress. And it is agonizing to think of how the far more serious crimes of presidents who succeeded Nixon -- especially, though certainly not exclusively, those of the current occupant of the White House -- go essentially unchallenged, even as more credible and patriotic Deep Throats than Mr. Felt have emerged. (The failure of most news outlets to examine what has come to be referred to as the Downing Street memo, official British documents that confirm George Bush's machinations to start a war-of-whim with Iraq, provides ample evidence that presidents no longer have much to fear from major media.)
Ultimately, now that Deep Throat has been revealed as just another cynical Washington insider working the system for all it was worth, one Watergate mystery remains. And it turns out to be a far more perplexing and troublesome one than that of some back-alley tipster's identity.
What remains is the mystery of how America, a country that proved her ability to depose a petty crook from power in the 1970s, has drifted so far from her ethical moorings. At the most fundamental level, it is not so difficult to unravel this mystery. A simple calculation of the roles of big media and big money campaign contributions provides most if not all of the explanation that is needed. But that calculus points to the lingering quandry of our time: Will we ever muster enough outrage at a stenographic media and a compliant Congress to steer America back to that place where lawless presidents are held accountable for their lies and the deadly consequences of their misdeeds?