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Just about the only sensible voice in the whole controversy over the documents CBS News used in its ham-handed attempt to raise questions about George W. Bush's "service" in the Texas National Guard came from retired typist Marian Carr Knox. As a former assistant to Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander who allegedly suggested that officers had been pressured to "sugar coat" their evaluations of the politically-connected young Guardsman, Knox was in a position to know more than just about anyone else about the authenticity of the documents and of the sentiments expressed in them.
In interviews with several news outlets, including CBS, Knox suggested that the Killian memos were forged but accurate.
Now that CBS News anchor Dan Rather has acknowledged that he made a "mistake in judgment" when he relied on what now appear to have been bogus documents for a "60 Minutes" report that detailed some of the favorable treatment Bush received, Knox's seemingly strange statement offers one of the few realistic routes out of the thicket of spin the Bush administration has erected to avoid a serious discussion of the president's Vietnam-era "service" in the Guard.
Knox said she did not think the memos that were purported to have been written by Killian were genuine. But, she said, they reflected sentiments the National Guard commander expressed at the time. Thus, the documents that have caused such a stir as this year's presidential campaign enters its final weeks could indeed be both forged and accurate.
So where should Knox's insight lead us?
First, anyone who wants to know the truth about Bush's pampered "service" should be furious with Rather and the CBS crew. When they refused to follow basic fact-checking standards, they failed their viewers and the broader American public that would, for the first time, be exposed by the September 8 "60 Minutes" broadcast to a seemingly serious review of irregularities related to Bush's entry into the guard, his ignoring of direct orders, his failure to show up for duty and a pattern of reassignments that seemed always to benefit the son of a then-congressman from Texas rather than the country he was supposed to be serving.
After more than a month of virtually round-the-clock assessment of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam service, major media has a responsibility to reexamine the president's controversial service record.
Yet, by doing a haphazard job of reporting and then rushing to broadcast the supposed "blockbuster" story, Rather and his crew played into the hands of a Bush spin machine that is now expert at peddling the lie that a liberal media is out to distort the president's record. While their intent may have been to shed light on an interesting and potentially significant story of the special treatment accorded this son of privilege, Rather and CBS, in their search for a "scoop," created a fog so thick that it could well obscure the story for the rest of the campaign.
By relying on a few documents that were not adequately verified, CBS handed White House political czar Karl Rove exactly what he needed to steer attention away from the real story. Of course it remains true that, as Rather says, "Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it... that George Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and, once there, failed to satisfy the requirements of his service."
Unfortunately, the "heart" of the story has been largely obscured by the controversy over the doctored documents.
As such, Rather and CBS are guilty of undermining not just their own story but the truth. That's particularly tragic because it was never really their story in the first place. The basic story of the machinations that George Herbert Walker Bush performed to help his son avoid serving in Vietnam, and the dirty details of the son's failure to do his duty as a Guardsman, was well reported almost five years ago by Texas columnist Molly Ivins and Texas investigative reporter Lou Dubose in their still-essential assessment of young Bush's path to power, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush (Vintage). That book's chapter regarding Bush's Vietnam-era Guard duty is exceptionally well-reported, compelling and, ultimately, more damning of the Bush family and the current president than anything produced since its publication.
So why didn't Rather and the CBS crew simply invite Ivins and Dubose, both experienced Texas reporters with long histories of sorting fact from fiction when dealing with the Bush family, to help produce a "60 Minutes" report that would have told the story accurately and thoroughly? Perhaps CBS executives thought that, because Ivins and Dubose write with a point of view, rather than feigning journalistic impartiality, they could not be trusted to get the straight story. That, of course, is the common bias of the elite broadcast media in the United States.
Unfortunately, that bias led Rather and CBS to produce a story that has done severe damage to the prospects that the great mass of Americans will ever learn the truth about their president's Vietnam-era actions. There is a lesson to be learned here: There was never any need for Rather and CBS to go searching for a "scoop" regarding Bush's time in the Guard. The story has already been reported and written by Ivins and DuBose. What there was a need for was a network with the courage to take that story, attach some pictures and broadcast it. Unfortunately, CBS proved incapable to performing that simple task. And, in so doing, CBS put the truth a little further out of reach for most Americans.
For those who feared that the speakers at last week's Republican National Convention had failed to adequately impress upon the American electorate the view that death and grief and sorrow would be the predictable byproducts of John Kerry's election to the presidency, Vice President Dick Cheney has spelled out the threat in excruciating detail.
"It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney grumbled to a gathering of the ceaselessly-nodding Republican party faithful in Des Moines.
Cheney's claim that the replacement of the administration he runs -- with an assist from George W. Bush -- by a Kerry administration would call down the wrath of global terrorism on the homeland is easily the most irresponsible statement of a campaign that has not exactly been characterized by moderation.
The Democratic response was to condemn Cheney in the bizarrely tepid fashion that has come to characterize the opposition party's dysfunction attempt to retake the White House. "Protecting America from vicious terrorists is not a Democratic or Republican issues, it's an American issue and Dick Cheney and George Bush should know that," whined Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
Let it be recorded that, despite the firm slap on the wrist that was administered by Mr. Edwards, Mr. Cheney did not choose to retract his remarks. And he won't.
Edwards and other Democrats make a mistake when they assume, as Edwards did, that the vice president is merely playing politics. When Edwards suggested that Cheney was employing "scare tactics," and that the Republicans "will do anything and say anything to save their jobs," he gave Cheney far too much credit.
It is true, of course, that the vice president would say anything and do anything in order to maintain his grip on power. But it does not necessarily follow that Cheney is simply carrying out a political hit. Indeed, if the past is prologue, there is every reason to assume that the vice president believes what he is saying about the damage that will befall the land if he and his minions are not working the levers of authority.
Few figures in American politics maintain a world view that is so consistently apocalyptic as does Cheney. Fewer still have allowed petty fears and profound ignorance to so dramatically warp their actions and public pronouncements.
Cheney's Cold War obsessions have frequently placed him on the wrong side of history, causing him to misread the geopolitical realities of regions around the world -- and of the key players within them. This is the man who was so certain that the African National Congress was a dangerous group that he regularly voted, as a member of Congress in the 1980s, against House resolutions calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in South Africa. While leading conservative Republicans such as Jack Kemp were hailing Mandela as an iconic fighter for freedom and racial justice, Cheney continued to decry the ANC as "a terrorist organization" and to dismiss its leaders as threatening radicals.
During the same period that Cheney was championing the imprisonment of Mandela, the Republican representative from Wyoming was one of the most prominent Congressional advocates for the Reagan administration's illegal war making in Central America. When the administration's crimes were exposed as the Iran-Contra scandal, former White House counsel John Dean notes, "Cheney became President Reagan's principle defender in Congress." Cheney argued that those who sought to hold the Reagan administration accountable for illegal acts in Latin America were "prepared to undermine the presidency" and the ability of future presidents to defend the United States.
When he left the House to become George Herbert Walker Bush's Secretary of Defense, Cheney struggled to maintain the Pentagon's Cold War footing even as the Berlin Wall was crumbling. Obsessed with the notion that the United States should retain the capacity to launch preemptive wars against nation's that were perceived even as possible threats, Cheney was a hyperactive advocate for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Unfortunately for Secretary of Defense, whose passion for deposing Saddam Hussein reached surreal levels, the "Operation Scorpion" scheme he and his aides developed for imposing "regime change" upon Iraq was so ineptly plotted that it was scrapped after a cursory review by General Norman Schwarzkopf. "I wondered whether Cheney had succumbed to the phenomenon I'd observed among some secretaries of the army," observed Schwarzkopf, the commander on the ground in the region. "Put a civilian in charge of professional military men and before long he's no longer satisfied with setting policy but wants to outgeneral the generals."
When Cheney and a self-selected Praetorian Guard set up the new Republican administration that took charge of the White House after the 2000 election, the vice president could not be bothered to address real threats to the country because he remained obsessed with what turned out to be a ridiculously hyped Iraqi threat. As former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill noted, Cheney and his aides were in the first days of 2001 "already planning the next war in Iraq and the shape of a post-Saddam country."
On the issue of Iraq, Cheney has allowed his tendency toward apocalyptic fantasies to go unchecked. When the vice president was peddling the "case" for invasion, he made far more remarkable claims than did Bush. Charging that Saddam had "resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons," Cheney warned a 2002 Veterans of Foreign Wars convention that, "Armed with an arsenal of these weapons of terror, and seated atop 10 percent of the world's oil reserves, Saddam Hussein could then be expected to seek domination of the entire Middle East, take control of the world's energy supplies, directly threaten American friends throughout the region, and subject the United States or any other nation to nuclear blackmail."
Whew! Scary stuff!
Even scarier, however, is the fact that, as Cheney's claims were proven wrong, the vice president continued to repeat them -- long after Bush had backed off, and long after there was any political advantage to be gained.
This, of course, is where assessing Cheney gets difficult. It is no longer clear where Cheney is deliberately deceiving the American people and where he has deliberately deceived himself. It is easy to call Cheney a "liar," -- and there is no question that the vice president has been caught more than once twisting the truth. But Dick Cheney's biggest lies are almost certainly the ones he tells himself. As such, he will never back away from his charge that changing administrations would be a "wrong choice."
A man who so frequently anticipates the apocalypse is likely to fall into the habit of believing that he alone recognizes that true dangers facing his country.
But why would anyone else treat Cheney seriously? Why would the press repeat his over-the-top charges without noting that Dick Cheney has a track record of reading the world wrong, imagining threats where they do not exist and neglecting real dangers? Why would it go unmentioned that the man who is questioning John Kerry's judgement thought Nelson Mandela was a terrorist?
That's what John Edwards should be talking about.
Instead of complaining that the vice president is engaging in "scare tactics," the Democrat should be suggesting that Americans ought to be afraid, very afraid, of Dick Cheney.
(John Nichols' book on Cheney, Dick: The Man Who Is President, has just been released by The New Press. It's available in independent bookstores nationwide and at www.amazon.com)
NEW YORK -- John Kerry has taken his hits at this year's Republican National Convention. But the Democratic presidential nominee came off easy compared with the United Nations.
Not since the convention that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 has a gathering of the Republican faithful featured so much UN bashing from so many prominent players in the party. What once was the extremist line of John Birch Society cadres and their allies -- "Get US out of the UN," read the society's billboards in the 1960s -- has become a popular position within the Republican party.
The anti-UN sentiment was stoked by Vice President Dick Cheney in his unilateralism then, unilateralism now, unilateralism forever address to the convention on Wednesday night.
Among the vice president's many sneering references to Kerry's internationalism was the declaration that, "History has shown that a strong purposeful America is vital to preserving freedom and keeping us safe, yet time and again Senator Kerry has made the wrong call on national security. Senator Kerry began his political career by saying he would like to see our troops deployed 'only at the directive of the United Nations.'"
In contrast, Cheney thundered, "George W. Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people."
That turned out to be one of the biggest applause lines for a speech that formed the centerpiece of the convention's foreign-policy message.
It was not, however, the biggest anti-UN applause line.
That came from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"If you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope for democracy, then you are a Republican," the actor who once played Conan the Barbarian told the convention.
The dig at the UN was greeted with thunderous and sustained applause from the delegates gathered in Madison Square Garden, which is located just across the island of Manhattan from the international agency's headquarters.
Schwarzenegger's remarks were not so warmly greeted by the Bush administration's new ambassador to the UN.
Former US Sen. John Danforth, a Missouri Republican, has been trying to patch up relations between the United States and the UN. Those relations soured last year, after the the UN Security Council declined to approve Bush's plans for invading Iraq. But Bush has been trying to ease tensions since the UN helped the US to install Iraq's interim government – and, notably, he avoided engaging in explicit UN bashing in his acceptance speech on Thursday night.
Just as notably, however, was the president's avoidance of any defense of the United Nations.
That task was left to Ambassador Danforth. To his credit, Danforth left little doubt of his view that the UN-bashing at the Republican convention is going to make the job of patching up relations between the US and the UN more difficult.
Responding to a question about Schwarzenegger's criticism of the UN, and the convention's enthusiastic response to it, Danforth explained that, "I can only say that when President Bush asked me to do this job, he said that the United Nations is very important, and that this was a very important job."
The ambassador said that "working through the UN and working with other countries and working on a multilateral basis is clearly the strategy that we have in our country and it is very important."
Though he is a senior Republican political figure, who in 2000 was seriously considered as a contender for the party's vice presidential nomination, Danforth was not asked to address the convention.
NEW YORK – During a week of protests against President Bush and the Republican National Convention that he will address tonight, demonstrations have taken many different forms – from singing Johnny Cash songs to waving pink slips to a mass flashing of bikini underwear featuring anti-Bush slogans.
But only one demonstration has actually taken place so far on the floor of Madison Square Garden, where Republicans – including White House Chief-of-Staff Andy Card – were confronted Wednesday with the reality that they are not exactly welcome in this overwhelmingly Democratic city.
The Republicans did not take well to the challenge.
Roughly a dozen AIDS activists infiltrated a mid-day gathering of Young Republicans on the floor of the Garden. The activists sat quietly amid the Wisconsin and Nevada delegations as the Youth Convention got underway.
Then, moments after First Daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush introduced Card to a hundreds of Young Republicans, the activists peeled off their street clothes to reveal t-shirts that read "Bush Lies" and they held aloft signs that read, "Bush: Stop Aids. Drop Global Debt Now."
They jumped on their chairs and began blowing whistles and chanting "Bush kills" and "Bush lies."
Instantly, the activists were surrounded by jeering Young Republicans, some of whom pushed and shoved the demonstrators while others tried to drown out the message of the AIDS activists by chanting the convention's ubiquitous "Four more years" slogan. The Republicans held signs up to prevent television cameras from capturing images of the signs held aloft by the demonstrations.
It was a raucous scene. Card attempted to go ahead with his speech but was forced to stop briefly because of the noise. The demonstrators were quickly dragged from the hall by Secret Service agents and police officers, and police later said there was at least one arrest.
The point of the demonstration, according to Sharonann Lynch of ACT UP, was to demand that the Bush Administration support cancellation of the global debt owed by poor countries to donor countries and international banks.
"Right now, sub-Saharan African nations are pouring $15 billion a year into repaying debt to wealthy nations," explained Lynch. "That money could and should be used to provide treatment to the millions of people on the continent living with HIV/AIDS. The Bush Administration must move to save the lives of people in the world's poorest countries by supporting 100 percent debt cancellation now."
Specifically, the activists want the United States to join other industrialized nations in supporting debt forgiveness for the planet's poorest nations, so that those nations can direct more resources to fighting AIDs.
ACT-UP activists also want the U.S. to meet its commitments to the Global Fund for fighting AIDS. "While the Fund requested a contribution of $1.2 billion," explained ACT-UP's Lynch, "the Bush White House only asked Congress for $200 million."
NEW YORK -- It was a lot like a Johnny Cash song.
On one side of the street, wearing their suits and gowns, were the rich and powerful celebrating the renominations of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
On the other side of the street, dressed in black, were the not-so-rich and not-so-powerful folks who didn't see much to celebrate in the news from this week's Republican National Convention.
There was a partisan divide, to be sure, outside the Sotheby's auction house Tuesday. But the real divide was over the legacy of Cash, the legendary country singer who died last year at the age of 71.
The American Gas Association and the Nissan Motor Co. had arranged a swank party to honor Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander and his state's delegation to the Republican convention. And, since the event was being held at Sotheby's, which will be auctioning Cash memorabilia in mid-September, it was decided to make the event a "tribute" to the singer.
To a lot of Cash fans, however, that sounded like claiming that the Man in Black was a Republican.
And those were fighting words for folks who recall that it was Cash who sang: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down/ Livin' in the hopeless hungry side of town/I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime/But is there because he's a victim of his times."
The notion that the man who wrote those words would be used to promote the reelection of a Republican president did not sit well with Erin Siegel, a 22-year-old art student from Brooklyn, who urged Cash fans to gather across from Sotheby's Tuesday afternoon. "A lot of his political songs really represented issues the Republicans don't really seem to care about very much," she explained.
"I find this really offensive, for his name or his memory to be used like this," Siegel added.
Cash's daughter, singer Rosanne Cash, seemed to agree. She issued a statement declaring that the family wanted everyone to know that the event should "NOT be seen as a show of support for the Republican agenda."
Siegel and Rosanne Cash were not alone. Urged on by the www.defendjohnnycash.org website--with a manifesto declaring, "Johnny Cash spoke for the poor and under-represented. This administration speaks for the rich," and "The RNC has no right to tarnish the memory of Johnny Cash. We will rise up to defend an American hero"--hundreds of Cash fans showed up to protest outside Sotheby's.
They wore black and they carried guitars, a sea of New York cowboys and cowgirls singing, "I Walk the Line" and "Ring of Fire" and, of course, "Man In Black."
The Republican delegates attending the Sotheby's event were unimpressed. They hustled quickly into the auction house, some of them scowling at the critics--especially when the crowd in black started chanting "graverobbers" and "Bush out of NYC. Cash hated prisons and so do we."
As it happened, protest outside Sotheby's did not grow the prison population much. While hundreds of activists were arrested Tuesday as part of direct action protests against the Republicans, the men and women in black tended more toward loud recitations of Cash's anti-Vietnam war lines from "Man in Black," as well as the singer's observation that "things need changin' everywhere you go."
So which side of the street would Cash have chosen?
New Yorker Sander Hicks, a book publisher who wore his black with pride, had no doubt.
"Johnny Cash knew which side he was on," said Hicks, a fierce Bush critic. "So do we."
NEW YORK -- When US Senator John McCain took a shot at film maker Michael Moore in his speech to the Republican National Convention Monday night, he had no reason to know that the man who made the controversial documentary "Fahrenheit 9-11" was just a few hundred feet away from him.
But Moore was in Madison Square Garden with McCain and thousands of Republicans who, it would be fair to say, do not rank "Fahrenheit 9-11" high on their list of favorite films.
That was made obvious by the response of the delegates to McCain's unprecedented targeting of Moore in his prime-time address to the convention.
In a speech that was at once a spirited defense of the war with Iraq and a reminder that he is still available for consideration as a 2008 presidential nominee, McCain earned his biggest applause when he rejected any and all criticism of the Bush administration's decision to launch a preemptive war against the Middle Eastern country.
"Our choice wasn't between a benign status quo and the bloodshed of war. It was between war and a graver threat. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Not our political opponents," the Arizona Republican said, as the crowd began to roar its approval. "And certainly not, certainly not, a disingenuous film maker who would have us believe that Saddam's Iraq was an oasis of peace, when in fact it was a place of indescribable cruelty, torture chambers, mass graves and prisons that destroyed the lives of the small children inside their walls."
Moore, who was seated in the press gallery of Madison Square Garden, pumped his fists in the air and tipped his hat to the McCain and the hooting delegates. As the crowd chanted "Four More Years," Moore used his hand to form an "L" sign to suggest that President Bush would lose in November.
Moore also held up two fingers, recalling a constant theme of the filmmaker this week: That George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have only two more months to go before they are voted out of office.
Everyone in the hall, including McCain and Moore, realized that a rare moment in American politics was playing out. It's not often, outside the context of a debate, that such charges and countercharges fly in close proximity. Nor is it all that often that a film achieves the level of public awareness that leads a prominent politician to attack its maker in a primetime convention speech. And it is certainly not common for the filmmaker to be in a position to respond in real time.
But Moore was there, and he did respond.
The Academy Award-winning documentary maker pointed out that "Fahrenheit 9-11" did not argue that Iraq was an oasis of peace. Instead, Moore noted, his film suggested that the Bush Administration stretched the truth when it argued that regime change had to be forced upon Iraq in order to avert the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction that have yet to be found.
Still, Moore was not complaining too loudly.
"To bring up the film in the speech tonight, it's not good for the Republican Party," he explained. "It's just going to make more people say: 'I'd better go see this movie.' And when people see it, they don't feel much like voting Republican."
Moore's documentary, which challenges the Bush Administration's pre-war claims about those weapons of mass destruction and about supposed links between Iraq and the al-Queda network terrorists who attacked the country on Sept. 11, 2001, was a hit. But Moore knows there are still plenty of Americans who haven't seen it.
While what he got from McCain was not exactly a plug, the film maker predicted many of those who had not bought a ticket might do so now. And that, he said, could turn McCain's jab into a problem for President Bush's reelection prospects in a closely contested November vote.
"A Republican pollster told me that, when they do surveys, 80 percent of the people going into the theaters are Kerry voters. But 100 percent of the people coming out are Kerry voters -- or at least they are open to voting for Kerry," Moore said. "The pollster told me that they couldn't find anyone who sees the film and then says they are definitely voting for Bush."
So what was the man who made a film designed to undo a Republican president doing at the Republican National Convention?
Moore's attended the convention on an assignment from USA Today, which has asked him to write a column about the gathering that will renominate two of favorite targets, President Bush and Vice President Cheney. While he had all the press credentials that were required for entry into the hall, Moore was held up for the better part of an hour by Madison Square Garden security and New York City police officers.
Moore was finally allowed to enter and took his place to the right of the podium at a table with other writers for USA Today. Photographers actually turned their cameras from the podium to snap shots of Moore and legions of reporters crowded around him. But, by the time McCain's primetime speech came, Moore was listening intently and taking notes.
That did not mean, however, that he was an impartial reporter.
His observations about the convention were every bit as barbed as the themes he hit in "Fahrenheit 9-11." Noting that most of the primetime speakers at the convention were "gay rights advocates and abortion rights advocates" who are at odds with the party's platform and the positions taken by the Bush administration, such as former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who spoke last night, and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who will speak tonight. "There's no way the Republicans can win if they are really themselves," argued Moore.
A number of Republicans were themselves when they saw Moore had crashed their party.
"I got no use for the man at all -- he's the scum of the earth," said Jimmy Gilbert, an alternate delegate from Lenoir, North Carolina, who followed Moore through the hallways of Madison Square Garden with a "Vive Bush" sign.
Diane Francis, a Texas Republican decked out in full jean shirt and cowboy hat regalia, grumbled about Moore's movie and said, "I hope he's got security. He could get killed in here."
But Moore insisted that he did not feel threatened. "I saw (conservative commentator) Sean Hannity on the floor at the Democratic convention. He was treated well. I'm sure they'll treat me well here. You don't think the Republicans are more mean-spirited than the Democrats, do you?" asked Moore, barely concealing a grin.
Besides, he said, "This is a celebration."
Referring to the coming election, Moore said, "I'm here to celebrate the fact that the Republicans only have a couple of months left. I'm here to celebrate the end of the Republican era. They've had four years. It's been rough, but it's almost over."
Forty years ago, when Republicans suffered their worst presidential election defeat of the post-World War II era, roughly 800,000 New Yorkers voted for the party's nominee, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater.
Four years ago, when Republicans secured the White House in one of the closest presidential elections in the nation's history, roughly 300,000 New Yorkers voted for the party's nominee, Texas Governor George W. Bush.
Like most urban areas, New York City has become dramatically more Democratic in recent decades. Yet, unlike Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and so many other American cities, New York still elects Republicans to serve as mayor. Of the last six mayors of New York City, three have been elected as Republicans: John Lindsay, Rudy Giuliani and the current occupant of City Hall, Mike Bloomberg. And it should be remembered that the man many believe to have been the city's greatest mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, was also affiliated with the Grand Old Party.
To be sure, New York Republicans are a different breed from, say, Texas Republicans. They get elected by arguing that they will manage the city more competently, not that they will turn it into Houston on the Hudson. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a wealthy publisher who was a generous contributor to Democratic campaigns before he bought the Republican nomination and was elected mayor in 2001, backs abortion rights, gay rights and new taxes. And he has grudgingly welcomed anti-Bush protesters to the city.
But Bloomberg, like Giuliani before him, is a tepid version of the New York Republicans of old. Perhaps by the Republican standards of today, he can still be called a "liberal." But he is no fighting liberal, as has been evident in the weeks leading up to the second Bush coronation.
Instead of challenging conservative orthodoxies -- on everything from the right to dissent to the right to choose -- Bloomberg has placated the Bush administration and its rightwing allies in the leadership of what was once a Grand Old Party.
Don't expect any fireworks today, when Bloomberg delivers a perfunctory welcome to the Republican National Convention delegates who are gathering in the city for the first time in the party's 150-year history.
At the most scripted convention in the history of American politics, Bloomberg will, like every other speaker this week, color within the lines drawn by the Bush-Cheney '04 reelection campaign -- which has effectively remade the party in its image. In so doing, Bloomberg will abandon the historic responsibility of New York Republicans, which was to pull a kicking and screaming Republican Party as far to the left as politically possible.
One of the great tragedies of the contemporary Republican Party is that what is left of its liberal wing is so wimped out as to be completely inconsequential.
Once upon a time, Republican mayors of New York would have picked up on the themes of the anti-war and anti-corporate protests that are filling this city's streets this week.
Had La Guardia been asked to welcome a Republican National Convention to New York City, he would never have agreed to read from the script distributed by the Tories who have taken charge of the party. He would have torn the script up and told the party to defend the interests of the poor against the rich, of labor unions against business interests, of consumers against corporations.
Lindsay would have lectured the delegates from Idaho and Iowa about the importance of funding urban programs. The passionate defender of civil liberties -- who Nat Hentoff said "wielded the Bill of Rights against its enemies" -- would not have hesitated to condemn the Patriot Act. And, in a time of illicit and ill-advised warmaking, he would have suggested that solutions to problems at home could be found by redirecting U.S. policies abroad.
That's exactly what Lindsay did in 1968, when he told the Republican Party's platform committee that, "The course we have been following in Vietnam, I submit, has not been one of a great nation." Lindsay told fellow Republicans that staying the course in Vietnam would prevent the United States from becoming a great nation. "For the truth, I'm afraid, is that we cannot achieve either the cities or the society we would like as long as we continue the war in Vietnam," the mayor explained. "We cannot spend more than $24 billion a year in Vietnam and still rebuild our cities. We cannot speak of non-violence at home when we are displacing, maiming, and killing thousands of Asians for the professed purpose of protecting the peace in a land half way across the world."
Four decades later, the Republican Party could stand to hear the mayor of New York deliver a similar message -- with only the name Iraq replacing that of Vietnam. Unfortunately, while New York has a Republican mayor, it does not have a La Guardia or a Lindsay.
The principle that people of good faith might disagree on issues such as abortion, family planning and gay and lesbian rights lost by a 4-1 margin when members of the Republican party's platform committee debated the notion this week. According to most media, that was the "news" from the Grand Old Party's platform deliberations -- just as the failure of moderate Republicans to move the party toward the center on social issues has been the "news" of every Republican National Convention since 1976.
Christopher Barron, an activist with the Log Cabin Republicans, the party's largest gay and lesbian rights group, was correct when he complained that the platform -- with its militant anti-abortion rights plank and its endorsement of a Constitutional amendment designed to ban same-sex marriages -- makes a joke of the efforts of convention planners to present a moderate face by featuring convention speakers who happen to be pro-choice and sympathetic to gay rights. "You can't craft a vicious, mean-spirited platform and then put lipstick on the pig by putting Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger on in prime time," explained Barron.
In truth, there was never any chance that Republican moderates would soften the party's official stances on hot-button issues such as abortion rights and gay rights. There was never even a chance that the platform committee, which met in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, would endorse a "unity plank" acknowledging that issues involving reproductive freedom and the rights of gays and lesbians can be "complex" and that "Republicans of good faith may not agree with all the planks in this platform."
Yet most of the news stories regarding the platform committee's sessions focused entirely on the empty "debate" on social issues that saw Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, who moved to reject the "unity plank," declare that with a straight face that, "We are the party of the open door."
Unfortunately, the real story of the platform process was not the latest failure of groups such as the Log Cabin Republicans and Republicans for Choice to get any respect from the party to which they have maintained a touching, if not particularly rational, loyalty through brush off after brush off. The real story was the revelation that the 150-year-old Republican Party has ceased to exist as an independent entity.
It is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign, much as the Brown & Root military-contracting firm is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Halliburton. Like everything else about the 2004 convention of this once-great party, the platform carries a great big Bush-Cheney imprint and no evidence whatsoever that grassroots Republicans had any say at all in the process of shaping their party's agenda.
No one expected the Republican Party to pick a fight with its maximum leaders. Platform deliberations for both parties long ago ceased to be the ideological battles that they were in the 1960s and 1970s. That was evident in this year's Democratic platform writing process, which was far too deferent to the demands of John Kerry's presidential campaign.
But the Democrat deliberations, as controlled as they were, looked like a free-for-all compared with the micromanaged Republican sessions.
Veteran platform committee members and observers were stunned by the extent that, more than ever before in the history of the Republican Party, this platform is the reflection not of the ideas and values of people who were supposed to draft the manifesto but of the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign. The 90-page document opens up with a 41-page apologia for Bush's handling of the war on terror; while the rest of the document mirrors the Bush line -- or lack of line -- on every issue from tax cuts to stem-cell research.
To be sure, the GOP manifesto is a conservative document. But it is Bush conservatism that defines it, not the thinking of grassroots Republicans. Thus, on the divisive issue of immigration reform, the platform language reflects the administration's "have-it-both-ways" line by offering only a murky promise that the country's new immigration rules will be "legal, safe, orderly and humane."
"It's Clinton-like doublespeak in a Republican platform," grumbled Congressman Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is the party's most visceral critic of the administration's attempts to develop of "guest worker" program for immigrants.
Tancredo may be wrong on this and other issues, but he is right about the doublespeak.
"This platform is less a forward-looking declaration of party principle than a backward-looking review of President Bush's four years, more so than with past incumbent presidents," noted conservative columnist Robert Novak, who has been attending Republican platform hearings for decades. "(The) Bush White House completely abandoned the old platform process."
To a dramatically greater extent than the reelection campaigns of Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan, the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign placed its imprint on the manifesto that will be approved by delegates at next week's convention. Nixon and Reagan both accepted a measure of genuine debate and dissent within the Republican Party -- indeed, the 1984 platform deviated substantially from the language Reagan aides had sought on tax policy. But those days are gone.
The platform process illustrated the eerie extent to which the Republican Party has become nothing more than an arm of the president's reelection campaign. Instead of letting the roughly 100 members of the platform committee craft a document and then debate it -- as both parties have traditionally done -- a draft document was handed to platform committee members at 7 p.m. on the night before they were expected to approve it. Novak said the drafting process was so secretive and controlled that it came to "resemble the Manhattan Project of developing the atomic bomb."
"The process," Novak observed, "fits the Bush white House's authoritarian aura that has tempered enthusiasm within the party on the eve of the national convention."
Two news stories, of vastly differing consequence, have over the past week raised the question of how issues of war and peace will play in this year's presidential contest:
1.) The summer-long controversy over claims and commercials produced by the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" group continued, as a now widely-discredited circle of embittered Vietnam veterans used money from associates of President Bush and White House political czar Karl Rove to try and develop doubts about aspects of John Kerry's military service 35 years ago.
2.) US Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Nebraska, the vice chairman of the House Select Committee on Intelligence and one of the senior Republican members of the House International Relations Committee, announced after a thorough review of the information available to him that he had come to the conclusion that the US invasion and occupation of Iraq was unjustified. "I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action," explained Bereuter, who added that, "knowing what I know about the reliance on tenuous or insufficiently corroborted intelligence used to conclude that Saddam maintained a substantial WMD (Wepaons of mass destruction) arsenal, I believe that launching the pre-emptive military action was not justified."
Guess which story the news media focused on with such intensity that both Kerry and Bush were forced to address it publicly.
Here's a hint: It's not the story about the war that is currently going on.
It's no secret that most of the American media no longer covers contemporary politics in a serious manner. But it is still remarkable that major media in this country is so addicted to spin that its practitioners are incapable of recognizing real news when it develops.
Make no mistake: Bereuter's statement is real news. In fact, it is the sort of news that ought to dominate today's national discourse in the same way that similar pronouncements by prominent members of former President Lyndon Johnson's Democratic party came to dominate the 1960s discourse about what was then a burgeoning conflict in Southeast Asia.
When a ranking member of the president's own party, who has direct and detailed knowledge of the issues involved, says the commander-in-chief led the country into an unjustified war, that's a big deal.
And that is exactly what Doug Bereuter did.
In a letter to constituents who had contacted him regarding the war, the 13-term congressman condemned the Bush Administration for launching the war "without a broad and engaged international coalition." Bereuter explained that the Administration made "fundamental and predictable" missteps. Because of those missteps, he wrote, "we are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess."
"The cost in casualties is already large and growing," the Congressman observed, "and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible."
Bereuter, whose reputation as an expert on foreign affairs is such that he will upon his retirement from Congress at the end of this month become the president of the Asia Foundation, suggested that the costs of this war extend far beyond Iraq. Because of the Administration's actions, the Congressman said, "our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened."
If his blunt statements about the current crisis were not enough, Bereuter raised the prospect that the Bush-Cheney Administration might have misused intelligence in order to draw the country into the war. "Left unresolved for now is whether intelligence was intentionally misconstrued to justify military action," noted the veteran representative from Nebraska.
As indictments of an administration's military adventurism by senior members of Congress go, that's a very serious statement. As indictments of an Administration by senior members of Congress who happen to be members of the president's own party -- and who are speaking not in a historical context but in a time of war -- go, Bereuter's four-page letter contained all the political and policy drama that the public discourse could possibly demand.
Yet Bereuter's statement, released quietly and with no Washington spin machine ginning it up, was barely heard in the echo chamber of Campaign 2004.
Even after Nebraska newspapers spread the word of Bereuter's comments regarding the current war and the current president, talk radio programs continued to devote hour after hour to discussions of what happened on what river in 1969, cable television programs continued to feature endless debates about whether Kerry's swift boat turned left or right on the way to Cambodia, the anchors and hosts of network news programs breathlessly reported Bob Dole's grumbling about how Kerry needed to apologize for not taking more hits in Southeast Asia, and reporters for the major newspapers that are supposed to maintain some sense of perspective pressed Bush and Kerry to address every new twist on a swift-boat journey that is starting to seem almost as endless as the Vietnam War itself.
What of the questions that Bereuter's statement raised about the current war and the current Administration? Are they being explored on talk-radio shows? On cable television? On network news programs? On the front pages of daily newspapers in New York and Washington and Chicago and Los Angeles?
Outside of continuing coverage by a few local newspapers in Nebraska -- especially the Lincoln Journal Star -- the story of Doug Bereuter's heresy flamed out after the first day.
Perhaps, 35 years from now, during some future presidential campaign, the major media of the United States will catch up to the story of the Iraq War. The way things are going, it may be an ongoing conflict.
John Kerry and George W. Bush, the Democrat and Republican who will compete this November for the presidency, both attended similar New England preparatory schools, both graduated from Yale, and both received advanced degrees from prestigious east coast colleges. But, somewhere along the way, they developed dramatically different reading habits.
Where Bush says he does not read newspapers, Kerry says he cannot get enough of them. And that distinction, Kerry suggested when he sat down with this reporter for a rare extended interview on media issues this week, sums up a radically different vision of how a president should gather and process information they must use to make fundamental decisions about the direction of the nation and the world.
"I read four or five papers a day if I can," said Kerry, when asked about his newspaper reading habits. "It depends obviously on where I am and what I'm doing. I always pick up a local paper in the hotel I'm staying at, or two depending on what the city is. And I try to get the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, papers like that. I try to read as much as I can."
Those patterns are similar to most former presidents. Dwight Eisenhower read nine papers daily, Ronald Reagan was such an avid consumer of newspapers that his ex-wife Jane Wyman complained about his print media obsessions, and Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were known to go through stacks of papers each day. But Kerry's penchant for the papers clearly distinguishes him from the current President Bush.
When asked last fall by Fox News anchor Brit Hume how he gets his news, Bush said he asks an aide, "What's in the newspapers worth worrying about?" The president added that, "I glance at the headlines just to kind of (get) a flavor of what's moving. I rarely the stories..."
Instead of gathering information himself, Bush said he prefers to "get briefed by people who probably read the news themselves" and "people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world."
Kerry shook his head in disagreement as Bush's comments were recounted to him.
"I can't imagine being president and not reading as much as I can about what people are saying," explained Kerry. "I don't want (information) varnished by staff. I don't want it filtered by staff. I want it the way it is. And I think you get a much better sense of what's going in the country (when you gather information yourself). I think one of the reasons we have some problems today is that we have an administration that's out of touch with the problems of average people. They don't know how people are struggling. They don't know what's happening with health care, employment. They don't know, or they don't care, that's their choice."
As a constant consumer of news, Kerry says he spends a good deal of time thinking about the role of media in a democratic society. And he gets frustrated when television networks fail to live up to the responsibility that should go with a license to use the people's airwaves.
When it was mentioned that many Americans had expressed disappointment with the decision of the nation's broadcast television networks to air only three hours of Democratic convention coverage, Kerry said, "I share the disappointment. We're a democracy, and the strength of our democracy is in the ability of citizens to be informed. If the major media are unwilling to inform -- and simply because there is not a clash or a conflict or something doesn't mean (a convention) is not informative -- I personally think it's a derogation of their responsibility (that goes with using) the broadcast airwaves."
In particular, Kerry said he was upset that the nation's commercial broadcast networks -- including ABC, CBS and NBC -- decided not to air any coverage on the second night of the convention in Boston. That was the night when Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama delivered a much-praised keynote address, Ron Reagan broke ranks with the Republican Party to criticize President Bush's limits on stem-cell research, and Teresa Heinz Kerry spoke about her husband.
"My wife gave a wonderful speech, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, it was a brilliant night," said Kerry. "I think it's very disappointing that the American people, at least the people who watch the networks, missed it. I talked to several of the anchors beforehand but, you know, that's the way they decided. Obviously, I disagreed."
Asked if he thought the decision of the networks to downplay the coverage of the convention sent a signal that told Americans not to take what happened in Boston seriously, Kerry said, "I don't know if its that message or not. I think most Americans are smart enough to understand (that it does matter)."
But Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was seated next to her husband, interrupted him and said, "That is the message, I think. I agree that it hurts."
Concerns about consolidated media, particularly consolidated media that does not see itself as having a responsibility to cover politics seriously and to question those in positions of authority, have been highlighted in recent documentaries such as Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed," a critique of the conservative bias of Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News programs, and Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9-11." Kerry has not yet seen "Fahrenheit 9-11," but he described its success as "remarkable." And he made it clear that he shares the view of those who believe that media consolidation is a significant issue in contemporary America.
If Kerry is elected president, he will be in a position to influence the media landscape. Encouraged by President Bush and lobbyists for the major networks, a Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission sought last year to ease limits on media consolidation at the local and national levels. Kerry, who notes that he voted in the Senate to maintain the controls against consolidation, says he would set a different course by appointing FCC commissioners who are more sympathetic to diversity of ownership, competition and local control. Several days after he sat down for the interview that is recounted here, Kerry amplified the point when he promised a gathering of minority journalists that, "I will appoint people to the FCC, and I will pursue a policy, that tries to have as diverse and broad an ownership as possible."
Distinguishing himself from President Bush, Kerry says, "I'm against the ongoing push for media consolidation. It's contrary to the stronger interests of the country." Diversity of media ownership and content, the candidate explains, "is critical to who we are as a free people. It's critical to our democracy."